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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



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Entries since August 2012

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The Lineup: Week of August 6-12, 2012

August 6, 2012 ·

This week's OtherWords editorial package features an op-ed about the privatization of public schools by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp and a column by Jim Hightower regarding Wall Street's new efforts to extract the earnings of college grads.

Thanks for the many kind letters for Donald Kaul. My latest snapshot of these letters is on the OtherWords blog.

As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and visit our blog. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Crashing the GDP / Vicky Plestis
    A harrowing road trip on the first day of my summer internship helped me get the point of my work on the Genuine Progress Indicator.
  2. The Separate-but-Equal Sale / Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp
    While charter proponents claim that their schools are less bureaucratic, more efficient, and more effective, the evidence doesn't really back that up.
  3. Shortcut to Nowhere / Gabriel Thompson
    For desperate workers that turn to temp agencies for a step up, too often they find only quicksand.
  4. A Rotten Cop on the Beat / Roger Peace
    When one country polices the world, who polices the police?
  5. Grabbing Bigger Slices of Pie / Sam Pizzigati
    New research shows that we shouldn't swallow conservative claims about taxes.
  6. Turning College Students into a Commodity / Jim Hightower
    After graduation, students' incomes would be "attached" by financiers.
  7. Washington's Democratic Double-Standard / William A. Collins and Emily Schwartz Greco
    Uncle Sam isn't making much fuss over Latin America's law-breaking lawmakers.
  8. Privatizing Public Schools / Khalil Bendib (cartoon)

Privatizing Public Schools, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Letters to the Editor: Readers Respond to Kaul's Departure, Part III

August 6, 2012 ·

This is the third installment of a series of posts showcasing the poignant letters Donald Kaul received following his farewell column and my tribute to him. We've gotten more than 150 emails and at least two dozen snail-mailed letters and cards so far. Please keep them coming. If you're a devoted fan, you'll want to read the first and second of these posts too. As I explained in the first one, please re-send any emails you thought were delivered to OtherWords@ips-dc.org prior to Tuesday July 24. Due to a snafu, they were lost.You may also snail-mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.
—Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Oh, no, say it isn't so, Mr. Kaul! So sorry to hear of your heart attack and wish you continued improved health. My best friend sends us your newspaper columns (from Branson, Missouri to Hulbert, Oklahoma) and they are always spot on! We will really miss your voice! We would be delighted if your health and well being would allow you to reconsider retirement!
Carol and Kelly Fagan, Hulbert, Oklahoma

My wife and I just moved to Arcata, California, so I'm not familiar with your column. I was struck by your "sign off" that was printed in the local paper (The Humboldt County, California Times-Standard) last Friday, enough to send you a message wishing you the best in your retirement. Thank you for sharing your insight about signs of a "heart attack" and how most men react. I hope you have many more years, and only write if it's something you wish to do. Retirement should be another fun chapter in our lives, something everyone can look forward to, I hope (though who knows what's in store for the younger generation).
—Mike Slavin, Arcata, California

Donald Kaul Signs Off, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

I was so sorry to read in Liberal Opinion that you have been so ill and would be discontinuing your column for now. I will really miss reading you in LO as yours is the column that I always turn to first thing. This is the second time I have written you as I used to read your column in the Arizona Republic (the only column worth reading). You had retired from writing your column in 2000 and I wished you well but let you know that I would miss your writing, all of which I agreed with - every word. Well, once again I regret that I will not be able to read my favorite columnist, but I care more that you recover your health and enjoy whatever else you do from now on. Please take good care of yourself.
—Barbara R. Iverson, Sedona, Arizona

I’ve never written to you before, but after your “Broken Heart, severed will” article, I just wanted you to know that I for one appreciate you and hope the best for you. I live in one of the most depressing areas of the nation (Louisiana) and am surrounded by right-wing fanatics whose only source of disinformation is Fox news. The local newspapers regularly run Michelle Malkin, Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter, etc. Once in a while they print one of your articles to show how “fair and balanced” they are. You have been a voice of reason and sanity. I have always enjoyed and appreciated your point of view.

