Monday, December 30, 2002

So Exactly What Did He Mean to Say?

This week's column is a riff on the idea that you should take Trent Lott's apologies seriously, that he really meant something else. And exactly what would that be?

Anticipating one objection, that conservatives were solely responsible for defeating communism, I note only that the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred during George H. W. Bush's term, and conservatives threw him overboard as one of them during the budget compromise, and they can't take him back now.

Isn't it interesting that whether Trent Lott deserves to be a U.S. Senator is strictly a matter for voters in Mississippi, but every Democrat in America was/is responsible for Cynthia McKinney?

Lott's Legacy

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 30, 2002

Maybe Trent Lott wasn’t nostalgic for segregation when he recalled Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign with such undeserved fondness. Perhaps Sen. Lott somehow ignored the sole reason for the Dixiecrat party, and Thurmond’s only lasting political achievement (besides living so long) -- leading those conservative white voters with “problems” about equal rights out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican.

But what did Sen. Lott mean when he said that if ol’ Strom had won, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems.” Pray tell, exactly which “problems” of the past 54 years would we have avoided?

Better not ask black Americans. In 1948, in great swaths of this country we blocked them from voting, prohibited them from owning property in “restricted” neighborhoods, and sent them to segregated schools -- including, yes, in Arizona.

We prevented them from using the same restaurants, theaters, and hotels; when they enlisted in the armed forces, they served in segregated units. Presumably equal rights isn’t one of “these problems” we now regret.

Better not ask senior citizens, either. In 1948, we had no Medicare program. Vast numbers of seniors went without even basic medical care. Despite Social Security, the elderly were more likely to be poor, while today, the reverse is true. In 1948, even a minor illness raised the specter of destitution. While Medicare certainly isn’t perfect, I don’t see today’s seniors clamoring to give up their benefits. Presumably Medicare isn’t one of these unfortunate “problems,” either.

Next, recall the medical care available in 1948, before so many of today’s amazing medical developments in surgery, technology, pharmaceuticals, and treatments far better (and far more costly) than almost anything available then. Many of these developments -- including future advances -- come from publicly-subsidized research at universities or the National Institutes of Health.

Better not ask people facing diseases for which no cures existed in 1948 if government-sponsored medical research is one of “these problems” we could have avoided.

Don’t ask the disabled, either. They might think that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 opened doors of opportunity and self-reliance formerly nailed shut. Lots of women might point out that the civil rights movement also led to equal treatment for them in the workforce, too. It’s doubtful either group would consider the ADA or Title VII as “problems” we shouldn’t have had to endure.

I’d also suggest not asking any women who play high school or college sports. They might not take kindly to any suggestion that Title IX is a terrible mistake that electing Strom Thurmond in 1948 might have prevented. (And I’d especially advise you older guys against making a dedicated athlete angry, regardless of sex.)

So, we’ve ruled out asking minorities, women, seniors, the disabled, and those benefiting from new medical treatments -- and that’s just for starters; don’t forget television, computers, and microwave ovens, much less the fall of communism. So what exactly are these “problems” that electing Thurmond 54 years ago might have let us miss?

Despite the formidable impediment suffered by anybody born before 1960, that of no longer being young, life today is clearly better than in 1948. Any American who wants to trade now for then lives on a different planet.

Maybe life today is worse than in 1948, if you’re a U.S. Senator longing for those bygone days when a handful of old white guys controlled everything. You might want to reverse decades of years of progress -- none of which was brought to you by conservatives, of course -- thus avoiding “all these problems.”

But for the rest of us, it’s nostalgia that ain’t what it used to be.

Monday, December 23, 2002

It's All Enron's and Trent Lott's Fault

I got a pretty amazing "tag" above the headline this week: "Republican Rot." Bob Schuster's idea, not mine--and that's even without mentioning the $60 million civil verdict against GOP Corporation Commissioner Jim Irvin. If you want proof, check out the paper's version here.

I also wrote 99 Words About Jane Hull, in Sunday's Arizona Republic, where they pretty much used my bar mitzvah photograph. You can read the bit here but there's no photograph available online.

Happy holidays to Gentile readers, and I presume I'll see the rest of you (us?) at the movies or at dim sum on Christmas day.


East Valley Tribune, Dec. 22, 2002

Our local media missed the local angle on two big national stories last week.

First, a videotape surfaced of an Enron Corp. party, featuring a glowing testimonial from our current president, and one from his father about just how helpful an Enron executive had been to “my boy George.”

The video also featured skits with Enron honchos actually joking about accounting fraud. A financial type jests that managing earnings was proving less difficult and time-consuming than he had feared. But the highlight was Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling talking about a new technique to boost profits by “kazillions” through adoption of “HFV” -- accounting based on “Hypothetical Future Values.”

Skilling was joking (I think). Enron’s standards-free abuse of “mark-to-market” accounting already allowed it to decide how much money it made by using prices only it knew, set in markets it controlled. Who needed to invent future values when you were creating today’s prices? But HFV sounded eerily familiar. What famous Arizona businessman actually used HFV, years before the Enron skits?

Answer? Former Gov. J. Fife Symington. In his bankruptcy fraud trial, Symington justified the inflated values he claimed for various assets on his financial statement as based on what he just knew those properties would be worth sometime in the future. It was Fife Symington, not Jeffrey Skilling, who invented HFV -- and then testified under oath that he meant it.

Fife Symington: Just slightly (and fraudulently) ahead of his time.

Second, while Trent Lott now regrets wishing that Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, his problems increased before his resignation Friday with renewed attention to several pro-Confederacy and anti-civil-rights remarks Lott’s made, including a lengthy interview with a crypto-racist publication called Southern Partisan.

Southern Partisan has defended slavery (“Slave owners . . . did not have a practice of breaking up slave families. If anything, they encouraged strong slave families to further the slaves’ peace and happiness”) and trashed Lincoln’s memory (a “consummate conniver, manipulator and a liar”). They sold the T-shirt -- with Lincoln’s image over the words “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”), John Wilkes Booth’s cry after the assassination -- that Timothy McVeigh wore when arrested for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Here’s the Arizona connection. In 2000, Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign -- paying some $20,000 per month for “consulting services” -- hired none other than Richard Quinn, the editor of Southern Partisan, for the South Carolina presidential primary.

Quinn’s “consulting” led McCain into supporting keeping the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina capitol, a position McCain later renounced and for which he apologized. And based on what foul stunts the Bush campaign pulled in South Carolina (the speech at Bob Jones University, the push-polls about the McCains’ adopted daughter), perhaps McCain gets his apology accepted.

But why was support of the Confederate flag the least bit legitimate in the first place, to McCain in 2000, and in GOP gubernatorial campaigns in South Carolina and Georgia this year? In 1948, the Dixiecrat platform meant nullifying the U.S. Constitution. Flying that flag today celebrates treason.

If Confederate flag-wavers claim that it’s actually about culture or history, South Carolina and Georgia were British colonies, and Mississippi and Alabama part of France, decades longer than the Confederacy. You don’t see the Union Jack or Fleur-de-Lis on many pickup trucks.

In reality, it’s all about racism.

Coded (or plausibly-deniable) appeals to crypto- (and not-so-crypto-) racists have been part of southern GOP politics for decades. As Bill Clinton noted, despite the current right-wing outrage over Lott, “he just embarrassed (the GOP) by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day.”

As computer programmers say, “It’s not a bug -- it’s a feature.”

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Such a Sacrifice! Such a Burden!

Trent Lott stepping down as majority leader (but remaining a senator) means that Republicans take care of their problems and Democrats don’t, says Instapundit.

Really? Of course not.

First, if taking Lott out of leadership - but keeping him in the Senate - is “taking care” of the problem, then any criticism of Robert Byrd and Ernest Hollings for their segregationist past and, more recently Byrd’s use of a racial epithet when discussing his past, isn’t valid. They’re just as eligible to remain in the Senate as is Trent Lott - much less Strom Thurmond. They just can’t serve in party leadership like Lott was.

Byrd and Hollings are “merely” long-serving members of the U.S. Senate who have been around long enough to chair (or serve as ranking minority members) of powerful committees - which is apparently a perfectly acceptable outcome for Trent Lott. The office he “wasn’t fit to hold” was majority leader, not U.S. Senator.

Second, if the issue really was Lott’s leadership role and it’s up to voters in Mississippi to decide whether Lott can remain as a senator, then only residents of West Virginia and South Carolina get to decide whether Byrd and Hollings are fit to serve as senators today.

Actually, having voted for Strom Thurmond for so many years, South Carolinians are ineligible, so it’s just West Virginia residents who get to play. Any other Republican who accepts Lott remaining in the Senate, despite his comments, just forfeited his or her right to slam Byrd or Hollings.

Third, notice what “taking care of the problem” means in this case. Trent Lott is no longer majority leader, but he’s still a United States Senator, with his seniority, committee assignments, and stature.

The Republicans solved their problem by keeping him on stage, but moving him to the side so that the spotlight doesn't shine so brightly on him anymore. Cynthia McKinney had to leave Congress, but Trent Lott can stay in the Senate.

It’s usually liberals who get blamed for self-pitying moralizing, but check out this quote from the Peggy Noonan column that Mickey Kaus saluted:

Some of us have put our reputations in jeopardy by supporting programs like the school liberation movement because we want to help people who don't have much and need a break. Or we’ve put ourselves in jeopardy by opposing racial preferences, or any number of other programs, for the very reason that we believe completely in our hearts and minds that all races are equal and no one should be judged by the color of his skin.

How, pray tell, has Noonan “put herself in jeopardy” due to her personal support of the downtrodden and of equal rights? Does she mean that The Wall Street Journal would pay her more or run her stuff more often if she just didn’t care about other people? That she would have more stature in the conservative community if she didn’t believe in equal rights so very, very sincerely? That it really is a career-limiting problem for conservatives to believe in equal rights?

It’s must take such incredible bravery to be a conservative. You have to accept money, power, and prestige being showered on you -- such a burden! Oh, what a burden your reputation bears for supporting equal rights! It’s a terrible, terrible price to pay, but they pay it, because they know such sacrifice is worth it because of how it helps the less fortunate, or because of your firm belief in equal justice under the law for all citizens.

Of course, the “sacrifice” is supporting policies that oh-so-conveniently happen to benefit you personally, like tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich, like school voucher plans that will aid segregated private schools, like government spending devoted to GOP congressional districts.

In the real world, a “sacrifice” is when you give something up, or do something difficult, to benefit others and not yourself. But this sort of, yes, Orwellian abuse of language is necessary to believe that letting Trent Lott remain in the U.S. Senate is a sacrifice, “taking care of” a long-standing and shameful problem.

(Harold Ickes put himself in physical jeopardy and lost a kidney working for equal rights. Into exactly what jeopardy has Peggy Noonon put herself in the cause? Oh, yes, one more thought experiment. Imagine that Paul Krugman wrote a column so self-pitying and self-justifying as Noonan's. Would Kaus have called it "good"?)

Don’t sprain your shoulder patting yourself on the back, guys.

NOTE: I edited this post after initially posting in on Saturday.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Unfortunately, When the Right Wing Asks about Women Who Had Affairs with Bill Clinton, Lots of Volunteers Step Forward

This one goes out to my high school friend Jim Finkelstein, currently of Albany, GA, who often fills my email in-box with column ideas, and who happened to pass on an overstated version of the "gaps in Bush Guard service" story from an anti-Bush website. I'm not sure the whole anti-Bush claim checks out, but the no-record-of-service-in-Alabama part does. I also like the idea of the Bush campaign asking for anybody to step forward who remembers actual service in the Alabama National Guard, as recounted in Bush's campaign autobiography. Anybody see him at the time? Nobody's come forward so far.

Plus, local itemizers, don't forget the bizarre laundry list Arizona tax credits before Dec. 31! Information and the mailing address for the Citizens Clean Election Fund tax credit contribution is available here.

My column is also available online via the East Valley Tribune website here.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 15, 2002

In a letter to the editor on Dec. 4, Master Sgt. Michael Gorman took umbrage at my description of President Bush’s “service” in the Alabama Air National Guard. I’m not surprised Sgt. Gorman missed the point, because in matters great and small, George W. gets graded “on the curve.”

I wrote that contrary to The Tribune editorial page’s fond wish that Congress “revisit” aspects of the new Homeland Security law, “The GOP will show as much desire to ‘revisit’ these issues next year, and do it about as often, as George W. Bush showed up to do his draft-avoiding stint in the Alabama National Guard.”

Sgt. Gorman objected to calling National Guard service “draft-avoiding” -- and slurred me personally by saying that I called such service “unpatriotic” when I wrote no such thing. But I wasn’t attacking Guard service; I was pointing out George W. Bush’s service record in Alabama. More accurately, his lack of one.

In 1972, Bush transferred from his Texas Air Guard unit to work on an Alabama political campaign. Bush claims he met his Guard commitment in Montgomery, but no record exists that he ever showed up for duty.

I leave it to those who served in the military, or worked for the federal government, to ponder whether anyone could spend one hour on duty without generating any paperwork.

Of course, Bush can’t account for less than a year of “lost” Guard service, and it happened decades ago. Just do me one favor, though; insert “Clinton” in that sentence, and repeat; let me know how it feels.

“Revisit” the Homeland Security bill? President Bush will claim he did the job, only nothing will get written down. But given our low expectations, it just won’t matter to you ‘wingers.

Having cleared that particular air, December is also time to remind readers of the dizzying variety of state income tax credits. Don’t forget that anyone in a position to itemize deductions and without potential Alternative Minimum Tax liability can make thousands of dollars of state tax liability disappear.

First, there’s a credit (up to $625 for married couples filing jointly, $500 for individuals) for donations to “private school tuition organizations.” Give by December 31, then get your entire donation back in April when paying state taxes.

Second, don’t forget the separate-but-not-equal tax credit for contributions to public schools, up to $200 (individuals) or $250 (couples filing jointly). It won’t cost you a dime due to the dollar-for-dollar credit.

Third, donations to charities helping the working poor can qualify for another $200 tax credit (same amount whether married or single). Donate today, and Arizona repays you when you file your taxes.

The fourth widely-available credit may be moot, because for possibly the first time in American history, a government agency has too much money and is giving it back. The Citizens Clean Election Commission estimates it will have $1.4 million more than the legal limit, and will transfer the excess to the state’s General Fund.

But regardless, taxpayers can contribute $530 individually or $1,060 for a couple filing jointly, or 20% of your state tax liability, whichever is greater , to the Citizens Clean Election Fund. You get a dollar-for-dollar credit on Arizona income taxes. (Contributions are also deductible for federal taxes, so it’s entirely refundable; pay now, get it back in April.)

Even if your money ultimately lands in the General Fund, you have the satisfaction of earmarking those dollars and making things more difficult for the Arizona Legislature -- and that’s worth something, right?

Sure, this laundry list of tax credits is lousy public policy and a key component of the state budget crisis. But those are the rules, so why not play the game?
It's Not a Bug -- It's a Feature!

As Josh Marshall has noted, coded or plausibly-deniable appeals to crypto-racists and not-so-crypto-racists have been part and parcel of both Trent Lott's and John Ashcroft's politics. Despite outrage on the right about Lott these days, I have to note with regard to Lott's paeans to the not-so-wonderful past, "It's not a bug -- it's a feature!"

