Friday, February 26, 2010

Citizens Before Corporations

Missing the Tea Party


The real surprise of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which magnified the ability of corporations to spend money in political campaigns, is how widely disliked the ruling is across the ideological spectrum. After more than a month, the storm set off by the Citizens United ruling is still raging.

In one poll released this month, 56 percent of Republicans who voted for Republican candidates in 2008 said they opposed the decision, while only 33 percent favored it. Another poll revealed that almost as many Republicans opposed to the ruling (76 percent) as Democrats (85 percent.)

Fueling the Citizens United storm, it would appear, are the winds of populism. And given the widespread public distaste for bailouts and bonuses, the court’s timing was awkward, to say the least. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the four others in the majority — Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — now look like the only friends that corporate America has left. Just when conservatives have finally assembled a dream team of like-minded Supreme Court justices, the court has missed the Tea Party.

I’ve been traveling a good deal during the past month, and everywhere I’ve gone, people have expressed shock that the Supreme Court could have deemed corporations to be “persons,” entitled along with the rest of us to the First Amendment right to free speech. Yet the concept of corporate personhood for certain constitutional purposes is not an invention of the Roberts court; it dates to the 19th century. And the Supreme Court has been giving increasingly robust protection to the rights of corporate and other commercial speakers for decades. Seen in this light, Citizens United, which overturned a provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that curbed corporate spending on television advertising for or against identified candidates in the weeks leading up to an election, was not so much a sharp break with the past as the culmination of long-running trends.

No matter. The decision, its visibility enhanced by President Obama’s public rebuke of the court during the State of the Union speech last month, is obviously serving as a wake-up call, prompting many people to pay attention for the first time to those very trends. Clearly, they don’t like what they see. One question is whether disaffection with a particular decision will translate into a more general disaffection with the court itself.

The last decision to provoke such a strongly negative public reaction was Kelo v. City of New London, the 2005 eminent domain decision that interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s “takings” clause to permit governments to condemn private property and transfer it to other private owners — typically, corporations — for the purpose of economic development. Polls indicated that 80 percent to 95 percent of the public, across every political and demographic group, opposed the decision. Activists announced plans to take the New Hampshire farmhouse of Justice David H. Souter, who had voted with the 5-to-4 majority, and turn the property into the “Lost Liberty Hotel,” with a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” to be placed on the nightstand in every guest room.

That was a prank, of course. But the populist tide was beginning to run, even back then. Within months, proposals to curb the use of eminent domain were being considered in nearly every state legislature and within two years, 31 states had enacted anti-eminent domain legislation of varying degrees of effectiveness.

A major difference between the Kelo decision and Citizens United, of course, is that in the first case, the court was enabling elected legislatures to do what they wanted to do, leaving them free to continue with economic development policies or to stay their own hands. In Citizens United, by contrast, it was the court that tied the legislature’s hands, declaring an act of Congress unconstitutional and taking away a tool that had appeared to offer some hope of restraining the flood of money into politics. That the provision had been only marginally effective, if that, in achieving that goal is less important than the narrative now growing up around Citizens United and rapidly taking on a life of its own, almost independent of what the court actually held.

Although undoubtedly spontaneous to some degree, the narrative is taking shape under careful cultivation. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, under the heading of “Citizens Before Corporations” on its Web site, is asking supporters to sign a petition “demanding that Republicans support legislation to reduce runaway corporate spending on elections.” The site is illustrated with a mock newspaper headline that reads, “Court Rolls Back Decades of Reform: Dems Vow to Fight for Citizens; G.O.P. Sides with Corporate Money.”

At the time, I thought President Obama’s lecture to the robed justices seated before him in the House chamber for the State of the Union speech was a miscue. But in retrospect, it looks like a well-considered move to enable the administration to catch the populist wave and ride it, perhaps into the next Supreme Court vacancy and beyond.

Since the era of the Warren court and its revolutions on questions of race and of the rights of criminal defendants, Republicans have run effective campaigns against the Supreme Court, something Democrats have never managed to do. That is because the court, centrist by institutional nature, has not given the Democrats much of a natural target; when it ventured from the center, it usually strayed to the left, at least in high-profile cases involving social issues. The Roberts court is arguably in the process of reversing that polarity, tacking to the right of public opinion’s mainstream — but it had not yet tacked far enough to arouse much reaction.

