31 January 2012

No Surprises In Florida

Returns from 79 percent of Florida's precincts showed Romney with 47 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Gingrich, the former House speaker. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had 13 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul 7 percent.

From here.

Next up is the Nevada caucus, a week long event in Maine starting Saturday, and a week from today Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota Republicans get a say in a race that isn't quite completely over yet, although Santorum is long overdue at this point to throw in the towel - a step that ironically would breath new life into the primary contest by finally consolidating the "not Romney" vote in this race.

Oklahoma Still Doesn't Understand American Federalism and Constitution

"Bill would end recognition of Supreme Court's authority": The Daily O'Collegian, the student newspaper of Oklahoma State University, has an article that begins, "A bill introduced Monday in the Oklahoma state Senate would forbid the United States Supreme Court from reviewing Oklahoma laws."
The sponsor of the legislation, [is] Oklahoma State Senator Ralph Shortey[.]

From here.

If passed, the bill would be put to state voters, since it also amends the state constitution. It seeks to reverse 195 years of settled constitutional precedents with their origins about eighteen years after the current U.S. Constitution was adopted.

30 January 2012

Romney Favored In Tomorrow's Florida Primary

Mitt Romney is favored by polls to win the Florida primary that concludes tomorrow (many votes have already been cast early), by an average margin of more than twelve percentage points. Equally notable, Gingrich is forecast to come in second place, Santorum in a distant third place, and Paul in fourth place behind Santorum by a small margin.

This will be a third successive contest in which Santorum is far back in the pack, which may cause him to drop out of the race. Conventional wisdom is that Gingrich would benefit more than Romney from having Santorum out of the race, because both candidates are competing for the conservative vote. Gingrich has proven to be more of a "street fighter" in this campaign than Santorum, and it is hard to win deep support when one of your signature issues is that as President you would do more to discourage birth control (which far more than 95% of American women who vote have used at some point in their lives without any real complaints). Gingrich is also a genuine Southerner, unlike Appalachian Santorum, which matters in a Republican party which is increasingly becoming a regional party of the South.

But, even if Gingrich got the lion's share of the Santorum vote in subsequent contests, he would still trail Romney in GOP voter support, would still be far behind in money and endorsements, and would still have a public perception that he was extreme (the Denver Post today, in an editorial, called Gingrich a non-serious candidate, despite his win in South Carolina and his projected second place finish in Florida). It also doesn't help Gingrich that he won't even appear on the ballot in the Virginia primary (Santorum won't either). Gingrich's debate performance was reportedly horrible.

Indeed, one of the really notable elements of this year's Republican primary activity, in addition to its wild volatility, is the extent to which debates have mattered. This has favored Romney, who is brighter than most of his challengers, a great deal. While I don't wholeheartedly endorse the "frauds and fools" notion of a Republican primary in which candidates must either be smart and dishonest, or just stupid to appeal to the GOP grass roots, with strong candidates who are neither self-disqualifying themselves before the race begins in the "invisible primary", there is something to be said for the argument that this year's crop of GOP Presidential candidates has been a weak one.

Fundamentally, Gingrich's life long affliction with foot in mouth disease and tarnished political record puts him at a strong disadvantage in both the race for the Republican nomination and even more so were he to be the Republican nominee running against President Obama. The belief of some Republicans that Gingrich would be a stronger general election candidate is mere wishful thinking clouded by a conservative ideology, atypical friends and colleagues, and a Fox News/talk radio media bubble.

Ron Paul's probably won't drop out even with a fourth place finish because his reason for staying in the race is as much to promote his libertarian ideology as to win, but he has yet to win any of the three contests so far and will not win in Florida either, and really has no serious chance of beating Romney in any future state's contest. In New Hampshire, Paul managed a distant second place finish in a near optimal environment and before a consensus had full gelled around Romney. Ron Paul's basic problem is that he isn't in the Republican mainstream, which makes him unattractive to Republicans as their nominee.

As a blogger, of course, I'm rooting for Gingrich. A Romney v. Gingrich v. Paul race that goes on for months would be much more interesting to watch and discuss than a Romney fait accompli before we even make it to February. A long primary would help Romney (the very likely winner in the end) build his ground game and campaign machine, provide much more free media, serve up regular large helpings of gaffes and attacks, and foment unease about how tepid Republican support for Romney is because his conservative credentials are questionable and his Mormon religion makes many Republicans uncomfortable.

And, as a Democrat, the prospect of a Gingrich nominee fills me with glee. The Denver Post compared Gingrich as a nominee to Barry Goldwater. The comparison to Goldwater is generous. Goldwater may have lost big, but he at least set the mold for all subsequent GOP coalitions in federal elections and did more to realign the two major political parties than any other Republican figure in recent history. A better comparison to Gingrich might be McGovern, who was uninspiring and simply ran a mediocre campaign that wasn't centerist enough, causing him to lose badly in the general election. The traits that make Gingrich attractive as a pundit are liabilities as a Presidential candidate.

29 January 2012

Command Ships Back

The U.S. Navy very recently removed the concept of a "Command Ship", basically a floating Navy and Marine base fashioned out of a late model Marine ship without heavy combat duties of its own from its fleet.

No sooner had it done so, than the U.S. Navy was fitting out the USS Ponce (a Marine amphibious ship on the verge of being decommissioned) to become a "Mothership" serving the same role defending the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf as a base for four helicopters and a dozen small boats which Special Operations forces will deploy to deal with pirates, small craft attacks and sea mines.

The Case For Obsessively Compulsive Processes

One of the realities of modern life is that it is often the case that a very minor oversight can cause immense harm.

For example, because an airplane maintenance "contractor accidentally left a plug in one of the fuel tank’s relief vents during routine maintenance", the plane nearly crashed (which would have killed a couple dozen people) and experienced $25,000,000 in damage. In all likelihood, no one who did the work, or for that matter all of the people who did the work and their company's total net worth, and the full limits of their liability insurance policy, have any capacity to pay for that kind of mistake. It is routinely the case that people are in a position to do much more harm than they could ever pay to compensate a victim for causing.

This makes processes that make it impossible for anyone to screw up without extraordinary levels of malfeasance really important.

This case involved high technology, but the same thing can happen in big businesses in a non-technological context.

Indeed, generally speaking, these are precisely the kind of mistakes that most affilict modern society.

Clinical Neuropathology Linked To Subclinical Intellectual Bent In Relatives

If you believe that diagnosable psychiatric disorders are to a great extent extremes in normal, genetically predisposed variations in personality, the recent study quoted from below is your Exhibit A.

[B]etween close relatives, a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders covary strongly with intellectual interests. We surveyed an entire class of high-functioning young adults at an elite university for prospective major, familial incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, and demographic and attitudinal questions.

Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder (p = 0.037). Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder (p = 8.8×10−4), bipolar disorder (p = 0.027), or substance abuse problems (p = 1.9×10−6). A combined PREdisposition for Subject MattEr (PRESUME) score based on these disorders was strongly predictive of subject matter interests (p = 9.6×10−8). Our results suggest that shared genetic (and perhaps environmental) factors may both predispose for heritable neuropsychiatric disorders and influence the development of intellectual interests.

From here (Campbell BC, Wang SS-H "Familial Linkage between Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Intellectual Interests." (2012) PLoS ONE 7(1): e30405. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030405).

The usual cutoff for statistical significance in this kind of study is p=.05, with lower p values indicating greater statistical significance and some studies tolerating and giving some weight to less significant results. These results are considerably better and the associations observed are the ones that you would generally expect, guessing naiively.

An extremely significant connection between humanities and a family history of substance abuse that is much stronger than the link to bipolar disorder which is well developed in the psychological literature is particularly surprising. Perhaps this could be because full blown clinical bipolar disorder is sufficiently rare that even a large sample isn't big enough to establish much statistical significant due to the small number of instances with familial bipolar disorder relative to then number of instances with substance abuse or unipolar major depressive disorder, which are much more common and hence produce larger and most statistically significant samples. This analysis seems to be supported by this description of the sample from the Princeton Class of 2014 (citations omitted):

We received 1077 responses from 1313 students, a response rate of 82%. 527 respondents indicated a technical major (natural sciences, engineering, or mathematics), 394 indicated non-technical majors (245 in social sciences, 149 in humanities), and 156 students were undecided. A follow-up survey determined the mean number of siblings per student to be 1.5.

