Diane Ravitch and the Corleone Rule

People in office have thin skin when it comes to being criticized by former office holders

Obama Education Department veteran Peter Cunningham has publicly ripped into Diane Ravitch. Cunningham blames the bad relationship between Ravitch and the Department on her personal and intellectual style, but Daniel Luzer argues that the fireworks stem from a deep, substantive policy disagreement about how to improve educational outcomes.

All Administrations have critics, including harsh critics, but they don’t usually let them get under their skin the way Ravitch apparently has. I don’t know the dramatis personae and take no position on the substance of the policy debate at issue. But my knowledge of Washington makes me suspect that at least part of the bad feeling within the Education Department derives from a principle well-articulated by Michael Corleone:

Let me tell you a true Washington story from a prior administration.

A new appointee — let’s call him Assistant Secretary Newguy for privacy’s sake — arrived in Washington intent on making a difference. One of his first meetings was with someone from the prior administration who had held a very similar position (Let’s call him Deputy Assistant Secretary Oldguy). Newguy was excited to meet someone who knew the ropes of his position and the lay of the Washington land. He looked forward to the meeting.

To his surprise, Oldguy did not come in alone. He brought three leading advocates in to berate Newguy for a long-standing policy of the agency Newguy now headed. After the advocates had completed their verbal barrage, Oldguy challenged Newguy “Are you going to fix this problem, or just give us some Washington song-and-dance about why it’s politically impossible?!”.

Stung and flustered, Newguy paused for a moment. He then said to the advocates “Thank you for telling me about this issue. I have never heard of it before and as a new arrival I can’t really tell you why the problem hasn’t been fixed. Fortunately though, we don’t have to rely on me, because Oldguy here had the power to fix it for many years and never did, so he’s the perfect person to help us understand why nothing has been done”.

This story of Oldguy getting vaporized in this fashion was told with delight around the agency over and over because it so perfectly captured how current appointees feel when someone who used to sit in their chair attacks them for doing things they themselves did not do while in office. Whether it is reasonable or not, the most common reaction is to feel betrayed and to seek vengeance. Even if Ravitch is 100% correct substantively and makes her public criticisms of Obama education policy in the most civil way possible, some people on the inside are going to go ballistic because she served in the Education Department in a prior administration. Informed criticism over drinks at the Cosmos Club or during a one-on-one meeting at the office are fine with, indeed even welcomed by, current insiders. But once a former insider publicly “takes sides against the family” the Tommy guns come out.

On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Jim Messina should resign from OFA

In mentioning a possible policy-based defense for Jim Messina’s consulting for the Tories, I forgot that he headed Organizing for Action. He should no longer be allowed to do so.

I would like to revise and extend my post from yesterday on Jim Messina.

In that post I argued that Messina’s working for the Obama campaign and then Britain’s Tories was understandable if one were looking simply at the policy space, but unforgivable if one sees partisan struggle as a fight between the wealthy and powerful and everyone else, or the Democratic Party as a vehicle for espousing moderation now and greater egalitarianism in the future. I still believe that.

But, ridiculous as it may sound and as a self-styled political junkie I take full blame I forgot one thing: Messina is not only the past manager of Obama’s campaign but the current chair of Organizing for Action. (Many of the other posts on Messina also omitted this, possibly because an outfit as ineffectual and unrelated to real organizing as OFA is easy to forget, but Hunter Walker’s piece reminded me.) This, in my view, cannot continue.

It’s fine, in fact laudable, for a policy expert in government to be “nonpartisan” meaning not free of ideology, which nobody is, but determined to work for the public interest rather than the narrow interest of one party vis-a-vis another. It’s fine, though rarer and not mandatory, for a policy expert outside of government to be the same way. It’s thirdly fine for a political commentator or blogger who never claimed to be easily classified in Left-Right terms -Keith, or Andrew Sullivan- to support Obama in the U.S. but Cameron in Britain. Finally, while I haven’t thought this through, it seems to me defensible for the manager of a center-left campaign in one country to advise a center-right party in another country if that’s where his or her policy commitments lead. This seems to me very different from the Dick Morris case of someone who indifferently advises the two opposing parties in the same country.

But someone who purports to be the leader of a party’s grassroots had better understand, and be prepared to practice, the thing that Max Weber said the leaders and followers of mass political parties “always and necessarily” must do: a fight. And the mass membership of a modern party will never fight for the sake of a specified level of public debt, but only for the less compromising reasons: loyalty to a side, and/or devotion to a larger and longer cause whose importance Messina demonstrably does not begin to grasp.

Messina can, barely, remain a political consultant to both our Democrats and Britain’s Conservatives. But grassroots Democrats will not, and should not, follow a supporter of the Tories into political battle. If Messina thinks we should, that’s all the more evidence that he’s unfit for his current job.

To campaign is to choose. Having taken the Tories’ shilling, Messina should resign from OFA. He will not lack for other work.

Lawrence Summers as Fed Chair: The View From Climate Policy

Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?
Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?

Lots of debate in Blogistan and elsewhere about President Obama’s apparent desire to appoint Larry Summers as Fed Chair.  We know (or at least we think we know) that he is brilliant, but he has a strange tendency to get matters of judgment wrong.  He supported the abolition of Glass-Steagall, endorsed deregulation of the financial industry, and seems to have little desire to admit that he got these things wrong.  Plus, there are sexist overtones to the seeming refusal to want to appoint current Fed vice-chair Janet Yellen, an outstanding economist in her own right.

All right.  But what does this have to do with climate policy?

