Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday Reading

Fools’ Paradise — Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone on the Republicans’ declaration of war on themselves.

The news came in the Wall Street Journal, where the Chamber of Commerce disclosed that it will be teaming up with Republican establishment leaders to spend $50 million in an effort to stem the tide of “fools” who have overwhelmed Republican ballots in recent seasons. Check out the language Chamber strategist Scott Reed used in announcing the new campaign:

Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates… That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket.

The blunt choice of words is no accident. All year long, as they’ve crept closer and closer to having to face the reality of a Ted Cruz presidential candidacy in 2016 (with Cruz maybe picking recently-redeemed Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson as his more moderate running mate?), the Beltway’s Republican kingmakers have drifted into ever more alarmist language about the need to change course.

It’s been a transparent effort to reassure industry donors that the party’s future isn’t a bottomless pit of brainless Bachmanns and Cruzes and Santorums, all convinced our Harvard-educated president is a sleeper-cell Arab and that Satan is a literal being intent on conquering Nebraska with U.N. troops.

Earlier this month, for instance, former House Majority Leader and cause-betraying Tea Party progenitor Dick Armey complained that Republicans have been getting whipped at the polls because “we had a lot of candidates quite frankly that did dumb things out there.” And way back in March of last year, Karl Rove himself, speaking on behalf of his Crossroads SuperPAC, told Fox News Sunday that “our goal is to avoid having stupid candidates.” Rove’s group is reportedly also involved in this new $50 million effort.

The Chamber’s announcement was met with howls of outrage from Tea Party-friendly voices, who naturally took immediate offense to the prospect of boycotting “fools” from the political process.

“Misguided,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. “Insane,” sneered conservative activist Cleta Mitchell.

Tom Borelli, senior fellow for Armey’s old FreedomWorks group, quite correctly complained that the Chamber and their Republican allies were trying to defy the conservative base by hijacking the party and keeping it in the pocket of big-money interests. “The tea party is about lowering costs,” Borelli explained to Newsmax. “[The Chamber will] want regulations to favor big business.”

There’s almost no end to the comedy of this story. First of all, there’s the sheer size of the endowment. Fifty million dollars is enough money to fund half a dozen or more Senate campaigns. That the big-business donors who traditionally have funded the Republican Party believe they need to make that kind of monster investment just to keep “fools” from getting on the ballot of a party they basically control is an incredible reflection of the state of things on that side of the political aisle.

Then, of course, there’s the irony. Men like Karl Rove and Dick Armey practically invented the politics of stupid. In fact, they practically invented the politics of winning millions of votes every time some oversexed cosmopolitan liberal of the Matt Damon/Sean Penn genus used words like “dumb” or “stupid” to describe the preoccupations of Middle America’s God-and-guns culture.

To see these same Beltway Svengalis trapped now in this crazy role reversal, denounced by the far right for being the same kind of condescending establishment snot-bags they themselves spent decades trying to find and campaign against – well, that’s just seriously funny.

The Nuns’ Story — Amy Davidson in The New Yorker on the fight against signing a form.

It is hard to describe the suit that a charity run by Colorado nuns has brought against the Affordable Care Act without wondering if one has been closed into a small room with reflecting walls. The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, in Denver, has challenged the law’s contraceptive-coverage mandate; this might make more sense if the nuns did not already have a way around the mandate: they just have to fill out a form saying the home has a religious mission and objection to paying for contraceptives. The essence of their challenge is that, by saying so, they become complicit—because then others will make sure that their employees have coverage. (The insurance company pays for it, with some help from the government.) They asked for an emergency stay from the Supreme Court before the mandate was to go into effect on January 1st, after losing an appeal, writing in their filing,

Without an emergency injunction, Mother Provincial Loraine Marie Maguire has to decide between two courses of action: (a) sign and submit a self-certification form, thereby violating her religious beliefs; or (b) refuse to sign the form and pay ruinous fines.

At issue was “Mother Loraine’s religious belief that God does not want her to sign and tender the forms.” On New Year’s Eve, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who deals with such requests for the Tenth Circuit, gave the nuns their stay. She said that the Department of Health and Human Services had until [last] Friday at 10 A.M. to file its response.

Is there any other form of health care around which one could build a suit based on the supposed taint of proximity? The suggestion here is that birth control has such a dirtiness to it that even the formal and financial separation of religious employers from the coverage—they don’t manage it, they don’t pay for it, even though their employees get it—is inadequate. (Purely religious institutions, like churches, have an even broader exemption.) They know about it—know, that is, that the women who work for them have choices that they would prefer they did not have. But they do have them; a Catholic charity can’t insist that the nurses or cleaning women who work for it don’t use contraceptives. (The home has sixty-seven employees.) What the religious-affiliated groups are insisting is that the women bear a heavier economic cost for the sake of their employers’ beliefs—even though the Church groups wouldn’t pay more either way.

