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USA TODAY GETS IT RIGHT! Rachel and Big Eddie fumbled ahead. Meanwhile, a colorful paper starts an important project: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 2011

Direct from the soul of Versailles: No one can say this is a dull time. Major issues are screaming for treatment.

But sure enough! Live and direct from the soul of Versailles, Maureen Dowd just wants to have fun— good sexy fun, that is:

DOWD (3/9/11): Sexy Ruses to Stop Forgetting to Remember

By the time you get to the end of this column, your brain will have physically changed.

You will either be on the Curve of Forgetting or the Path to the Memory Palace.

Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”…is both fun and reassuring. All it takes to have a better memory, he contends, are a few tricks and a good erotic imagination.

Dowd seeks sexy ways to remember. By way of contrast, sensible people read her columns, then drink to forget.

In her boxed sub-headline, Dowd offers the following apercu: “Our hunter-gatherer brains are swamped in a Twitter-blogger world.” We think the lady flatters herself, comparing herself to hunter-gatherers. But go ahead! To gather the latest pap from the palace, push your way through her full piece.

Chait speech/Joe Scarborough edition: Here at THE HOWLER, we’re always intrigued when someone defends a Dem against attack, but leaves a factual error unchallenged. Example:

George Will savaged birtherism in Sunday’s column, but he left a troubling claim unchallenged—the claim that Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the Brits when he seized the Oval Office.

In a fact-check, the AP says that claim is wrong. Of course, they may be lying again.

In context, this was a minor point. But even as he savaged the “paranoia” of birtherism, Will quoted a crackpot making this claim, then left the claim unexamined.

In a discourse ruled by false statements, this sort of thing is quite common. The same thing happened when Jonathan Chait challenged this Politico piece by Joe Scarborough.

Scarborough had composed his piece while perched atop a very high horse. What follows is part of his column. In his rebuttal, Chait quoted this chunk of the piece as part of a longer passage:

SCARBOROUGH (3/8/11): For two years now, I have been assured by Obama’s closest aides that their man is going to get serious about the deficit—and soon. But in Obama’s White House, “soon” never comes.

Right after he got into office, Obama passed the largest spending bill in U.S. history and then convened, without the slightest trace of irony, the “Fiscal Responsibility Summit.” Presidential aides claimed that Obama wanted to discuss Social Security at the conference but Nancy Pelosi would not permit him to do so.

That didn’t stop him from telling the truth. In his Feb. 23, 2009, address to the summit, Obama called the long-term solvency of Social Security “the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far.” He also told audience members that when it came to entitlement programs, Washington leaders could no longer “kick the can down the road.”

After quoting a longer passage from Scarborough’s piece, Chait hotly defended Obama. But we were puzzled by the passage we’ve highlighted. Did Obama really call Social Security “the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far?” That seemed unlikely to us—but Chait had let the claim stand.

Answer: No, Obama didn’t say that. Here is the relevant part of Obama’s speech:

OBAMA (2/23/09): Now, I want to be very clear. While we are making important progress towards fiscal responsibility this year, in this budget, this is just the beginning. In the coming years, we'll be forced to make more tough choices and do much more to address our long-term challenges, from the rising cost of health care that Peter described, which is the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far, to the long-term solvency of Social Security.

In fact, Obama said “the rising cost of health care” was our most pressing challenge.

Our conclusions? Mika’s been writing Joe’s columns again. Buried under a set of bad claims, Chait may have been distracted.

Clarity is our most important product/Big Ed and Rachel explain: Your DAILY HOWLER keeps getting results! Consider last night’s Maddow program!

It’s true—we did experience setbacks. Rachel staged her second “cell phone texty poll question thingy” midway through the program. (The language, which we’re quoting, is meant to make viewers adore her.) As before, her poll question thingy concerned some very embarrassing language; in this case, the language had been emitted by Alan Simpson. As before, Rachel pretended to be confused by technical aspects of conducting her poll question thingy. This too is designed to make you like her—to make you think she’s just like you, despite her vast corporate wealth.

