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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Anarchy in the UK


Perhaps the whole point of a riot is to defy explanation: it’s an eruption of the irrational, a shattering of glass and boundaries, a testosterone-fueled roar that briefly flips anger and emptiness into something like ecstasy. What’s in the minds of the young men (and women, too) in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool who’ve sent great sheets of flame rising into the August night, devouring local businesses that it took years to build; who’ve turned plate glass to spiderwebs with one crack of a brick; who’ve gone home with their backpacks stuffed with cell phones, Nike trainers, X-boxes and Wiis? Well, wouldn’t we like to know, we middle-class types with access to a blog and an analysis, a “network” and a future?

Today Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson returned reluctantly from their  vacations to confront the arson and looting that have spread through Britain's cities over the last three nights, like a pair of Eton prefects summoned to contain the fifth form. Parliament has been recalled for the second time this summer (the first was over phone hacking by Murdoch’s News International); 450 people have already been arrested; Cameron has promised 6,000 more police on London’s streets this evening. But will it be enough?

Missy, who works at a small shop selling jeans and sneakers down the road from where I live, shrugs when I ask her what she’s going to do tonight. The metal grille was down and properly locked yesterday; "they" trashed the place anyway. “They know the shop,” she says. “They went straight upstairs where we keep the expensive stuff, the £300 jeans.” A few blocks on, outside a smashed-up cycle shop where twisted bikes lie like skeletons on the pavement, a forensic expert carefully dusts glass with fingerprint powder. Does she think she’ll find anything? Another shrug. In Dalston, next to Hackney which saw some of the worst rioting, the Turkish Kurdish community have taken charge themselves, standing guard outside their shops, some of them with baseball bats.

The blue touchpaper that lit the conflagration was the killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black father of four, by armed police in Tottenham, one of London's poorest boroughs, as he rode in a minicab; he had a handgun but there’s been no claim that he made a move to fire it. A small crowd of local residents gathered at the police station to demand explanations; though the protesters were peaceful, the police were not forthcoming. By nightfall, against the wishes of Duggan’s relatives, rioting had broken out in Tottenham and elsewhere. Police cars and a double decker bus were set on fire and shop windows were smashed, mostly by teenage boys.

What began as an outburst of anger against police violence soon morphed into an orgy of nocturnal “shopping” as kids broke into sports and electronics shops, cellphone stores and supermarkets. A brave woman in Hackney gave a streetcorner sermon amid heaps of litter, excoriating the rioters for turning grief to greed: “This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham. This isn’t about having fun on a riot and busting up the place. Get real, black people, get real. If we’re fighting for a cause let’s fight for a fucking cause.” But in the deprived neighbourhoods of Britain’s crumbling cities, consumerism is a more accessible dream than commitment or community.

And so it has gone on, night after night since then, frightening, unpredictable and uncontainable. The police are overwhelmed; the politicians nervously continue to plough their furrows. “Sheer criminality,” says Home Secretary Teresa May, as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage would imply condoning it. Labour politicians flirt with the temptation to blame government spending cuts, as if such fury could build up in a matter of mere months. Of course the cuts don’t help: they are the final straw, the irrefutable evidence that the poor are now dispensable, outside society. Nor does the larger sense that nobody’s in charge, that the economy’s in freefall, that bankers have been looting the public purse for years, and that our leaders have no idea what to do about any of it. There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.

But it’s taken years to brew the toxic mix of hopelessness, frustration and disenfranchisement, envy, anger and boredom, greed and selfishness, humiliation and recklessness that’s erupted in Britain this week--years in which the gap between rich and poor grew wider, racism was allowed to fester, consumerism and celebrity culture replaced community. While we in the middle classes got on with our oh-so-busy lives, averting our eyes from the poverty just a few blocks away, sending our kids to schools where there are other “motivated parents,” talking politics, we allowed the rifts in our own neighbourhoods to deepen until they became almost unbridgeable.

This morning, down the road, people stared at the broken shops, shaking their heads in disbelief. “It’s mad,” they said. “Just mad.” Small groups of women set out with brooms and dustpans to sweep up the broken glass. There is a kind of solidarity taking shape, a wish to protect what we have, now that it’s under threat. People are talking to each other, asking if everything's all right. The challenge, when all this dies down, will be to stay awake, to keep on doing that, until solidarity spreads.

Elections Still Have Consequences

It went a little under the radar, but the Washington Post’s long Sunday feature was an excellent look at the forces driving Republicans to intransigence on the debt deal. In fact, it’s worth reading the story as somethng of a companion piece to Drew Westen’s long op-ed in the Sunday New York Times. Westen, a political consultant, blames President Obama’s political troubles on a failure of rhetoric. If Obama had given better speeches or “connected” with the American poeple, then his administration would have stood a better chance against an intransigent and right-wing Republican Party.

As John Sides points out at The Monkey Cage, this is a massive overestimation of rhetoric’s power to shape the public narrative, and it is a poor analysis of the actual constraints faced by the president of the United States. As Sides puts it, “We can learn little about Barack Obama’s presidency from 3,000 words about speeches never given and the alleged character flaws implied therefore. Presidents are embedded in a political system that is full of other actors who themselves have agency, who shape outcomes, and who[m] the president cannot control, least of all by telling stories.”

