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June 15, 2012

david brooks explains the republican party to you

At the very least, today's David Brooks offers a clear explanation, almost a white paper, of the underpinnings of the Republican strategy for Fixing Everything.  I mean, it's totally whack, of course, and made largely of fallacies and straw men, but at least it exists.  At least it's written down somewhere in a yeoman's attempt at brevity and conciseness, so that dialogues can be started (or at least so that arguments can be a bit more grounded).

If you're interested (and maybe you are?), the ideology goes like this: the so-called welfare state is collapsing, and the past sixty years have been nothing more than an experiment, and now it's time to start over with some "free-market principles" which are basically the same dogma the Chicago School of Economics has shoved down the throat of the developing world.  This represents not so much a difference in opinion in how the country should be run, but a disagreement over the basic purpose of a country.  Like, now we have a social safety net, and if they had their way, there would be no social safety net because how do you make money off a social safety net!?!

But as usual there's a passage in there that's outrageous and inflammatory and worth sharing:

The G.O.P. vision is of an entirely different magnitude: replace the tax code, replace the health care system and transform entitlements.

David Brooks got his verbs mixed up.  Instead of 'replace,' 'replace' and 'transform,' it should read: 'eradicate,' 'eradicate' and 'eradicate.'  I assume this was a moment of confusion and not a deliberate untruth.

But at least it's aptly inflammatory.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:39 AM

June 14, 2012

the election

Here's an interesting tidbit of news:
Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who helped prop up House speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential primary campaign for months, is now using his massive wealth to help former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

According to two sources familiar with the donation, Adelson is giving $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Under Federal Election Commission law, Restore Our Future is free to accept donations of unlimited amounts from single donors but must reveal the identity of those givers.

We can have diverging opinions over whether corporations have the personal rights of citizens, and whether spending money constitutes speech as protected by the First Amendment, but let's look at it on a practical level: do you think that an election in which one person has already (four months to go) spent ten million dollars can be considered in any way fair?

I forget where I read it first, but we have gone from, "One man, one vote," to, "One dollar, one vote," and I can't think of a valid argument in favor of the latter.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:14 PM

June 13, 2012

times-picayune

Maybe you did hear that the New Orleans Times-Picayune decided that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of uneasy stockholders, and opted to suspend publication on four of the normal seven days of its publication week.  It was a daily newspaper, you see, the historical intent of which is to supply (for money!) the citizenry with some sort of aggregated news of the day.  But no longer!  So there will be a lot of grateful trees in New Orleans, and paperboys and -girls will now be able to watch more Good Morning America.

And maybe you're not the type that is saddened by this, by the fact that we have a major metropolitan area — you know, the one that we let fall into the Gulf of Mexico — not have a daily newspaper.  It saddens me tremendously.  Well then note that part two of this contraction by the Times-Picayune is the decimation of their staff, which happened yesterday.  Some experienced "employment loss," and some were invited to reapply for their position.  I read this report, from Renee Peck, and hoo boy, I thought I was saddened before:

The first to go early this morning was a longtime copy editor who, ironically, has been overseeing online content for the past decade. When she burst into tears at the news, the supervisor in charge seemed unprepared, and had to duck into the ladies’ bathroom for paper towel...

The ax continued to fall. A talented writer who posted bright daily features online about entertainment (isn’t that what the new company is promoting?) left the building in tears. A bureau reporter who joined the paper about the same time I did, who shared in the Pulitzer for Katrina reporting, who selflessly took whatever new assignments she was given …. gone. A friend in Special Sections, who has turned out decades of lively Mardi Gras sections, laid off.

And an equivalent travesty is the reassignment of the staff retained.  Because the Times-Picayune isn't going to be a newspaper anymore, but a website.  Oh, sure, it'll continue its commitment to strong local reporting and investigative journalism.  But it'll be a website.  So, as reported by Campbell Robertson:

John Archibald, for example, a columnist for The Birmingham News popular for sending barbs at city and state political figures, was told he could return as a “local buzz reporter.” Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The News, has been invited to come back as a “community engagement specialist.”

You'll note that the company seconding their Pulitzer-winner to the backwaters of community engagement specializing is not the T-P.  That's because the changes in New Orleans are also being forced on other papers owned by the corporate parent, Advance Publications.

And maybe as the ultimate insult, note that Advance Publications is not some local, third-rate media company, but rather the monolith that also owns Condé Nast and Fairchild Fashion Group, which means that this very bad decision is actually also the writing on the wall.