We began by looking for a previously reported relation between ASDs and technical interests. Twenty-four freshmen (2.2%, 1 in 45) reported having a sibling with an ASD. This included 16 of 527 (3.0%, 1 in 33) aspiring technical majors compared with 4 of 394 (1.0%, 1 in 99) nontechnical students, for an odds ratio of 3.05 (χ2 = 4.33, p = 0.037). Thus the incidence of ASDs amongst siblings of technical majors was significantly higher than that of non-technical majors and roughly twice (after correction based on number of siblings) the US average of 1 in 160. . . . The two other disorders in this group were also most frequent in the families of prospective humanities majors but did not reach significance (ADHD, p = 0.10; PTSD, p = 0.31). From the second group, Alzheimer's approached significance but did not reach it (p = 0.069). The incidence of Parkinson's, stroke, and traumatic brain injury was roughly constant across subject matter interest.

The incidence of substance abuse was 167 cases, of major depression was 150, of bipolar disorder was 51, and of autism spectrum disorder was 20. There were 85 ADHD cases, 24 for PTSD, 145 for Alzheimer's, 53 for Parkinson's, 26 for traumatic brain injury, and 228 for stroke.

Since the relationship between sample size and statistical power is non-linear, a sample size of 51 has much less than a third of the statistical power of a sample size of 167 or 150 cases. The ADHD statistics also suggest that an adjustment for statistical power resulting from low incidence size that is related in a non-linear way to statistical power may be in order. Put another way, it is reasonable to expect that there is a good chance that a larger sample size might increase the statistical significance of the ADHD and bipolar associations, both of which are known to have a strong heritable component.

The PTSD sample was very small, is the poster child for a non-genetic condition, and could be attributed to a hidden missing variable, which is family involvement in undertakings that could give rise to exposure to traumatic events, rather than a subclinical disposition towards the condition itself.

Of course, it also bears considering that this is a classic "WEIRD" sample that may be atypical of the general population. Still, it is pretty impressive that such an elementary kind of study is among the low hanging fruit of obvious to conduct and interesting studies that had not previously been conducted. The amount of very elementary research that is left to be done in pscyhology is much greater than in the "hard sciences" where there is very little low hanging fruit easy but valuable experiments that illuminate core issues in the discipline left to be done.

Prejudice, Ideology and IQ

[T]he effect of lower cognitive ability on prejudice toward other races and homosexuality is mediated more or less through ideology. Coarsely, stupid people aren’t racist, stupid people are more likely to be socially conservative, and more socially conservative people are more likely to be racist.

From here (discussing Hodson G and Busseri MA, "Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact," Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan 5.)

27 January 2012

10th Circuit Upholds and Narrowly Interprets Stolen Valor Act

The United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, has upheld the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a misdemeanor to make false statements made about the military honors one has obtained.

It did so by first clarifying that the statute is being interpreted narrowly, in an effort to preserve its constitutionality. As construed, it applies only to statements made knowing that the statement is false with an intent to deceive, and only to statements that are actually meant to be actual statements of factual matter as opposed to statements not calculated to be taken literally such as "satirical, rhetorical, theatrical, literary, ironic, or hyperbolic statements." Thus, as interpreted by the 10th Circuit, "only outright lies—not ideas, opinions, artistic statements, or unwitting misstatements of fact—are punishable under the Act." But the Stolen Valor Act removes the requirement found in fraud or defamation statutes that have been previously upheld as constitutional in the face of First Amendment challenges that "the lie induced reliance or caused discrete harm."

The 10th Circuit reasoned that there is no general constitutional protection for knowingly made false statements of fact under the First Amendment, even though there are some instances where such statements are insulated from liability because they would have the effect of chilling some other form of protected speech. But, given their construction of the statute, the 10th Circuit concluded that this particular subset of knowingly false statements of fact made with an intent to deceive about their factual truth related to the military decorations that one has received does not chill legitimate protected speech and by its narrow content scope implicitly excluudes all sorts of false statements that would involve only immaterial statements of fact.

The 10th Circuit notes, quoting the brief of a law professor who blogs at a site in the sidebar:

Since New York Times, Garrison, and Gertz, courts have
extended the “false statements of fact” exception to cover many categories of false-speech statutes, including laws punishing fraud, false-light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress through false statements, trade libel, perjury, unsworn false statements of fact made to governmental officials, impersonation of a governmental official, false claims regarding university degrees and professional licenses, falsehoods in connection with political campaigns, falsehoods likely to provoke public panic, and falsehoods that are likely to lead to physical harm. See Brief for Eugene Volokh & James Weinstein Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioner at 3–11, United States v. Alvarez, No. 11-210 (U.S. Dec. 7, 2011); Brief for Eugene Volokh Amicus Curiae Supporting Plaintiff at 1, United States v. Strandlof, No. 09-cr-00497 (D. Colo. Jan. 15, 2010).

An even better set of constitutional laws to which the Stolen Valor Act is analogous, are those criminalizing certain kinds of trademark and servicemark violations. Military honors and decorations are essentially trademarks that designate the quality of a soldier just as a servicemark can be used to distinguish the quality of a particular individual's personal services, that belongs to the United States government. And, there is no good reason why it should be possible to sanction someone criminally for falsely using a private servicemark without an individualized showing of reliance or harm, but it should not be possible to do the same thing when the servicemark is granted by the U.S. government (the laws criminalizing claims that one has degrees that one does not have are also quite analogous in this regard when a state university is involved). The argument that the United States government has something in the nature of an intellectual property right in decorations and honors that it issues is a natural and reasonable one.

Coming close to this analysis, the 10th Circuit notes the line of cases establishing that "Congress has made it a crime to falsely purport to speak on behalf of the government" and that Congress has taken "steps to protect the intellectual property associated with medal designs[.]"

The 10th Circuit three judge panel ruling was made with one judge dissenting. The dissenting judge argued that an injury must exist to criminalize false statements of fact and unlike the majority (which also did not believe that injury was a constitutional requirement, citing many counterexamples) did not feel that this could be established on a generalized basis for this class of statements as the majority.

In my view, the 10th Circuit in this case has it exactly right on the merits, making a subtle, but easy to apply in practice rule that is not prone to slippery slope constructions that would erode free speech rights. Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the U.S. Supreme Court affirm the 10th Circuit in this very case and use this case to overrule contrary federal court authority.

The 10th Circuit ruling creates a circuit split between it and the 9th Circuit, with several other cases going both ways in the appellate pipeline in other circuits. The final word will almost surely come from the U.S. Supreme Court sooner or later. And, the very clean facts of the underlying offense and careful reasoning of the 10th Circuit in its opinion in this particular case make it an attractive one for a U.S. Supreme Court interested in affirming that 10th Circuit position that the Stolen Valor Act is constitutional and quite possibly doing so in a unanimous ruling.

Defense Budget Cuts Philosophy Announced

Defense Tech provides some key source documents outlining planned defense budget cuts.

In a nutshell, the Obama Administration gets it backward, cutting almost 100,000 ground troops when the last decade has clearly illustrated that we have far too few to mount even modest scale, low intensity ground operations, while preserving or enhancing resources for "high end" conflicts by preserving a large blue sea navy, funding the Air Force as much as possible including adding a new long range bomber, encouraging a renewed focus on combat with tanks, and restoring resources for training for large scale amphibious operations.

This is the opposite of what our nation needs from multiple perspectives, and it misapprehends our realistic military options in dealing with the only two high end military powers left (Russia and China), misapprehends the kinds of engagements we are likely to have with midrange powers which also happen to be a higher risk because they are less predictable (North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia), and abandons critical military resources for dealing with low capability conflicts with poor third world countries, pirates and insurgents that been the dominant military issue for the U.S. and most of its allies for the last forty or fifty years.

This approach squanders irreplacable combat veteran experience, while failing to recognize that advances in technology have decreased the utility of existing classes of surface ships and made military aircraft capable of doing far more with far fewer planes. The plan is also backwards in terms of the extent to which it provides the kinds of boosts to our economy that our military spending has the capacity to provide, and fails to recognize that in areas like the naval we need major adjustments to the mix of forces rather than mere attention to total force sizes. It leaves us with a very expensive military that is ill equipped to handle basic military missions in an efficient way with a force tailored to have ways to handle these basic military missions which are most likely to come up. This plan does more to advance the interests of our country's big defense contractors than it does to advance our actual military needs.