Interestingly, a few years ago, Summers participated in a Council on Foreign Relations task force regarding climate policy options.  Like all CFR task forces, this one was self-consciously centrist, chaired by former New York Governor George Pataki (relatively moderate Republican, especially on climate issues) and former Iowa Governor (and now Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack (moderate Democrat).  Its report, Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for US Foreign Policy, is a quite comprehensive view of the stakes of climate policy, at least as of June 2008, when it was written.  It recommends putting a price on carbon, reducing emissions to the Kyoto level, and several other policy options.  Summers signed it.

But interestingly, Summers also appended a very short “comment” to the report, which says something about potential behavior as Fed Chair (how much is up to the reader).

Here are the two key graphs of his comment:

I have signed this report because it makes the need for urgent action on climate change clear and presents a smart and thoughtful agenda for reducing U.S. emissions, building international consensus, and promoting international action, with which I broadly concur.

The Task Force rightly notes that the costs of addressing climate change are highly uncertain, but I remain concerned that many policymakers do not sufficiently appreciate how large these uncertainties are or the consequences of paying them insufficient attention. Environmental certainty enjoys much attention while uncertainty over the cost of cutting emissions receives too little. This balance is wrong, particularly in the short term, since emissions in any given year matter little, while high costs, even for a short period, can cause substantial economic harm, particularly to the most vulnerable.

A few things jump out here:

1)  Summers gets the politics of climate change exactly 100% wrong.  The gravamen of his argument, i.e. “we are hurtling toward overregulation in the climate sphere” was wrong at the time and has been proved to be completely inaccurate.  To the extent that a Fed Chair has to be cognizant of political trends, this is not a good sign.  Anyone can get political prognostication wrong: but to go out of your way to get it wrong is a black mark.

2)  Summers makes no real substantive contribution in his comment.  He seems simply to want to emphasize, “I am thinking about things that no one else is.”  This on a task force with some of the leading thinkers in the field.  This does not bode well for a position like Fed Chair, which requires building consensus.

3)  He was wrong about what other people are thinking about.  Scholars and policymakers have been thinking about uncertainty all the time and had done so for more than a decade.

4)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a sub silentio call for a carbon tax, he was also wrong about its salience: the carbon tax idea was being promoted literally by dozens of scholars and policymakers.

5)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a restatement of the need of a high discount rate, it is not backed up by any facts or reasoning.  It also is wrong on the absence of short-term costs.

I keep hearing that Summers is a very brilliant man, and would do a wonderful job as Fed Chair.  To the extent that his intervention in climate policy is any indication, there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in fact the evidence demonstrates the opposite.  I’m assuming for the time being that the Emperor has clothes: but it would be nice to see them eventually.

Partisan attachment and the Messina Question

One’s judgment about Messina depends on one’s reasons for being a partisan.

Keith’s post, and others’, on Jim Messina’s decision to work for the Tories, have led me to think about the different reasons for being attached to a political party. Those who differ in their reasons for being partisans in the first place will assess concrete questions of loyalty and disloyalty in very different ways.

Leaving aside mere habit and a tendency to passively adopt the affiliations of those like oneself (no doubt the most common reasons for partisanship but no fun to argue about), I see three possible reasons for attaching oneself for a party and working for its success: (1) belief in that party’s specific policy positions; (2) primal loyalty to a group or a “side”; or (3) pragmatic acquiescence in a party whose positions are more moderate than one’s own, in the hope of moving politics in a more uncompromising direction over time.
If (1) you are a Democrat because of specific policies, Messina’s decision is not that hard to justify. Continue reading “Partisan attachment and the Messina Question”

The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect

Andrew Levison’s book on the White Working Class is a great piece of political strategy. It’s also a great piece of self-help for the professional-managerial class who know less than they think about how ordinary people think and live.

I just finished reading Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today. (Uptight disclosure: Levison, as editor of The Democratic Strategist, has published a couple of my pieces and is a cyber-friend of mine.) The take-away blurb is, yes, buy the book if you’re at all interested in political strategy, rhetoric, or the future of the Democratic party. But it’s worth saying a bit more about what the book teaches, and in particular what books like this can teach the kind of out of touch, self-appointed opinion leader that I used to be. Continue reading “The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect”

Against The Celebritization of Politics

Peter Hennessey has grave reservations about how British politics are becoming more Americanized celebritized, noting that someone like Clement Atlee would never have become Prime Minister if he’d had to engage in televised election debates:

The problem with the debates is that the structure of them, the nature of the celebrity in Britain in parts of the media these days, mean that to shine in leadership debates before a general election, you need the characteristics of a plausible tart

Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow

By now all but the hopelessly stupid or deliberately ignorant understand the basics of climate change. Increasing the amounts of a few gases in the atmosphere traps heat and make the planet’s equilibrium temperature higher. The big three are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and mainly carbon dioxide (CO2): humans are pumping these gases out like there’s no tomorrow – more precisely, as though we were all leaving the planet in a few decades.  CO2 is the big one, and it mainly comes from burning coal, oil, natural gas, and forests: if we want the planet to be habitable for the big 2076 parties, that’s what we have to stop doing.

These gases are, in effect, pollutants like the gunk in automobile exhaust that made the air in LA brown until we put a stop to it, or the phosphorus in your dish soap that makes algae grow in lakes and rivers, but they have two tragic and pernicious qualities that our familiar pollutants don’t have. First, because they last a long time in the air, and the atmosphere is well mixed with winds, their effects aren’t felt only in the legal jurisdiction in which they are emitted, but everywhere, by everyone. Second, because the processes are slow and easy to miss in the normal variation of weather, Exxon and Consolidation Coal can pay politicians and TV weather reporters to say it isn’t happening, and doing the right, expensive things about climate will not show results we can see before the next election or the one after that.

Continue reading “Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow”