Sunday, March 1, 2015

Ravitch's "Reign of Error"

A colleague/friend of mine recommended Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error

Education reform is not high on my reading list these days, but I appreciate book recommendations and Ravitch has been a big stick over the last two decades-- so she's certainly worth a look.

I read the first chapter. So far, it's a dog's breakfast of useful stuff, exaggeration, conflation, strawmen, and blech.

The most notable, quick problems: she...

a.) pounds liberals and progressives (broad categories!) without defining which subsets she's attacking: 
b.) says that private and charter schools are "deregulated, unsupervised, and accountable"; 
c.) implies that choice necessarily (or likely) undermines democracy; 
d.) ignores that the status quo is deeply unequal; 
e.) conflates NCLB with charters/vouchers; 
f.) is apparently allergic to for-profit involvement; 
g.) seems to think that our probs in education are largely inner city; 
h.) ignores family structure/stability in her correct reference to important variables other than schools; 
i.) conflates charter and voucher in terms of "privatization"; 
j.) acts as if we've had a ton of market reform; and 
j.) tells us that we're not in crisis, but if we pursue even a bit more market reform (as if we've had a ton already!), then it's akin to a train going off of a cliff.

All that said, the book is probably worth sifting through the chaff to get some wheat. But I'm not sure whether I'll get to it soon...

Monday, February 23, 2015

"not worth the ride"?

This AM, Rick Bozich concludes that it was "not worth the ride".

"Not worth the ride?" I don't know about that. Who could know that, from the outside? Why would you rush to measure that, right now, anyway?

Heck, I don't much about nuthin' specific. But I do know about the importance of redemption and second chances. And I know that people often abuse mercy, grace, and second chances. So, I know that mercy is messy and difficult to do in practice.

My hope is that sports coaches take chances and strive to develop athletes as athletes and as human persons. You can take great athletes for a year and then wave them on through to the NBA or you can develop their talents. You can take people with nice backgrounds and take credit for what they brought to your program. Or you can "educate"-- moving people from where they were toward where they can be,

I wonder how often it happens. And I hope it happens a lot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Max Boot's "Invisible Armies": a history of guerrilla warfare

Max Boot has a terrific book on the history of guerrilla warfare. (The term derives from the Spanish for "small war", first invoked to describe Spanish 'irregulars' opposing Napoleon from 1808-1814.) It weighs in at nearly 600 pages-- with 64 chapters of 3-19 pages each. The book is organized into sections-- by era and the most relevant ideology that defines the era. The relatively short chapters and the recurring themes within each section helped a long book be a relatively quick read. It was easy to bang out a chapter or two at a time, while the dominant theme within each section helped to hold it together in my memory. 

Boot's book reads well-- both the specific accounts and the over-arching narrative. Still, it is necessarily a combination of correlation, causation, and just-so story-- given the project's historical nature, the limited info available, and the subsequent hermeneutical leaps. The challenge is greater going back farther in time and knowing that the winners often get to write their own histories. At times, the stories "smell" better or worse, but overall, his narrative seems reasonable and compelling.

Specifics
I'm not a great student of history. But Boot covers all of the relevant historical episodes I could imagine-- and then some. When one thinks of guerrilla warfare, 20th century battles probably come to mind. But Boot spends a good bit of time on BC and early AD clashes, including the Maccabees, Athenians, King David, Scythians, and Viriathus. He briefly details the first full-scale conventional battle recorded by history in 1468 BC (p. 9) and notes the first recorded empire and its struggles with insurgents (ch. 4's Sargon, 23 centuries before Christ).

Among many examples of insurgency (and counter-insurgency) in more modern times, Boot covers:-the fall of Rome (ch. 7);
-the American revolution as a mix of insurgency and conventional warfare (ch. 14);
-freedom for Greece (ch. 17), Italy (ch. 18, including Garibaldi's role and even his invitation from Lincoln to fight in the U.S. Civil War [118-119]!), Latin America (brief/passing mentions of Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin), and the Irish (ch. 35, incl. the role of Michael Collins);
-Afghanistan for the 19th century Brits (ch. 24) and as the "Russian Vietnam" (ch. 59);
-nationalists (Chiang) vs. communists (Mao) and Japanese in China (ch. 44);
-Vietnam for the French and the U.S. (chs. 45, 51, 52);
-Cuba and Castro (ch. 53)-- and Che Guevara (chs. 53-54);
-the amazing events surrounding Entebbe (ch. 55)-- which were largely supplanted in the public imagination by 9/11; and
-what he describes as "50 days that changed the world" (ch. 58)-- from the fall of the Shah and the hostage crisis in Iran to Russia's fateful invasion of Afghanistan. 

