Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It Really is Morning in America...at least for Black Republicans

Amid fairly frequent debates about whether the tea party is racist, something extraordinary is happening in the Republican Party. More minorities are winning nominations than I can ever remember. In Florida, a Hispanic, Marco Rubio looks to be the favorite in the Senate race. Indian-American Nikki Haley captured the Republican nomination for Governor in South Carolina and should win. In that same state, a Black republican beat Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond.

George Will had an interesting take on this: "Could it be that because Democrats put more of an emphasis on identity politics, an Indian American Democrat would have to contend with other ethnic constituencies that might think that it's 'their turn' first? And once you go down the 'identity' route, your success as a politician tends to rest more on the weight of numbers -- the size of your ethnic constituency, or your racial voting bloc -- than on the weight of your ideas."

First of all, I’m not sure that Democrats actually put more of a focus on identity. To see evidence of this, look no further than the Religious Right. Every Presidential election cycle, candidates from Pat Robertson to Mike Huckabee are able to run competitive races, in part because their identities connect them to millions of evangelical and Catholic voters. Besides, the conservative movement was ultimately built on a very different kind of identity politics. Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon built a conservative majority in part by pandering to a white backlash to the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Moreover, other ethnic constituencies besides Blacks have had success in the Democratic Party. Blacks themselves have long showed a willingness to vote for whites over blacks. Stephen Cohen—a white Jew in a majority-minority Memphis district—and Scott King, a white man who won the mayorship in 90% Black Gary, Indiana can both attest to that fact.

Regardless, I think this all is a great development. In an era when we have a Black President, a Black chairman of the Republican National Committee, along with Black and Indian nominees for major offices in the cradle of secession, something remarkable has happened. Both parties have substantial majorities of voters who are now willing to overlook race. Sometimes, when I see all this progress, I have to pinch myself and remember that it is actually reality.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Merit Pay--Can it Raise Teacher Peformance?

An interesting new study came out that showed offering teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 doesn’t raise student performance. I can think of a few explanations.

First, it’s possible that the type of people who go into teaching—especially in tough neighborhoods— are the type of people who aren’t motivated by money. For these people, teaching is a calling and not just a vocation. They would work just as hard regardless of whether bonuses are offered. In other words, the lure of extra cash didn’t motivate them to do anything they wouldn’t already for their students.

Second, it’s possible that the circumstances these teachers work under defy solutions that they can readily implement in the classroom. In many districts, students come to school years behind where they should be in their subjects, and with all kinds of issues confronting them ranging from hunger, to fatherlessness, to crime. Working against these enormous obstacles, even teachers motivated to do extra work by the money are simply powerless to do anything much.

I don’t put much stock in this explanation. Numerous studies have shown that a good teacher can make a difference in even the toughest situations. Here is one. So if teachers can make such a difference, then why wouldn’t motivating people to be good teachers affect student achievement?

Third, and on a related note, it might be the case that teachers in certain situations lack the means to become better. In order to produce results, they need more experience and training. Perhaps they aren’t receiving the guidance and mentorship they need to improve even though they really want to so they can earn the bonus. Or perhaps, they simply need more time in the classroom to develop important skills.

For example, offering a rookie NBA player a bonus of $10 million for scoring 30 points a game might give him an incentive to train harder and try harder. But on some level, he needs to develop as a player and gain more experience before he can score 30 points a game. So even though he has a greater incentive to score than he did before, he doesn’t yet have the ability or experience to do so in his first season. It might even take longer than the three years that this study covered. To test this reasoning, it would be interesting to see what happens when teachers all have at least five years of experience and easy access to training and mentorship resources. Would test scores rise then for teachers who are offered the bonus? Perhaps, the bonuses might incentivize teachers to stay for a longer period of time after which they would have a greater shot at getting these bonuses. Inner-city and rural schools often have trouble retaining quality teachers for multiple years.

One important question is whether bonuses would draw additional talent who might not have considered teaching before. Such people might be more likely to become engineers or lawyers to make more money. It stands to reason that paying out larger salaries to these individuals might make teaching a more competitive option. My hunch would be that even larger bonuses than offered in this study might be necessary to lure such people since engineers and lawyers can make six figures. Whatever the case, it is certainly worth investigating ways to get more people to consider teaching.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Is the Tea Party Good for the Republican Party?

