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22.10.08

Landrieu debate flubs open door for Kennedy surge

It’s very hard for a political candidate to “win” a debate, to stand out so demonstrably better than opponents by their own volition. It is much easier for them to “lose” a debate because by their responses candidates can set themselves up to look inconsistent, hypocritical, uniformed, belligerent, or just plain un-statesmanlike. Nobody is impressed when candidates avoid these things, but it makes a negative impression when they can’t. Tonight, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu lost her debate with Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy to retain her seat, and lost it badly.

(But before explaining why, applause must go to the six television reporters from five outlets across the state who posed the questions and moderated. The questions mostly were tough and these journalists were fair but firm in trying to get the candidates to actually answer them instead of them answering unasked questions that candidates typically prefer to do. It was the most informative and entertaining debate I have ever witnessed.)

Both candidates held up decently well, although perhaps coming off as too keen to score points on each other, until Landrieu was questioned on the extremely fishy timing of her championing legislation for a certain interest at about the same time that interest held a fundraiser for her. She lost her composure through little more than lecturing the questioning reporter in a self-righteous fashion that never addressed his question about whether the timing looked bad, as if she were frantically trying to cover something up.

It got worse for her on the next question concerning privatization of Social Security funds. After Landrieu said she had never considered supporting that because it was too risky, Kennedy explained competently his position that he would allow it voluntarily for new system entrants and then coolly produced a 1999 article where Landrieu said she thought it was time to consider this “risky” alternative (he could also have used this more recent article). Flustered, she claimed she didn’t remember saying that, thus destroying the main theme lying behind many of her previous comments that her effectiveness and competence made her the better choice; anyone who claimed she could not remember or even doubted she had said a direct quote from a news story on an important issue that contradicted her supposedly rock-solid issue preference would raise doubts about her suitability in any objective observer.

For the rest of the debate, Landrieu came across as combative and more interested in tearing down Kennedy than presenting solutions, and her assertions about her past achievements framed by these previous incidents made her look more like a self-aggrandizer than somebody with credentials. The rout was completed when, on a question asking Kennedy to definitively state his policy preference for abortion and one to Landrieu to explain why as a Catholic she supported many kinds of abortion, Landrieu answered in a legalistic way that the common man would call “weasel words” and Kennedy spoke from the heart about how the entrance into his life of his son made him pro-life except when the mother’s life was endangered. The contrast could not have reflected more badly on her.

But the question is, does this mean anything in the scope of the larger campaign? We political scientists long ago learned most people who watch these debates (other than political scientists themselves) either already are intense supporters of one candidate or they are truly undecided and interested. Either way, they aren’t large in numbers. Her disastrous showing will filter out to reach additional voters from those who watched, but unless this is a very close race, it won’t matter.

It can matter more if Kennedy’s campaign runs with it. A few key snippets here and there of it woven into a quality ad plastered around the state’s airwaves during the last week of the contest could give a significant boost to his fortunes Holding a several percentage point advantage (as best could be told) going into the affair, Landrieu opened the door for Kennedy to eat into that by her performance. Now we’ll see whether he can.

Vapid govt spending argument might actually affect LA

Maybe it’s just a case of wanting to be clever – where a columnist was looking for something to write about and decided to marry a local concern with a highly-publicized national issue and to make the two fit had to create some contortions. Or maybe he actually believes it. Regardless, the idea that national economic troubles could create the conditions where grandiose solutions to flood control around New Orleans become more likely to be implemented as articulated by Lolis Elie is faulty on so many different levels.

Elie commences by writing the consequences of the credit crunch could rival those of the Great Depression. This is a projection of fabulous ignorance. As I have written elsewhere, the root causes of the two are different, and to reach those same lows the current unemployment rate would have to quadruple and the economy would have to contract over a tenth. So if Elie sets as a precondition these kinds of conditions to put his thesis in play, he has wasted an entire column on something that is not going to happen. (Even in the worse case scenario where there is something else added on, like the economic policies of Sen. Barack Obama as president, it’s unlikely that conditions would get worse than the worst period since the Depression, the Pres. Jimmy Carter years of the 1970s.)

The column also makes this isn’t the only history Elie does not know, as he labors under the misconception that Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s failed New Deal policies did anything to get the U.S. out of the Depression. Charitably, they didn’t hurt, but they clearly did not help and in fact likely prolonged it as the economy barely budged from 1933 to 1939 in terms of output and stubbornly high unemployment. It was World War II that finally got America going, nothing that Roosevelt did. So when Elie argues big public works spending as an “untested stimulus” could work, it merely shows he is unaware of the fact that it was found wanting as a stratagem seven decades ago.

Incredulously, Elie also argues there is a disinvestment deficit of a kind (except for “war”), which he appears to define as government spending on things. One wonders whether Elie has been conscious these past several years as federal government spending has mushroomed almost 40 percent in constant dollars in the 21st Century through the projected latest budget where domestic spending has increased at only a slightly slower rate than on defense.