Boot also describes huge characters/players with whom I had little or no familiarity-- particularly for their success in effective counter-insurgency (military and otherwise): Edward Lansdale, Gerald Templer, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Orde Wingate, Louis Lyautey, and George Crook. Because their efforts are not as sexy as leaders with big armies doing conventional warfare, history does not remember them nearty as well. 

A few episodes deserve further comment. First, Boot (ch. 31) notes that the KKK began in the time of Reconstruction, as an insurgency against the victorious "occupying" forces of the North. As Reconstruction pulls back and Southern majority interests are again able to use their own government to thoroughly oppress blacks, we find the emergence of Jim Crow and its formal abuses. Anderson and Kiriazis describe the connections between the ideological of Progressivism-- a strain of statism combined with "Social Darwinism" which led to many different forms of eugenics and crony capitalism in political economy-- what Gabriel Kolko described as the triumph of "conservatism".

Second, in all of Book VI, Boot details the decline of the French and English from WW I through WWII into the post-colonial era. I don't know why I didn't connected those dots earlier. But weakened England and especially France were unable to hold their colonial "empires" together after WWII. In a word, it's why "decolonization swept the world"-- from Israel to Africa to Southeast Asia (322-326). It also explains why the French are prone to imagine that they're a bigger deal than they are on today's world stage. They were a big deal, as late as 75 years ago! Today, they're just another medium-size, reasonably-prosperous country-- albeit with an impressive and memorable history.

Third, Boot devotes one of his longer chapters to Yasser Arafat (ch. 56). (He covers other opponents of Israel in ch. 60 and notes that Israel is different in that it must defend itself against insurgents [474]). Boot describes Arafat as a nationalist, secular (vs. religious), and abstemious (like Guevara vs. most other insurgent leaders). Arafat did avoid danger, preserving his own life (468), while sending others into danger. (Other subjects were more impressive than Arafat in this regard!) But sometimes, one must make sacrifices, yes? Boot also notes that Arafat follows Israel's "terroristic" path to sovereignty-- in their post-WWII efforts against the British in 1947-- a point I had not known before. One wonders if history would have been any different if Israel had taken a different approach to independence from the British.

Fourth, Boot covers Al Queda (ch. 61-62), including a nice write-up on Osama Bin Laden's background (517; see: Looming Tower for tons of detail on this). Boot also details Petraeus' return to Iraq (ch. 63) with the "surge". Well over and above more troops, Boot points to his strategy of putting troops into the communities rather than hunkering down in bases. Boot wraps up the book (ch. 64) by wrestling with whether "global islamist insurgency" is failing or succeeding.

Big themes
First, as an economist, I'm amazed by technological advance and its impact on economy. Boot details its impact on the military-- for both insurgency and counter-insurgency. Generally, counter-insurgency has the initial advantage: as the wealthy can afford luxuries in an economy, so wealthier economies are the first to develop and the most able to afford tech advance in this realm. And oddly, more primitive counter-insurgency has often meant more success-- since they are less prone, themselves, to use conventional approaches (52-55). But after a time, everybody else catches up-- and then things even up quite a bit, especially if the counter-insurgents insist on trying to use conventional warfare as their defense (127-130). 

Boot (xx): "Time and time again, guerrilla warfare seemed to be superseded by the 'new new thing'-- industrial warfare in the 1910s, aerial warfare in the 1930s, nuclear warfare in the 1950s, network-centric warfare in the 1990s. And yet each time it reasserted itself with a vengeance. Since WWII, insurgency and terrorism have become the dominant forms of conflict-- a trend likely to continue into the foreseeable future." Before the 20th century, it was crossbows and then gunpowder. Now, propaganda is a key part of the arsenal.
 