Until now — a fascinating moment, with the drama playing out unexpectedly not along the usual left-right axis but rather as the people versus the elite. At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota railed against “the elites and the pundits” who dismiss members of the Tea Party movement as “bumpkins” because “a lot of them didn’t go to the Ivy League schools” and are “from places like the heartland.” Let’s see: can anyone think of a group of nine people, four of whom hail from New York or New Jersey, two from California, and eight from the Ivy League?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

While We Bleed, They Feed Their Greed

Earlier Wednesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, said his panel's investigators found that as Anthem Blue Cross plans to hike rates in California, WellPoint awarded salaries of $1 million or more to 39 of its executives and spent $27 million on company retreats, including one in Scottsdale, Ariz., that cost more than $3 million.

Feeling sick yet? Maybe you should see a doctor (while
it's still possible).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Disappointed Dick

Apparently Chickenhawk Cheney was hoping we would get mixed up in
that little war between Georgia and Russia a couple years ago but cooler heads prevailed.

Our buddy Tom Harper has a piece on the subject today:

Who Hijacked Our Country

I think it's time the Dickster gets drafted and sent off to
fight somewhere. Sounds like he needs a serious reality check.

Do Republicans Have the Guts To Really Starve the Beast?

The Bankruptcy Boys


O.K., the beast is starving. Now what? That’s the question confronting Republicans. But they’re refusing to answer, or even to engage in any serious discussion about what to do.

For readers who don’t know what I’m talking about: ever since Reagan, the G.O.P. has been run by people who want a much smaller government. In the famous words of the activist Grover Norquist, conservatives want to get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

But there has always been a political problem with this agenda. Voters may say that they oppose big government, but the programs that actually dominate federal spending — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — are very popular. So how can the public be persuaded to accept large spending cuts?

The conservative answer, which evolved in the late 1970s, would be dubbed “starving the beast” during the Reagan years. The idea — propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol — was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.

And the deficit came. True, more than half of this year’s budget deficit is the result of the Great Recession, which has both depressed revenues and required a temporary surge in spending to contain the damage. But even when the crisis is over, the budget will remain deeply in the red, largely as a result of Bush-era tax cuts (and Bush-era unfunded wars). And the combination of an aging population and rising medical costs will, unless something is done, lead to explosive debt growth after 2020.

So the beast is starving, as planned. It should be time, then, for conservatives to explain which parts of the beast they want to cut. And President Obama has, in effect, invited them to do just that, by calling for a bipartisan deficit commission.

Many progressives were deeply worried by this proposal, fearing that it would turn into a kind of Trojan horse — in particular, that the commission would end up reviving the long-standing Republican goal of gutting Social Security. But they needn’t have worried: Senate Republicans overwhelmingly voted against legislation that would have created a commission with some actual power, and it is unlikely that anything meaningful will come from the much weaker commission Mr. Obama established by executive order.

Why are Republicans reluctant to sit down and talk? Because they would then be forced to put up or shut up. Since they’re adamantly opposed to reducing the deficit with tax increases, they would have to explain what spending they want to cut. And guess what? After three decades of preparing the ground for this moment, they’re still not willing to do that.

In fact, conservatives have backed away from spending cuts they themselves proposed in the past. In the 1990s, for example, Republicans in Congress tried to force through sharp cuts in Medicare. But now they have made opposition to any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely the core of their campaign against health care reform (death panels!). And presidential hopefuls say things like this, from Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota: “I don’t think anybody’s gonna go back now and say, Let’s abolish, or reduce, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What about Social Security? Five years ago the Bush administration proposed limiting future payments to upper- and middle-income workers, in effect means-testing retirement benefits. But in December, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page denounced any such means-testing, because “middle- and upper-middle-class (i.e., G.O.P.) voters would get less than they were promised in return for a lifetime of payroll taxes.” (Hmm. Since when do conservatives openly admit that the G.O.P. is the party of the affluent?)

At this point, then, Republicans insist that the deficit must be eliminated, but they’re not willing either to raise taxes or to support cuts in any major government programs. And they’re not willing to participate in serious bipartisan discussions, either, because that might force them to explain their plan — and there isn’t any plan, except to regain power.

But there is a kind of logic to the current Republican position: in effect, the party is doubling down on starve-the-beast. Depriving the government of revenue, it turns out, wasn’t enough to push politicians into dismantling the welfare state. So now the de facto strategy is to oppose any responsible action until we are in the midst of a fiscal catastrophe. You read it here first.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nerd Alert

I was watching "The Matrix Revoloutions" again this
weekend. I am always amazed when I view this film...the
editing, the sound, the ferocious battle scenes, the
computer generated world. I really think it's one of the
best sci-fi films made in the past thirty years.

