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WHERE'S THE OUTRAGE! Junk economics got you down? We join Krugman in asking for outrage: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 1, 2008

RETURN OF PAULINE KAEL: As far as we know, Pauline Kael never actually said it. (She certainly never said it to us.) By legend, though, the New Yorker film critic marveled at Nixon’s landslide win in 1972. Why was she puzzled? No one she knew had voted for Nixon, Kael legendarily said.

Uh-oh! We thought of that non-comment comment when we read Gene Robinson’s column today—and when we watched his gruesome appearance on last evening’s Countdown. Going back to the Nixon days, there has been a certain type of liberal who is quite expert at losing elections. If you doubt it, just read Nixonland. Or this part of Robinson’s column:

ROBINSON (8/1/08): The latest bit of snarling, mean-spirited nonsense to come out of the McCain camp was the accusation, leveled by campaign manager Rick Davis that Obama had “played the race card.” He did so, apparently, by being black.

Bull-roar like that makes liberals feel good—and it can lose an election. Whatever you think of the past day’s events, McCain’s “snarling” accusation is different from that. But you won’t find out by reading Robinson! The pundit offers this cleaned-up account of events leading up to the flap:

ROBINSON (continuing directly): On Wednesday, at a campaign stop in Missouri, Obama had predicted that Republicans would try to "make you scared of me. You know, 'He's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name,' you know, 'he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.' " So what does Davis do? He promptly tries to make voters scared of Obama by feigning outrage over the presumptive Democratic nominee's "divisive, negative, shameful and wrong" remarks.

Obama made a prediction about “Republicans,” Robinson said. He didn’t say that Obama had mentioned a certain Republican by name—John McCain—or that he actually made the prediction at three Missouri stops, not one. You learn those things if you read Jonathan Weisman’s news report in the Post. (Though Weisman only quotes the use of McCain’s name at one of the stops, thus muddling the facts about the two others.) But you learn something different from Robinson.

But then, the hackistry was even worse if you watched last evening’s Countdown. In a sadly typical performance, Keith-O played tape of Obama’s three comments—omitting all references to McCain’s name. Then, he dragged out Howard Fineman. The pundit who slandered Gore for two years is now reliably pro-Obama. But whichever side he’s playing on, dude seems to play the same games:

OLBERMANN (7/31/08): Howard, good evening.

FINEMAN: Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: How did Obama, saying what he said three times yesterday and having actually said something even a little stronger for the first time in Florida towards the middle of June, how did that go from not being playing the race card as of last night, in the McCain campaign estimation, to being playing the race card today?

FINEMAN: Well, it’s because the McCain campaign strategy has changed in the meantime. They’ve gone all negative all the time...

Consummate hackistry. Part of the answer to Keith-O’s question was obvious; on Wednesday, Obama used McCain’s name in his riffs on this subject, as he hadn’t done in the past. But so what? In full interviews with Fineman and Robinson, no one ever mentioned this fact. Indeed, that elementary fact was never mentioned in the full segment on Countdown. (Except, perhaps, in one possible reference. If you didn’t know the fact coming in, you didn’t know the fact going out.)

On Wednesday, Obama cited McCain by name. You might think that matters, or you might think it doesn’t. You might think it’s smart, or you might think it’s dumb. But elsewhere, people are being told that it happened; indeed, it’s one of the basic facts to which the nation’s voters are reacting. On CNN’s 360 Degrees, for example, Roland Martin said this to guest host Wolf Blitzer last night:

BLITZER (7/31/08): Roland, when Senator Obama says Republicans will try scaring voters because he looks different than other presidents on dollar bills, what do you think he means by that?

MARTIN: Exactly what he says. And so I understand the point. The problem here is that he tried to link Bush and McCain specifically with those comments.

Now, you might have bloggers, you might have conservative talk show hosts, you might have columnists who are making all kind of comments like that, who are raising these various issues. Frankly, Obama made a mistake. And that's why they [the Obama campaign] did change their tune. They haven't even wanted to talk about it even further.

And so when the candidate brings that up, you need to have facts to back it up if you're going to link to it. That's why the McCain comment was very specific. He said, We did none of this. Obama's mistake was not saying the larger sort of arena, people who might be supporting McCain, those folks may be making these kinds of comments. That's a mistake he made.