President Obama praised the military in his state of the union address for its good work. He should be holding the parts of the military that did that good work harmless, while cutting the parts that were less relevant to the military accomplishments that he was praising, instead of the other way around.

Selected K-12 Education Ideas

A few K-12 education reforms that seem like they would work:

1. Start foreign language instruction much earlier. The norm should be 3rd grade, not 9th grade. Younger students inherently have more of a capacity to learn foreign languages.

2. Include a period of immersion of at least a month in a student's foreign language at least three times from third grade through high school graduation. Immersion is profoundly more effective than a single less than an hour class in a classroom in an otherwise English language context.

3. Strong preference should be given to native speakers and people who gained fluency by prolonged immersion at a relatively young age in teaching foreign languages. Formal teaching credentials are much less relevant in this field.

4. Be ruthless in always assigning children to math and foreign language classes by proven ability level even if this is inconvenient to administer. These are classes were a student taught something he or she has already learned is wasting precious time when he or she is most able to learn it, and students in over their head are going to see substantially reduced benefit. Probably a third or more of students in any given grade should be taking a math class at something other than their grade level.

5. Most large school districts, due to a need to make efficient use of transportation resources, run on two shifts, an earlier one for middle school and high school students and a later one for elementary school students. This should be reversed. Elementary school students tend to be more often at their peak in the morning. Tween and teens tend to naturally shift towards becoming night owls.

6. The standard 180 school days in a year is too short, and the average school day is too short. Another twenty week days per year and another hour a day would be a good start. Schools that consistently see higher than average student academic growth have students spend more hours per year in school, the long ago agricultural considerations for summer harvest time no longer apply, and if this means buying air conditioners for summer school sessions, so be it. It might make sense to used additional school days during the summer for programs that benefit from large blocks of time for instruction like foreign language immersion (in part, so students with parents who aren't married to each other in separate cities can do their block time in one parent's city, and the rest of their year in another). Some of the extra time can from by including extracurricular activities as a mandatory, but ungraded, element of every kid's day. Longer days and more school days also better respects the reality that a large share of students come from families where both parents have full or nearly full time jobs.

7. The concept of "physical education" should go. School children should get physical activity in the day, but the point should be the current benefit that flows from being physically active, not the knowledge that students learn from the activity. Also, almost all "physical education" classes are taught year after year as survey courses. There may be a place for a "survey course" format for small elementary schools where kids haven't been exposed to different possibilities and the school can't feasably offer multiple choices with its staff limitations, but this doesn't make sense in middle school and high school. Again, this is unnecessary and counterproduct when it comes to the real goal of providing physical activity. Few parts the school curriculum are better suited to offering students choices - let them take a yoga or dance class, or join an intramural or intermural sports team, or join a running group, none of which should figure into a student's GPA, instead of plain old "physical education." To the extent that there is an "education" component, it should focus on establishing specific life skills like learning to swim, learning to ski, and learning to ride a bike.

8. Preschool and full day kindergarten should be publicly funds and staffed with teachers paid what experienced high school teachers are paid. Studies have established that this part of educatioon has more impact than any other and that these teachers are currently the least bright. Also, full time schooling has been demonstrated to be highly effective at increasing family income and reducing child abuse and neglect.

9. More frequently advance academically high performing kids to a higher grade level and more frequently hold academically low performing kids back a grade level. Curriculums are designed to provide maximum benefit to kids who are a little about grade level. The closer kids are to that target in the majority of their classes in school, the better they'll learn. If enough kids finish twelve years of K-12 level work a year or two early, add a special college level program for them.

10. Decrease emphasis in teacher hiring on classroom education classes in training teachers, and increase emphasis on recruiting the teachers with personalities that are good fit for teaching and who are as smart as possible. The evidence that additional instruction improves teaching quality is quite weak.

11. Provide quick and honorable outs for teachers who learn in the first few years that teaching is not for them, and for teachers who start to burn out. Teachers who aren't thriving often want to get out and make room for better qualified teachers, but find it hard to find an acceptable way of negotiating that switch. Pension systems structured to create strong economic incentives to stay in the system for a certain number of years, no more and no less, discouarge that. There is also undue emphasis in teacher compensation on degrees earned and continuing education classes taken.

12. Students should receive more instruction at a fairly high level of rigor on negotiating the health care system and mental health care system from a patient's perspective (and self-care when possible), on basic accounting concepts and tax law compliance, and on interacting with the legal system (e.g. as a criminal defendant, if sued, if injured, as a tenant) as part of the high school curriculum. Almost everyone has to deal with these things in life, and these things are more demanding of academically teachable knowledge than almost anything else a typical person does in life. These are at least as important as sex education, don't use drugs propaganda, driver's education and civics that are all part of the curriculum.

13. Adjust the A, B, C, D and F grading system, perhaps by adding a new grade "E" above "A" and discarding the "D". The level of work that qualifies for a "D" is so bad that it is as if a student had never taken the class or worse, that kind of performance is unacceptable and shouldn't be given credit at all. But, the current GPA system also errs by focusing too much on across the board competence at a solid but unexceptional level (i.e. on not making mistakes), rather than accepting that truly excellent above and beyond performance in one area should at least balance out mere average performance in some other area. The "A" grade should have a similar lower cutoff to what it does not, while an "E" grade should entail "A" grade quality work in normal assignments plus work well beyond the scope of the curriculum for the grade level being taught and major "extra credit" projects such as a quality science fair or history day project, "an honors thesis," or extra beyond grade level curriculum level work. The fact that someone can't do better than "B" grade work in social studies, shouldn't count against someone who is doing "E" grade work in creative writing.

14. Developed a systemic way of screening, tracking and addressing learning difficulties, mental health issues, and disciplinary problems. These issues frequently are apparent by late elementary school. Almost everybody who has serious disciplinary problems or learning difficulties that are a big problem in high school and lead people to drop out have had clear yellow and red flags apparent to anyone who is paying attention by the time that they were in fifth grade. The system needs a way to proactively address these issues, rather than seeing incidents as isolated, seeing individualized learning plans as a pro forma paperwork chore (the emphasis should be on having a plan for a particular kind of problem, not on the individualized nature of that plan), and to devote intensive resources that may need to go beyond the school itself to address them starting as soon as the issues are identified. The longer these situations go unaddressed, the worse they will become. Letting things slide while given a student an opportunity to try to turn things around by himself or herself possibly with family help until they can't be ignored is not the right approach. Issues not to be addressed immediately when they start to appear because the older the student gets and the longer the problem persists without being addressed in a non-punitive constructive way that will help the student in the long run, the more likely it is to become harder to address.

15. Recognize that some degree of very personal intervention in habits and behavior, rather than just knowledge transfer, may be necessary to facilitate student learning growth and devise ways to do this that do so without inappropriately imposing religious or ethnic biases. This isn't an easy task, but seems to be a common thread in those schools that consistently show exceptional student growth.

16. Increase the weight given to growth measures in evaluating teachers and schools and decrease the weight given to absolute performance measures.

17. For choice options to work best, information about school performance needs to be conveyed to choosing parents on specific programs that students will be involved in, not obscured in a blend of different programs that happen to be co-located.

18. High schools should be evaluated based on post-graduate employment results as well as graduation rates, college matriculation rates, college graduates produced, and remedial instruction for students who go to college. The system should invest enough to allow high schools to have career searching assistance and college advising assistance that help them to maximize their performance on these measures, should track these outcomes, and should publicize the results.

19. At some point in middle school or high school, students who are unlikely to graduate from college should be identified and provided with multiple curricular choices that permit them to decide what they and their parents think will provide the maximum benefit to the student from the student's remaining years of taxpayer funded education. The current watered down college preparatory curriculum for these students undermines interest in school because it seems irrelevant and wastes the time of teachers and students alike.

20. Increase the mandatory school attendance age to eighteen for kids who have not graduated from high school. This policy increases graduate rates, reduces juvenile crime, and surprisingly, also doesn't reduce outcomes for kids who wouldn't have dropped out anyway.