Second, there are clear comparisons here to (suicide) terrorism-- both are cheaper/easier; low-probability last-ditch efforts to deal with a much stronger foe in conventional military terms (xxiii); more likely to be successful when dealing with (soft) democracies than (hard) dictators; and hoping to attract big help from outsiders (this is reminiscent of 3rd parties in a two-party system!). 

All of these themes are revisited from Robert Pape's work. (I've also blogged on data that fits Pape's view-- and the implications of Pape's book here, here, and here. In particular, check out the dynamic analysis of doing this stuff long-term and Pat Buchanan on the connections to empire.) Oddly, Boot ignores Pope except to try to put distance between them (509, 531). While there are differences-- in particular, what Boot sees as a contemporary emphasis on religion as a primary vs. secondary motive-- Boot is a companion to Pape.

Boot distinguishes terrorism from guerrilla warfare as "the use of violence by non-state actors directed primarily against noncombatants" vs. "hit-and-run tactics by an armed group directed primarily against a government and its security forces for political or religious reasons" (xxii). 

Anarchists and assassins represent a narrow and extreme form of the guerrilla warfare (Book IV). Chapters 29 and 36 are especially helpful in trying to understand the motives of people in these positions.

Third, occupying countries are likely to give in to counter-insurgents when the costs become too high. Those benefits and costs include political context (more pain in "liberal democracies" than from dictators-- a la Pape); the geographical distance of "far-off wars"; colonial economic gains vs. national security goals; the use of conscripts (vs. volunteers, mercenaries); and the availability of media for propaganda by insurgents or counter-insurgents. (On the latter, Boot mentions a few uses of American media [e.g., 339].) And he notes that, even with "success", there can be huge consequences (e.g., Ch. 19).

Fourth, Boot spends a lot of time on successful counter-insurgency. Success comes from sheer military might-- or when things get more interesting, from a combination of military action (sometimes ruthless), with degrees of restraint, and strategies to "win hearts and minds". Also important is the need to be perceived as credible to the natives-- that you're "in it to win it" and can do so. Natives are often in a very rough position-- not wanting to irritate either the occupiers or the insurgents.


Fifth, key motivations have changed over time-- with reigning political, religious, and economic ideologies, as well as historical context. "Like everyone else, guerrillas and terrorists are subject to popular moods and intellectual fads." In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were "inspired by liberal ideas" from the Enlightenment. But in the 20th century, anarchism, socialism, and then religion (475-477).

One sees an analogy to the times in which countries became free-- often by insurgencies from occupying countries. The U.S. won its freedom in a time of laissez-faire economics and so, our government was relatively limited. Post-WWII, at the height of Keynesian and optimism about socialism, countries emerging from colonialism embraced big governments-- and disaster has followed. 


Summary

Boot does a nice job of setting the table and then reviewing key principles. In the prologue, we provides "five major points" (xxvi-xxvii). In chapter 10, he lays out "keys to success"; and then he wraps up the book with "12 articles" or principles (557ff).

To wrap up, let me lay out the 12 and organizing them a bit: 
-Guerrilla warfare has been ubiquitous and important throughout history. It is not an "Eastern way of war".
-It has been over and under-estimated. They still lose a lot but have become more successful since WWII (although perhaps this is an artifact of post-WWII anti-colonialism). 
-Public opinion, media and propaganda have become increasingly important. (More broadly, access to info on wars has changed the landscape for most military activity.) As such, mass terror does not usually work. And establishing legitimacy is important-- to both sides.
-Conventional tactics are unlikely to be effective in response. Technology has been a key player. Insurgencies take time and more effective with outside support.

my review of "The Song"

Tonia and I enjoyed "The Song" last night. After its disappointing box office performance and hearing it get a range of reviews, I was pleasantly surprised. I'd give it 3 or 3.5 stars (out of 4); the film is well-done and really well-filmed. I would only ding it for being a bit stilted in places, a bit too quick/clean at the end, and too predictable throughout to be ideal. It is comparable with Fireproof-- both are must-see movies on the topic of marriage-- but better done, artistically.

I'm guessing part of the problem, box-office-wise, was describing the film succinctly and targeting the film at various demographics. The movie is billed as inspired by Song of Solomon. But it ends up being more Ecclesiastes than Song of Solomon-- and perhaps that's part of the challenge in putting the film into a box/category.