In that sense, the suit embodies the irrationally passionate objections to not only Obamacare but also women’s access to contraceptives and, more broadly, reproductive rights. There is, perhaps, an argument to be made that the true irrationality is having a national scheme of health insurance built around employer-based plans, rather than, say, a single payer. But that’s what we’ve got, and what women who go out in the workforce and the world have to live with.

Other religious organizations have filed similar challenges; often, they argue that certain types of birth control, like Plan B, are really forms of abortion, though that’s not how they work scientifically. It’s also the case that women take certain kinds of birth-control pills for medical reasons that don’t have to do with preventing pregnancy—they are simply a prescription drug for which they would have to pay, essentially, an ideological tax. These suits are distinct from one brought by Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, that the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear. Hobby Lobby is a secular company, and is asking for an exemption from buying plans that cover contraceptives because of the personal beliefs of its owners. (I wrote about the Hobby Lobby case in November.) But they share a presumption that there is something distinctly alarming about contraception, or at least about women not having to pay out of pocket for it. And yet the legal logic would seem to open the doors to a whole range of ideological objections to various medical treatments.

There are broader absurdities, too: can a private company also withhold taxes that will be used in ways that repel its owners? Does being exempt also mean being able to disrupt? The nuns’ petition said that to just fill out the form letting their insurer know they qualified so it could proceed was to “abandon their religious convictions and participate in the government’s system to distribute and subsidize contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices.” It is worth noting that, according to the filing, fully half of the funds the nuns use to run their home, according to their filing, come “from government payments (chiefly Medicaid and Medicare) for the care they provide to the needy elderly.”

It is a good guess that the litigation surrounding Obamacare will still be tangled when, the Web site that seems to have put its worst, early days behind it, is an old and reliable machine. But people have begun to be covered now; these are the months when we will begin to see what it looks like, and what works badly or well, and what could be better. When does the goal of the debate around Obamacare become about a healthier nation with fewer bankruptcies caused by illnesses, rather than about sparing employers’ feelings about what women might be doing in their own homes and doctors’ offices?

Teaching Teachers — William Eger and Micheal Zuckerman in The Atlantic on the apprenticeship model of teacher education.

We don’t know exactly how much money was spent training Will in his first year of Teach for America, but we know it was a lot. We would guess the total sum is above $50,000, a figure that includes district training costs, school training costs, the money Teach for America spent, and Will’s master degree classes.

Although new teachers like Will are receiving tens of thousands of dollars worth of training, few are learning real skills that will help them become better teachers. According to a 2008 study, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent training roughly 200,000 new teachers each year, but there is still a shortage of teachers of “sufficient quality or quantity.” Teacher development programs show “little if any impact.” Education schools are languishing as an “industry of mediocrity.” Teacher turnover is high.

Our experiences—Will’s as a member of Teach for America in Philadelphia and an education master’s degree candidate at University of Pennsylvania, and Michael’s as a researcher and writer—confirm what these statistics suggest: that all the money we spend on new teacher training does little to boost the quality of our beginner teachers. Fortunately, there’s a better, less expensive way to train teachers: an apprenticeship model.

Teacher apprenticeship can take many different forms, but at its core it means pairing a beginner teacher with an experienced “master teacher” who can both demonstrate effective teaching techniques—a good transition between a lesson and independent practice, for example—and then help the beginner adopt these techniques, reflect on them, and eventually forge his or her own unique style.

Will’s master’s degree classes at Penn are often interesting discussions on pedagogical theory, but they rarely relate to his teaching practice. Even his classes on math education focus only on the theory of teaching math to a broad range of ages, which doesn’t help Will with tomorrow’s lesson plan. These meditative sessions would benefit a veteran teacher far more than they do a novice one.

Though both Penn and Teach for America rightly stress coaching teachers in the classroom, neither Penn’s observer (who came six times in the first year) nor Teach for America’s (who comes once a month) has an intricate-enough knowledge of the nuances of Will’s classroom to be effective. They know, for example, that targeting questions is important, but don’t know the individual students’ needs (or even names) well enough to suggest which students to target. Though well intentioned and supportive, their feedback tends to center on abstractions like “vision” or policy issues like “the achievement gap.”

Virtually all beginner teachers, in our experience, meanwhile, agree that what they need more than abstract social and pedagogical lectures are tangible techniques and granular-level coaching. They need Band-Aids, not meditations on hematology.

Doonesbury — Four stars.