Friday, December 13, 2002

A Little Bit of Lott

I had two ideas this morning about the Trent Lott situation. Ted Barlow beat me to the punch on the first one, that Trent Lott, in Glenn Reynolds's phrase, is "objectively pro-racist." But here's the other idea. Somebody with a photo editor program should alter the famous photograph of Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune headline so that it's a picture of Trent Lott holding up the altered headline, "WHAT'S-HIS-NAME DEFEATS TRUMAN." You'd probably have to share credit with The Onion (which once altered the photo to have Truman holding up the newspaper with the headline "WHAT'S-HIS-NAME DEFEATS OTHER GUY), but it would be timely. And funny.

Monday, December 09, 2002

A Zoning Lawyer's Lament

On the way to my 30th high school reunion in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I detoured to tour Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Bear Run, PA, built over a waterfall for the Kaufman family, of Pittsburgh department store fame. I found a link to something in the recruiting video that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the nonprofit to which the Kaufman heir gifted the house, makes you watch at the end of a tour. The WPC makes the point that their work beautifying cities helps preserve the countryside. In fact, the organization got its start raising money to landscape a new parkway in Pittsburgh.

On my return to Phoenix, I wound up thinking about the ugliness of my new commute down Thomas Road, which managed to get linked in my mind with a local dispute where a high-end neighborhood (full of people who make their upscale living off development) is riled by development in their neighborhood. It's a variant of the old zoning problem. You've heard of NIMBY? Well, this is NIMNBYE--Not In My Neighbor's Back Yard, Either.


East Valley Tribune, Dec. 8, 2002

Lots of folks believe in "private property rights" -- but what they really mean they can do what they want with their property, then tell their neighbors what they can do with their property.

It's an elastic and extraordinarily convenient philosophy; people just love demanding more of others than themselves.

It also lets well-connected neighborhoods get better, while the rest of us watch our surroundings decay.

Consider the example of neighbors of the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix, upset over the Resort's construction of a four-story parking garage. The Biltmore had all necessary approvals for the project; the City of Phoenix approved the zoning nine years ago, and the owners pulled building permits without needing public hearings, neighborhood notification, or permission from guy across the street.

The 49-foot-high concrete garage is not the world’s most aesthetically-pleasing building. It’s a 49-foot-high concrete garage, and as unappealing as dozens built at shopping centers, offices, and resorts throughout the Valley. But it has angered the Biltmore neighbors, who now seek changes to Phoenix development ordinances to provide more notice, access to plan information, and meetings between neighbors and developers prior to construction.

In other words, they want new government programs and additional required notices, meetings, and approvals before other property owners get to use their property.

The garage is mostly finished, but for future projects, the Biltmore neighbors will probably get what they want. Heck, the Phoenix City Council once invented a special zoning category just to prevent building on the Biltmore golf courses, so some politically-connected neighbors could keep their wonderful views over somebody else’s undeveloped property.

The city will write an ordinance giving municipal officials some discretion to require neighborhood notification and consultation for preliminary site plan reviews and building permits if the project is high-profile and expensive enough. In this case, “expensive” actually means the price of the neighbors’ homes; live in a pricey enough neighborhood, you’ll get “enhanced” notice -- so your neighbors must jump through additional hoops to use their property.

One Biltmore neighbor who works in the construction industry suddenly got religion once the “big square box” started going up near his house. He’s still pro-growth, but now worried to a newspaper reporter that if we don’t take sufficient care, he and his neighbors risk eliminating the very qualities that make the neighborhood special.

Hey -- that’s one powerful garage to make a construction consultant sound like a Sierra Clubber!

Problem is, the Biltmore neighbors are right, but they’ll probably use their clout to fix only their particular problem, so the rich will just keep getting richer. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Valley (both area and population) will just keep getting the same old same old.

There's a civic improvement group back east, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, with a two-fold mission. The Conservancy buys ecologically-significant parcels and assembles nature preserves in the countryside, but in its home city of Pittsburgh, aggressively sponsors civic beautification projects. The organization realized that making cities more appealing and attractive reduces pressures for development on the fringes. If city-dwellers see beauty around them, they don’t clamor as much to live far away, which helps preserve those rural areas.