FWIW: We got mixed advice on watching it with the boys (ages 10-16)-- and invited the older two. They weren't all that interested, so we didn't push. Once we got into it, we were not even opposed to our third son (12 years old) keeping an eye on it. And now, we wished we had pushed at least the older two to watch it with us.

Slippery Slopes and Sins of Omission & Commission

I was most impressed by the subtlety of what turned out to be the film's key moment. The husband is well into the slippery slope of his struggle, but things can still be turned around. He's shown the ability to fend off a lot of temptation, but now he's made a series of unwise choices and things are in a position to get ugly. He's about to be a big-time knucklehead, but the film does not let the wife off the hook.

First, she clearly struggles with "leave and cleave" issues. That, by itself, was probably sufficient to avoid or at least head him off the poor path he's walking. She also comes off as insular and (at least a bit) fragile. In any case, her failure to join him on the road-- at all-- is huge and gives her big culpability through a sin of omission.

Second, they depict the couple's struggle with physical intimacy in a way that is nicely murky. He makes a special effort to come home briefly in the middle of a long tour, but things don't work out well. Is the problem that he's away too much and then too insensitive when he comes home? Is the problem that she's too cold, doesn't recognize his efforts, and isn't doing anything close to her best? Or is it, as it usually is in these contexts, a good bit of both?

Third, there's no evidence of her asking him any "hard questions". Things are obviously not ideal in their marriage; he's on the road a bunch, surrounded by a range of temptations; and he's working closely with an attractive female. Duh; hello.


A Segue on the Importance of Community

A related matter is that nobody seems to be involved in Christian community, living out whatever faith they have as "Lone Rangers". This is *necessarily* less effective, less biblical, and ultimately incoherent in Trinitarian-Christian terms. The band members seem like nice enough people, but there's no relationship portrayed beyond the superficial-- and nobody intervenes. Ol' Dad is a hard worker; he loves his grandson; he's a "tough guy" who wants to make sure his daughter doesn't end up with a loser-- including not settling for merely a "said" faith in her suitors. But his approach to life is also not well-connected with a robust view of Christianity or Christian community.

Two other, smaller observations, along the same lines: The chapel is an effective metaphor in this. The couple gets married in (literally) a shell of a church. When things start going south, the husband "finishes" the chapel, completing the shell. It still has the look of a pretty monument and the timing gives it a I Samuel 14:35-ish feel to the effort. Later, he damages the chapel in anger. And then, at the end, he finishes it "properly"-- this time with pews, as if anticipating at least some community.


Second, the film has an us/country/pure vs. them/city/impure feel to it. The full-blown separatism of the "us" looks attractive in places, but is ultimately portrayed as far from the ideal for the couple and is not ineffective in engaging the world-- consistent with City on a Hill's worldview and eschatology.) 


Wrap Up

Back to the husband/wife-- and applications to us-- to wrap this up: How often does "this" happen in real life? I've heard about many cases and seen a few. The dude makes obviously bad/stupid choices-- and we bang on him for being a moron, etc. Meanwhile, the wife's more subtle sins (often of omission) make things unnecessarily difficult and increase the power of the temptations at hand.

They're nice enough people on the front end. But without an abiding faith, a robust Christian worldview, progress as disciples of Jesus, and vibrant Christian community, abundant life will be out of reach and they are unlikely to have the wisdom and courage to stand underneath the weight of various temptations.

Let "The Song" be good (and full) counsel/warning for us-- in our own marriages and as we help others in our daily lives.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

data on EITC (2014)

The EITC is a tax credit for low-income workers, particularly for heads-of-household [HoH] or married folks with kids. Eligibility for and the amount of the credit are based solely on household composition and earned income. (The latter ignores non-reported income-- at least non-cash benefits from govt, savings/wealth, etc. This arrangement also ignores costs of living and other contexts [e.g., big medical expenses].).

There are three variables to any welfare program. EITC has another wrinkle which adds a 4th dimension.


1.) The credit kicks in with every dollar earned-- for those with no children (about $7.66 cents per $100 earned); and for those with children (1 child = $34; 2 children = $40 and 3 or more children = $45). 