The Washington Post feature acts a great rebuttal to Westen’s op-ed if only because it details the extent to which this month’s debt deal is a product of political events that were largely out of the president’s control. In last year’s Congressional elections, on the strength of their right wing, Republicans won a large and unprecedented majority in the House of Representatives, which had important implications for 2011’s budget fights.

To wit, the House would have a huge number of GOP members who fell on the far right of their caucus, and who were most interested in sharp budget cuts. Here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), the incoming House speaker who also had worked hard on behalf of many candidates, quickly grasped the potential dilemma posed by eighty-seven newcomers with steep expectations. The House was now stocked with people who had little interest in rubber-stamping another debt-limit increase.

“I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with” the debt limit, Boehner told reporters on Nov. 19. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”

Moreover, because of their ideological fervor and stated opposition to raising the debt ceiling, these members would wield a tremendous amount of leverage, both within their caucus and in negotiations with Democrats and the White House. And this is exactly what happened: by occupying a powerful place within the GOP majority, Tea Partiers could exercise an effective veto on actions by the entire Republican caucus. In effect, this meant that Tea Partyers could exercise a veto over Congress as a whole, since the Constitution mandates agreement by both chambers in order for a bill to become a law.

I’ve said this before, but any political analysis of the last several months needs to begin with November 2010. Yes, Obama could have been a better negotiator; Republican leverage over the debt ceiling was a product of the midterm elections. Insofar as there’s any lesson to learn, it’s this: liberals need to worry less about narratives, and more about winning elections.

The Standard & Poor's Agenda

As you might have heard—considering the entire political establishment has spent the past seventy-two hours debating it—Standard & Poor’s followed through on its threat to downgrade the federal government’s credit rating.

Standard & Poor’s declared in April that if $4 trillion in savings was not achieved in the debt ceiling deal, it would downgrade the government’s credit rating from AAA status. They did so on Friday, citing not only a deal that achieved “only” $2.1 trillion in savings but also Republican intransigence against raising new revenue and the party’s hostage-taking over the debt ceiling. The agency also downgraded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, since they depend on the federal government for support. Another credit rating agency, Moody’s, is threatening downgrade as well.

The downgrade is yet another chapter in the bogus deficit drama that has gripped Washington for the past several months. Once again: interest on our debt is 5.7 percent of total government spending, half of what it was for the past fifty years. Treasury bonds, which are how the government finances its debt, remain highly desirable to investors, and even in the wake of the “downgrade,” maintained their low interest rates.

It’s a deeply silly idea that US Treasury bonds are no longer a safe investment because the solution to a manufactured crisis fell $1.9 million short of an arbitrary goal. As Paul Krugman wrote today, “US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term.” While Standard & Poor’s correctly identified other factors threatening long-term fiscal stability, like inflated healthcare costs and political opposition to new revenue, both were also well-known factors one year ago, and five years before that—but Standard & Poor’s said nothing.

The Standard & Poor’s analysis is all the more silly given the haphazard way in which they calculated the national debt, confusing two different analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and pegging the national debt $2 trillion too high. “This is like an undergrad student mistake,” Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and co-director of the school’s Political Economy Research Institute, told The Nation.

Nobody is laughing at the report’s collateral damage, however. Stocks continued to plunge Monday morning, in what Forbes called the “Standard & Poor’s stock market crash.” Pollin correctly predicted last week that a downgrade would likely not have an impact on Treasury bonds but could rattle stocks, because investors often “act on the basis of incomplete, or even inaccurate, information” and could “interpret the downgrade as evidence of a rising default risk.”

Additionally, it’s possible that the Fannie and Freddie downgrade could lead to higher mortgage rates for Americans, since the firms back nine out of ten mortgages and might face higher borrowing costs due to the rating change.

The downgrade also further entrenched deficit hysteria into American politics. As my colleague Ben Adler wrote, Republican presidential candidates are stepping over themselves to use the downgrade as evidence that the country’s finances are in deep trouble and that President Obama is to blame—while, of course, ignoring everything Standard & Poor’s said about Republican fiscal policies.

Many Democrats are quick to highlight those portions of the report—Senator John Kerry said yesterday this was the “Tea Party downgrade”—but are nonetheless validating both Standard & Poor’s credibility and the idea that the country is approaching an inability to pay bills. President Obama largely embraced the Standard & Poor’s report in a press conference this afternoon, specifically the part about political dysfunction and the need for a balanced approach to revenue reduction.

The bipartisan desire to use the Standard & Poor’s report is one possible explanation for their downgrade—since it certainly wasn’t economics. Remember that the private rating agencies business model is now seriously endangered.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently erased rating agencies from all federal rulebooks—meaning they cannot be used as a legal standard for determining safe investments. Moreover, the SEC created entirely new standards of creditworthiness that it hopes will provide a “workable alternative to credit ratings.” Already, only four US corporations hold AAA ratings, as highly successful companies like Berkshire Hathaway and General Electric surrendered them years ago without consequence.

The changes are a result of the rating agencies’ atrocious performance in evaluating—or not—the real safety of mortgage-backed securities before they badly damaged the global economy despite AAA ratings. A bipartisan Senate subcommittee just named rating agencies as a “key cause” of the financial crisis, and lawsuits are in the offing—Connecticut already sued Standard & Poor’s for its role.

Viewed through that lens, Friday’s downgrade was a smashing success for the company. The president of the United States just had a press conference to address their report. It was the topic of conversation on every Sunday show, as politicians from both parties held it up as an indictment of the other side.