But I never hear anybody say a kind word about it (or even admit
they saw it). I think what happened is everybody loved the first
film and then got bored out of their minds during the second one.
And because of that bad experience never even gave the
third one a chance.

Check out this footage from the battle to save Zion:

YouTube - The Matrix Revolutions War Against The Machines Part 1

Could Ron Paul Be the GOP Nominee in 2012?

I heard Ron Paul pretty decisively won the straw vote at a meeting of conservatives in Texas this weekend.

I actually wasn't too surprised considering the rise
of the Tea Party movement and the way some people feel
about the size of government these days.

I disagree with a lot of his ideas but I do respect him.
He always seems to be talking about what he thinks is
best for the country and not just pushing the GOP agenda.

So, do you think he's got a legitimate shot at winning
the Republican nomination in 2012? Or the nomination of
a third party that has a serious shot?

Or will he be sabotaged by the GOP power brokers?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Make Your Voice Heard

Want to contact your Senators and ask them to
support the public option and get it passed
through reconciliation?

Check out this site:

New Life For the Public Option

California's death spiral shows critical need for health-care reform

By Paul Krugman (New York Times)

Health insurance premiums are surging — and conservatives fear that the spectacle will reinvigorate the push for reform. On the Fox Business Network, a host chided a vice president of WellPoint, which has told California customers to expect huge rate increases: "You handed the politicians red meat at a time when health care is being discussed. You gave it to them!"

Indeed. Sky-high rate increases make a powerful case for action. And they show, in particular, that we need comprehensive, guaranteed coverage — which is exactly what Democrats are trying to accomplish.

Here's the story: About 800,000 people in California who buy insurance on the individual market — as opposed to getting it through their employers — are covered by Anthem Blue Cross, a WellPoint subsidiary. These are the people who were recently told to expect dramatic rate increases, in some cases as high as 39 percent.

Why the huge increase? It's not profiteering, says WellPoint, which claims instead (without using the term) that it's facing a classic insurance death spiral.

Bear in mind that private health insurance only works if insurers can sell policies to both sick and healthy customers. If too many healthy people decide that they'd rather take their chances and remain uninsured, the risk pool deteriorates, forcing insurers to raise premiums. This, in turn, leads more healthy people to drop coverage, worsening the risk pool even further, and so on.

Now, what WellPoint claims is that it has been forced to raise premiums because of "challenging economic times": cash-strapped Californians have been dropping their policies or shifting into less-comprehensive plans. Those retaining coverage tend to be people with high current medical expenses. And the result, says the company, is a drastically worsening risk pool: in effect, a death spiral.

So the rate increases, WellPoint insists, aren't its fault: "Other individual market insurers are facing the same dynamics and are being forced to take similar actions." Indeed, a report released Thursday by the department of Health and Human Services shows that there have been steep actual or proposed increases in rates by a number of insurers.

But here's the thing: Suppose that we posit, provisionally, that the insurers aren't the main villains in this story. Even so, California's death spiral makes nonsense of all the main arguments against comprehensive health reform.

For example, some claim that health costs would fall dramatically if only insurance companies were allowed to sell policies across state lines. But California is already a huge market, with much more insurance competition than in other states; unfortunately, insurers compete mainly by trying to excel in the art of denying coverage to those who need it most. And competition hasn't averted a death spiral. So why would creating a national market make things better?

More broadly, conservatives would have you believe that health insurance suffers from too much government interference. In fact, the real point of the push to allow interstate sales is that it would set off a race to the bottom, effectively eliminating state regulation. But California's individual insurance market is already notable for its lack of regulation, certainly as compared with states like New York — yet the market is collapsing anyway.

Finally, there have been calls for minimalist health reform that would ban discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions and stop there. It's a popular idea, but as every health economist knows, it's also nonsense. For a ban on medical discrimination would lead to higher premiums for the healthy, and would, therefore, cause more and bigger death spirals.

So California's woes show that conservative prescriptions for health reform just won't work.

What would work? By all means, let's ban discrimination on the basis of medical history — but we also have to keep healthy people in the risk pool, which means requiring that people purchase insurance. This, in turn, requires substantial aid to lower-income Americans so that they can afford coverage.