The credit is designed to help those with lower incomes who are trying to raise a family. But it also serves to *incentivize* work, in this range, by subsidizing net wages through the tax code. (And contra the minimum wage, it accomplishes this without making workers more expensive-- and thus less attractive-- to hire.) 

2.) EITC's added wrinkle: The credit increases to a maximum that plateaus in certain income ranges: 
-with no kids, a $496 credit for "income" between $6,500 and $8,150 for HoH (or $13,550 if married)
-with 1 kid, a $3,305 credit for income between $9,700-17,800 (or $23,250 if married)
-with 2 kids, $5,460 between $13,650 and $17,800 (or $23,250 if married)
-with 3+ kids, $6,143 between $13,650 and $17,800 (or $23,250 if married)

3.) Then the credit is reduced through a "benefit reduction rate" (BRR); as earned income rises, there is less need for assistance. The BRR is an implied marginal tax rate (MTR)-- your (total) income is reduced to the extent that B is reduced as you earn more (as a tax does). Economists worry about BRR's and MTR's as they get higher, since this reduces the (financial) incentive to work (or in other types of welfare policy-- to save, to get more education, etc.). 
-With no kids, the BRR is the reverse of the credit structure: 7.66%. 
-With 1 kid, the BRR is 16%; with two or more kids, it's 21%. 

4.) It follows that benefits have a "cut-off point" after reaching a certain income. 
-With no kids, HoH earning $14,590 receive nothing from EITC.
-With one kid, the cut-off point is $38,511; with two, it's $43,756; with three or more, it's $46,997.
-Being married always adds another $5,430 to the cut-off point.

Three things to note in closing. First, having one kid makes a big difference. The credit amount rises significantly. Having a second kid is worth another $2,155. #3 is only worth an additional credit of $683. More kids add nothing. Likewise, the cut-off point increases with number of children.

Second, note that the EITC "gives" while payroll taxes (FICA) "take away". (In fact, the EITC began as an effort to offset the regressive and staggering impact of FICA taxes.) The working poor are not hit by federal "income taxes", but they do get nailed by federal payroll taxes on income: 15.3% on every dollar earned-- no credits, deductions, or exemptions-- $1,000's annually from those at the poverty line. (A number of states also enjoy taxing the working poor.)

Third, overt taxes on income (e.g., 15.3% for FICA and in Indiana, a 6% MTR) combines with the implicit MTR from losing EITC benefits (typically 16-21%), yielding an MTR of 37-42%). Along with the loss of other means-tested government benefits as income increase, the MTR's are significant. During the peak of the War on Poverty, the average MTR's for the poor were in the 80-90% range-- while individuals can easily have MTR's over 100%. Would you work with an MTR of 80%?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

post-Civil War political economy and race

A terrific article in the Independent Review by Bill Anderson and David Kiriazis on race, political economy, and the "rents" (profit ops through govt policy) created by the progressive/regulatory state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries...

The article changed the way I think about the post-Civil War era. But it lines up nicely with Gabriel Kolko’s work on the Progressive Era as “the triumph of conservatism” and the use of “progressive” legislation for obviously non-progressive reasons under Apartheid—and I already knew Bernstein’s work, the push for eugenics, and the impact of the Flexner Report. (See: this link on progressives vs. liberals.)

So it shouldn’t have surprised me so much!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

on Robert Morris' firstfruits and "The Principle of First"



My comments on a FB thread based on Robert Morris' sermon on Sunday at Southeast on "The Principle of First"...

Chris, thanks for your comment. At first, I thought you were asking a question. Looking a second time, now I’m thinking you meant it rhetorically. Both ways, it’s an excellent comment! If rhetorical, it speaks for itself and builds on what RM said. If a straight-up question, it brings other thoughts to mind, so let me run with that angle.

I thought RM was a little too tight/clean in some areas. At the time, the only thing that bothered me: his claim that the tithe must be given to the local church. (He asserted this and did not support it. I think one can make a decent case for that—indirectly through the implicit and explicit commands to be involved in Christian community. But I don’t see where it’s airtight.) But your question brings up another important point: the relationship between “all” and the tithe. The NT emphasizes/extends the OT view of stewardship: God owns all (“the cattle on a thousand (figurative) hills”) and we are blessed to be managers of what He’s given. This parallels what Christ did with the Law elsewhere (most famously in Matthew 5 with murder and lust).

Along the same lines, my sense of the matter has been that the tithe is "gone" but extended, superseded by a greater “law”. If the tithe is “gone”, what do we do with our freedom? In general, there are temptations to either re-implement the law or to abuse our freedom. I’d guess that there’s more of the latter with money (given the seductions of Mammon as an idol) In any case, the question is what we do with our freedom in all areas—and it clearly should be to love God and serve others (Gal 5:1,13).

In this way, I’m guessing that the tithe is similar to the Sabbath—that it is made for man, not man for the Sabbath/tithe. And that takes me to Chad’s questions/points.

Chad, I did not hear anything like that. My direct data with him are quite limited—one sermon. (And I can only consider chucking rocks to the extent that I’ve seen big sin, especially from a public figure. See also: Joel Osteen.) If you have clips or quotes, I’d be happy to take a look. Anyway, I can't say I'd be shocked if he had said something like that. But I would be quite surprised, given the inferences I’d draw from SE having him in the pulpit and how careful he was. (To note, he did talk about "curse" in the Saturday PM sermon, but not in the manner you described. That discussion did not make it into the Sunday AM sermon that is on-line. He was clear on the important point that God does not curse, but says that we are “under a curse”. Read Genesis 3 carefully for the important distinctions in that pivotal story.) And I can imagine how-- if he was not careful elsewhere-- or more likely, if he was read/heard out of context-- that one could sloppily infer something like that.

Part of his argument is that this is "the nature of things"-- who God is, how life is built, etc. And in a Proverbs-like manner, if you do X, then Z tends to happen. For example, if you smoke, you're likely to die earlier. Beyond the material considerations, he would say that you cannot be spiritually blessed to the extent that you live contrary to God’s will and the way that the world is set up. In this context, if I don’t give the firstfruits to the Lord, then the nature of things is that I cannot be blessed in that realm by God, life, etc.

RM’s approach reminds me of a similar argument I've made from James 1:5-8 and the analogy of parent/child : God/us. If we ask God for wisdom, while baldly doing our own thing-- especially in the area of our request for wisdom/counsel-- it makes no sense for God to answer that prayer. For example, when I was a single, I had a handful of single friends in the church who sought counsel from me and said they wanted wisdom from God on their future with respect to marriage-- while clearly disobeying what God had already revealed about that area of life. That's incoherent (and insulting). I'm not really asking God's wisdom in that case, but His “opinion”—and that doesn’t make any sense with a reasonable view of God’s character and knowledge. If my kids blow their money and then come ask me for money in the next breath, it ain't gonna happen unless I’m a putz or I decide to extend some hard-core grace. 

I'm also quite interested in a more-secular version of the same sort of argument. If my approach to life is marked by stinginess toward others, God gets the residual, etc., it seems likely/obvious that I'm more likely to get divorced, not be blessed in all sorts of ways, etc. Extending it to spiritual disciplines, C.S. Lewis said that whatever prayer does with respect to God, we know that it changes us. If I’m the sort of person who prays for enemies—or even just my friends—surely this changes the sort of person we are. Or again extending it to something more secular, to what extent are diets effective because they directly change us or because they indirectly change us by getting us to be intentional in an area where we’ve been slobs?

Fascinating stuff!

Monday, February 2, 2015

sports, emptiness and last night's Super Bowl

A nice article (h/t: Linda C.)...

Indeed, sports can be empty—but in the same sense that many other things can be empty. The writer of Ecclesiastes has a little something to say on this broader topic—that when pursued from an earthly perspective, even the pursuit of many legitimate things can be vanity.

Ironically, I felt profound emptiness in the loss—that (probable) cheaters had won and that Seattle lost on such a badly chosen play. I don’t get all that dramatic too often—and I may not stick to it—but my immediate response (along with all of the crap in football this year) is that I’m “done with it”.

In any case, I will go on record to say that football has probably peaked in popularity—at least for a time—with the cheating, wife and child beating, the commissioner's office shenanigans, concussions, fewer kids playing football now, etc.