Pollin speculated this could be rehab for Standard & Poor’s previous transgressions—that now the ratings agencies are trying to create an image that “they’re hard nosed, they’re courageous; this is their best objective analysis. All of a sudden, after being shill for the financial bubble, they’re going to be hard-nosed.”

Given the possible ulterior motives of Standard & Poor's, even if Democrats are able to score short-term points against twisted GOP economic policies, they should be wary of promoting the company's analysis—and also because the analysis as a whole is plainly unsound. “The cross-currents between political manipulation and actual economic analysis have gotten completely confused. That in itself is dangerous,” Pollin said.

The downgrade report serves Standard & Poor’s interests in other ways, too—it now has a much higher profile than Moody’s or Fitch, the other rating agencies. It seems unlikely Obama will return to the podium to address a subsequent downgrade by Moody’s.

Pollin floated one additional bit of speculation: that Standard & Poor’s is catering to potential Chinese business by issuing a report that allows China to browbeat the United States. The Chinese state newspaper published a commentary immediately after the downgrade, saying China has “every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China's dollar assets.” As the largest holder of US Treasury bonds, China has the most to gain if indeed investors flock the bonds and interest rates rise. “Maybe [Standard & Poor’s is] calculating that the real money now is Chinese,” Pollin said.

Nobody actually knows what is motivating Standard & Poor’s to act in this manner. But one thing is clear: it’s not sound economic analysis.

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GOP Causes S&P Downgrade, but Republican Candidates Blame Obama

It is clear from Standard & Poor’s statement downgrading the federal government’s credit rating that it places the blame squarely on Republican actions and policies. Two of S&P’s biggest concerns about whether the United States will pay off its debt are whether Republicans will be so insane as to refuse to lift the debt ceiling, a possibility Republicans intentionally stoked fears of, and whether the United States will raise much-needed tax revenue. Specifically, S&P changed its baseline assumption that the Bush tax cuts would expire on schedule in 2012 because Republicans are so insistent that they must be renewed. “We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues,” wrote S&P. That adds $4 trillion over ten years to the projected deficits. 

So, how are Republican presidential candidates responding? By blaming President Obama, instead of their co-partisans in Congress who are actually responsible. “America’s creditworthiness just became the latest casualty in President Obama’s failed record of leadership on the economy,” said front-runner Mitt Romney in a statement. “His failed policies have led to high unemployment, skyrocketing deficits, and now, the unprecedented loss of our nation’s prized AAA credit rating.” Apparently, Romney knows better than S&P itself why it downgraded our credit rating, and it has nothing to do with lost revenue due to Republican tax cuts, or Republican threats not to pay our debts (a fairly straightforward threat to our creditworthiness if ever there was one.) No, it’s just because of our economic performance, which Romney seems to think is determined entirely by the actions of the president and is in no way beyond his control.

Nominal moderate Jon Huntsman was less partisan and more accurate in his apportioning of blame to Washington as a whole. “Out-of-control spending and a lack of leadership in Washington have resulted in President Obama presiding over the first downgrade of the United States credit rating in our history,” said Huntsman’s statement. “For far too long we have let reckless government spending go unchecked and the cancerous debt afflicting our nation has spread.” That’s perfectly in keeping with Huntsman’s strategy of positioning himself above the partisan fray as Obama and John McCain both did during the primaries last time. Of course, the spending decisions that have brought this on—invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, enacting Medicare Part D, increasing defense and security spending after September 11, 2001—were all initiatives of the Bush administration and his Republican servants in Congress. Huntsman neglects to mention that and instead passively criticizes Obama—but not House Speaker John Boehner—for “presiding over” the downgrade.

Michele Bachmann—who as a member of Congress who refused to vote for a debt ceiling increase is one of the people most responsible for the downgrade—issued a particularly dour statement. “President Obama is destroying the foundations of the US economy one beam at a time,” said Bachmann.

Meanwhile Tim Pawlenty, speaking in Grinnell, Iowa, went on a baffling, nonsensical riff that twisted into knots trying to tie the downgrade to generic conservative talking points. “What he [President Obama] doesn’t understand is all this talk of the full faith and credit in the United States government, he needs to stop being reminded,” explained Pawlenty. “We need to have a president who understands what it means to put our full faith and credit in the American people. His vision for America is to take things out of the private sector and to put it into the government.” You can’t argue with that, can you?

Lost amid the finger-pointing is any review of how the downgrade could have been averted. But, of course, if you’re a Republican you probably don’t want to dwell too much on that question, because the ways we could have done so would come into conflict with Republicans’ obsessive subservience to the myopic interests of a few wealthy men like the Koch brothers and their fanatic supporters like Grover Norquist. Namely, we could have raised tax revenue. Note that I don’t say raising taxes, because we would not have to actually raise marginal rates. Merely allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule would have done the trick. So would closing tax loopholes while actually lowering rates, had they passed the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction committee’s recommendations, or agreeing to Obama’s $4 trillion debt reduction proposal.

If you want to take a longer view of how the US debt reached this height, Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly made a timeline illustrating how it is almost entirely the Republicans’ fault. But the long view is not of any interest to the modern Republican Party. 