And if you put all of that together, you end up with something very much like the health-reform bills that have already passed both the House and the Senate.

What about claims that these bills would force Americans into the clutches of greedy insurance companies? Well, the main answer is stronger regulation; but it would also be a very good idea, politically as well as substantively, for the Senate to use reconciliation to put the public option back into its bill.

But the main point is this: California's death spiral is a reminder that our health care system is unraveling, and that inaction isn't an option. Congress and the president need to make reform happen — now.

Men of Courage

My buddy Dave and I saw the film "Invictus" last night. What a
wonderful, inspiring story. Nelson Mandela had every reason
to want to take revenge on the white South Africans after
spending 27 years in prison...but he put his own pain aside
and did what was best for his country. Amazing.

YouTube - 'Invictus' Trailer HD

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pretending Stupid is a Virtue

Sarah Palin can do us a favor by running for president

by Leonard Pitts Jr (Syndicated columnist)

Dear Sarah Palin:

I hear you're pondering a run for the White House in 2012. Last week, you told Fox news it would be "absurd" to rule it out.

I'm writing to ask that you rule it in. I very badly want you to run for — and "win" — the Republican nomination for the presidency.

I know you're waiting for the punch line. Maybe you figure I think you'd be a weak candidate who would pave the way for President Obama's easy re-election.

That's not it. No, I want you to run because I believe a Palin candidacy would force upon this country a desperately needed moment of truth. It would require us to finally decide what kind of America we want to be.

Mrs. Palin, you are an avatar of the shameless hypocrisy and cognitive disconnection that have driven our politics for the past decade, a process of stupidification creeping like kudzu over our national life.

As Exhibit A, consider your recent speech at a so-called "tea party" event, wherein you dismissed the president as a "charismatic guy with a teleprompter." Bad enough you imply that teleprompter use is the mark of an insubstantial man, even though you and every other major politician use them. But what made the comment truly jaw-dropping is that even as you spoke, you had penned on your left palm, clearly visible, a series of crib notes.

Mrs. Palin, if Obama is an idiot for reading a prepared speech off a teleprompter, what are you for reading notes you've inked on your hand like a school kid who failed to study for the big test?

In the Fox interview, you scored Obama for supposedly expecting Americans to "sit down and shut up" and accept his policies. But when asked when the president has ever said that, you couldn't answer. Obama, you sputtered, has just been condescending with his "general persona."

I found that a telling moment. See, ultimately what you represent is not conservatism. Heck, I suspect that somewhere, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan are spinning like helicopter rotors at the very idea.

No, you represent the latest iteration of an anti-intellectualism that periodically rises in the American character. There is, historically and persistently, a belief in us that y'all just can't trust nobody who acts too smart or talks too good — in other words, somebody whose "general persona" indicates they may have once cracked a book or had a thought. Americans tend to believe common sense the exclusive province of humble folks without sheepskins on the wall or big words in their vocabularies.

I don't mock those people. They are my parents, my family elders, members of my childhood church. I honor their native good sense, what mom called "mother wit." But if it is insulting to condescend to them, it is equally insulting to mythologize them.

More to the point, something is wrong when we celebrate mental mediocrity like yours under the misapprehension that competence or, God forbid, "intelligence," makes a person one of those "elites" — that's a curse word now — lacking authenticity, compassion and common sense.

So no, this is not a clash of ideologies, but a clash between intelligence and its opposite. And I am tired of being asked to pretend stupid is a virtue. That's why I'd welcome the moment of truth your campaign would bring. It would force us to decide once and for all whether we are permanently committed to the path of ignorance, of birthers, truthers and tea-party incoherence you represent, or whether we will at last turn back from the cliff toward which we race.

If the latter, wonderful, God bless America. If the former, well, some of us can finally quit hoping the nation will return to its senses and plan accordingly. Either way, we need to know, and your candidacy would tell us. If you love this country, Mrs. Palin, you can do it no greater service.

Run, Sarah, run.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Love This Song by Phoenix

YouTube - Phoenix - 1901

The Horror of Healthcare in Hawaii

Video: The Apparent Trap | The Daily Show | Comedy Central

Thanks to my good friend Sarah Shapiro for letting
me know about this hysterical clip from the Daily Show.

Greedy Insurance Pigs

Top insurers reap billions as health costs soar

By Noam N. Levey (from the Seattle Times)

WASHINGTON — As the nation struggled last year with rising health-care costs and a recession, the five largest health-insurance companies racked up combined profits of $12.2 billion, up 56 percent over 2008, according to a new report.