He even gets the impact of wartime spending all wrong. He writes that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not seemed to have gotten the economy rolling, failing to understand it is not mere expenditures by government which affect the economy, but that the scale and scope of the conflict matter as to what incentives it presents in the private sector. World War II proved so stimulating because it was on a far grander scale than anything before or since requiring a huge mobilization of resources. In order to win it, the Allies had to become incredibly efficient in conserving resources (such as rubber, steel, copper, etc.) and in exploiting underutilized ones (such as the minority and female labor pools).

Such was the vastness of the enterprise that all Americans had to make noticeable sacrifices. But currently, unless a family is involved with force deployment or, most sadly, casualties, there’s barely any sacrifice going on. In short, there’s not imperative to create an incredibly efficient economy that produces much more wealth using substantially extant resources.

Finally, he wonders whether the state of Louisiana could make up capital differences if the federal government doesn’t launch a Works Progress Administration-like program. If he had been paying attention to the recent news that answer would be emphatically negative. The state appears poised to suffer a string of current expenditures exceeding revenues for the next several years so anything beyond the bar minimum the state will be unwilling to supply.

Despite the vapidity of his argument, Elie may get what he wants. After all, presidential candidates Sen. John McCain has promised some increased deficit spending while Obama has promised a lot of deficit spending. Whether that would include flood protection the way he prefers it is another matter. Yet if so, it will happen for all the wrong reasons with unfortunate implications for our national economic health.

21.10.08

Mostly trivial amendments except one merit approval

10/23/08
Yes, the Louisiana Constitution may be too detailed requiring a lot of amendments, but until that changes voters need to reconcile themselves to making informed decisions on alterations, even if they appear trivial.

The current crop of amendments while picayunish for the most part deserve passage, as they will almost imperceptibly change the document. Only a pair of them seem significant, imposing consecutive three-term limits with a two year grace period on appointment to state boards listed in the Constitution, and allowing a substitute legislator to take the place temporarily of one called to active military duty for at least 180 days.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander concerning the former. The same logic why limits are good for legislators applies to board members – fresh perspectives from people that are just as capable, if not moreso, as current seatholders are most desirable.

The one exception that needs voting down is the replacement legislator measure. This would be an appointive position that by its nature subverts the elective, representative nature of the Legislature. There is nothing to prevent a House Speaker or Senate President (the appointers) from putting into the temporary slot somebody who owes their loyalty to that leader and will thereby give short shrift to contrary constituent desires. The honorable thing for a legislator to do who wishes his district not to be without representation in this predicament is to resign immediately to allow a successor’s election as quickly as possible.

Interestingly, the state’s prominent so-called “good government” groups have split on these – one for all, one against, one abstaining. Let this not be confusing: vote for all but amendment #3.

20.10.08

Compromising achievement fails both students, LA

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and their superintendant of education should feel leery when suggestions of designing two tracks to a high school diploma that may satisfy the needs of politicians, but not of students.

Certain members of BESE and in the state Legislature are suggesting the current high school curriculum in the state, the foundation of which is college preparatory, is inadequate for some students. They cite as evidence a stubbornly-high dropout rate and that they “lose” students because of that curriculum. Thus, they suggest an alteration of curriculum for those who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

Already there exists the Louisiana Core Curriculum, designed for the non-college-matriculating student, differing from the college-bound Louisiana Core 4 Curriculum by requiring five fewer units leaving eight units as electives with which to use in preparation to pursue a career. But this seems inadequate for the critics, although what they have in mind for change is unclear.

From what little they have said, however, it can’t be good. State Rep. Jim Fannin said traditional math, English and science classes have failed to keep lots of students in school. As an indicator of the difference between “traditional” and potentially a new kind of English class might be like, state Rep. Frank Hoffman argued that could entail teaching the popular literature of somebody like John Grisham rather than classic works of English literature. These critiques cover both content and method.

Such a view entirely misunderstands what education is designed to do and how best to achieve it. Education is not just knowledge of certain things that are integral to knowing how the world works, to understanding the society within which we live, and in communicating ideas, but in the ability to think critically. Using literature as an example, the considered great works of it gain that distinction because they explain the human condition and in ways that stimulate the critical faculties. Having never read him, while I’m sure that the Grisham oeuvre is entertaining, I have my doubts that it explains the human condition in a compelling way that really gets one to thinking.

The same dynamic applies to alteration of math requirements, also suggested by Hoffman. If nothing else, math encourages critical thinking skills, the solving of problems using numbers. This skill is more in demand than ever in America as our levels of achievement in it continue to decline relative to other states in the developed world. Therefore, to move the focus of the curriculum away from its purposes of informing about important ideas and developing critical thinking, despite what Hoffman and others assert, is “watering down.”