Kirsten Powers has a new article about the potential potency of the tea party. She thinks it could bring a change to the Republican Party on a scale not seen since Goldwater. It’s worth remembering that that change was bad for the Republican Party.

You heard that right. Yes, it’s true that Goldwater conservatives provided energy that helped ultimately elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, who turned out to be an influential President. But at what cost?

Barry Goldwater won just six states and a measly 39% of the vote in 1964. Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming victory gave him a mandate to push through his famous Great Society programs. Moreover, Presidents typically have an effect on down-ballot races. Moderates repulsed by Goldwater and his perceived extremism may well have voted for the Democrat for Congress. This would have meant that there were more Democrats to push through Johnson’s agenda at precisely the time he was most emboldened.

The results of Great Society are easy to see: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, pell grants, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), all programs conservatives dislike. However much they might want to, they have not been able to repeal any of these because they have proven popular over time with the American people. In fact, during last years healthcare debate, conservatives were reduced to trying to score political points against Obama by criticizing proposed cuts to Medicare.

This brings me to Reagan. When it came to the welfare state, Reagan’s term can hardly be called a success as even many conservatives acknowledge. Interestingly enough, one of the most successful lines of attack against him during the New Hampshire primary in 1976 was that he would cut Social Security. Gerald Ford made use of Reagan’s past statements insinuating that Social Security funds should be invested in the stock market. At least partially as a result, Ford won. Ford won 53% of Republican primary voters over 65 which helped him offset a weaker performance among those under 65. In Florida where retired people were 1/3 of voters, Ford likewise prevailed.

When asked how we would then fulfill his desire to balance the budget during the 1980 primaries, he came out against “making people on Social Security or welfare or anyone else pay the price for government extravagance.” The irony here is clear: Reagan was under fire in the primaries because Republican voters were worried that he was less than totally committed to a Democratic entitlement program. During his Presidency, major programs like Medicare and Social Security continued to receive large increases in funding.

So yes, Goldwater conservatives managed to elect Reagan. It was too late by then to change government's trajectory. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the tea party will actually do Republicans any good.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What if Harry Reid Loses?

Two years ago, it looked as if Democrats were on the verge of realignment a la Ronald Reagan in 1980. They won traditional Republican states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana. Now, the roles could not be more reversed. Not only are Democrats in danger of losing Congress, their majority leader in the Senate stands a decent chance of losing as well.

Upon further examination, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Reid is struggling. He has had several close races before. In 1998 for example, he beat current Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) by just 428 votes out of more than 400,000 cast. That was in 1998 when the Republicans suffered a backlash for trying to impeach President Clinton. Furthermore, Nevada is a competitive state that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2008.

The situation is much less favorable now. The economy is in awful shape, and Nevada happens to have the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Reid is often linked with the Obama administration; he helped push through the stimulus bill and healthcare legislation. Obama’s approval ratings have been on a steady decline since he took office, so it makes sense that a man closely linked to him would also lose popularity.

Still, I think a Reid loss has some interesting implications. It could dissuade the parties from picking someone from a swing state to be majority or minority leader in the near future. Wary of losing leadership and institutional memory, they might instead go with a Senator from a safe seat.

This would have a few effects. First, our political process might become more polarized. Senators from swing states must perform well with independents and build some bridges to the other side. A Senator from liberal Vermont or conservative Alabama must simply turn out his base. Where the Senator from the swing state must try and please moderates in office, the Senator from the safe seat must please only staunch Democrats or staunch Republicans. This means that these leaders will have a great incentive to push strongly ideological agendas that have a tougher time garnering bipartisan support. In a Senate that already requires 60 votes to get anything done of significance, will anything ever get done?

Second, this could actually end up diluting the power that swing states have. A Senate majority leader can really look out for his state’s interests by bringing home more pork-barrel spending. But now the people with the most power to bring home the bacon will be from states on either side of the partisan divide. Thus the states that receive the most federal largesse will be those states that are the least amenable to compromise.

