Inaugural Friday book post

So, I kind of like the way that some of my favorite bloggers like to add a twist once a week.  Kevin Drum always posts pictures of his cats and Jonathan Bernstein always blogs about baseball.  I felt like I wanted to do something a little bit personal every Friday.  But what?  Then I thought books would be a great idea.  You know I love books (and this has already been Nurtureshock week), but I thought maybe I’d just write here about favorite books from long ago that more people should know about; political science books (which I never blog about); and just whatever else I feel like on that general topic.  We’ll see how it goes.

So, for the inaugural post, I’ve chosen Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, one of the very first books to make it onto my favorites list.  It’s probably been almost 15 years since I read this, but it still sticks with me.  It’s the story of water in the American West and it opened my eyes so much to how politics really works in this country.  I also remember that it was very readable.  I suspect it is more relevant today than ever.  Anyway, think about it.  When my mom recommended this to me way back when, reading the story of “water in the American West” was not exactly what I was interested in for pleasure reading, but I’m sure glad I did.

Obama blogs so I don’t have to

Alright, he doesn’t actually blog, it was a speech, but it’s well worth quoting here (even though, I rarely do so).  Here’s Obama (via Chait):

But I also understand that throughout our nation’s history, we have balanced the threat of overreaching government against the dangers of an unfettered market.  We’ve provided a basic safety net, because any one of us might experience hardship at some time in our lives and may need some help getting back on our feet.  And we’ve recognized that there have been times when only government has been able to do what individuals couldn’t do and corporations wouldn’t do.

That’s how we have railroads and highways, public schools and police forces.  That’s how we’ve made possible scientific research that has led to medical breakthroughs like the vaccine for Hepatitis B, and technological wonders like GPS.  That’s how we have Social Security and a minimum wage, and laws to protect the food we eat and the water we drink and the air that we breathe.  That’s how we have rules to ensure that mines are safe and, yes, that oil companies pay for the spills that they cause.

Now, there have always been those who’ve said no to such protections; no to such investments.  There were accusations that Social Security would lead to socialism, and that Medicare was a government takeover.  There were bankers who claimed the creation of federal deposit insurance would destroy the industry.  And there were automakers who argued that installing seatbelts was unnecessary and unaffordable.  There were skeptics who thought that cleaning our water and our air would bankrupt our entire economy.  And all of these claims proved false. All of these reforms led to greater security and greater prosperity for our people and our economy. [emphasis Chait’s]

So what was true then is true today.

I really like this line of argument.  I’d love to see more Democrats make this argument more forcefully more of the time.

Think for yourself

Will Saletan wrote this really nice piece on “escaping a partisan bubble” about a month ago, but I was just thinking about it in examining my own attitudes towards Obama and the oil spill.  Personally, I find the best way to be politically honest and open-minded is to simply ask myself how I would respond to something by mentally replacing the prominent Democrat at the center of it with a prominent Republican, or vice versa.  Of course, I may still be deluding myself when all is said and done, but I expect much less so.  And, with years of experience, I really think, not that much.  When I blog I’m happy enough to just spout off (like the oil), but I’ve done enough media interviews through the years now and I take my role as a (hopefully) unbiased ‘expert” very seriously.  I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at analyzing politics mostly absent my own personal views when I try.

Anyway, Saletan gives 10 ways to keep yourself out of a partisan bubble.  There’s some good tips; Saletan suggests “look in the mirror” and “overcome your urges” which I think is fairly close to what I was getting at.  Not sure if I 100% agree with all of these, but it is a pretty interesting list and our political discourse would be a hell of a lot better if everyone went by it.

Obama and the oil spill

In all fairness, I’d probably be more ready to place blame on George W. Bush than on Obama for this spill, but, regardless, there’s way too much attention focused on the president in this.  He’s the president, not Super Oil Removal Man.  And, I actually decided it would probably be, if not quite fair, somehow appropriate to blame Bush more if this had happened under his watch because it is Republican disdain for regulation and properly functioning government that allows events like this to happen.  All that said, this Miller-McCune piece makes a great point:

Amid the evolving debate about government’s role in the disaster cleanup — a debate that has drawn fine distinctions between who’s “responsible,” who’s “accountable” and who’s “in charge” — one thing officials haven’t said is the uncomfortable truth: Americans don’t actually want the kind of government that keeps on hand at all times billion-dollar deep-sea contingent equipment and the highly trained experts who know how to use it.

That’s a huge point.  The article nicely spins it out:

“Just imagine what would have happened six months ago if the president had suggested a new agency that would be trained and funded to clean up disasters like this, granted the authority to take over an oil well at the first sign of trouble, and this agency would be funded by a large tax on oil companies,” wrote University of North Dakota law professor Joshua Fershee on the Business Law Prof Blog. “You can be sure that the response would have been that the government shouldn’t be in this business because the oil companies are better trained, better prepared and better able to respond to such problems.”

Then imagine the infinite other highly technical low-probability contingencies for which government would have to bone up on behalf of private industry: coal-ash spills, mine collapses, chemical leaks, refinery explosions, factory fires, ship collisions.

Of course, in the aggregate, the American people are whiny children, and that’s what we have to deal with.  I wish we could at least be whiny pre-schoolers instead of whiny toddlers.

The gifted gap

One of the students in my Gender & Politics (David just learned about the ampersand this week and is totally intrigued by it– I actually say “ampersand” when describing this class just so it’s clear, along with Media & Public Opinion) class this summer, sent me the link to this really interesting story about the gender gap in New York city’s elementary gifted programs.

Weird or not, the disparity at the three schools is not all that different from the gender makeup at similar programs across the city: though the school system over all is 51 percent male, its gifted classrooms generally have more girls.

What’s going on?  The answer is obvious from the next paragraph:

Around the city, the current crop of gifted kindergartners, for example, is 56 percent girls, and in the 2008-9 year, 55 percent were girls. [emphasis mine]

Gifted kindergartners??!  The whole concept of separating “gifted” children at that age is not only counterproductive and stupid, but totally scientifically invalid.  Let’s just call this Nurtureshock week, and I’ll come back to it to refer to what was among the most interesting chapters– the horrible job we do of identifying kids as “gifted” at much too early an age.  I don’t have the exact numbers with me because a friend has been delinquent in returning it, but suffice to say a very substantial portion of kids who test “gifted” at 5 no longer test gifted at 8; and, of course, vice versa.  Many children whom are clearly exception at 8, 9, or even later tested completely ordinary at 5 or 6.  Despite this fact, once kids test into a gifted program, they are never tested back out and many systems only offer one opportunity to test in at too early an age.  Thus, given everything we already know about the development of young boys and girls, you get gender gap you see here.  The Times article minces words a bit much for my taste, but here’s the gist:

Why more girls than boys enter the programs is unclear, though there are some theories. Among the most popular is the idea that young girls are favored by the standardized tests the city uses to determine admission to gifted programs, because they tend to be more verbal and socially mature at ages 4 and 5 when they sit for the hourlong exam.

If you want to create a gifted system with more girls than boys, I can think of few better ways than a standardized test for 5-year olds.  That said, I don’t have a problem with this particular gender gap, per se, but I do think it provides a very useful window on how fraught such early educational testing is.  (Now, go get yourself a copy of Nurtureshock already).

UPDATE: Big Steve takes me to task for failing to make the obvious connection to the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter.  Of course, at Hogwarts, they wisely wait till the kids are 11.  If they sorted kids at 5, I think they all might end up in Slytherin :-).

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