26 January 2012

UK Economy Is Worse Off Than During Great Depression

In the United States, there is no doubt that the "Great Recession" we experienced in the wake of the financial crisis, while serious, was not as deep as the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the United Kingdom, this is not the case. Their Great Recession is by some GDP measures worse than the one that they experienced during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Fourth Circuit Creates More Horrific Law In Jose Padilla Civil Rights Case

Jose Padilla is an American citizen with a long criminal record who converted to Islam in prison who was plucked from a civilian jail by President George W. Bush as basically a test case for his new legal theory, and held there for years on that theory that he was an enemy combatant not entitled to due process. Padilla was then transferred to a non-military criminal court after the 4th Circuit had upheld the legality of the detention and before the U.S. Supreme Court's pending review of the case could take place, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to find the case to be moot while upholding the 4th Circuit precedent. Despite various arguments made by his lawyers in the criminal case at trial and on appeal, and some right out of a John Grisham novel instances of weird behavior by the jury, Padilla was convicted of trying to join a murderous terrorist group (separate from the dubious dirty bomb allegations made to support his enemy combatant detention) in which it was not alleged that he personally was involved in any terrorist acts. On appeal, prosecutors won a determination that the seventeen year sentence that he received was too short.

Padilla brought a civil rights suit thereafter, alleging that he was unlawfully tortured while detained as an enemy combatant, while he, a U.S. citizen, was detained in a facility in the territorial United States in a place not under martial law. The trial court dismissed the suit and its ruling was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which reasoned that even if all allegations of the civil rights claim were true and that Padilla was tortured in violation of his constitutional rights while being held as an enemy combatant, that the President and all persons who carry out executive branch orders when acting under color of a Congressional authorization to use military force are absolutely immune from civil liability or court orders providing for injunctive relief for any violation past, continuing, or in the imminent future, of a person's constitutional rights no matter how egregious, even if the constitutional right established is a clear violation of a well established constitutional right, and even if the litigation of the case does not in any way implicate a state secrets privilege.

The two precedents together basically stand for the proposition that the President may ignore the constitution to imprison and torture any U.S. citizen anywhere in the world, when acting under color of a Congressional grant of permission to use military force, subject only to the ever present possibility that his actions will get him impeached and removed from office.

It is also appropriate to recall that while President George W. Bush initiated this policy, that it is President Obama's administration that is now continuing to defend and assert the legally validity this exaggerated claim of Presidential authority, despite assertions on the campaign trail in 2008 that seemed to suggest that President Obama would reverse this policy.

It is fair to say that this is not the vision that the Founders embraced when the drafted the United States Constitution, and is also horrifically bad as a matter of policy.

25 January 2012

State Of The Union Address 2012 Policy Proposals Annotated

The State of the Union address typically includes all of the major policy proposals on an administration's agenda for the year. What proposals did President Obama make this year?

I've stripped out the atmospherics and justifications for the agenda and stripped it down the policy proposals, with some commentary intertwined.

Underlying Principles

* "These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. . . . They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together."

* "They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share — the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. . . . The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive."

These themes are vintage Obama rhetoric that defined his 2008 Presidential campaign, which was about hope, and about the mutual responsibilities of individuals and government to each other.

* "Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Technology . . . made some jobs obsolete. Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren’t, and personal debt that kept piling up. In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior. It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hardworking Americans holding the bag."

President Obama has adopted, in a more sophisticated form, the basic narrative that those on the left from the Occupy movement, to the bright minds in the punditocracy, to explain why the financial crisis happened. This narrative puts offshored jobs, selfish plutocrats, and an underregulated financial industry front and center as the causes of our economic woes, and implies solutions that address those issues.

Tax Incentives

Tax Progressivity

* "If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. . . . In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up."

* "Pass the payroll tax cut without delay."

These proposals reflect a basis observation that the rich pay too little in taxes due to tax breaks for unearned incomes, while working people are under pressure in the current weak economy and can't afford to pay more in taxes right now. These proposals also flow naturally from an observation that a failure of the one percenters to share the gains of economic growth is one of the important problems with our economy.

Tax Incentives For Job Creation

* "if you’re a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn’t get a tax deduction for doing it. That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home."

U.S. trade treaty obligations, which the U.S. has been found to have violated in the past, greatly restrict how much the tax code can discourage offshoring. This particular proposal is a trivial, mostly symbolic message that may still violate those treaty obligations but is worth proposing to send a message to big business.

* "every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax. And every penny should go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here in America."

The devil is in the details in this case. What would the basic minimum tax be based upon? What tax breaks for domestic employers would be funded?

* "if you’re an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut. If you’re a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making your products here. And if you want to relocate in a community that was hit hard when a factory left town, you should get help financing a new plant, equipment, or training for new workers."

This sounds like expansions of the benefits of the Section 197 domestic production deduction and enterprise zone funding, both of which are absurdly complex and not championed by many economists, but attempt to implement industrial policy goals. It also makes clear that the Obama Administration is not ideologically committed to lassiez faire, or even microeconomically neutral economic policies. The administration is not afraid to make judgments about how our economy needs to be tweaked and put forward policies to encourage the economic to transform in that direction. Given the bipartisan admiration that is emerging for China's ability to secure immense and seemingly never ending large GDP growth rates with these kinds of policies, it isn't too hard to see why a hand's off approach has lost favor in the White House.

Also, does it make any sense to provide so many tax benefits for manufacturing that conceivably even businesses that have before tax losses could have after tax gains? And, almost all of these tax goodies benefit big businesses, rather than small ones. The idea is to benefit the "real economy" relative to "phoney financial profits", but phoney real economy profits aren't necessarily sustainable either.

* "Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs."

* "we’re providing new tax credits to companies that hire vets."

These sounds like some expansion of complex existing tax credits for hiring new employees. I have yet to see any solid empirical evidence evaluating how much impact they have on hiring relative to their tax expenditure cost.


* "It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits."

Again, this administration is not uncomfortable with using the tax code to favor one industry over another with blatant subsidies. Fossil fuel industries run the last round of energy tax breaks, decades ago, and the Obama administration wasn't to strip out its subsidies and give them to Bill Ritter's New Energy Economy instead, in the hope that these subsidies will start businesses that will eventually be self-sufficient and will help the nation meet environmental and energy independence goals in the long run. For Colorado, this may be a wash, we have both a significant fossil fuel economy and a significant clean energy economy, so Colorado will have both winners and losers.

International Trade

* "It’s not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. . . . There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders."

The Obama adminstration remains committed to the questionable policy of taking a hard line on the enforcement of intellectual property rights abroad, even though this often plays into the hands of repressive regimes, and may be unstoppable as a practical matter with current technology and current copyright owner business models. Anyway, economically, most of the losses copyright owners claim to suffer from foreign copyright violations come from foreign use of unlicensed publication of their works, not from imports of counterfeits to the U.S.

* "It’s not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they’re heavily subsidized. . . . I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China. . . . And this Congress should make sure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing financing or new markets like Russia."

This seems somewhat hypocritical coming from someone who has just gone on at length about how he intends to subsidize American manufacturers. And, it relies on the somewhat questionable assumption that foreign governments are patient and strategically minded enough to use their tax money to make goods cheaper for Americans to buy in order to steal global manufacturing market share from the American economy. I don't doubt that there are subsidies, or that American manufacturers have lost global manufacturing market share. But, I am deeply skeptical that foreign taxpayer subsidies are a particularly important source of our loss of global manufacturing market share. Economic fundamentals like low wages, a workforce that has a surplus of newly minted skilled workers without domestic ventures who have jobs for them, declining costs of delivering goods to U.S. markets, reduced tariffs, cheap technological advancement that is possible by simply by copying innovations made in more developed nations, and increasing returns to scale and from interchange of knowledge in economic hot spots as urban manufacturing centers emerge are probably all more important and unlike taxpayer funded subsidies, are sustainable in the long run.

Unions and economically squeezed U.S. manufacturers may appreciate this quasi-protectionist approach, and Democratic party policy has always talked about "fair trade" rather than "free trade." But, I have real doubts about how much can be accomplished practically to benefit the U.S. economy with international trade diplomacy.

Education, Training and Basic Research

* "a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. . . . give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers. . . . cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help that they need. It is time to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work."