I hope you recover quickly from your heart troubles. I also am saddened that you might hang up your pen. If encouragement from your readers is what you want, please accept this as my request that you keep writing until your head hits the table. You are appreciated. If you print this, please do not print my name since I do not want to have my home or car egged.
—A reader in Sulphur, Louisiana

So sorry to hear you are among the persons forced to take a "rest." But that's life I guess. I do wish you a speedy and complete recovery from this serious problem but I'm so glad you are a survivor! We do need your type of column! It is cut from a newspaper in Watertown, S.D. and forwarded to me by a very dear friend, after she has enjoyed reading it. So you see it travels far. My best to you.....do have a speedy and complete recovery.
—Joyce Serquinia, Auburn, Washington

I hope you have a good recovery from your heart attack and I wish you all the best in your retirement. I want to thank you for all the years of great writing with great wisdom and perspective on our society. As a lifelong Iowan I looked forward to your column for years. It gave me faith that I was not alone in a sea of morons and religious zealots hell bent on making a profit and imparting their morals on me no matter the cost.

Growing up in the 50s serving in the military and raising my family as a working man gave me a very different perspective that of the ME generation of the past 20 years. Now retired for the past eight years and once again living under Governor-for-Life Terry Branstad. I will miss your work. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
—James (Jay) Jebe

Note: the Des Moines Register recently published a version of this letter too.
Dear Donald: You announced the suspension of your column. You lay the reason at the foot of a heart attack and the general decline of civilization.

My plea to you – suck it up. Yes you’re 77 and yes you’ve had a heart attack and yes the world seems to be hopping into Thelma and Louise’s back seat as they happily drive off the cliff.

You may not fully grasp it, but some of us really need to hear your thoughts now and then. You make us think and smile and chuckle. We don’t have to agree with you to enjoy you.

You survived the demise of 6-on-6 girls' basketball (some will say you helped move the demise along.) You survived not having Nixon to kick around any longer. You survived a nice little bike ride becoming a production befitting Cecil B. DeMille. You survived the pendulum swing of politics and politicians, and issues and conflicts and day-to-day challenges — like how to light a water heater.

You survived the Register liking you and not liking you.

Through it all, you’ve had a loyal following. The five of us often meet to talk about you.

Just kidding. You touch many; many of whom would not dare to admit it.

Keep writing. For those of us who like you, and maybe particularly for those who don’t.

And one other thing, please update the photo that runs with your column. It looks like a police line-up shot. If you can’t come up with a better picture, use someone else’s.

Thanks and hope to continue reading you over the coffee.
—John Hale, Ankeny, Iowa

Best wishes for a quick recovery from your heart attack. Thank you for RAGBRAI, from a 61-year-old who lost his RAGBRAI virginity last week. The ride, instigated by my riding companion, our 33-year-old son, was to celebrate the first anniversary of MY heart attack.

I have two stents, 20 less pounds (not counting the ones I gained during the ride) and feel terrific. We did the Karras Loop, and I did another century today as part of an annual ride with friends.

You have obviously touched countless thousands of people through your columns and your ride.

May you be able to ride again, soon, as well!
—Mark Hertzberg, Racine, Wisconsin
Recently retired journalist (Director of Photography at Lee's Journal Times in Racine)

Dearest Columnist Who I Cannot Do Without:
Does the earth stop producing after a volcano?
Does the ground stop renewing after a fire?
Do any of us stop our minds just because our bodies are being contrary?
Obviously the answer is a WHOPPING NO.

We all get challenges in our 70s. Get your recorder going — or Dragon — or whatever and dictate those delicious, brilliant thoughts that no medicine or heart will stop your mind from thinking. Your blood pressure may be better with venting! Just don't make yourself follow deadlines. Who needs 'em? We'll read whatever /whenever you send a salvo.

