Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Public Opt-Out

By Peter Stanislaw, Get Off This!

Many progressives, liberals, and moderate conservatives (a dying breed) are celebrating the inclusion of a viable public option in the proposed Health Care Reform Bill, an accomplishment which should make Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proud. Fighting the influence of Olympia Snow on the Senate Finance Committee - who has stated that a public option would give the public sector too much of an advantage in the health care market - Reid was able to place the option into the bill with a compromise engineered by Charles Schumer, Senator from New York, for states to be able to opt out.

While this sounds fair on the surface, it should be remembered that it is not a "people's" opt-out plan, but a state plan. The roughly 154 million people who live in states where conservatives control the governor's mansion and/or the state legislature will probably never have a chance to enroll in a government-sponsored plan, and will have to choose from the plans offered by the entrenched insurance industry. The influence of the states that do opt for the government plan may not be enough to effect any true competition in the area of premiums, deductibles, co-pays and costs for services.

This compromise is being played out in the corporate media as being the best of both worlds. No mention is made of the facts that the public option was a severe compromise from the majority desire for a single-payer plan in the first place, or that the insurance industry has undue influence among the people's representatives. The opt-out plan is too far from perfect and we are not finished in our goal of effecting a true transformation of health care in these Relatively United States.

We must keep the pressure on - we can make a difference.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

White House v. Fox News: a War Obama Can Win

By Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch

The jousting between the White House and Fox News is drawing grave warnings from pundits to Obama’s team that this is a losing issue for their man. They quote the old tag, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

Certainly the jabbing has been refreshingly vigorous. Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, explains Obama’s refusal to appear on Fox News by saying, "Fox News often operates either as the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party. We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent."

"I want to show you right where the enemy is located," Beck screams to his adoring three-million audience as he circles Rupert Murdoch's Fox News headquarters in green ink on a map of New York. "This is the enemy, America!"

Surely, it was a no-brainer for the White House. Fox’s troupe of right wingers will trash Obama, whatever Dunn says. Why not please your own political base by showing a little backbone and giving Murdoch a slap on the snout?

Besides, history suggests that if the White House keeps up the small arms fire and doesn’t lose its cool, in the end it will carry the day, and edge Fox as a network operation into the Glen Beck insane asylum, viewed with derision by even more millions of Americans.

In the case of the Obama administration there's the added bonus that after surrendering abjectly to every powerful interest group in America, they're at last showing an appetite for a scuffle.

Many presidents have seen political benefit in setting up the press as irresponsible mudslingers, overpaid, lazy and politically biased, which is most people reckon it is anyway. The champion here was Richard Nixon who unleashed Pat Buchanan and the late William Safire, and those famous lines for vice president Spiro Agnew, including the rather playful “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Actually it’s a measure of how sloppy the Nixon people were that across the entire Watergate Scandal they failed to excavate Carl Bernstein’s family ties to the Communist Party, nor the fact that every few weeks Bernstein would take time off from his investigative labors with Bob Woodward and drive up to Vermont to visit his cousin Shoshana who at that time was living under an alias in Brattleboro, one jump ahead of the FBI which had her on its Ten Most Wanted list as a radical bomber. People often overestimate the surveillance capacities of the state. One leak of that info to one of Nixon’s pet columnists and the Watergate scandal would have been over.

But in some of the famous exchanges from Nixon-time, it was the president who came out ahead in the eyes of public opinion. I can remember watching the clash between Nixon and Dan Rather in a press conference in 1974 as the Watergate scandal neared its climax. When Rather stood up, Nixon’s people in the room booed and Rather’s colleagues cheered. Nixon, on the stage, looked down at Rather and asked with heavy sarcasm, 'Are you running for something?' Dan snapped back, 'No, sir, are you?' Many people took Rather’s response as smartass, and out of place. But then, Rather was never the brightest bulb on the block.

Nixon’s chief weapon of coercion before the 1972 election was the Joint Operating Agreement, which suspended normal anti-trust rules so that competing newspapers in one town could, in the name of newspaper preservation, collude in fixing advertising rates. In the ’72 race Nixon collected a record number of newspaper endorsements.

Another weapon in the wars between White House and press was a tax audit or an indictment. In the 1930s,Moe Annenberg, with close mob ties and co-owner of the Race Wire, ATT’s fourth biggest customer, owned The Philadelphia Inquirer and used it to support Republican politicians in Pennsylvania and attack Roosevelt. FDR promptly turned for help to David Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record and the New York Post. Stern promoted an IRS investigation and Moe pulled three years in jail. (Moe was the father of a former US ambassador to the Court of St James, Walter Annenberg – who spent many diligent years winching his family’s reputation out of the mud.)

Some presidents, like Kennedy and Reagan, had no need to foment a public feud with the press, since the press in all essentials was in their pockets anyway. Carter furnishes the classic case of someone who simply lost the initiative and fatally allowed the press to make fun of him as a wimp, in his canoe beating off a giant rabbit with a paddle, or passing out during a jog, or whining about “malaise”.

The most intricate story is that of the jousting between the Clintons and the press, from the moment, almost fatal to his initial presidential campaign, that Murdoch’s National Star exposed Clinton’s long affair in Little Rock with Gennifer Flowers in January, 1993.

Hillary Clinton threw down the gauntlet on January 27, 1998, at the onset of the Lewinsky affair, when she told Matt Lauer of NBC that “the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

At the time plenty of people made fun of HRC for this, but it was undoubtedly smart politics, just as the attack on Fox News is now. It fired up Clinton’s base, and allowed an extensive cottage industry to thrive, unearthing the rightwing conspirators and their financial backers, such as Richard Mellon Scaife.

