The Phantom Poverty Menace?

May 27, 2015

This is my apprentice, Darth Baloney…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was intrigued by President Obama’s claim that when one includes transfers that the poverty rate has declined substantially from the 1960s. This would seem to represent a considerable problem for those attempting to waive off the poor performance of American public education based upon a poverty mantra. Spending up and poverty down makes for a tough sell.

Well sure enough, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a handy-dandy blow-by-blow on how the official poverty rate masks progress on poverty. It has charts like:

Hmm, that looks like 11% when it used to be 22.5% or so. An addition illuminating chart:

If you are squinting at that last one, it basically shows that the inflation adjusted (in constant 2011 dollars) income of the poorest fifth of Americans almost doubled between 1964 and 2011 once various transfers (food stamps, EITC etc.) have been taken into account.

Before you ask, childhood poverty is also down (see Figure 5a on page 23). So basically you have a very hard time blaming increasing poverty for this:

 

 


Best Cover Songs That Are Nothing Like the Original

May 26, 2015

It’s summer and time for a Random Pop Culture Apocalypse post.

Sometimes the person who creates something is not as well positioned as others to interpret and present it as someone else with a fresh perspective.  I learned this during grad school when Paul Peterson would annually host a conference in which discussants presented papers rather than the authors.  As it turns out, authors fall too much in love with every detail of their own papers and have difficulty distinguishing between what is important and interesting and what is not.  The authors could respond to clarify or rebut the interpretations offered by the discussant, but the bulk of presenting was done by someone other than the author.  And that approach made otherwise dreadful and boring academic conferences much more interesting and productive.

The separation of creator and performer is a common occurrence in other fields, particularly music and theater.   The cover song, however, is especially challenging because we already know the interpretation offered by the original creator.  When the cover differs from the expected pattern of the familiar original it sounds wrong to us.  We tend to enjoy familiar repetition in music, something that Lisa Margulis writes about in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.  The trick of a successful cover is to offer an interpretation that is dramatically different from the original.  This allows us to forget the expected familiar song and appreciate the same song as something new and different.

I’m going to start a list of great cover songs that sound nothing like the original.  Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Jump by Aztec Camera

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen have got nothing on this cover by Scottish new wave band, Aztec Camera.

Our Lips are Sealed by Fun Boy Three

The song was actually co-written by Jane Wiedlin, the guitarist in the Go-Go’s, and Terry Hall, who was in Fun Boy Three and The Specials.  The Go-Go’s released their original recording in 1981 and Fun Boy Three followed with their version in 1983.  Strictly speaking the Fun Boy Three version is not a cover since it was co-written by Hall, but it is awesome enough to include in this list.

Mad World by Gary Jules

The Tears for Fears original is pretty great but this interpretation by Gary Jules is even better.  And it has a great video.

I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself by The White Stripes

Jack White nails this cover of the Dusty Springfield original.  And the video is… um… er… also fun to watch.

Heartbeat by The Vulgar Boatmen

This is an unusual cover in that the original was done by an earlier incarnation of the same band (or at least some of the same people).  I know both are obscure, but I’ve previously written about The Vulgar Boatmen as the best band you’ve never heard of.  The original by The Gizmos is by a band that you’ve certainly never heard of.  But listen to both and marvel at how much a different interpretation can change a song, even when both versions are really good.

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What do you think are the best cover songs  that are nothing like the original?  No fair picking covers that are better known than the original (e.g. most covers of Bob Dylan, etc…)

(H/T Brian)


WILL Video Explains It All

May 22, 2015

Marty Lueken from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and a Department of Ed Reform alum sent me this remarkably informative video on the lack of relationship between school spending and achievement globally and in Wisconsin.  Check it out.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barack Obama

May 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So my favorite part of the entire Georgetown poverty discussion was when the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks- alone against the President of the United States, a leading public intellectual/academic and a moderator sympathetic to their point of view- nevertheless took their best shot and then put them on the canvass.

President Obama laid out an indictment about a tax-dodge for hedge fund managers, how he had sought to close this loophole in order to tax hedge fund managers at the normal rate, and that he had planned to invest the additional revenue in high-return fashion to advantage poor children. Sounds pretty damning, unless you can think. Arthur Brooks can think:

MR. BROOKS:  Yes, sure.  Fine.  These are show issues.  Corporate jets are show issues.  Carried interest is a show issue.  The real issue?  Middle-class entitlements — 70 percent of the federal budget.  That’s where the real money is.  And the truth of the matter is until we can take that on — if we want to make progress, if the left and right want to make progress politically as they put together budgets, they’re going to have to make progress on that. 