Yours is the ONLY column I have cut, copied & sent through slow mail over the years. I especially loved your column a few months back that was a repeat of a column from years ago re God & Congress. Maybe you can cull former columns for current reading. Sounds fun! Blessings to your recovery and to your family.
—Sandy Percy

I was very sorry to hear about your myocardial infarction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that word on the street is that heart attacks are no fun, But I’m also disappointed I won’t be reading your thoughts on the state of America for awhile, because they generally provide insight and a perspective that is all too uncommon these days.

I agree with what you opine about 98 percent of the time, and even when I don’t I respect the way you articulate your ideas in writing. Yours is an eloquent, thoughtful voice amidst a sea of shouters; in my only slightly biased opinion that aren’t nearly enough of you and far too many of them!

For right now I’m going to put all of my positive vibes into helping you back to good health. And once that’s accomplished, I look forward to reading your helpful bits of common sense that have been showing up in the Journal Tribune (of Biddeford, Maine) each week for at least as long as I’ve been reading the paper with the masthead that proudly proclaims it is York County’s ONLY daily.

We’ll miss you while you’re on hiatus, but given that its cause is that you’re healing, we can deal with it. Here’s to a quick and speedy recovery!
—Andy Young, Cumberland, Maine

From Margaret E. ("Peggy") Roney, Avondale Estates, Georgia, p309@bellsouth.net
Please don't quit us. Even though this is the first time I've written, I have ALWAYS looked forward to your column, your wisdom, your comfort that your column gave me. Please tell me how we can continue to read you whenever you do write. We NEED you! THANKS! Your loyal reader.
—Margaret E. ("Peggy") Roney, Avondale Estates, Georgia, Peggy [p309@bellsouth.net]

Select Tributes Posted as Comments on the OtherWords website

Donald Kaul is a prophet in the classical sense of that word; God's spokesperson. I trust that Donald will continue writing only when God is done with him.
—W. Michael Biklen

Add my name to the legions who have followed Don Kaul for decades and who will miss his "dark wit" if the worst is true and this is truly good-bye. When I moved to Iowa in 1976, Kaul's columns entertained and educated me. I had the good fortune to meet the man during RAGBRAI in 1983, when I was riding across the state as a young mother escapee of three boys under the age of 3. Something I said made it into his column that day. I've enjoyed his columns and was delighted to find him on OtherWords after he left the Des Moines Register.

Life takes funny turns. I am now the editor of a weekly community paper in Florida and through OtherWords have enjoyed sharing some of Kaul's insights and musings with our readers.

I too hope that he once again finds himself willing to share his gifts with us all, but if he's really and truly retired for good, we all have decades of insightful columns to be thankful for.
—Missy Layfield, editor of the Island Sand Paper, Fort Myers Beach, Florida

Donald: We keep saying hello and goodbye. When you tried to retire 12 or so years ago, I wrote you that I hoped you would change your mind and return. I ranked you then with Molly Ivins and Mike Royko as one of my three favorite op-ed page columnists in the Kansas City Star. When you relented and returned, I wrote you again, suggesting, as I recall, that we would need you badly in the battle to stop George Dubya. You wrote back promising to try. It wasn’t your fault that he won. Now you say a heart attack has prompted you to retire again — maybe. I’m saddened by your heart attack, thrilled that you survived it and hope you’ll be back soon. Another Republican in the White House we don’t need. Your wit and wisdom is needed again for the fight. Don’t rush it, but as soon as it seems physically advisable, please resume your column. With Mike and Molly long gone, you have no rivals for my affection. My Mondays on the Internet won’t be as rich until you do.
—Harry Jones, Evanston, Illinois

If you do stop, I'll understand but here in Traverse City, I'll miss your column greatly. Frankly, I've had to cut back on following politics as intensely as I used to for the sake of my mental health and I'm only 50.
—Sally Sheldon, Traverse City, Michigan