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Mitt Romney's Tea Party Problem

Mitt Romney is the Republican front-runner in national polls and he has raised the most money, but he is lagging in support with an important Republican constituency, especially in the key early states: Tea Party activists. Tea Party leaders say Romney is not the leading candidate among their constituents, even in New Hampshire, which is considered a must-win for the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. “I wouldn’t say Romney’s the favorite,” says Jane Aitken, coordinator for the New Hampshire Tea Party coalition. Aitken declined to say who is in the lead, as her group does not endorse candidates and even their member groups that do endorse have not yet decided who to support. But she says that from conversations with other Tea Party leaders, there is no clear favorite. 

“The front-runner [among the Iowa Tea Party] would be Michele Bachmann,” says Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party. It is a particularly bad sign for Romney that the qualities in Bachmann that Rhodes cites approvingly are precisely the inverse of Romney’s weaknesses, which are his past apostasies and countless policy reversals. “She’s been consistent. She’s not going to apologize every two seconds for doing things that are not in line with the Tea Party. She hasn’t waited to hear what some poll said.”

In polls Romney sometimes under-performs his overall numbers among self-identified Tea Party supporters. For instance, a McClatchy-Marist poll found Romney in the lead among all Republican-leaning voters but Rick Perry leading among Tea Party voters.

In the 2008 cycle Romney assiduously courted conservatives, calling for doubling the size of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and flip-flopping on gay rights, abortion rights and immigration reform (he now opposes all of them). His adoption of doctrinaire conservatism on social issues continues in this campaign. On Tuesday his campaign announced a Justice Advisory Committee, which will be co-chaired by Judge Robert Bork, the infamous extremist whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate.

But some grassroots conservative activists think Romney has been tacking back to the center in this cycle. “He moved to the right in 2008, now he’s going to the left,” says Rhodes. Certainly, Romney has been campaigning as a front-runner, focusing on the more broadly appealing subject of jobs while staying out of the debt-ceiling debacle until a deal had been reached.

Tea Party activists also complain of lackluster outreach from the Romney campaign. “I wouldn’t say Romney has been doing very well with Tea Party conservatives,” says Rhodes. “He’s barely been talking to us.”

“He basically sticks with state Republican party events,” says Aitken. As Politico’s Ben Smith reported Monday, Romney has generally had a more spare schedule than other candidates.

The other problem for Romney is his past moderation and the fact that he seems to let his saner instincts prevail on any subject where he hasn’t yet calibrated a suitably conservative response. Romney upset many conservative—most notably Rush Limbaugh who said “Bye-bye nomination”—when Romney admitted in June that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. At the first GOP debate Romney disagreed with Tea Party phenomenon Herman Cain’s opposition to letting Muslims serve in the cabinet.

Then there’s the elephant in the room for Romney: that he signed into law a healthcare reform bill in Massachusetts that relied on an individual mandate which President Obama used as a model for the Affordable Care Act. “I think [Romney’s problems among Tea Partyers] is principally because of the mandate in Massachusetts,” says Phil Kerpen, vice-president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative organization that works with Tea Party groups. “The mandate has become a major issue for conservatives since federal healthcare reform.”

What was once Romney’s signature achievement, and a reason cited by National Review for endorsing him in the last presidential cycle, has become an enormous liability. The policy, of course, is no more liberal than it was in 2007, but conservatives afflicted with Obama Derangement Syndrome now consider it incipient Bolshevism. Romney’s solution—decrying the ACA as a “power grab” while defending his law because it was only at the state level—has strained credulity and failed to mollify his right-wing critics.

FreedomWorks, the Tea Party–affiliated conservative organization run by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is opposed to Romney’s candidacy. Although FreedomWorks employees point to his overall record and perceived phoniness, their main policy objection is his record on healthcare.

It seems as if economic conservatism has actually replaced religious social conservatism as the doctrine requiring pure, deeply felt and 100 percent faithful adherence. In Massachusetts the state Citizens for Life group is launching a ballot campaign to repeal Romney’s healthcare reform, even as they say Romney’s record on abortion itself is acceptable.

Some Tea Party leaders say Romney still stands a chance with their constituents. Sal Russo, the veteran GOP operative who founded Tea Party Express, says his group polls its donors weekly on their preference in the presidential race. No single candidate has emerged as the consistent winner, and no one has broken 30 percent. “The healthcare mess in Massachusetts raises a red flag,” says Russo. “We met with Romney and shortly thereafter he started to address it. I worked for Ronald Reagan for years, and many times people didn’t agree with Reagan on issues. Whatever somebody did in their college term paper or public office in the past, that's the past. The question is what's your plan today? We're a lot more forward-looking than backward-looking.”

So can a more aggressive campaign of outreach win over Romney’s Tea Party skeptics? “If he has to answer tough questions about his global warming stance and Romneycare, it’s not going to be easy for him,” says Rhodes. But no one ever said running for president is easy. 

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Matt Damon, Arne Duncan and the Divisive Teacher-Quality Debate

Last weekend, two very different speeches on the future of the teaching profession made news.

The first was from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who appeared Friday before the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which runs the elite National Board certification process for teachers. The United States must follow the example of nations that out-perform us educationally, Duncan said, and begin to recruit most of our public school teachers from the top thirds of their college classes. To do this, he argued, we will need to raise average starting salaries from $30,00 to $60,000 and average salary caps from $70,000 to $150,000.