I’m anxious to see what happens this November with Reid.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Obama is No Radical

Barack Obama is the most radical President in US history. You’ve heard conservative commentators and politicians make this charge many times over the past two years. Newt Gingrich for example has termed Obama a “secular, socialist machine.” I want to use this post to debunk some two of the most common reasons given in support of the charge.

1. Obama is a socialist and the most anti-business President in history

In the scheme of the things, Obama is in fact quite moderate. He proposes raising taxes back to what they were under the Clinton years, a time when big business and Wall Street did just fine. It’s important to but that in historical context. The top marginal rate for income during the 1990s was 39.6%. In the 1950s by contrast, the top marginal rate was 91% under a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower. Much of Europe has a top marginal rate of around 50% plus substantial value added taxes (VATs). When Obama proposes such changes, I will take cries of “socialist” much more seriously.

The other major complaint made against Obama is that he has instituted an expensive healthcare system that provides insurance to millions of citizens. But Bill Clinton proposed a universal healthcare when he took office in 1993. The only difference between Obama and Bill Clinton is that Obama succeeded. Was Clinton—a chair of the DLC and face of centrist Democrats— a radical too? Democrats have been proposing some form of universal health coverage since Harry Truman in 1945. Once again, the system Democrats passed earlier this year is nothing like the systems in much of the western world. Britain for example has the National Health Service which employs the nation’s doctors directly. The government uses quality-adjusted life years to make decisions on which treatments to pay for, something that more readily resembles the death panels that conservatives accused Obama of promoting last year. By contrast, Obama’s plan does not establish a single-payer system and it does not even cover everyone.

2. Obama isn’t proud of America and is weak on national security

Those making this accusation pointed to a remark Obama made last year where he said “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Seems like Obama doesn’t think his country is anything special. But read more of his full quote those critics almost never bother to post:

I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Barack Obama the American exceptionalist has not been weak on national security either. He sent an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to help win the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He has continued a Bush program of killing Al Qaeda operatives, even if they are American citizens and has resisted efforts to require his administration to inform the full intelligence committee of covert action.

Of course, Obama’s actions leave plenty of grounds for debate. But they are not radical.

Article on the Tax Debate in Washington DC


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Belated Reaction to Glenn Beck's March on Washington

For the most part, the media has stopped covering Beck’s rally at the Lincoln memorial, and there are fewer pieces each written against, or in favor of the march with each passing day. However, the event was interesting enough that the Gadson Review can’t help weighing in. Here are my thoughts:

1. There is reason to believe the civil rights movement and the tea party movement have certain ideas in common, at least to an extent.

Most of the time, libertarian principles are cited in favor of states’ rights. Small government conservatives were hesitant about the federal government intruding in the affairs of Southern states during the 1960s. But the most important rights for libertarians are the rights of individuals vis as vis the state. Blacks who suffered from state-sponsored racism in the 1960s had their individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness eroded by the state. At its core, the civil rights movement was not simply about group rights for Blacks. It was about their individual rights to advance as far in society as their talent would take them. I am surprised conservatives trying to curry favor with Blacks don’t make this case more often.

2. The attempt to coopt the legacy of Martin Luther King continues

It is doubtful that Beck and his conservative followers were unaware that their rally would happen on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.” Besides for years, conservatives have spoken of reclaiming Dr. King’s true legacy when they advocate ending affirmative action. But there is simply no way the tea party can claim to represent Martin Luther King’s philosophy in full. When he died, King was in the midst of organizing Black sanitation workers. Were he alive today, he might receive the same charges of socialism that conservatives have lobbed at President Obama during his time in office.

3. Martin Luther King has truly become one of our nation’s greatest figures

One way we know that a person has a special place in American history is when people of all political stripes celebrate him. Just as politicians invoke Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, they now invoke Dr. King. This is actually a comparatively recent phenomenon. King wasn’t universally loved when he was alive. Critics accused him of being a demagogue and a Communist. Certain congress people had their phones flooded with calls opposing a national holiday for King during the early 1980s. Jesse Helms took to the Senate floor to rail against King.

Today however, conservatives cannot find enough good things to say about King. For that I am glad.