The Center Ground

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Iraq? Never heard of it...

Education, education, education

I know that surveys like this appear every so often - their methodology can seem a little suspect, and one feels that the results are capable of being blown out of all proportion - and I also know that the results would probably be nearly as worrying for most other Western countries (although the article notes that Americans scored second to last, trailing Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Sweden), but surely we should all be hoping that young people leave school with at least some vague knowledge of the world around them?
# Thirty-three percent of respondents couldn't pinpoint Louisiana on a map.
# Fewer than three in 10 think it important to know the locations of countries in the news and just 14 percent believe speaking another language is a necessary skill.
# Two-thirds didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October 2005 occurred in Pakistan.
# Six in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
# Forty-seven percent could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia.
# Seven-five percent were unable to locate Israel on a map of the Middle East.
# Nearly three-quarters incorrectly named English as the most widely spoken native language.
# Six in 10 did not know the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world.
# Thirty percent thought the most heavily fortified border was between the United States and Mexico.
Almost half couldn't find India?!! Perhaps its at least slightly heartening that 3/4 named English as the most widely spoken native language - it was wrong, but it was better than saying "American".
Taken together, these results suggest that young people in the United States ... are unprepared for an increasingly global future," said the study's final report.
I'd be more worried about their preparedness level for, well, survival.

Having said that, with surveys like this, its easy to make fun. But the sad truth is that most of these young people have been let down by an education system that has failed them, schools desperately in need of more funding. And I know that Democrats aren't supposed to say things like this, but they've also frequently been let down by teachers unions blocking proposed reforms that could have helped them. I would never demonise teachers who are genuinely committed to educating young people - there are very few things that can change the course of someone's life for the better the same way as a really good teacher can - and indeed, my uncle and my grandmother are/were both headteachers - but there are teachers out there who do it simply to pick up a paycheck, and that's not good enough - and neither is it good enough for teachers' unions to block reforms aimed at rescuing a failing system in order to preserve their own power.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It's the economy... (you know the rest)

While it's easy for political junkies to get caught up in the spectacle of the Abramoff scandal, the GOP leadership contests, and the Alito hearings, it's always a good idea to keep a fix on the issues that are actually going to matter to ordinary voters in the upcoming '06 and '08 elections. As such, there's an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post about how the Democrats should position themselves with regard to the economy, which polls show is generally voters' number two priority, after the war in Iraq.

Let's start with the quote from Vice President Cheney -
"It's getting pretty hard for the critics to make the case that somehow these tax cuts weren't good for the economy."

No, Dick. No it's not. As Sebastian Mallaby, author of the op-ed, correctly points out, the Bush tax cuts, in association with the astronomic increases in government spending during the administration (due partially to events outside of their control such as Hurricane Katrina, but due in much greater part to things (nominally) within their control, like the Iraq war and the Republican Congress doling out government money like lollipops) are leaving the economy in an extremely grave situation. While the full force of the GOP's fiscal folly may not be felt for a few years yet, it is a recipe for disaster in the long run, and any economist will tell you so - it's virtual economic suicide to lower taxes while at the same time increasing government spending. By 2014, the US national debt is projected to rise to 55% of GDP - and by 2030, it will be 139% of GDP. While rattling off dry statistics makes the problem seem more like it should be the subject of an economics seminar, this has real effects in the real world - the Brookings Institution says that each household in the US will receive $1500-$3000 less income every year - and that's the best case scenario - there are much more catastrophic potential effects of continually issuing new debt to foreign governments. Unless this is some grand experiment by anti-government conservatives to finally achieve their longstanding dream of getting the federal government off their backs by forcing it to go bankrupt (and I think you and I both know that it isn't), it's an incredibly irresponsible policy of buy now, (make your children) pay through the nose later.

It's important for the Democrats that they get this message out. While it may seem like what is in people's economic self-interest should be obvious to them, this is clearly not always the case (see Thomas Frank's book What's The Matter With Kansas?). Surely one way of winning back the lower-income workers who have abandoned the Democrats in such vast numbers over the past half a century is to show how you can make them, and their children, and their country, so much better off than the other party.

In the past, conservatives have been thought of as the fiscally responsible party, while Democrats have been tagged recklessly and repeatedly by the GOP as tax-and-spend liberals. In the past decade, those stereotypes, never fully accurate, have been decidedly reversed. The Democrats are now unequivocally the party of sensible fiscal policy, with the Clinton administration balancing the budget and creating surpluses, and the Bush administration playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun with America's economic future. Democrats should be abandoning populist protectionist posturing and reviving James Carville's famous declaration that "It's the economy, stupid!", making the virtually self-evident case to the country that only Democrats can be trusted with the nation's fiscal future.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

I never thought I'd live to see the day...

...that Newt Gingrich started talking sense.

Of course, he's quick to spread the blame to both parties - and it's true that a third of Jack Abramoff's money went to Democrats, and 71% of people feel that both parties are as sleaze-ridden as each other - but its certainly the Republicans who look on the most shaky ground when it comes to a potential ethics backlash in November. But it's certainly interesting to see the man who partially came to power railing against the dubious ethics of the then majority Democrats in Congress focusing attention on an issue that most Republicans will be eager to avoid as much as possible.

Perhaps Gingrich genuinely felt that it would be inconsistent of him not to criticise his friends for doing the same things as he once excoriated his enemies for doing. Or perhaps Newt was thinking back to his glory days as Speaker and hoping to fill a little of the power void left in the Republican party with the fall of Tom DeLay (although trying to take a stance as the anti-corruption Republican seems a bit rich from a man who had to pay $300,000 to settle ethics violations) - he's rumoured to be considering a 2008 Presidential bid (fat chance).

Whatever his motivation, Gingrich does make a legitimate point about the way that politics is financed in the United States.
"The election process has turned into an incumbency protection process in which lobbyists attend PAC fundraisers to raise money for incumbents so they can drown potential opponents, thus creating war chests that convince candidates not to run and freeing up incumbents to spend more time in Washington PAC fundraisers. So, in effect, this city is building a wall of money to protect itself from America."

The gerrymandering and incredible amounts of money that are required for political campaigning do, as Gingrich says, represent a "serious, profound challenge" to the American system of government. Lets hope that someday in the not too distant future, it might be up to meeting it. That's at least one thing that Newt and I agree on.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Abramoff's cunning ploy

How to stop the public thinking you are a corrupt influence-peddling lobbyist? Make them think you are a 1930s gangster instead, of course!