Is that really possible in a climate of federal, state and local budget cuts? We can find the money, Duncan said, by utilizing technology to “reorganize” schools (read: raise class sizes and shrink the teacher corps); instituting teacher merit pay based in part on student test score data; loosening teacher job security protections; and cutting teacher benefit and pension packages and redirecting some of the funds toward salaries.

Duncan knows such proposals remain controversial among teachers. “I respectfully urge everyone to take a deep breath, hold their fire, and see this as an opportunity to transform the entire profession,” he said, “not as a threat or as an investment we don't need.”

The second speech was from the actor Matt Damon, a public school graduate and son of a teacher who made news in March when he slammed the Obama administration’s teacher evaluation and pay proposals in a CNN interview. Speaking at the Save Our Schools protest march Saturday near the White House, Damon brought some in the crowd to tears as he painted a more holistic, even romantic portrait of the public school teacher’s role.

“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test,” Damon said. “If their very survival as teachers was based [not] on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning, but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths, and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

“This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel.”

After the speech, Damon and his mom did a short interview with a libertarian Reason.tv reporter. After criticizing “MBA-style thinking” in education policy and defending teacher tenure, Damon angrily contested the cameraman’s assertion that 10 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are bad at their jobs. “Maybe you’re a shitty cameraman,” Damon countered.

The video went viral.

The Obama administration’s education policies have always been controversial among more traditional education liberals, who are disappointed to see a Democratic president pursue an agenda of standardization and weakened union protections. But the always-contentious school reform debate has gotten even nastier over the past several months, with the role of multiple-choice tests emerging as the flashpoint.

Adult test-tampering scandals in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Pennsylvania; and elsewhere around the country have focused new scrutiny on efforts to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. Polls of teachers’ opinions on performance-based pay schemes are divided; according to Education Next, 72 percent of teachers oppose such policies, while the National Center for Education Information finds 59 percent support them. What’s clear is that there is no teacher consensus in favor of the testing regimen created by No Child Left Behind, and that teachers don’t broadly support the Obama administration’s attempt to expand high-stakes assessments to subjects other than math and reading. Education Next found that 60 percent of teachers oppose tying tenure decisions to test scores. The NCEI poll reported that 44 percent of teachers are dissatisfied with student achievement testing in general.

Teachers (and parents, and Matt Damon) are right to be skeptical of the administration’s testing push. While “standards-based-assessment” doesn’t have to mean that students are sitting for dozens of new bubble tests—there are other ways to “test,” including portfolio-based systems, performance tasks and presentations—the fact of the matter is that some states and school districts will respond to the incentives of Obama’s Race to the Top program in ways that over-rationalize learning.

Case in point: While reporting from Colorado this past winter, I observed a school district, Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, that gives pencil-and-paper exams in every subject at every grade level. The second grade physical education exam asked, “Draw a picture of how your hands look while they are catching a ball that is thrown above your head,” and, “What are two rules students can follow so they do not run into others when running around in physical education class?”

The results of this exam, which tested reading, writing and drawing far more than physical fitness, impacted the gym teacher’s evaluation score and pay.

Arne Duncan is aware that there is a difference between sophisticated student assessment and bad student assessment. That’s why the Department of Education should provide states and districts with much more specific guidelines about best practices in assessment, particularly in non-traditional subjects such as art, music and physical education. In fact, this would be a great subject for one of the department’s national conferences, something akin to the event the DOE hosted in Denver in February on union-district partnerships.

Absent that kind of guidance, the protests of the Matt Damons of the world will only grow louder, and the Obama administration will lose crucial public support for its teacher-quality agenda.

Pawlenty Versus Bachmann Heats up in Iowa

As Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has surged in the polls, her fellow Minnesotan, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, has seethed. How can someone he outranked in the State Senate, who has no legislative achievements and a long record of embarrassing gaffes, be flying past him? Seeing that Bachmann is his main competition in their neighboring state of Iowa and among social conservatives, Pawlenty has been aggressively attacking her in the last few weeks. On Meet the Press he said, “Her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent.” Last week Pawlenty told an audience in Iowa that Bachmann has “a pattern of being inaccurate.”

Now a Pawlenty campaign worker has apparently called Iowa Republicans saying that Bachmann is unstable. According to Ryan Rhodes, 28, who serves as Chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, he received a call last Saturday from a Pawlenty campaign intern. She inquired as to who he might support in the upcoming Ames Straw Poll, and proceeded to trash Tea Party favorites Herman Cain and Bachmann.

“I told them why I backed off Pawlenty,” recalls Rhodes, “and she said something not nice about Herman Cain—but then she said Bachmann is crazy.”

Rhodes doesn’t remember specifically what the intern said about Cain because he “was more upset about the comment about Bachmann.” The essence of the knock on Cain was that he excessively quotes the homespun wisdom of his grandmother. (For example, at the June 13 Republican debate Cain quoted his grandmother on Libya, saying, “It’s a mess.”) As Rhodes ironically notes, this criticism of Cain constitutes “using something unsubstantive to mock Herman Cain for being unsubstantive” [sic].

When the subject turned to Bachmann, the intern said you can’t vote for Bachmann because, “My God, she’s a crazy woman.”