Who is Roland Martin? He’s a black talk-show host from Chicago—a regular on CNN. Fairly plainly, he’s voting for Obama. But whether you agree with his view of this matter or not, at least he gave a full set of facts to people watching that program. (As did Blitzer.) Watching Countdown or reading Robinson, liberals are massively kept in the dark. Dems and libs are kept barefoot and pregnant. We’re allowed to be dumb and happy. We just aren’t given the facts.

In today’s column, Robinson massages the facts about several matters. (Note his comment about what military officials in Iraq and Afghanistan “seemed to think.” And we chuckled at the innocence of his take on “celebrity.”) But as a matter of electoral politics, race is a dangerous subject for Dems and libs—and many libs are still clueless about that.

For ourselves, we agree with Martin’s assessment; Obama made a mistake on Wednesday. (If you want him to win, that is. Otherwise, knock yourselves out!) But watching Olbermann, reading Robinson, liberals are turned into the know-nothing dopes Kael was purported to be. It isn’t just that Robinson doesn’t try to explain how this matter may look to swing voters. Like Olbermann and Fineman before him, he isn’t even willing to say what the flap is about!

We thought of Pauline Kael as we read it. In our view, this is how a certain type of liberal has sometimes managed to lose elections. Whatever his view of this matter might be, Robinson can’t quite bring himself to consider how this might look to the mass of voters—to voters who may not share his general outlooks. He won’t lower himself to print basic facts—the facts that cut against his case, the facts that might influence voters.

So go ahead! Put on your bell-bottoms and start complaining about those ridiculous Nixon voters! In those days, some of us got barefoot and pregnant on our own. Today, though, celebrity media stars will help us accomplish the process.

WHERE’S THE OUTRAGE: Paul Krugman’s column is very important, though we disagree with his outlook a tad. He complains about McCain’s “junk economics” on the subject of offshore drilling. He notes that McCain doesn’t seem to understand his own cap-and-trade proposal. He notes that Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist, now estimates a five percent chance that global temperatures will rise by more than 18 degrees Fahrenheit; this will “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it” (Weitzman’s words). Near the end, he notes the public’s typical ignorance—and he seeks more outrage:

KRUGMAN (8/1/08): Mr. McCain's claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous—and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet Mr. McCain's gambit seems nonetheless to be working: public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn't know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we're going to get action, I'd suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that's why I was disappointed with Barack Obama's response to Mr. McCain's energy posturing—that it was ''the same old politics.'' Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

Regarding Obama, this is partly a matter of politics; outrage is tricky when running for office. (Unless you don’t care if you win, that is.) But we’ll have to disagree a tad with the credit Krugman gives to those news orgs. We understand why Obama might mute his words. In our view, the news orgs have fewer excuses.

Is it true? Have big news orgs noted the fact that McCain’s claim on drilling is junk economics? We’ll accept Krugman’s assessment. He made the same point, in a bit more detail, on last evening’s Countdown:

OLBERMANN (7/31/08): Speaking of failed energy policies—offshore drilling as a solution: Even the Bush administration’s own figures, experts, departments, are showing how meaningless this is. Why is McCain still pushing it and why does it seem to be resonating with a lot of people?

KRUGMAN: Well, he is still pushing it because it`s resonating. And I have to say, this is a little bit, you know, this is as clear-cut, this is as cut and dry you can get. The Energy Information Administration last year, in its energy report, specifically addressed this. And they said basically—no new oil, zero, zip until 2017 and insignificant effect on the price ever. So you know, this is not—this you got from the horse`s mouth, if you like.

But, you know, the people—it sounds good. We`re going to drill, we`re going to, you know, get some more stuff and American oil. And I have to say this is kind of disillusioning because, in the past, you know, when Bush has come out with crazy stuff, I partially blamed the news media for just not reporting on this. In this case, actually, the press has been pretty good in saying this is nonsense, but it’s still working.

And half of the American people, according to the latest polls, think that allowing this offshore drilling will, you know, cut oil prices next year...