Those were the setbacks, but here was the win: Naomi Klein was a guest on the program! As you may recall, we started lobbying for such bookings in April 2009 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/09). Results have been few and far behind, but last night we got a big win! And sure enough! With substantial clarity, Klein explained the way her “shock doctrine/disaster capitalism” analysis can be applied to the events which are now unfolding in the various states.

Klein’s theory can be explained quite simply; two weeks ago, Paul Krugman wisely turned to her theory as a way to help explain these events (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/11). Meanwhile, during last night’s discussion, Klein and Maddow agreed on a key point—progressives need to develop clear explanations for the world’s major events:

MADDOW (3/8/11): People stand up against this stuff whenever it happens. Sometimes they do so in a way that works, and sometimes they do so in a way that doesn’t work. What makes the difference, whether or not people can win against this?

KLEIN: Well, the key is to name it while it’s happening. And, you know, that`s why—that`s why I wrote this history, a history of how the right has won around the world by exploiting these moments of crisis, because this has been their signature tactic. But we have not been on to them.

If—the whole point of using a crisis, of using a shock, is that in those moments of crisis, we’re disoriented. And—but if we name it while it is happening as people have been doing in Wisconsin, then the tactic doesn’t work. But, in addition, to that, you also have to say—you also have to have your own story about what is really causing the crisis.

Naomi Klein was right on with this thingy! Progressives need clear explanations. “Understanding it and explaining it is—I mean, it’s stupid to say that’s half the battle,” Maddow said as she closed, discussing a topic on which she is expert. “But, in this case, I think it really is and you are helping.”

Clear, persuasive, accurate explanation may not be half the battle. But over the past four decades, “liberals” have offered few explanations of any kind—and when we do come up with ideas, we tend to express them in ways which show open contempt for the regular people we need to convince. Klein was very clear last night, explaining the way oligarchic interests use moments of crisis to gain wealth and power—to savage the interests of regular people. Those regular people come from the left and the right, by the way.

By way of contrast, Maddow began the show with one of her long, hapless rambles. By now, Maddow seems to have developed a theory of explanation: You simply craft a bumper sticker, then repeat it again and again, waving your arms where necessary. Last night, Maddow kept repeating this bumper sticker: Events in Wisconsin, and in other states, are “not about the budget!”

(One example, of more than many: “It is not about the budget. It is really not. It is not about the budget in Wisconsin. It is not about the budget in Florida. It is not about the budget in Ohio. It is not about the budget in Michigan.”)

It’s not about the budget! Maddow grouped all sorts of disparate events under this all-purpose cry. At one point, her rather murky claim devolved into this:

MADDOW: Again, stripping collective bargaining rights is not a fiscal issue. It’s a rights issue.

Except, of course, it’s both. In the private and the public sectors, collective bargaining rights get stripped away as a way to lower compensation. That does lower budget costs for the states, though other motivations may also apply as legislation is crafted.

Klein is a hundred times sharper than Maddow. We liberals would be much better off if Maddow had simply adopted Klein’s construct as a way of explaining what is occurring. But MSNBC is a place of extremely weak explanation.

Just consider what Ed Schultz did.

On Monday night, Schultz began his heralded, week-long report about the rising cost of gasoline and food. You just knew the report would be great because Maddow herself had vouched for it. In our view, Schultz approaches politics from the right perspective. But good God! Can he explain anything?

On Monday, Schultz said the following as he introduced his topic: “Wall Street picks your pocket every time you go to the grocery store, fill up at the gas station or turn up your thermostat.” This sounded like an important claim. But then, his taped report began. It started out like this:

SCHULTZ (3/7/11): The price of gas has shot up to $3.51, up 13 percent in just the past month—even though Libya produces less than 2 percent of the world’s oil and even though the Saudis agreed to ramp up their production to help compensate.

So why the big spike? Because the price of oil is driven by speculators. Here’s how it works:

“Famous last words,” one analysis said. Big Ed rumbled along:

SCHULTZ (continuing directly): People who buy and sell oil, like aviation companies, heating oil companies, need to protect themselves against big swings in the price of oil. So, they make deals with each other to lock in prices down the road.