This gambit apparently backfired, as many of Pawlenty’s attacks on Bachmann have. Rhodes says he also disliked the op-ed in the Des Moines Register by Bachmann’s former chief of staff Ron Carey in which he endorsed Pawlenty and scathingly criticized Bachmann. Carey called Bachmann “unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office,” and said she lacks “the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president.” Bachmann’s Congressional office is notorious for high turnover and has many disgruntled former staffers. This presents a major potential liability for her campaign, as these staffers criticize her publicly. On the other hand, many of their attacks, such as the anonymous quotes about her migraines, may win her a measure of sympathy.

Rhodes says he interrupted the intern, explaining that he is seriously considering supporting Bachmann. “I was pretty offended,” says Rhodes. “That kind of thing turns me off to campaigns. You can attack someone on the substance, but to attack them on an unfounded accusation, I think those things are the politics we don’t want to get into.”

After the call ended Rhodes posted about the incident on his Facebook page. According to Rhodes, the Pawlenty campaign saw the Facebook posting and Pawlenty’s Iowa state director Erik Helland called Rhodes to apologize. Rhodes then took the posting off his Facebook wall. The Pawlenty campaign did not respond to a request for comment. They also did not offer much to Rhodes in the way of explanation as to how this happened.

It may, of course, have just been one young intern going off the reservation. But it’s interesting that this particular error reflects an impolitic version of the Pawlenty campaign’s pitch: that he is the least problematic choice they have. The rationale for Pawlenty’s candidacy cited in the media, and less directly by Pawlenty himself, is that his positions are generically conservative, but he is the most electable choice. Former moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have histories that conservative primary voters dislike. Ardent conservatives such as Cain and Bachmann lack experience or policy expertise. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are unpopular among moderates and discredited in the media. Pawlenty offers a safe choice by process of elimination.

Given that Tea Party activists nominated such polarizing, gaffe-prone firebrands as Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino and Christine O’Donnell for statewide office in the 2010 Republican primaries, Pawlenty’s pitch seems unlikely to inspire Tea Partiers. Of course—as Pawlenty would no doubt point out in private—Paladino, Angle and O’Donnell all lost in the general election.

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Is It Time to Downgrade the Rating Agencies?

For many Washington policymakers, the official denouement of the debt ceiling debate came not only when President Obama signed an increase into law yesterday, but when two credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, affirmed the country’s triple-A rating.

Throughout the rancorous debate, just about every player managed to agree that the United States’ AAA rating should not be threatened, even if they disagreed about how to save it. In his weekly radio address last Saturday, Obama warned that “if we don’t [reach a deal], for the first time ever, we could lose our country’s Triple A credit rating.” House Speaker John Boehner called in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program during the negotiations last month and said, “I believe that we've got to act to prevent a default and to prevent a downgrade of our nation's credit rating.”

Representative Jim Jordan, head of the powerful Republican Study Committee in the House, said Monday that “Our AAA credit rating remains at risk because President Obama and his fellow tax-and-spend liberals refused to support the Cut, Cap, and Balance plan.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid meanwhile claimed that “anything less” than a debt ceiling increase into 2013 would “[risk] an immediate downgrade of America’s credit rating.”

So by almost all accounts inside the beltway, a downgrade in the federal government’s credit rating would be catastrophic. But a closer look at who issues these ratings, how they do it, and the real-world impact of these ratings tells a different story.

The first clue that these ratings might not be highly calibrated, serious indicators of creditworthiness can be found in the 2008 economic collapse. The financial products created by Wall Street that were full of toxic mortgage securities were all blessed with gold-star ratings as safe investments from the country’s three main credit ratings agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s.

These products were so awful as to destroy Lehman Brothers, threaten many other trading firms, and plunge the economy into recession, but the rating agencies consistently told investors they were safe. As William Greider has noted here, this essentially made the rating agencies “unindicted co-conspirators” in the collapse.

Were these agencies just bad at their jobs? Maybe, but Greider offers another theory: since the banks pay the rating agencies to examine their financial products, a harmful rating would persuade the banks to just shop elsewhere for a more favorable outcome. “This is an outrageous conflict of interest at the very heart of the financial system,” Greider writes.

Nevertheless, the Washington establishment was obviously not rattled by the rating agencies role in the 2008 collapse. All three agencies played a prominent role in the debt ceiling debate. Each threatened to downgrade the federal government’s credit rating if there was a default on US Treasury bonds—a reasonable position—but in some cases, threatened to downgrade anyhow if “significant” deficit reduction isn’t achieved, to the tune of $4 trillion in the estimation of Standard & Poor’s. That’s a little harder to understand.

Contrary to Tea Party hysteria, the United States’ debt burden is perfectly manageable. Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and co-director of the school’s Political Economy Research Institute, noted in an e-mail that the single most significant statistic in evaluating US government debt is the debt servicing burden, meaning that amount of interest payments the government faces relative to annual outlays.

In 2010, interest payments on the debt were 5.7 percent of total government spending. Pollin noted the average for that ratio between 1950 and 2010 was 9.8 percent, meaning that our current debt burden is half the historical average.

So why the panic from rating agencies? Once again, it might come down to good business, not good economics. “The best I can come up with is, in the end, they simply regurgitate what they see as a respectable opinion,” Pollin said. “They do this because they are eager to themselves be seen as responsible and respectable to the people who deliver conventional wisdom. The rating agencies depend on such people for their business.”

This might explain why rating agencies sounded ominous notes about the nation’s debt, but said nothing when the Bush tax cuts were signed into law, which eliminated $2.5 trillion in revenue and were largely favored by conventional Washington wisdom.