But has the press really been “pretty good” in saying this is nonsense? On balance, we’d be less charitable. We haven’t heard outrage about the fact that yet another Republican White House candidate doesn’t seem to understand his own policies about the most important issues. We haven’t heard outrage about the fact that McCain is spreading notions about drilling that are factually ridiculous—“junk economics.” During Campaign 2000, Krugman himself kept sounding the alarm about this problem and Candidate Bush—and his colleagues sat around and stared into space. In our view, the same thing is happening again when it comes to McCain’s groaning ignorance.

Haven’t we seen this movie before? If the Republican candidate doesn’t understand his own cap-and-trade policy; is pushing a claim about offshore drilling that is factually “ridiculous;” is thereby helping the public believe things which are factually wrong: Then that should be a front-page, stand-alone news story, much like McCain’s unsupported claim about Obama’s cancelled visit to the troops. Outrage is dangerous for a pol. We would like, for once in our lives, to see some outrage from the press corps—outrage about howling ignorance and “ridiculous” statements. They insisted on letting Bush do this. Now, McCain gets the pass.

And yes, we’d like to see them get outraged for once about the public’s ignorance. Who is planning to tell the public that they have to get off their butts?

We’re assuming that Krugman is right on the basic facts. We share a reaction: Where’s the outrage? But the outrage we still can’t make out is the outrage we don’t see in the press.

Special report: De Vise tests the tests!


TWO WORDS—TECHNICAL MANUALS: We’ve already praised Daniel de Vise for his piece about those Maryland test scores (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/08). Today, let’s focus a bit on the basic facts he reported.

As de Vise began, he had some good news—and some bad. Maryland’s passing rates had gone up. But uh-oh! The tests were different:

DE VISE (7/27/08): Maryland educators this month celebrated a major jump in test scores, with achievement gaps narrowing and pass rates rising six percentage points in reading and four points in math. Then skeptics crashed the party.

The revelation that this year's Maryland School Assessments were a half-hour shorter than last year's raised suspicions among researchers who thought the scores were too good to be true. Here, some thought, was the smoking pencil.

Passing rates had gone up—but the tests had been changed! As we noted on Monday, this led de Vise to a basic question—a basic question big journos have ducked for lo, these many years:

DE VISE (continuing directly): The episode illustrates a basic disagreement within the education community over why scores are rising across the nation since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, which sets a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014: Are kids getting smarter, or are tests getting easier?

Were Maryland students smarter this year? Or could it just be that the tests were easier? In a rational world, journalists would be asking these questions every year, whether passing rates went up or not. But journalists have rarely asked such questions, even as some states have shown large score gains on their own state tests which students can’t match on other measures. DC’s test scores went up this year too—and nobody at the Washington Post wondered (much) about the state of those tests. Under current arrangements, it’s always possible that the difficulty of a state’s tests has changed from one year to the next. If we actually care about test scores, journalists should be watching this constantly.

We thought de Vise did an excellent job with a subject the press corps loves to avoid. Indeed, our analysts stood and raucously cheered as he sketched some basic facts:

DE VISE: Researchers say there are many ways, intentionally or inadvertently, to skew a test: Replace difficult questions with simple ones. Assign more weight to easier questions to exaggerate small gains by weak students. Lower the passing score, so a student who gets half the questions right is judged a success.

Illinois, Missouri and Arizona all have publicly lowered passing scores on their tests, yielding higher pass rates. California officials shuffled the order of questions on the third-grade reading test two years ago, out of concern that the first question students saw was overly complex.

Virginia's Board of Education eased passing scores on several history and social studies tests in 2001. A subsequent Washington Post analysis found that the changes were responsible for about half of the increase in schools meeting state accreditation standards in 2002. State education spokesman Charles Pyle said there has been no easing of the tests since then. One significant change in 2006 actually made some tests harder, he said.

D.C. education officials say their testing system, introduced in 2006, has never been altered in a way that could make it easier. Scores in the District rose notably this year.

When a state lowers the passing score, that is a fairly obvious change. More significant are the types of changes that can occur, intentionally or inadvertently, without the public’s knowledge. And by the way: When a “state education spokesman” (or a “DC education official”) make a statement on these matters, the statement isn’t necessarily true. Intentionally or inadvertently, such claims can be wrong. Journalists should be checking behind them.

How could journalists perform such a task? Before we answer, let’s describe the minor gong-show accompanying this year’s change in the Maryland tests.