This has been tried many times before, and was the signature issue of Dan Quayle. It is an alluring idea, but it has repeatedly failed to make much of a difference. The case that unemployment has as an important source a disconnect between the available skills of unemployed workers and available jobs isn't very solid. This clearly isn't the case with cyclical unemployment, and there are pretty good indications that a lack of general intellectual and social competencies are more important than a lack of specific job related skills for individuals who have persistant difficulty finding employment even during economic booms (i.e. the non-cyclical component of unemployment above the rate of unemployment that economists conceptually call "full employment" because there are always some people who are briefly in transition from one job to their next job for non-economic reasons or because they are re-entering the work force and can't be hired absolutely instantly). The United States has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the world and one of the highest college graduation rates in the world. One of the reasons that we haven't seen much effort to successfully institutionalize training programs for non-college jobs is because existing backlogs of people with the right skills in these stagnant job categories and on the job training for people with the right general intellectual and social skills have been sufficient to meet the economy's needs. In developing countries there are lots of undereducated and undertrained bright, socially functional people. In the U.S., in contrast, we have lots of overeducated or overtrained people who aren't terribly bright or have problems playing well with others.

* "Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn."

The Obama administration has given up on the standards based, testing oriented, "best practices" driven education policy of the "No Child Left Behind Act" in favor of support for local control and processes that operate at the level of teachers rather than curriculums. The old approach didn't work. It isn't clear that the federal government can offer guidance to the states on what will work, even as modestly as it does in this new approach, with much authoritative credibility. At best, programs like these simply encourage innovators at the state and local level and give them a symbolic credibility boost that the grants that they have won or could win carry, that stir up local decision makers to be open to changing practices that are only the status quo now by virtue of interia.

* "I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."

The evidence in Colorado and quite a few other states, contrary to a social scientist's intuition, is that increasing the mandatory school attendance age improves the educational and juvenile justice outcomes for kids not permitted to drop out by them, without causing the problems associated with having academically low achieving kids who are often disciplinary problems in school against their will that you would expect. So empirically, this seems to be a good policy with large returns that reduces crime and improves long term socio-economic outcomes that it is a no brainer to strongly encourage all states to implement, even though there are lots of plausible reasons why it should work as well as it actually does.

* "Extend the tuition tax credit . . . doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years."

This is good as far as it goes, but doesn't seriously address the dire status quo problem that well off people have much more access to higher education than less well off people with more academic ability, and it doesn't target the funds very finely. A dramatic increase in funding for scholarships based on both academic ability and financial need would be money better spent. Also, more work study jobs mean most students who have to balance both a job and being a student at the same time, while reducing the number of good jobs available to people who aren't in school in college towns.

* "If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

I'll believe it when it happens. In Colorado, tuition increases are being driven by state level revenue shortfalls, and no amount of federal policy incentives are going to materially influence that decision making process. Also, college students so often come from affluent families, that it may be more efficient and fair to increase tuition and to use the increased revenue to provide targetted financial aid to only those students who can't afford the higher tuition.

* "Innovation also demands basic research. . . . Don’t gut these investments in our budget."

The returns on basic research are routinely underestimated so this is a good investment, and if we are going to try to stimulate the economy by pumping more money into it, we may as well direct that spending towards ends that are good long term investments in addition to being sources of short term stimulus. The payoffs may be decades off, but those payoffs won't ever materialize if we don't invest in basic research now, so we need to keep investing to stave off long term economic stagnation as much as we possibly can. This also isn't a particularly big line item in the federal budget, so it is a priority we can indulge without doing undue harm to the size of the federal deficit.


* "We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. . . . stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship."

Absence a shift in control in Congress, comprehensive immigration reform is DOA politically, regardless of its substantive merits. The DREAM Act which the President describes as a stopgap rule, is extremely good policy from the perspectives of both justice and fairness and from an economic perspective. It doesn't hurt to push hard for this bill and stiff Republican opposition to it looks mean spirited and heartless.


* "I’m prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long-term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors."

Medicare and Medicaid cost control are central components of the health care reform act and more cost controls cement and expand that achievement (and there is little room to dispute that the long-term costs of these programs really do drive the deficit). Social Security isn't materially broken, so offering to strengthen it doesn't cost much.

* "we’ve increased annual VA spending every year I’ve been President."

A decade of overdeploying ground troops creates a community of veterans who need more VA spending simply to receive the same level of VA support that their predecessors did on a need adjusted basis.

Stimulus Spending

* "Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings."

Reducing energy waste is good, but it is a bit hard to figure out why businesses need government incentives to take steps that reduce their expenses and make them more profitable. One hopes that the government isn't spending too much on this program. Still, to the extent that you want to throw money at the economy to provide short term economic stimulus, you may as well spend it on purposes to provide some sort of long term economic benefit which short sighted firm managers might be undervaluing with unreasonably great discount rates for evaluating the benefit conferred by future profits.

* "We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges; a power grid that wastes too much energy; an incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world. . . . you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

* "I’m proposing a Veterans Jobs Corps that will help our communities hire veterans as cops and firefighters."

Both of these proposals are classic Keynesian/New Deal economic policies. Empirical evidence shows that they work in the short term. And, we are a nation with a deferred infrastructure maintance problem, which is best to address when the economy is slow and government demand isn't getting in the way of highly profitable private sector demand that firms are struggling to satisfy. It is a sensible way to use idle economic capacity for something worthwhile.

Regulatory Proposals

General Regulation

* "No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."

* "I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men."

President Obama opened his State of the Union Address with the argument that the housing bubble and the financial crisis and Great Recession that followed were a product of underregulation, rather than overregulation, and his analysis of the causes of this crisis are credible as a matter of substance. So, his refusal to cave to knee jerk Republican calls for deregulation across the board as a solution to every problem is a good tactical move that is politically defensible once one starts talking about particular regulations rather than "regulations" as an abstract aggregate concept.

* "[W]omen should earn equal pay for equal work."

This could either be a throw away line, designed to accentuate the gender gap in the 2012 election without changing policy in any way, or it could be the sleeper policy initiative of this administration. The administration has broad authority to enforce sex discrimination laws as it sees fit without new Congressional authorization and doesn't need much funding to do that. But, there is considerable room to interpret sex discrimination laws in a way that gives more content and bite to the comparable pay for comparable work concept. More aggressive interpretations of and enforcement of comparable pay laws could greatly change the culture and functioning of the American economy, and administrative action could have a meaningful impact on how employers act, even if more expansive interpretations of existing laws are ultimately shot down by the still quite conservative federal courts. The statement in this speech is too brief to discern whether this represents a real change in policy, or merely a commitment to a narrow conception of this principle that is already widely accepted in the American workplace even without regulatory enforcement.

* "I’ve ordered every federal agency to eliminate rules that don’t make sense. We’ve already announced over 500 reforms[.]"

* "I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy."

* "I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many [infrastructure] construction projects."

* "Tear down regulations that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow."

The task of updating regulations and organizing the federal bureacracy in the most streamlined and sensible manner is like weeding a garden, it never ends and takes constant vigilance. There are always regulations that were poorly written in the first place or have ceased to be useful in the modern regulatory climate that need to be repealed, rewritten or revised, and federal bureacratic subdivisions have a remarkable propensity to survive even when other parts of the bureacracy have been created or evolved into agencies that have overlapping or contrary responsibilities. The Obama administration believes in good government and the ideas behind the federal regulatory and administrative state enough to be trusted to carry out these tasks in good faith in a way that isn't simply calculated to undermine the underlying policies that the agencies and rules were invented to carry out. And, tidying up these matters does improve the business climate as well, while better protecting the interests that federal law set out to protect when these agencies were created and these regulations were adopted.

Energy and Environmental Regulation

* "I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. . . I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago."

Where? Have the concerns from offshore oil drilling raised by the last major spill been adequately addressed? What are we doing now that we weren't doing then?

* "I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use."

This is nice, but disclosure is only a first step that doesn't substantive prevent environmentally harmful activity from being conducted.

* "I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean."

Good. I wonder what achieving this goal means from a practical perspective.

* "set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation."

Good. I wonder what mechanism (e.g. markets in rights to pollute, carbon taxes, emissions standards made without reference to the technologies use to achieve them, will be used to accomplish this end.

* "the Department of Defense, working with us, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history."

This can't hurt, and there is no better way to learn what clean energy steps are or are not practicable to impose on industry than to try to implement them yourself in a situation where there are also important non-environmental priorities to be considered.