But there’s also a more sinister theory afoot—one that involves a game of political hardball between rating agencies, particularly Standard and Poor’s, and the administration. In an exhaustive journal at firedoglake, Jane Hamsher catalogues an interesting confluence of events around Standard & Poor’s threat of downgrade unless $4 trillion in deficit reduction was achieved.

Since the 2008 economic collapse, Congress has been trying to regulate the rating agencies in a tougher manner, in order to force more fair evaluations. The agencies have naturally fought these efforts—and might be making things difficult for the administration as a demonstration of their political power, and to warn the administration off from more stringent regulation.

As Hamsher notes, Standard & Poor’s first debt warning came only months after Obama signed Dodd-Frank into law, which contained regulations on rating agencies, albeit mild ones. This was curious timing, since again there is no chance the United States would experience a debt crisis anytime soon and budget-busting tax cuts previously went unquestioned.

This year, on April 13, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with officials from Standard & Poor’s and asked them to hold off on any further reports until a budget was completed. But the SEC was in the midst of a series of proposed rule changes and potential investigations of Standard & Poor’s role in the economic collapse. And on that same day, the Coburn-Levin Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report saying the credit ratings agencies were a “key cause” of the financial crisis. The Subcommitee recommended the SEC use its authority to “hold credit ratings agencies accountable in civil lawsuits for inflated credit ratings.”

On April 15, Standard & Poor’s phoned the White House and told them they were issuing a press release providing yet another negative outlook on federal government debt, which it then did. This came at quite a politically sensitive time for the White House, as it was attempting to negotiate a debt ceiling increase with Republicans demanding huge cuts. Geithner had to do a round of talk show interviews the next day, disputing the Standard & Poor’s rating threat.

But the damage was done. majority leader Eric Cantor immediately heralded the rating threat, and said “today S&P sent a wake-up call to those in Washington asking Congress to blindly increase the debt limit…. [this] makes clear that the debt limit increase proposed by the Obama Administration must be accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms.” Presidential candidate Mitt Romney meanwhile noted that Standard & Poor’s “just downgraded their view for the future of America.”

It’s not a proven case that Standard & Poor’s was trying to bully the administration with downgrade threats, but since there’s no real economic basis to those threats, it’s at the very least an interesting question.

In any case, since the rating agencies aren’t basing their warnings on hard economic data, would a downgrade rattle savvy investors? Perhaps, but it’s not as certain as politicians claim. Pollin noted that since interest rates on US Treasury bonds are at all-time lows, it’s very likely that investors understand them to be a safe investment. “I’m not sure it would have any impact whatsoever,” he said, but added that it could create some collateral panic in the markets anyhow. “Investors frequently act on the basis of incomplete, or even inaccurate, information. They could therefore interpret the downgrade as evidence of a rising default risk.”

It’s also important to note that while Washington policymakers still hold rating agency approval as sacred, corporate America has long ago jettisoned them. Only four companies hold AAA ratings. Many others, like Berkshire Hathaway, General Electric and Pfizer lost that rating long ago—but are still raking in profits and selling large amounts of stock. According to the Boston Globe, the credit ratings are seen by companies as “more of a straitjacket than a path to riches.”

There are already attempts underway to further break the stranglehold of rating agencies. Much to its credit, the SEC recently scrubbed any reliance on rating agencies from federal rulebooks, and created new standards of creditworthiness separate from what is dictated by the current rating agencies. “I believe the rules will provide an appropriate and workable alternative to credit ratings,” Mary L. Schapiro, the agency’s chairwoman, said in a statement. Pollin has proposed a public, government-run rating agency that could provide a “counterforce to the perverse incentive system facing private agencies.” If these efforts are successful, companies like Standard & Poor’s might face a downgrade of their own.

How Obama Can Challenge GOP Obstruction

The House and Senate left town for a month-long recess with crucial business unfulfilled. Half of the oversight positions mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill are still vacant or occupied by temporary caretakers, including the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can not assume its full authority until director Richard Cordray is in place. Twenty judicial nominees are still awaiting a final vote on their nominations. One of seven federal district and circuit court judgeships are currently or soon-to-be vacant, reports the Alliance for Justice. And, according to House and Senate Republicans, there’s nothing the Obama administration can do about it.

The House and Senate are in “pro-forma” session during the August break for one reason—to prevent Obama from making any recess appointments. (Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has a good primer on the history behind such appointments.) There’s debate over whether a president can make a recess appointment under such a scenario—the Justice Department under Clinton said a president must wait for the Congress to be officially out of session for three days, but there’s no specification in the Constitution about that window, according to a 2004 Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit decision. So Obama could, in theory, make the recess appointments and then fight the GOP in court once they contest his authority.

But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. “Obama has not treated executive branch appointments as a high priority (and has been hesitant to make recess appointments even before this latest GOP tactic),” notes Bernstein. Even though Obama has faced a record number of filibusters from Senate Republicans, he’s filled only twenty-eight vacant positions through recess appointments.

President Bush, in contrast, made 171 recess appointments during his presidency. To catch up with Bush, Obama would have to make roughly twenty-eight recess appointment per year until the end of his presidency, assuming he wins a second term and governs for eight years. Under the current stalemate, Obama can’t even make one.