The Biltmore neighbors have the right fear. After all, we do exactly the opposite here. We won’t ever consider making urban life more attractive; instead, we've organized to create and anesthetized ourselves to endure ugly and unappealing cities. Drive down Apache, or Broadway, or Thomas, and look around. Is there nothing we can do? Is there any question why people head for the desert instead?

But rather than wrestle with these issues, instead we’ll spend our time, and money, trying to make things even nicer at the Biltmore.

Monday, December 02, 2002

More On Vouchers (and on how to shift the debate to the right)

Here's a good example of how the public debate gets pushed steadily rightward. I wrote my column early this week (my editor wanted to take a well-deserved vacation for Thanksgiving, and put the Lack-of-Perspective section together on Wednesday). I got paired up with a conservative arguing that choice absolutely works, positively, lots of studies (but none cited in such a way that you could check them) have shown that scores improve for everybody! That's balance--a conservative ideologue, and a moderate (that's me, in case you were confused) saying hey, the evidence is mixed. Any room for a voice saying vouchers are evil? Not this week. Not this year.

Vouchers Don't Guarantee Success

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 1, 2002

Do school vouchers work? Despite the firmness of opinions on the issue, there have been surprisingly few valid empirical studies. In this case, “few” means about zero -- at least until recently.

Most voucher studies cited in this paper and elsewhere are really opinion pieces masquerading as research. Usually produced, then promoted, by groups with entrenched positions, these “studies” are merely junk science that unsurprisingly support proponents’ preexisting beliefs.

In fairness, it’s tough to study fairly whether vouchers actually improve student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. Students who apply for vouchers may have more motivation to learn than similarly situated peers, or have more involved, committed parents.

Not only would a fair study need to figure out which factors affect achievement, but those we do know about are awfully difficult to gauge. (For example, measure just how committed a parent is, on a ten-point scale.) You also could dispute whether tests accurately measure student achievement, but that’s an argument for another day.

In The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools, academic researchers William Howell and Paul Peterson got around these “control group” problems by studying, over several years, thousands of students who applied for voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Washington, D.C. More students applied for each program than could get vouchers, so recipients were chosen by lottery -- and a surprising number of lottery winners declined the voucher. Howell and Peterson thus could study what appear to be comparable groups.

Their study kept track of other characteristics of the students, their schools, their parents, and their environment, confirming the assumption of comparability)

So, do vouchers work? Howell and Peterson’s research says the answer is yes -- and no.

In Dayton and New York, but less so in D.C., black children who used vouchers got significantly better test scores than peers who did not. However, white and Hispanic students using vouchers showed no improvement. For them, vouchers had no effect on achievement. Surprisingly, whether vouchers work seems to depend on race; vouchers work for blacks, but don’t work for Hispanic and white kids.

Frustratingly, Howell and Peterson have no good explanation for the difference. The white and Hispanic children in the study came from low-income families in inner cities with poorly performing public schools. In fact, that’s how those students qualified to apply for vouchers.

The study also ruled out language as a cause for the Hispanic students’ results. While private schools as a rule provide less assistance for non-English-speakers, an analysis of English-proficient Hispanic students also found no gains in achievement from vouchers.

The explanation Howell and Peterson offer is a “differential theory of school choice,” which assumes that the public school systems in the test cities offer black students schools significantly worse than similarly situated white and Hispanic students, or that black parents are better “shoppers” finding better private schools than do non-black parents.

Maybe black students face worse public schools than Hispanic or white students nationally, but that doesn’t explain the difference for the students in the study, all of whom attended the same school districts (and often the same schools) and came from similar low-income families.

As Sara Mead of the Progressive Policy Institute noted in her review of The Education Gap, Howell and Peterson don’t answer the most important question raised by their surprising findings: What’s different for black students in private schools, and can we bring it to public schools -- without basing educational opportunities on race?

The facts about vouchers thus are perplexing and nuanced -- exactly the opposite of the debate about vouchers. School choice works, and yet it doesn’t. So let’s drop the certainty, and may a thousand practical approaches bloom.