Financial Regulation

* "I’m sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks. A small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won’t add to the deficit[.]"

Hurray for everybody who has a mortgage and hasn't refinanced lately. Also, framing this as a sort of reparations or restorative justice measure that is being imposes on banks because it is something that they are capable of doing that compensates the general public for the harm that the mortgage lending industry did to the U.S. economy helps ground a pretty intrusive and economically costly imposition of the profitability of this business sector while not offering anything to people that banks weren't offering most people who were willing to put together the paperwork anyway.

* "I’m asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorney general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis."

Long overdue.

* "if you are a big bank or financial institution, you’re no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits. You’re required to write out a “living will” that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail –- because the rest of us are not bailing you out ever again. And if you’re a mortgage lender or a payday lender or a credit card company, the days of signing people up for products they can’t afford with confusing forms and deceptive practices — those days are over."

We've imposed lots of new regulations on banks and some of them are probably improvements, but it is hard to know what really matters, and what was overkill or was counterproductive when the entirely collection of new regulations are taken as a whole. Regulations don't have to be a complex as these regulations were to be effective.

* "We’ll also establish a Financial Crimes Unit[.]"

You honestly mean that we didn't have several of these already? No wonder banks were ignoring regulations.

* "Some financial firms violate major anti-fraud laws because there’s no real penalty for being a repeat offender. . . . pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count."

From a practical perspective the federal government has more than enough power already to put any company that doesn't play ball out of business in a flash. See, e.g., Arthur Anderson and Lehman Brothers. The gap that this proposal is filling, that the speech doesn't really make clear, is the capacity of the federal government to impose sanctions that fill middle ground between slaps on the wrist and putting someone entirely out of business.

Political Process Reform

* "Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow. Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact."

The idea is a good one, but the usual enforcement mechanism of the Congressional ethics committees, which the U.S. Constitution doesn't leave a lot of alternatives to, has some built in instiutional limitations, so I'm not hopeful that this will make a huge difference.

* "Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa[.]"

This is basically a bad idea, whose only redeeming feature is that it isn't terribly likely to be passed into law or to survive judicial scrutiny. What is so bad about giving influence to people who have a proven capacity to encourage large numbers of modest sized individual donors to contribute funds to political campaigns? The right to petition Congress, which is what you are doing when you lobby Congress, is constitutionally protected. And, why do we need to prevent Congress from lobbying people who bundle campaign contributions?

* "I ask the Senate to pass a simple rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days."

This would be a great reform to adopt from a public policy and political theory perspective. But, the Senate isn't going to do it simply because the President asks them to change the balance in power between the President and the U.S. Senate because he asks them to, and similar reform efforts have failed in the past. What can President Obama offer the Senate that will convince two-thirds of sitting Senators to adopt this rule that weakens their individual power and the power of their political party when they are out of office, particularly in the case of lifetime appointments to the federal courts?

Military and Foreign Affairs

* "[W]e’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue[.]"

Finally, President Obama has started to acknowledge that the time has come to start disengaging from our last currently active foreign war, the longest in all of U.S. history which was begun by George W. Bush immediately following 9-11 but was only ramped up to a larger scale, not necessary with much improved results, recently. It is somewhat troubling that President Obama did not mention that current nominal 2014 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

* "[W]e will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings –- men and women; Christians, Muslims and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty."

* "From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back."

It is nice to see President Obama back away from a purely real politic narrow self-interest approach to foreign policy in favor of a more principled and soft power driven approach. Hillary Clinton's push to get us involved in Libya proved the desirability of this approach and has brought President Obama around to this view quite nicely.

* "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations."

This is a decent, middle ground position on the issue.

* "I’ve proposed a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget."

Cutting the Defense budget is long overdue. I'm not convinced that President Obama is making those cuts in the right places, but some big cuts in the Defense budget are absolutely necessary if we are to make progress in reducing the deficit before interest rates rise again and make that deficit far more expensive.

* "I’ve already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing dangers of cyber-threats."

Too much paranoia about cyber-threats can do a great deal of harm to the functioning of the Internet if done poorly, although there is a genuine need to address these threats. I'm concerned that this will not be handled well, given the missteps that the administration has made so far with SOPA and PIPA. And, the descriptions of the problems that I've seen from advocates of greater cyber security have all been too vague to convince me that the advocates really understand which threats really matter as opposed to just jumping on a trendy band wagon of proposals that they don't really understand. Most members of Congress are old enough to have used slide rules and manual typewriters as young men and women.

* "When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight."

It is nice to see a public statement showing commitment to the recently secured repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," although an absence of any affirmative new gay rights advancing policies, and in particular a glaring silence on the issue of DOMA isn't terribly reassuring.

What's Missing?

As important as what a President says in a State of the Union address is what he omits. Silence in the State of the Union address on an issue means that an issue has failed to make it to the top of the administration's policy agenda and that major administration sponsored legislation in that area is unlikely to be introduced.

President Obama has made a decision to stay far away from the culture wars. Don't ask, don't tell repeal is a done deal and doesn't call for new policy initiatives in and of itself, dispte the very hair splitting position he his adminstration has taken on DOMA. He said nothing about the administrations conflicted stance on medical marijuana. He make an effort to launch a pre-emptive counterstrike to GOP Presidential candidate Santorum's opposition to birth control with some initative or statement. His support for the DREAM Act is about as tepid and narrow a position as one can take while still calling for some liberalization of immigration laws now. He said nothing whatsoever about federal criminal justice policies apart from a commitment to going after a very narrow set of perpetrators of financial crimes who still haven't been caught almost four years after the financial crisis revealed their wrongdoing.

He has not asked for a mandate to pursue any major new initiatives in foreign affairs or to initiate any new military initatives more ambitious than beefing up our cyber-warfare resources. There was no mention of a stance on missile defense. The cuts he proposed to make in the military budget weren't specified, denying him a clearly stated mandate in those budget wars. No specific steps to take in dealing with Syria were outlined. His move to send special forces to help local military forces deal with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, or his steps to confront Somolian pirates, wasn't mentioned. He mentioned that we talked to the government of Burma, but not any measure that he plans to take in dealing with them. He made no mention of the ongoing near crisis situation in the Eurozone economies or of what strategy he plans to take to prevent that crisis from dampening our own economy. He limited his statements about China to trade disputes (and even then, did not mention the trade disputes, such as China's exchange rate policies, that are really the most contentious), not addressing its increased investment in major military resources or its human rights and democracy record beyond an overall commitment to those vague ideals in our overall foreign policy agenda.

Not mentioning major foreign policy or military initiatives may weaken his mandate in Congress over the next year by less tightly pushing Democrats to rally around the top items on his agenda. It may also be a political misstep, going into the 2012 election, because foreign policy is an area where the President has immense unilateral power, the Democratic party controlled Senate is more relevant than the Republican controlled House, and none of his political opponents is in a position to challenge him. Mitt Romney has never gotten closer to military and foreign affairs in his political life than directing the natural disaster relief efforts of the National Guard and courting potential foreign investors in his state. Ron Paul's extreme isolationist position has little support in his own party, isn't a very effective counterpoint to President Obama now that he has disengaged us in Iraq and Libya and made a point of emphasizing his plan to end out involvement in Afghanistan in his most definitive foreign policy position in his entire speech. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were strongly domestic policy oriented when they were in Congress and neither man has that reassuring gravitas Americans would like to see in someone who has the power to launch nuclear missiles without anyone else's say so. And, President Obama has far more personal experience being in and interacting with people in the rest of the world than any of the Republican candidates. He could really shine here with an insightful and bold initative, and instead chose to keep these issues on the back burner or held in reserve for later.

He proposed a number of wonkish and modest initatives on the domestic policy front, and these followed the Clintonian pattern of being incremental, of not adhering to some big picture theoretical vision for economic policy, and of what can be perhaps best described as a merchantalist economic agenda.

The only really bold policy stance that he took in the entire speech was his proposal to increase taxes on millionaires dramatically while holding the least affluent 98% of American taxpayers harmless, and this was perfectly timed to make the income tax returns made by Republican front runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney that show both men to be millionaires living in economic worlds that average Americans have trouble even dreaming about. How many people do you know who get paid $25,000 a month to give advice to a obscure government chartered oligarchical wholesale mortgage company's lobbyist and who make millions of dollars a year trading on their past political glory? How many people do you know who make more than twenty million dollars a year without even having to show up to work at a day job and yet paid less than 15% of that amount in federal taxes? These are not the tax returns of people whom average voters can related to themselves.