Republicans counter that Harry Reid kept the Senate in pro forma session from 2007 onward to prevent President Bush from exercising his recess authority. But by that point Bush had already made six times as many recess appointments as Obama.

Republican obstructionism is hurting the president as much as the GOP’s hostage-taking negotiating strategy on the economy. Even if it’s a risk, the time has come for the White House to finally start challenging the broken Congress.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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Meet Erick Erickson, the New-Media Rush Limbaugh

Last Monday, a lawyer in Georgia issued a proclamation so grandiose that readers could be forgiven for thinking it came from the Pope himself. The writer was Erick Erickson, editor of the blog Red State. In a post titled “The Absolution I Cannot Give,” he intoned:

“In the past 48 hours I have had call after call after call from members of the United States Congress. They’ve read what I’ve written.They agree. But they feel the hour is short and the end is nigh.So some are calling looking for alternatives. Some are calling looking for energy. Many are calling looking for absolution. And so I address them and put it here so you can see my advice. I can give no absolution for what you may be about to do. I can offer no alternatives.”

Republicans in Congress were begging a blogger for permission to vote for the best interests of the country by raising the debt ceiling. If you don’t follow the conservative blogosphere you might have wondered just who is this person was and how he became so important.

(Erickson did not name the representatives calling him, although Representative Joe Walsh (R-IL) confirmed that his office gets advice from Erickson.)

Erickson’s advice is aggressively partisan. Two weeks ago he assured House Republicans that the political fallout from an economically catastrophic default would fall on President Obama, writing:

“As I pointed out to John Boehner yesterday, despite what the pundits in Washington are telling you, it is you and not Obama who hold most of the cards. Obama has a legacy to worry about. Should the United States lose its bond rating, it will be called the ‘Obama Depression’. Congress does not get pinned with this stuff.”

In other words Erickson was encouraging Republicans to destroy the economy on the grounds that it would redound to their political benefit.

How did someone whose only experience in public office has been serving on the Macon, Georgia, city council become an advisor to national Republicans? It’s important to understand that Erickson isn’t just a blogger. “He’s an activist and a media figure,” says one Republican consultant. “Describing him as a blogger is inadequate.” Although Erickson’s rise from obscurity was through Red State, he has a much larger media footprint than just its 178,000 monthly visitors and one million monthly page views. Since April 2010 Erickson has been a regular contributor to CNN. He replaced Herman Cain as host of Cain’s radio show, popular among conservatives, when the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO began his presidential campaign. He also frequently guest hosts for conservative radio host Neal Boortz, meaning Erickson broadcasts for five hours daily.

The other point is that Erickson doesn’t use his blog as a mere forum for opining, much less conveying information. Erickson is an activist and media is his vessel. In some ways that makes him analogous liberals such as Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, and Jane Hamsher who runs Firedoglake. But Hamsher and Moulitsas weren’t getting calls from Democrats in Congress begging them for dispensation to vote for a bill that is terrible for Democratic priorities. “I’m not nearly as plugged-in as him,” says Hamsher.

Why does Erickson have more influence than his counterparts on the left? One reason is the strength of his army. Just as liberal bloggers targeted Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Erickson has gotten involved in Republican primaries. Although his success was mixed, a few high-profile victories, such as helping Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio defeat Florida’s moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist for Senate, have made Republican politicians respect his power. “When you take out senators, you become a force,” says Hamsher. “[Red State] has a track record now.”

Erickson also benefits from the legitimacy and megaphone that a mainstream media platform such as CNN confers. “It gives him gravitas when he’s on two to three times per week,” Hamsher says.

Also Erickson occupies a position inside the conservative echo chamber: his “Morning Briefing” 5 am e-mail has about 70,000 subscribers and he is cited by prominent personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. When Erickson counter-intuitively declared Democrat Bill Owen’s special election victory in NY-23 “a huge win for conservatives” because “the GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives” it became a widespread notion on the right.

Like many right wing pundits, Erickson is prone to disturbing outbursts. He said that he would “pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door,” instead of filling out the American Community Survey. He also complained that “Barack Obama’s brownshirts are after Glenn Beck” after Beck called Obama a racist.

One unnamed Republican leadership aide told the Washington Post that “He certainly doesn't have the influence of the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, [website] Hot Air or the National Review.” But that might be wishful thinking because the Journal’s editorial page and The Weekly Standard are loyal partisan servants of the GOP. They both urged House Republicans to pass Boehner’s bill.

Sure enough, when Boehner, Senate leaders and President Obama came to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling while cutting more than $2 trillion in spending, with no increase in tax revenues, Erickson split from the conservative media establishment again. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called it “a victory for the Tea Party.” But Erickson was underwhelmed and said he could not support it. “Keep track of who on the right votes against it,” Erickson wrote. “They’ll be the real heroes.”

So will Erickson and Tea Party conservative leaders, who worked together to elect insurgent extremist Republicans such as Kentucky’s Rand Paul, accept this as a victory or will they seek to exact revenge on the leadership and the members who voted for it? (The deal passed the House 269-161, all but ninety-five of those voting for it were Republicans.)

Perhaps Erickson will realize that he can’t punish 174 Republicans. That concession to reality may disappoint Tea Party activists, who expected dramatic change from such unlikely figures as John Boehner, the veteran business-toady they installed as Speaker of the House. But as liberals can tell them, winning an election and getting what you want are two very different things.

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