Seventy-five years ago, it mattered greatly to FDR what the Philadelphia Inquirer was saying about him. Obama’s White House probably cares about the New York Times and the Washington Post but not much else. The Wall Street Journal has loathed Obama from the getgo. The Fox Network is really the only enemy with mass appeal and as I suggested at the start it’s not political rocket science to go after it. Tone matters here. The barbs should not be whiny, but caustic and good humored, to the effect that this is not a news medium but the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, as Dunn says. It’s essential not to blink. Glenn Beck is connected to sanity by a pretty thin mooring rope. A few months of this and he’ll probably pop, either going back on the bottle or slithering into a psychotic break, though some would say this is a nightly event anyway.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Obama's Education Plan Depends On Test Scoring By Ill-Trained Temps

Todd Farley, NY Times - Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged standardized tests are flawed measures of student progress. But the problem is not so much the tests themselves - it's the people scoring them.

Many people remember those tests as lots of multiple-choice questions answered by marking bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, but today's exams nearly always include the sort of "open ended" items where students fill up the blank pages of a test booklet with their own thoughts and words. On many tests today, a good number of points come from such open-ended items, and that's where the real trouble begins.

Multiple-choice items are scored by machines, but open-ended items are scored by subjective humans who are prone to errors. I know because I was one of them. In 1994, I was a graduate student looking for part-time work. After a five-minute interview I got the job of scoring fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests. The for-profit testing company that hired me paid almost $8 an hour, not bad money for me at the time.

One of the tests I scored had students read a passage about bicycle safety. They were then instructed to draw a poster that illustrated a rule that was indicated in the text. We would award one point for a poster that included a correct rule and zero for a drawing that did not.

The first poster I saw was a drawing of a young cyclist, a helmet tightly attached to his head, flying his bike over a canal filled with flaming oil, his two arms waving wildly in the air. I stared at the response for minutes. Was this a picture of a helmet-wearing child who understood the basic rules of bike safety? Or was it meant to portray a youngster killing himself on two wheels?

I was not the only one who was confused. Soon several of my fellow scorers - pretty much people off the street, like me - were debating my poster, some positing that it clearly showed an understanding of bike safety while others argued that it most certainly did not. I realized then - an epiphany confirmed over a decade and a half of experience in the testing industry - that the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.

A few years later, still a part-time worker, I had a similar experience. For one project our huge group spent weeks scoring ninth-grade movie reviews, each of us reading approximately 30 essays an hour (yes, one every two minutes), for eight hours a day, five days a week. At one point the woman beside me asked my opinion about the essay she was reading, a review of the X-rated movie "Debbie Does Dallas." The woman thought it deserved a 3 (on a 6-point scale), but she settled on that only after weighing the student's strong writing skills against the "inappropriate" subject matter. I argued the essay should be given a 6, as the comprehensive analysis of the movie was artfully written and also made me laugh my head off.

All of the 100 or so scorers in the room soon became embroiled in the debate. Eventually we came to the "consensus" that the essay deserved a 6 ("genius"), or 4 (well-written but "naughty"), or a zero ("filth"). The essay was ultimately given a zero.

This kind of arbitrary decision is the rule, not the exception. The years I spent assessing open-ended questions convinced me that large-scale assessment was mostly a mad scramble to score tests, meet deadlines and rake in cash.

The cash, though, wasn't bad. It was largely for this reason that I eventually became a project director for a private testing company. The scoring standards were still bleak. A couple of years ago I supervised a statewide reading assessment test. My colleague and I were relaxing at a pool because we believed we'd already finished scoring all of the tens of thousands of student responses. Then a call from the home office informed us that a couple of dozen unscored tests had been discovered.

Because our company's deadline for returning the tests was that day, my colleague and I had to score them even though we were already well into happy hour. We spent the evening listening to a squeaky-voiced secretary read student answers to us over a scratchy speakerphone line, while we made decisions that could affect somebody's future.

These are the kinds of tests, after all, that can help determine government financing for schools. There is already much debate over whether the progress that Secretary Duncan hopes to measure can be determined by standardized testing at all. But in the meantime, we can give more thought to who scores these tests. We could start by requiring that scoring be done only by professionals who have made a commitment to education - rather than by people like me.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Iran War Dance

From MediaLens:

...A rare voice of sanity in the Guardian, Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, put the latest revelations in context, noting that: “when Obama announced that ‘Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow’, he is technically and legally wrong”. Ritter explained:

“The Qom plant, if current descriptions are accurate, cannot manufacture the basic feed-stock (uranium hexaflouride, or UF6) used in the centrifuge-based enrichment process. It is simply another plant in which the UF6 can be enriched.

"Why is this distinction important? Because the IAEA has underscored, again and again, that it has a full accounting of Iran's nuclear material stockpile. There has been no diversion of nuclear material to the Qom plant (since it is under construction). The existence of the alleged enrichment plant at Qom in no way changes the nuclear material balance inside Iran today.

“Simply put, Iran is no closer to producing a hypothetical nuclear weapon today than it was prior to Obama's announcement concerning the Qom facility.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/sep/25/iran-secret-nuclear-plant-inspections)

Even if the claims of Iranian military intent are true, Ritter added, “this interpretation would still require the diversion of significant nuclear material away from the oversight of IAEA inspectors, something that would be almost immediately evident. Any meaningful diversion of nuclear material would be an immediate cause for alarm, and would trigger robust international reaction, most probably inclusive of military action against the totality of Iran's known nuclear infrastructure".

Instead, it is “more likely, an attempt on the part of Iran to provide for strategic depth and survivability of its nuclear programme in the face of repeated threats on the part of the US and Israel to bomb its nuclear infrastructure".