President Obama earns a government salary as President, was a law professor before he was a full time politician, and earns royalties from a couple of books he wrote that have sold well. He got there from a starting point of a black boy being raised by a single mother. His wife was a senior hospital administrator. He and his wife may have made more money than the average American do (we would worry about the accumen of a President for whom that wasn't true), but they have made that money in a way that is far close to the range of experience of the average voter, have never been members of the ranks of the superwealthy in the way that Romney has as a private equity fund manager, and have not secured their wealth by selling their political influence to special interests. As a result, President can be far more credible when he claims to speak for the average American on what is fair when it comes to taxes than his likely Republican opposition.

This is class warfare that he can win, since the vast majority of Americans are on his side of the debate when it comes to their personal self-interest and their intuitive sense of right and wrong. It is one thing to say that you want to soak the rich, and another to say that you expect millionaires to pay somewhat higher tax rates than their secretaries.

24 January 2012

There Are Almost No Non-White Republicans In South Carolina

As the Seth at Enik Rising reminds us with exit poll results, there were almost no non-white Republicans voting the in South Carolina primary election. About 99% of exit poll respondents were white, while the number of black and other non-white Republican primary voters in South Carolina rounded to 1% each. Overall in South Carolina, as of "the 2010 census, the racial make up of the state is 66.2% White, 5.1% Hispanic, 27.9% Black or African American, 1.3% Asian, and 0.4% Native American."

There are places in the United States where the Republican party is not so monolithic racially, such as Florida which hosts the next Republican primary of the 2012 election a week from today, and California, but South Carolina is not one of them.

The fact that South Carolina Republican primary voters are disproportionately white is not in the least bit surprising. The fact that the Republican party can't claim even 4% of the African American electorate or even 15% of the electorate belonging to other races in South Carolina, or more than 3% of all non-white voters in South Carolina, is more notable. For example, an African American adult is about twice as likely to be incarcerated as he or she is to be a Republican in South Carolina.

This is particularly ironic given the fact that Lincoln, who is still hated by many South Carolina Republicans, was the original Republican President, and that almost all blacks in the Reconstruction South, about one hundred and fifty years ago and for many decades thereafter, were Republicans.

Washington State To Enact Bill Authorizing Gay Marriage

Public proclaimations of support for a gay marriage bill by a sufficient number of relevant state legislators and the state's Governor makes passage of a bill authorizing same sex marriage in Washington State into law a near certainty.

Washington would then become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage along with New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut and Vermont. The District of Columbia also recognizes same-sex marriage.

The decision on gay marriage is notable for being legislative, rather than the product of a citizen initiative or court ruling.

The situation seems to be evolving into one where there is will be a block of states in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast where gay marriage is recognized, while other large blocks of states where it is not recognized. If I recall correctly, in Maine, which is one of the last holdouts not recognizing gay marriage in a block of Northeastern states together with Rhode Island, the state legislature passed a gay marriage bill, but a citizen referendum repealed the bill by a fairly narrow margin.

Overall the state by state situation on legal recognition for same sex couples is quite complicated.

The California Situation

A pending appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit will determine the fate of gay marriage in California. A citizen's initiative there, Proposition 8, prohibited gay marriage, which was briefly the status quo in California and a federal trial court held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The State of California did not appeal, but the Proposition' sponsors purported to appeal the ruling and the 9th Circuit, deferring to the opinion of the California Supreme Court on a certified question, determiend that they did indeed have standing to bring that appeal, so the case is now being briefed on the merits in that federal appellate court.

The 9th Circuit is likely to uphold the trial court ruling finding Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional, given the judges on the panel and their initial analysis of the standing issue in the case. The U.S. Supreme Court would have been unlikely to consider an appeal of a ruling that the supporters of the bill lacked standing to appeal. But, the U.S. Supreme Court is quite likely to consider on appeal on the merits from the 9th Circuit, if it does affirm the trial court ruling, and is quite likely to reverse its ruling, which would close the door to a federal constitutional right to same sex marriage entirely.

However, there is still a real possibility that California could join Washington State in having legalized same sex marriage as a result of this litigation.

California's community property laws have also provided a back door way to secure de facto recognition of same sex couples for federal tax purposes.

The Colorado Situation

A number of other states recognize civil unions that afford the same state law rights as marriage, but without the formal marriage status and description.

Colorado's legislature is considering a bill to do that this session (the state constitution prohibits a gay marriage bill in the state without a state constitutional amendment), and Governor Hickenlooper supports that bill. Pat Steadman, my state senator, who is an openly gay man, is the prime sponsor of the legislation. Colorado had taken a number of steps short of a full civil unions bill in support of gay rights already, firming up the political coalition to pass a civil unions bill, and a number of prominent Republicans have expressed support for a civil unions bill even though many Republicans disfavor taking the final symbolic (and possibly significant for federal law purposes) step of describing civil unions as marriages, so the bill has a chance of clearing Colorado's state house which has a one vote Republican majority, as well as its Democratic party controlled state senate.

Calling It Marriage Matters

The symbolic element of the distinction between marriage and civil unions may be more than symbolic, now that the Obama administration has decided to cease defending the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that provided that same sex couples validly recognized as married under state law will not be recognized as married for purposes of federal law. (The other part of DOMA, which permits one state to refuse to give full faith and credit to another state's same sex marriage has more constitutional vitality at this point.)

Without federal DOMA, same sex couples that are married are entitled to a wide array of federal legal benefits available only to married couples, but couples with civil unions are argument not entitled to the same benefits, although choice of law issues are acute, because it is possible for the same couple to have both a civil union (or simply a relationship unrecognized by law) under the law of the state where they reside, and to be married legally under the laws of another state. It is unclear how federal officials in the absence of the federal law portion of DOMA are to interpret this situation, although the more logical view would be to assume that a marriage valid under the laws of any state is valid for federal law purposes, even if it is not valid under the state where the couple current resides.

22 January 2012

Denver Public Schools Ratings

There is a rating system for schools in the Denver Public Schools system (including charter schools).

The top ranking "distinguished" goes to schools that manage to produce excellent academic performance without being meaningfully selective in admissions. This ranking was awarded to West Denver Prep at Highland, Lake, Federal and Harvey Park locations, and to the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) at Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch locations.

The vast majority of schools in the DPS system are rated either "meets expectations", a notch below distinguished, or "watch", a notch below that rating. These ratings are muddied, however, because a large share of all Denver schools have multiple programs. If a school has one program that is very good (either in student growth or student academic performance) and another that isn't, the average of the multiple programs becomes uninformative. Also many schools are near the boundary line between the two rankings. Schools that have high academic performance but achieve it through selectivity tend to end up in a "meets expectations" category, since they can't compete with the "distinguished" school for student growth. Schools that have satisfactory academic growth but medicore performance also tend to end up in one of these categories.

The two bottom ranking in the system are "priority watch" and below it, "probation."

But, at this end of the scale, the inclusion of academic performance as a factor in the ranking, apart from student growth, penalizes the schools that specializing in serving students who are selectived particularly for their poor academic performance or other challenges. Among schools specially designed to meet the needs of students with special challenges, the rankings are as follows:
* Meets Expectations: Emily Griffith, Ace Community Challenge School, and Denver Justice.
* Watch: Academy of Urban Learning, Contemporary Learning Academy, and Kepner.
* Priority Watch: P.R.E.P. Academy, Colorado High School Charter, and Florence Crittenton High School (pregnant students and teen parents).
* Probation: Life Skills of Denver.

Of greater concern are the schools not specifically targeted at poor performing students that do less well.

On priority watch are Escuela Tlatelolco (while this is not formally a school targeted at challenged students, it is designed to be especially friendly to Hispanic ESL students and this effect may help explain its poor performance), and Henry World School (which is trying to be a high performing, middle school level International Bachelorate program).

Three schools serving a general population of students are on probation: Noel Middle School (not to be confused with Noel Community Arts School), Venture Prep and West High School.