Now, if we want to create — if we want to increase taxes on carried interest, I mean, that’s fine for me — not that I can speak for everybody, certainly not everybody on the Republican side. 

So if we want to make progress, I think let’s decide that we have a preference — I mean, let’s have a rumble over how much money we’re spending on public goods for poor people, for sure.  And Republicans should say, I want to spend money on programs for the poor, but I think these ones are counterproductive and I think these ones are ineffective, and Democrats should say, no they’re not, we’ve never done them right and they’ve always been underfunded.  I want to have that competition of ideas.  That’s really productive.

But we can’t even get to that when politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements, because we’re looking at it in terms of the right saying all the money is gone on this, and the left saying all we need is a lot more money on top of these things — when most people who are looking at it realize that this is an unsustainable path.  It’s an unsustainable path for lots of things, not just programs for the poor.  We can’t adequately fund our military. 

I think you and I would have a tremendous amount of agreement about the misguided notion of the sequester, for lots of reasons, because we can’t spend money on purpose.  And that’s what we need to do.  And when we’re on an automatic path to spend tons of money in entitlements that are leading us to fiscal unsustainability, we can’t get to these progressive conversations where conservatives and liberals really disagree and can work together, potentially, to help poor people and defend our nation.

I’m forming the Arthur Brooks fan club over here by the way. Obama, Putnam and Dionne are no match for him.


Was Missouri’s Interdistrict Transfer Program Poorly Designed?

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In the early 1970s the Ford Motor Company designed the Pinto. In addition to being extremely ugly, the Pinto was extremely dangerous. A rear-end collision could cause the gas tank to rupture and ignite. For obvious reasons, the Pinto is regarded as one of the worst cars ever.

At the very least, it was poorly designed.

Many look at Missouri’s interdistrict transfer program, which has allowed more than 2,000 students from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to transfer to higher performing suburban districts, as if it were a Pinto. It has forced the two unaccredited districts to hemorrhage and rest on the verge of bankruptcy.

Is it ugly? Yes. Is it poorly designed? It depends.

In 2013, the year before students transferred, fewer than 20 percent of students in the two unaccredited school districts were proficient in reading or math. Dropout rates were abysmal, and the prospects were slim for graduates of either district.

Now, let’s imagine that the transfer law was not in place. What would be different today? Chances are, the school districts would not be performing significantly better. What’s more, few outside of the school districts would have taken any note of the quality of education being delivered in these two north Saint Louis County districts.

Since nearly a quarter of the students walked out of these flailing districts, much has changed. No, the districts have not gotten significantly better; nor have they gotten significantly worse. The transfer program, however, has allowed 2,000-plus students to have the opportunity for a better education. Moreover, it has launched a robust conversation around the state about how to turn around struggling school districts.

But to understand if the program was “poorly designed,” we have to determine what it was designed to do.

Was it designed to be a school reform model for unaccredited school districts? If so, it failed, since it has drained these districts of necessary financial resources and could bankrupt both of them.

Was it designed as a long-term fix, a permanent interdistrict program? Again, if this is the case, it failed, since the program lacks a feasible tuition system. Currently, tuition ranges from roughly $10,000 to $20,000, depending on where a student transferred.

Is it possible, however, that the transfer program was designed for another purpose, like to create controversy or to spark change?

As I note in my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” the transfer students were largely absorbed into 24 receiving districts with little disruption. In this regard, the transfer program functioned relatively well.

The program has told families in low-performing schools that their children do not have to be doomed to perpetual underperformance. These families took the right to an education guaranteed by Missouri’s state constitution. Angel Matthews, for instance, experienced the benefits that come from choosing your own school. Angel was one of 175 students who initially transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to the Kirkwood School District, and she has embraced the rigors and opportunities of her new school by taking AP honors classes, cheerleading, and running track.

The transfer program has caught our attention, but it is not a permanent fix. Policymakers must now develop new policies that establish quality schools in every neighborhood. These policies must include some form of school choice, lest we fall back into our old pattern of assigning students to chronically failing schools.

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James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.  Follow on Twitter @Shulsie


The Cowboy Sons of George P. Mitchell vs. Saudi Sheik Update

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT Mark Perry. From FuelFix:

HOUSTON — Pumping a barrel of oil out of the Eagle Ford Shale could get $10 to $15 cheaper by summer 2016 as service companies cut costs and operators tune up their wells, analysts say.