Based on company financial reports for 2009 filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the report said insurers WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna, Aetna and Humana covered 2.7 million fewer people than they did the previous year.

The report also said three of the five insurers cut the proportion of premiums they spent on customers' medical care, committing relatively more to salaries, administrative expenses and profits.

Prepared by Health Care for America Now, a coalition of liberal advocacy groups and labor unions, the report was aimed at bolstering the drive by Democrats to complete work on a health-care overhaul, which insurers have vigorously opposed.

Industry representatives criticized the report's approach, noting that 2008 was a bad year financially across many industries, skewing the 2009 comparison.

"It is disingenuous to look at the profits at one company today compared to where it was in the depth of a recession," said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's Washington, D.C.-based lobbying arm.

While all five companies indeed reported lower profits between 2007 and 2008, a Seattle Times review of financial statements shows that the profits of three of them — WellPoint, Cigna and Humana — were higher in 2009 than in 2007, before the recession. Outside factors such as the sales of assets can affect those numbers, however.

WellPoint's 2009 numbers were bolstered significantly by the sale of its NextRx pharmacy-benefit management business, which accounted for more than 40 percent of the company's profit.

The insurers' 2009 profits are intensifying pressure on an industry already under attack for raising premiums and denying coverage to millions of Americans.

"That's why we need health-insurance reform today in this country and why we are going to continue in the Congress to work on this until we see it through," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a leading advocate of the health legislation being pushed by Democrats on Capitol Hill.

In California, Anthem Blue Cross, a subsidiary of WellPoint, is facing growing scrutiny over its decision to increase premiums for individual health-insurance policies by as much as 39 percent this year for some consumers.

WellPoint on Thursday defended the rate increase in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, saying the rising rates reflect soaring medical costs and will average closer to 20 percent for most customers.

WellPoint also said Anthem's individual business in California lost money in 2009, as the weak economy prompted many customers to switch to lower-cost options.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Snow Story

D.C. Snowstorm: How Global Warming Makes Blizzards Worse


As the blizzard-bound residents of the mid-Atlantic region get ready to dig themselves out of the third major storm of the season, they may stop to wonder two things: Why haven't we bothered to invest in a snow blower and, also, what happened to climate change? After all, it stands to reason that if the world is getting warmer - and the past decade was the hottest on record - major snowstorms should become a thing of the past, like Palm Pilots and majority rule in the Senate. Certainly that's what the Virginia state Republican Party thinks: the GOP aired an ad last weekend attacking two Democratic Congressmen for supporting the 2009 carbon-cap-and-trade bill, and using the recent storms to cast doubt on global warming.

Brace yourselves now - this may be a case of politicians twisting the facts. There is some evidence that climate change could in fact make such massive snowstorms more common, even as the world continues to warm. As the meteorologist Jeff Masters points out in his excellent blog at Weather Underground, the two major storms that hit Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., this winter - in December and during the first weekend of February - are already among the 10 heaviest snowfalls those cities have ever recorded. The chance of that happening in the same winter is incredibly unlikely.

But there have been hints that it was coming. The 2009 U.S. Climate Impacts Report found that large-scale cold-weather storm systems have gradually tracked to the north in the U.S. over the past 50 years. While the frequency of storms in the middle latitudes has decreased as the climate has warmed, the intensity of those storms has increased. That's in part because of global warming - hotter air can hold more moisture, so when a storm gathers it can unleash massive amounts of snow. Colder air, by contrast, is drier; if we were in a truly vicious cold snap, like the one that occurred over much of the East Coast during parts of January, we would be unlikely to see heavy snowfall.

Climate models also suggest that while global warming may not make hurricanes more common, it could well intensify the storms that do occur and make them more destructive.

But as far as winter storms go, shouldn't climate change make it too warm for snow to fall? Eventually that is likely to happen - but probably not for a while. In the meantime, warmer air could be supercharged with moisture and, as long as the temperature remains below 32°F, it will result in blizzards rather than drenching winter rainstorms. And while the mid-Atlantic has borne the brunt of the snowfall so far this winter, areas near lakes may get hit even worse. As global temperatures have risen, the winter ice cover over the Great Lakes has shrunk, which has led to even more moisture in the atmosphere and more snow in the already hard-hit Great Lakes region, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Climate. (Read "Climate Accord Suggests a Global Will, if Not a Way.")

Ultimately, however, it's a mistake to use any one storm - or even a season's worth of storms - to disprove climate change (or to prove it; some environmentalists have wrongly tied the lack of snow in Vancouver, the site of the Winter Olympic Games, which begin this month, to global warming). Weather is what will happen next weekend; climate is what will happen over the next decades and centuries. And while our ability to predict the former has become reasonably reliable, scientists are still a long way from being able to make accurate projections about the future of the global climate. Of course, that doesn't help you much when you're trying to locate your car under a foot of powder.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Desperate Times

How tough is the health insurance issue for some people?

Raping the Public

Anthem Blue Cross in California just advised 800,000 customers
that their premiums are being raised 39 percent.

That's ten times the rate of inflation.

You think all those folks can just go out and get
insurance with some other company for a reasonable price?
Not bloody likely. Especially if they have a pre-existing

Hang on to your wallets. This is just a preview of
the wonderful free-market insurance climate we'll all
soon be facing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

He's Got the Whole World In His Hands...

Here's the newest Obama conspiracy theory... he's
somehow causing the Toyota auto recalls in order
to help the American carmakers who owe the government

By the way, nice job with the Saints victory yesterday,
Mr. President!


The band Beach House is my current musical obsession. Their sound always makes me imagine the Beach Boys getting high and attending a seance.

This song is from their fine 2008 album "Devotion" and they just
released the equally good "Teen Dream".

YouTube - Beach House - Gila

Don't Underestimate Individuality

Learning not to copy China

by Jerry Large (Seattle Times)

Could it be we worry too much about China?

I'd say so if that fretting is contributing to an erosion of our own strengths, an argument I'm hearing often.

Yong Zhao, an education professor at Michigan State, will speak about that Wednesday in Seattle. (Visit to register.)

He decries efforts to replicate the kind of education kids get in India and China with national standards and an intense focus on math and science at the expense of arts and the humanities.

He has a new book, "Catching up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization."

That's the choice. Do we want young people who know how to memorize and take tests, or do we want citizens who can think creatively and critically?

Zhao grew up in China, went to college there and graduate school in the U.S. He much prefers the American system, but sees it disappearing.

Not only does he prefer it, but he told me that while Americans are trying to educate like the developing countries, China, India and the others are trying to make their systems more like ours, because success now requires agility and creativity.

Zhao didn't like the federal programs No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.

"Standardization makes everyone the same," Zhao said. "I spoke in Mercer Island once. Their problem is different from Chicago where (Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan comes from."

Rather than national standards, he believes local expectations should guide schools, and that parents should have more say.

And he says narrow standards ignore students whose strengths lie in other areas, particularly the arts.

"What about film making?" he asked. "Media is one of the largest industries, but where do public schools fit in?"

Students should be nurtured as individuals, but Zhao said too often, "teacher education teaches techniques and educational theories, but those don't work with human beings. It is the mechanization of education."

The U.S. has relied for its strength on individual entrepreneurs, Zhao said.

He said studies show students in some Asian countries know more science facts, but Americans shine at scientific reasoning.

Facts, you can look up.

"U.S. schools are better at teaching a general way of conduct as a human being, can you make good decisions," he said.

"China is facing a decline of morality because kids are just memorizing information."

For more of his ideas see

James Fallows, longtime Atlantic magazine writer, has been writing about the three years his family just spent in China and makes some similar observations.

In Seattle last week, he said we tend to overestimate the Chinese and underestimate ourselves.

He said that of the many Chinese scientists who've won Nobel Prizes, none was at a Chinese university.

American universities are one of our two main strengths, he said, and we let them wither at our peril.

The other strength is immigration. We still attract people like Zhao, who know they can do better here.

When I spoke with Zhao by phone, he was in D.C. attending a conference on Chinese language education, convened by The Asia Society, which is taking advantage of the attention to China for a good purpose.

It is helping increase the number of schools where Chinese is taught, but not just for the sake of the language. Americans need to think globally and understand the world better, so the society is helping schools that use language as a starting point to explore other cultures and broaden the thinking of their students.

They just selected 20 schools to support as part of the Hanban-Asia Society Confucius Classrooms Network of schools they believe will be models for others.

Two of those schools are local, the Beacon Hill International School and Tyee Middle School in Bellevue.

China has become for some what the Soviet Union and Japan once were, the boogeyman about to burst from the closet and bury us. That's unfortunate.