West High School is arguably the worst high school targeted at a general population of students in the entire State of Colorado and has hovered at the bottom of statewide academic standards for a long time. It doesn't have the lowest high school graduation rate in the district or the state, but its performance, given the group of students who start there, is dismal.

21 January 2012

Colorado Child Neglect Law Broken

We shouldn't be sending parents who cause a child's death through a mere moment of neglect, even gross neglect, to thirty years in prison. But, that is what Colorado law provides. This kind of hard time, which will cost Colorado taxpayers almost a million dollars and which wastes a mother's life, is grossly excessive for a death resulting from unintentional conduct. Is the woman had set out to get herself stone cold drunk and killed someone in her vehicle, she would not have faced nearly so long a sentence as she did for misjudging the ability of two young children in a bath to avoid drowning as she ran a quick convenience store errand.

The excessive penalties for unintentional deaths of children was born of a moment of hysteria in the Colorado legislature and produces a steady stream of criminal justice tragedies in its wake.

20 January 2012

538 Predicts Gingrich Win In SC Tomorrow

Nate Silver at 538, which is affiliated with the New York Times, has predicted that Newt Gingrich will come in first place in the South Carolina, followed closely by Romney, followed distantly by Ron Paul, with Rick Santorum in a distant fourth (and last) place.

Silver is very data based, so his results are no doubt based on surveys and other solid data.

If he's right, there is a good chance that Santorum would drop out of the race before Florida's primary on January 31, and that Gingrich could consolidate the conservative vote at that point if it is not too late for GOP conservatives to unite around one not Romney candidate. Still, if Santorum and Gingrich combined are only predicted to win half the primary vote in conservative South Carolina, a Gingrich win is going to be a long shot.

Seth at Enik Rising has noted that the three superdelegates who had committed to Perry have been released, one defecting to Romney despite Perry's endorsement of Gingrich in an attempt to consolidate the conservative vote, and the other two not taking sides. This leaves the superdelegate count at 13 for Romney and 1 for Santorum (whose candidacy does not look like it will last past this weekend). Gingrich doesn't have any superdelegates supporting him and neither does Ron Paul. In a close race, that could be decisive, although the vast majority of superdelegates are uncommitted at this point.

UPDATE: Seth's source now says that Romney has 15 superdelegates and that Gingrich has 1, but cites an AP story that claims that Paul and Santorum each have one superdelegate and that Gingrich has two. Still each of them is in a worse position, supedelegate wise, than Perry was before he dropped out.

Gingrich is also far, far behind Romney in campaign fundraising and did very poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. A first place finish in South Carolina by a mere three percentage points or so, would keep Gingrich's campaign alive, but by itself, it doesn't displace his strong negatives and the fact that his campaign has already come close to collapse twice during this campaign.

Gingrich hasn't necessarily given himself much credibility with the anti-plutocrat populist wing of his party by admitting to a 31% tax rate in disclosed tax returns on a $3 million income.

At any rate, a Gingrich nominee would clearly be weaker than Romney in the general election, so any improvement in the likelihood that Gingrich will be the nominee improves Obama's chances in November.

PE, Special Ed and Elementary Ed Teachers Had Low SATs

Essentially all certified K-12 teachers have to earn a four year college degree and go through some sort of certification process that in some cases involves a basic academic skills test. A large portion of them took the SAT as part of the college admissions process.

A new study has compared the SAT verbal scores of teachers certified in various areas to the average SAT verbal scores of college graduates who took the SAT (543) in a state where there is a requirement to take a basic academic skills test as part of the certification process.

The SAT verbal test (and non-subject area SAT scores in general) are fairly closely correlated with IQ, and the IQ of people who take the SAT is just as likely to be above an expected value for those SAT scors as they are to be below it, so for reasonably large samples, average SAT scores for the group are provide a decent approximation of the average IQ scores of people in the group.

The good news is that after the basic academic skills tests, for most fields of education certification people certified had either modestly better SAT scores than those before the tests were imposed (for English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Art and Music, Elementary Education, Physical Education) or there was a statistically insignificant decline in a field with a lower than average number of certifcations in it (Special Education and Foreign Language).

Before and after the basic academic skills test was imposed, teachers in all high school level certification areas (Mathematic, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Languages and English) were above average relative to all college graduates, althougn not by a lot (certified teachers in English, with an average SAT verbal of 575 were the highest scoring kind of certification). This is good news because education majors in colleges, generally, have some of the weakest admissions statistics of students of any major at colleges and universities. After the basic skills test was imposed, certified teachers in art and music were also above average when they had been below average before then.

Teachers certified in elementary education, special education and physical education all had verbal SAT scores significantly below the average for college graduates, although the basic academic skills test significantly boosted the SAT verbal scores of new certified teachers in physical education and elementary education. Newly certified teachers in physical education had by far the lowest SAT verbal scores of any of the certification types at about 470 after the basic academic skills test requirement was imposed and perhaps 460 before it was imposed.

Unsurprisingly, teachers certified in mathematics had the highest math SAT scores followed by teachers certified in science, and both of these groups had math SAT scores well above the average for college graduates (542). The average for math teachers was just short of 600.

The teachers certified after the basic academic skills test had higher math SAT scores in every single discipline, with particularly significant improvements in physical education teachers, elementary education teachers and art and music teachers, for whom high school level mathematics is unimportant in their daily work. Disappointingly, newly certified teachers in every certification type other than math and science had SAT math scores that were below average for college graduates. Physical education, special education and elementary education, just as was the case for SAT verbal scores, were the lowest, although while pre-skills test PE teachers were the lowest category, after the skills test was required, special education teachers lagged below PE teachers (PE teachers had an average math SAT score of about 495 after the skills test was imposed v. perhaps 490 for special education teachers).

Since the SATs and IQ generally, are very close proxies for aptitude in traditional academic pursuits, and don't measure either personality traits that may be pertinent to teaching, or physical ability, and since physical education is not a traditional academic pursuit, surely it is less troubling that physical education teachers had lower SAT verbal scores than it would have been if teachers in some academic areas had such low SAT verbal scores. People smart enough to graduate from college who happen to be less smart than the average college graduate have to do something, and teaching physical education is probably as good a thing to do as anything.

But, with that possible caveat, I think that it is likely to be generally the case that the score a teacher got on their SATs is likely to be a better predictor of their teaching performance than the content of any education courses that they took prior to being certified. Indeed, it is my recollection that there have been some studies showing that students who were certified in a program that didn't require many education classes faired better than those who were education majors in traditional education programs.

Likewise, one can argue that outside of physical education, that the most important thing is for a teacher to have significantly more verbal mastery than their students, and even college graduates who have SAT verbal and math scores below the average for college graduates certainly should be able to meet that standard in elementary education and special education, because elementary school students are still developing basic language skills and many special education students have some sort of language deficits or math deficits in the subjects where they are receiving special education assistance.

On the other hand, it isn't unreasonable to argue that teaching special education students actually calls for higher IQ than teacher students who have no impediment to their ability to learn in the subjects taught, because for other students learning these subjects comes relatively naturally, and that it may be more important to have high IQ elementary education teachers than to have high IQ high school teachers, because to the extent that student learning is not largely determined by personal IQ and family and geographic circumstances (i.e. the availablity of good schools), it seems to be the case that academic performance ossifies fairly young so that exposure to the smartest teachers as soon as possible is more likely to have a lasting impact than exposure to the smartest teachers after one has already spent eight or more years in the K-12 education system.

Teacher pay by specialty seems to be fairly signficantly correlated with the SAT scores of teachers certified in a particular specialty. High school teachers generally earn more than elementary school teachers. Indeed, early childhood education and kindergarten level instruction seems to be the point at which the quality of educational environments has the most significant impact and some good studies have shown that the benefits of early childhood education are still statistically discernable by the time those kids are leaving the K-12 education system.

Making it easier for smart people who didn't major in education in college (and perhaps didn't even go to college) to become teachers, and improving teacher pay in a way that credibly convinces people choosing majors and career paths in college that the higher pay for teachers will be sustained in the long term, are probably the two best ways to attract the most qualified people to become teachers. Basic academic skills tests for potential teachers has some impact, particularly in weeding out the least smart teachers in certifications that have a record of attracting less academically bright college students. But, they do little to improve the average or to attract people at the high end of academic ability range to the field.