But if you object strongly, as I do, now you know whose products not to pay money for.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:23 AM

June 12, 2012

martketplace dyamics as a better way to fail students

There's a long piece on the GOP drift on educational policies in the NYT today (whose National section is just crushing it), detailing how the nationally-based reform initiated by No Child Left Behind is being thrown from the bus for a voucher system.  You may or may not have an opinion on vouchers, NCLB, that sort of stuff (and of course you should), but let's look at the new, Mitt-Romney version as evidenced by this passage from the article:
Nonetheless, as president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government’s largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose — public, charter, online or private — a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains.

The emphasis is mine, as that's the concept I'd like to discuss (and not how the crypto-voucher efforts are nothing but an effort to vaporize public education and abscond with all that good public education money — another time!)  So what Romney (and by extension, the GOP and all those other righteous types) wants to do is to use "marketplace dynamics" (which you sometimes see phrased as, "free-market principles") to "drive academic gains," which I'm going to interpret as having something to do with the well-being of the student, educationally.  You know, smarter, well-adjusted, prepared to enter the workforce, however you want to take that.

How these free-market principles work, in practice, is to privatize the entire effort, so that parents of students can pay for the education that they choose and are not stuck in the school district they happen to live in, and the government will even give them the money for it.  Free-market principles are shorthand for gutting the social services aspects of government.

But to the adherents of this very popular strategy, I ask this: who benefits from free-market principles?  Easy enough to answer — just look around, we've been under the thrall of free-market principles for decades.  Is it the workers who benefit?  Decidedly not, as real wages have been stalled for forty years.  Is it the customers that benefit?  This is not so clear-cut.  Some would say that increased competition brings a better product and a lower price to the consumer, and thus, a benefit.  I would counter with suggesting that the telecom industries and any old trip to Walmart are evidence that this so-called "benefit" is more soul-sucking than soul-embiggening.  So who benefits?  Well, the businesses themselves, and the people that run them.  (Sorry to waste so many words to get to that point, but what's a Duh to you and me is not universally accepted.)

Now take education.  Applying the free-market principles, who are the students in this version of the economy?  Because if they're supposed to be anyone other that the business class, then introducing marketplace dynamics is a pretty terrible way to educate students, right?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:30 AM

June 11, 2012

vampire-squidding the state pension funds

Here is your latest must-read/won't-read: a long feature from the NYT's Julie Creswell concerning arcane and difficult-to-follow shenanigans in the administration of state pension funds in South Carolina.  It practically radiates Switch Tab, doesn't it?  But you really should give it a shot, because it unfolds like a novel.

So we have the SC pension fund (South Carolina Retirement Systems), worth north of twenty-four billion dollars.  It was, as most state pension funds, run cautiously, looking for yields, of course, but averse to risk-taking: government bonds, stock holdings.  Six years ago, enter Robert L. Borden, tapped to run the fund, at which point things started to change.  SCRS started to invest in more exotic financial instruments, and gained a reputation on Wall Street as an awesome potential client.  Around the same time, Borden began to attract attention with ostentatious displays of wealth and profligacy:

It all sounds like one of those classic tales of a lot of public money meeting a little private greed, of locals wooed by big-city slickers. And Mr. Loftis provides some juicy tidbits, including meetings with Wall Street types within the black-lace covered walls of the Provocateur nightclub in the meatpacking district of Manhattan — and even a dinner with a centerfold model.

But the most remarkable thing about this story is that it could have unfolded — and, indeed, has unfolded — to greater and lesser degrees at pension funds across the nation. Hedge fund and private equity firms are selling, and taxpayers — in the form of public funds — are buying, and buying big.

Where's the story, you wonder?  After all, we are capitalists because God said so; why shouldn't financial services firms go after the billions of dollars in state pension funds?  After all, all that money is just sitting around, waiting to be dispersed in a couple decades.  Shouldn't that money be out there, put to use?  Shouldn't that money go get a job?

That would be the ideologue's argument.  There is of course another motivation:

Those investments carried an enormous price. In 2005, South Carolina paid $22 million in management fees. By last year, that figure had soared to $344 million, including performance fees.

Those would be performance fees paid to the equity firms and hedge funds that swooped in to recruit the new client.  That's a quarter billion dollars being sucked out of the pension fund and into the financial services industry.

And how's the fund doing?  Tough to say.  It took a hit in 2008, like everyone does, and now it's either in the bottom fifth of state pension funds, or having a very successful fiscal quarter, depending on who you ask.

But we do know how Bob Borden is doing: he quit last year to join a private investment firm.

(This story should be cross-referenced with Taibbi's feature on the bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alambama as caused by the financial services industry's upsell of a sewer bond into opaque investment vehicles which blew up in everyone's faces.)

Posted by mrbrent at 9:32 AM