We should think about China, but not worry so much that we distort our own priorities.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Big Business Brother

I'm starting to hear more and more about corporations
tinkering with the health insurance they provide for
their employees. A lot of the tinkering is related to
the biometrics of the other words, stuff
like body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

What the companies will do first is give it a positive
spin, sending a message they're just looking out for the
health of their employees. But the next step is actually
making your biometric readings part of your job appraisal...
because if you cost them too much insurance-wise, they'll
start thinking about cutting you loose and hiring someone
younger and thinner.

Think this scenario is far-fetched? Just think about
how fast the cost of health insurance is rising in this country.

Wow, aren't you glad we don't have the government
meddling with our healthcare?

Good Memories, Good Times

We went to see the Elton John/Billy Joel concert a
couple days ago here in Seattle. It was truly
wonderful. It's just amazing how many great songs
these two have given the world during the last
forty or so years.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Stability, Eh?

Good and Boring


In times of crisis, good news is no news. Iceland’s meltdown made headlines; the remarkable stability of Canada’s banks, not so much.

Yet as the world’s attention shifts from financial rescue to financial reform, the quiet success stories deserve at least as much attention as the spectacular failures. We need to learn from those countries that evidently did it right. And leading that list is our neighbor to the north. Right now, Canada is a very important role model.

Yes, I know, Canada is supposed to be dull. The New Republic famously pronounced “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” (from a Times Op-Ed column in the ’80s) the world’s most boring headline. But I’ve always considered Canada fascinating, precisely because it’s similar to the United States in many but not all ways. The point is that when Canadian and U.S. experience diverge, it’s a very good bet that policy differences, rather than differences in culture or economic structure, are responsible for that divergence.

And anyway, when it comes to banking, boring is good.

First, some background. Over the past decade the United States and Canada faced the same global environment. Both were confronted with the same flood of cheap goods and cheap money from Asia. Economists in both countries cheerfully declared that the era of severe recessions was over.

But when things fell apart, the consequences were very different here and there. In the United States, mortgage defaults soared, some major financial institutions collapsed, and others survived only thanks to huge government bailouts. In Canada, none of that happened. What did the Canadians do differently?

It wasn’t interest rate policy. Many commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve for the financial crisis, claiming that the Fed created a disastrous bubble by keeping interest rates too low for too long. But Canadian interest rates have tracked U.S. rates quite closely, so it seems that low rates aren’t enough by themselves to produce a financial crisis.

Canada’s experience also seems to refute the view, forcefully pushed by Paul Volcker, the formidable former Fed chairman, that the roots of our crisis lay in the scale and scope of our financial institutions — in the existence of banks that were “too big to fail.” For in Canada essentially all the banks are too big to fail: just five banking groups dominate the financial scene.

On the other hand, Canada’s experience does seem to support the views of people like Elizabeth Warren, the head of the Congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout, who place much of the blame for the crisis on failure to protect consumers from deceptive lending. Canada has an independent Financial Consumer Agency, and it has sharply restricted subprime-type lending.

Above all, Canada’s experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring — that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk. The United States used to have a boring banking system, but Reagan-era deregulation made things dangerously interesting. Canada, by contrast, has maintained a happy tedium.

More specifically, Canada has been much stricter about limiting banks’ leverage, the extent to which they can rely on borrowed funds. It has also limited the process of securitization, in which banks package and resell claims on their loans outstanding — a process that was supposed to help banks reduce their risk by spreading it, but has turned out in practice to be a way for banks to make ever-bigger wagers with other people’s money.

There’s no question that in recent years these restrictions meant fewer opportunities for bankers to come up with clever ideas than would have been available if Canada had emulated America’s deregulatory zeal. But that, it turns out, was all to the good.

So what are the chances that the United States will learn from Canada’s success?

Actually, the financial reform bill that the House of Representatives passed in December would significantly Canadianize the U.S. system. It would create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency, it would establish limits on leverage, and it would limit securitization by requiring that lenders hold on to some of their loans.

But prospects for a comparable bill getting the 60 votes now needed to push anything through the Senate are doubtful. Republicans are clearly dead set against any significant financial reform — not a single Republican voted for the House bill — and some Democrats are ambivalent, too.

So there’s a good chance that we’ll do nothing, or nothing much, to prevent future banking crises. But it won’t be because we don’t know what to do: we’ve got a clear example of how to keep banking safe sitting right next door.