What the critics miss is that changing content to be less challenging is an ill-advised attempt to solve a problem by shaping standards to level of current achievement, rather than shaping achievement to meet standards. An apparent assumption being made here is that too many students are just too “dumb” to meet these standards, that they cannot inherently reach this level of achievement hence their diversion into something that appears easier to gain the same reward.

But as Superintendant Paul Pastorek rightly points out, raising standards raises achievement – or in this context, maintaining them will produce a state workforce more capable of economic development. The Core Curriculum looks to be more than adequate in promoting the kind of knowledge base and critical thinking that all graduates need to maximize the state’s economic development. The problem, then, is not in the curriculum itself that needs to be changed to make it easier, but in getting students to achieve to its standards.

And here lies the real failure in Louisiana’s secondary education: standards are not just a function of curriculum, but also of instruction. To restate it: the more demanding the instruction, the greater the likelihood that student achievement will increase. Teachers who hold students accountable to learn more material and to use that material in more difficult critical thinking exercises will produce greater learning.

(Pastorek observes that student performance generally rises when standards go up, but calling it “counterintuitive.” As anybody who has taught at any level for some time will tell you, there’s no mystery to this at all. If stimulated – by a teacher, the imperative of having to pass a test, because you like to learn, whatever – human beings respond by putting in more effort. Demand more out of students, and, unless they have no interest in the rewards of learning at all in which case level of standards don’t matter, they will produce more.)

Why this may be a stumbling block to improved education is that to be more demanding as a teacher simply takes more work as a teacher. For example, covering less material means less preparation for a teacher to make and a reduced need to be organized. Or, giving multiple choice exams rather than essay-based ones makes it a whole lot easier to grade or even to compile the questions, but you’re probably going to get a better idea of the critical thinking and communicative abilities of students with the latter approach. And these things take more work in a system that, frankly, provides little incentive for teachers to make the necessary demands on students to develop their intellects and knowledge bases to higher levels.

In our present approach to education in Louisiana, after a probationary period you’re pretty much set as a teacher. You get automatic pay raises and, when the political winds blow right, more on top of that regardless of your classroom’s performance. In fact, you are informally discouraged from being rigorous because that means you might give more failing grades which to some only makes the school look worse. Thankfully, standardized testing at least provides some incentive to ensure that there are some minimum standards at which to aim other than grades which are so unreliable in measuring quality that a student making a C in one classroom will have learned more and better developed critical thinking skills than others elsewhere who make an A.

Meaningful teacher accountability programs such as subject area testing would solve some of the lack of quality teaching in Louisiana. But hampering it also is the attitude taken by the likes of these legislators who seem to believe the problem is with the standards, not in the expectations of students to meet these standards which will require demanding more, not less, out of both students and teachers. Increased expectations of both students and teachers are the key to improvement and reducing dropouts. Dumbing down the curriculum may be a feel-good political solution that allows lawmakers to take less heat and puff out their chests more with pride, but it disserves those students and the state.

19.10.08

Deteriorating budget figures demands saving, not spending

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there shouldn’t be much debate about what to do with the $865 million soon-to-be-declared Louisiana budgetary surplus, with a projected 2009-10 operating budget deficit of $1.3 billion according to the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration.

The surplus from the 2007-08 fiscal year must be declared as nonrecurring and therefore constitutionally may be spent on only a half-dozen purposes, none of which can be recurring operations for next fiscal year. However, ways can be devised to cushion the blow.

By statute, a minimum portion of the nonrecurring surplus must be put into the Budget Stabilization Fund which acts as a savings account for the state. But it also provides that much more than this minimum can land here, as the fund can contain a maximum of four percent of the state’s last declared revenue receipts (excepting disaster relief grants’ amounts). That would be in the neighborhood of $1.2 billion, meaning the fund can take in about $400 million more. Then, a third of this or $400 million again can be used to balance the budget.

(I would like to give more exact figures, and legally I should be able to as statutes stipulate that the Revenue Estimating Conference, the body that will make the official surplus declaration, must compute a fund balance and publish it in the September Louisiana Register, the compendium of executive branch proclamations with the force of law. But for whatever reason despite L.R.S. 39:95 that information was not published as required, so I am using older information)

The remainder legally could be used to pay off debt scheduled for redemption next fiscal year. Interest savings from that would only be an estimated $20 million or so for next year, but if the principal retained is then not rolled forward to pay off other future debt that could be now also paid off earlier, the whole remaining figure could be used. Together they would not make up all of the deficit, but they substantially could eat into it.

The Jindal Administration is said to be reviewing its spending options for the portion that is not required to go into the Budget Stabilization Fund, presumably in areas such as road construction, coastal restoration, and addressing unfunded accrued liabilities in retirement pension programs. While particular political benefits may be realized by spending on road projects, and all areas have some need, the greater need clearly is for buffering continuing future operations. Such discussions need to cease and the solution above then implemented.