First, there was no disclosure that the tests had been changed when the score gains were announced. Here at THE HOWLER, we like Nancy Grasmick. But this isn’t all that impressive:

DE VISE: Maryland officials removed a section of multiple-choice questions from state reading and math tests this year, shortening each from roughly three hours to two and a half. They did not publicly announce the change, although the 24 school-system superintendents were apprised in a June 2007 memo.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said she did not even recall the change when she made the results public July 15. State officials contend that the revision had no bearing on results because only a few deleted questions counted toward student scores, and those were replaced.

"The 2008 results are absolutely comparable to every previous year back through 2003," said Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy state superintendent.

Grasmick didn’t even recall the change? Jeez. A competent person would have to consider such a change in evaluating the new test scores. And while Peiffer may believe that this year’s results are “absolutely comparable” to those in the past, that shouldn’t be a matter of opinion; unless we’re completely delusional, that’s a type of claim that should be empirically demonstrated in a technical manual. Unless we’re remembering wrong, that was an ethical requirement of testing companies back in the 1970s, back when a half-dozen “norm-referenced” tests were the dominant force in testing. (The Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the California Achievement Tests, for example. We think we’re recalling ethical requirements of the American Psychological Association.) When the ITBS would create a new edition of its tests (every seven years), they wouldn’t just say the new tests were as hard as the old ones; they were supposed to be able to show it. A great deal turns on these annual tests. Creating them is not supposed to be a matter of opinion or guesswork.

But uh-oh! Now that fifty different states (plus DC) are constructing fifty-one different sets of tests, does anyone bother with traditional niceties? We have no idea. But this was the part of de Vise’s piece that struck us most like a gong show:

DE VISE: An independent panel of psychometricians validated the revised test, affirming that it was neither easier nor harder than last year's, although the group spent a few minutes in a conference call pondering unusually large gains in certain grades. (The share of fifth-grade students rated "advanced" in reading, the highest of three performance levels, rose an unprecedented 18 points.)

Some panel members say the changes might have contributed to the higher scores. How a student performs on a test item depends partly on what comes before and after, factors that could affect concentration or confidence.

Sorry: To us, that sounds shaky. There are ways to demonstrate that two tests are equally difficult. It sounds to us like Maryland may have relied on more traditional assessments, like the flight of birds, though it’s hard to tell from de Vise’s report, which gets a bit murky here. (And no, that eighteen-point jump on the fifth-grade test doesn’t fill us with confidence.) But then, with fifty different state boards of ed now devising fifty-one different testing programs, we’d assume that corners are being cut as these tests are developed.

Do the states present technical manuals each year, demonstrating the level of difficulty? We’d love to see de Vise start asking; we’d love to see him report what he finds. In recent years, there have been obvious problems with some state testing programs—and journalists have tended to look away. In the following passage, the word “illusory” should form a challenge to newspapers like the Post, which has done very little work on this subject in the past:

DE VISE: Recent reports from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Fuller's group, Policy Analysis for California Education, have concluded that most recent gains on state tests are illusory, reflecting better test-taking skills or lower standards rather than increased knowledge. Another study, from the Center on Education Policy, concluded that the gains seemed genuine but did not necessarily reflect greater learning.

The reports compared state results with other tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Measures of Academic Progress, which suggest that academic skills are improving at a slower rate, if at all.

"When the arrows don't point in the same direction, you have to at least ask yourself what's going on here," said Chester E. Finn Jr., Fordham Institute president.

“You have to ask yourself what's going on here?” Not in the press corps you don’t!

We were thrilled with de Vise’s report; we’ll suggest that you read every word. We very much hope that he’ll take the next steps. Do we really care about test scores—about the children who record them? Or to some extent, is this all just a game, designed to create pleasing stories?

Jennings on the wages of sin: As de Vise finished, one big education honcho pondered the wages of sin:

DE VISE: Nonetheless, some in the research community are pushing for an overhaul of the national testing apparatus. A simple fix: Require states to announce any change that might affect scores. A more radical solution: a national test, immune to state manipulation.

"I think most people are trying to do the right thing," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. "But the pressure to get results is enormous, and some people fail. Some people sin."

Good for Jennings! For ourselves, we first saw that sin back in 72. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05. Scroll down to “Demise of a brilliant idea.”) As near as we’ve been able to tell, sin hasn’t died out since then.