FDR knew that Wall Street wanted in on these deals because if speculators could overwhelm the market, they could drive up the price. So, he put limits on how much betting Wall Street could do.

Fast forward 50 years, and under Democrats and Republicans alike, those limits have come crumbling down. For commodities ranging from gasoline to wheat, speculators now drive the price. The CFTC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was empowered by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law to restore limits on Wall Street speculation.

By now, Schultz was five paragraphs into his taped report—and no one had the slightest idea what the Boy Howdy he was talking about. In our view, any semblance of clarity was gone by the highlighted paragraph about FDR.

Good, clear explanations count. On that point, Klein and Maddow agreed. But Klein is a hundred times sharper than Maddow—and Big Ed just can’t explain squat.

Progressives need to explain the world. It’s been a long time since we tried.

USA TODAY GETS IT RIGHT (permalink): Good lord! All praise to USA TODAY for its new, unfolding project!

To read the paper’s first report, click here. More reports are coming.

That first report by the colorful paper is almost 4000 words long. To help you know what this project is all about, this is part of Jay Mathews’ overview from his blog at the Washington Post:

MATHEWS (3/8/11): USA Today series forces look at cheating

The Los Angeles Board of Education shocked the city, and much of the education world, last week by ordering six charter schools shut down after a charter official was found to have orchestrated cheating on state tests. It is rare for a school board to close that many charters at once. Even the local teachers union, often hostile to charters, advised against it.

But more surprising, and perhaps a sign of a significant shift in the national debate over testing, is the fact that the jump in scores at the Crescendo charter system was investigated at all. USA Today, in a series of stories launched this week, has compiled nationwide evidence of inexplicable test score gains, followed by equally puzzling collapses, that experts say suggest cheating but are ignored by the officials responsible for those schools.

Looking at test results in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and the District, the newspaper found 1,610 examples of grades at schools that increased three standard deviations or more over the average statewide gain on the same test. That means the students in that school and that grade “showed greater improvement than 99.9 percent of their classmates statewide,” the story by reporters Greg Toppo, Denise Amos, Jack Gillum and Jodi Upton said.

Know-nothing columnists, pundits and pols keep piling up pressure on standardized tests. They never seem to understand that this will lead to outright cheating. (And yes, we mean “cheating.” We don’t mean “teaching to the test.”) USA TODAY is involved in a major project in which they detail the wages of this kind of pressure. For the record, Jay Mathews’ wife, Linda Mathews, is in charge of this project.

For ourselves, we strongly support annual testing; we can’t imagine running a school system without an annual program. (That’s especially true of a low-income system.) But here’s a quick bit of background:

“Accountability” began to be linked to testing programs in the early 1970s. Ever since then, some teachers, principals and entire school systems have cheated on these testing programs, in every conceivable way.

Some such people—not all.

We’re talking here about outright “cheating,” not about “teaching to the test.” Among other things, we’re talking about changing students’ answer sheets after the actual testing is done. We’re talking about giving students all the test questions (and all the answers) before the test is administered.

This started at the classroom and school level. In time, it rose to the school system level, then to the level of state education departments. Examples: In the middle of the last decade, the state of Virginia conducted a statewide scam which inflated the “passing rates” at almost all schools. Last summer, the state of New York threw out its test scores from the last decade, acknowledging that, over the years, the tests had become “too easy to pass.”

Big news orgs have always avoided these topics. When the state of Virginia acknowledged its scam, the Washington Post didn’t even report it. The New York Times has made little effort to explore the recent scam in New York. (As best we can tell, the Washington Post has given that matter one sentence.)

This is a very important topic, but only if you care about children. You won’t read about this at “liberal” sites. Our side quit on black kids three decades ago. Despite our self-ballyhooed racial grandeur, we don’t care about such children.

That said, USA TODAY seems to have created a very large project concerning a very important topic. Given the massive emphasis now being placed on testing, this problem needs full discussion.

All praise then to this most colorful paper! We look forward to its future reports, and we strongly recommend Monday’s impressive first effort.

Direct from the Los Angeles Times: As Mathews notes in his post, six Los Angeles charter schools were just shut down for cheating. To read all about it, click here.