The oil slump hasn’t stopped producers in the South Texas play from getting better at targeting oil-rich rock in lateral sections of their horizontal wells, speeding up their pressure pumping systems and adopting better technologies for bringing wells into production.

Those efforts could help lift wells’ initial production rates by an average 33 percent in the Eagle Ford, even as service companies cut prices for drilling tools, proppant and rigs by an average 16 percent this year, Wood Mackenzie analysts said at a meeting with journalists last week.

Those two factors could bring the Eagle Ford’s breakeven oil price down from $56 to as low as $41 a barrel by June next year, putting millions more barrels within reach for producers. Similar trends are emerging in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Permian Basin in West Texas.

“The death of the unconventional business has been greatly exaggerated,” Wood Mackenzie analyst Cody Rice said. “Operators can still make money in the best portions of the best plays in the lower 48.”

Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?


Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

May 16, 2015

  

[CAPTION NEEDED, something about cooks and broth]

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Only mild spoilers lie in wait for you here, but if you want compete nonspoilage, don’t read. 

The new Avengers is awesome while you watch it but doesn’t live up to the original. A certain amount of comic book schlock – magic gems and a slew of newly introduced characters and bad guys who turn into good guys in the blink of an eye and . . . a magical biotechnological AI robot/human hybrid thingy that the bad guy built to be one thing but it became something else because the program upload was interrupted and it had a magic jewel put in its forehead . . . or something . . . well, a certain amount of that is okay, but past a certain point it’s just too damn much. 

But living up to the first Avengers film is a high standard to set from someone who called it “the movie for our time.” We’ve been spoiled by too many really outstanding comic book movies. This one is a lot of fun, go see it. Just don’t try too hard to follow the plot. 

I understand the original cut of this movie was three hours and Whedon had to chop it to the 2:20 we see on the screen. That would explain not only the confusing and inadequately explained plot and the underdevelopment of the character conflicts that made the first Avengers such a triumph, but also the mismatch between the themes early web articles anticipated would be in the movie and the absence of those themes from the movie. I saw several articles written on the assumption that Ultron, programmed to establish world peace, wanted to wipe out humanity because he realized that human beings are evil and will always create war and suffering, and deserve to be wiped out. That could have made a fascinating movie, but it’s not the one we got. 

What I do think is present in this movie is the tendency of Romantic (capital R) individualism, even in its most libertarian forms, to produce a destructive and oppressive technocracy. One of the great illusions of our time is that we can escape the tyranny and dehumanization of technocracy by romanticizing the individual. That is precisely what we cannot do. It was and is the romanticization of the individual that creates technocracy. Romantic individualism consistently ends in unsustainable narcissism. As the results of the narcissism become unsustainable, the Romantics – less and less willing to give up their Romanticism as they become more and more narcissistic – seek technocratic solutions that will take care of our problems for us without any of us having to practice self-denial, which is for them the sin against the Holy Ghost. Technocracy, they hope, will maintain the necessary conditions for individual narcissism. That is what Stark is doing when he creates Ultron – solve the problem of war not by creating people who want justice but by creating machines that will eradicate [people who practice] injustice. 

The whole logic of this is laid out admirably in Tocqueville, in Eliot’s famous line about “systems so perfect,” and in Wall-E. Men who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery. 

The movie clearly understands what it is that makes Romantic individualism plausible and attractive. We see it in the fact that Stark’s hubris produces Vision as well as Ultron. We see it when Stark says “I’m not in charge, I just . . . pay for everything and make everyone look awesome.” We also see it when he says to Steve Rogers, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side.” Here we really see, as we did in the first film, that the difference between them is a religious one, and it boils down to what one does with one’s dark side. Stark gives in to it, like Emerson, whose response to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man was that he did not think he was sinful, but even if he were, “if I am the devil’s child I will live then from the devil.” What is there for a man to do but be what he is? Stark, like Emerson, does not believe there is a Power who can purge the darkness and truly make men clean. 

Rogers opposes Stark’s individualism not by overt appeal to God but by appeal to human relationships. We are made to live and work with one another, to solve – or at least cope with – our problems “together.” The solution to our problems lies not in machines and systems but in people wanting to be in right relationship with one another. 

This is just as religious a claim as “there’s only one God, ma’am.” I am not sure it isn’t an even more religious claim. For it asserts that we are made not simply to be what we are and do what we want, but to overcome what we are and control what we want in order to achieve a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves. 

I am surprised to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to recognize that it is Steve Rogers’ America, not Tony Stark’s, that holds the secret to saving all that they both hold dear. 


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