I'm glad to hear you had good medical care, and I'm glad that you've written about how this is the only one of the 30 wealthiest nations that considers health care a commodity rather than a human right. Now get well, and if you want to stop writing the column, so be it. I've been following you since I was an Iowa high schooler (and a page in the Iowa House of Rep., class of 1965, when Chuck Grassley was a squeaky-voiced freshman). I have yellowed clippings of Over The Coffee columns that still are zingers. You, sir, belong in the Journalism Hall of Fame. If there isn't one, let's start one and put you in it.
—ExIowan on Left Coast

Back in the late 70s, the Mason (Iowa) City Globe Gazette provided a list of about 2 dozen columnists and asked readers to rate them. Donald took first place. I always looked forward to his columns. He reminded me a little of Mike Royko although he had a style all his own. Even if he never got a Pulitzer, he deserves some kind of recognition. I'm grateful for all his wonderful columns and wish him all the best. Get well Donald. I hope we hear from you again even if it's only as a guest columnist every now and then.
—Wayne Stout

I grew up listening to my father chuckle at the breakfast table, and then read "Over The Coffee" aloud to my mother as we ate. Once I figured out that the newspaper consisted of more than just the funnies, Mr. Kaul's column was always the first thing I read. I'm just having a difficult time imagining life without being able to read Mr. Kaul's witty — and often caustic — comments on current events. Politics has become so depressing, and I always looked forward to being able to laugh about it...even just once in a while.

I am 80 years old, a Korean vet, a college grad, a father of four, a grandfather, and, a great-grandfather. As I read your article I could not help but agree and strongly endorse these sentiments. I feel as if I have fallen into the rabbit hole and want to wake up. Is America done in less than 300 years, when Rome lasted 1,000? Thanks for sharing your insight.
—Harry Clayman

Violence Defines American Culture

August 3, 2012 ·

As a child I played war games (cowboys killing Indians). My friends and I routinely shot each other - with toy guns, of course. In my south Bronx neighborhood, older gang members had real guns and sometimes shot each other. Like in the movies! The cartoons I adored as a kid were loaded with violence as were the war movies Hollywood churned out to make propaganda for the actual war against Germany and Japan.

Cowboys and IndiansWhen James Holmes mowed down twelve people and wounded almost sixty at a movie theater in Colorado, I felt fresh violence enter my body as if a masseuse had greased me with liquid hostility before beginning the massage. Aggression penetrated my pores, inundated my brain and covered the cells of my heart. While the media reported the number of rounds fired, the kinds of weapons possessed by the assassin, and the anatomy of Holmes' booby-trapped apartment, President Obama and aspirant Romney uttered bland statements about the need for prayer, and consolation to the victims' families. Neither mentioned control of guns or the culture of violence that defines America. Freedom seems to equal gun possession for the National Rifle Association and many of its members.

Violence, more American than apple pie and baseball, has become a major social issue and a serious public health problem. Almost daily someone shoots another dead in countless metropolitan areas. Families suffer, cops say they are investigating and newspapers and TV stations get lead stories. I, like tens of millions, see the TV blood stories and easily fall into the fascination pit of the aftermaths and consequences of violence. But the media does not analyze or look for underlying themes in Aurora or similar horrifying acts. Instead, they use them to sell news shows, newspapers, and get advertisers.

Indeed, the media soak us with the culture of violence. In Hollywood and TV films, violent death has become the only formula for adequate retribution. Movie villains suffer hideous ends – movie justice. Violence as the cultural metaphor well suits a country that for decades has lived with perpetual war, backed by the owners of the war economy.

Continue reading Saul's colum at Progreso Weekly.

Romney Backs Israel in the Battle of the Iran Red Lines

August 2, 2012 ·

Okay, so it takes a certain panache to invoke an old-fashioned anti-Semitic trope that insults Jews AND an anti-Arab racist slur against Palestinians – simultaneously. But there you have it – in one brief "your culture" remark to Jewish donors, Romney managed to piss off pretty much everyone in the Middle East.

Mitt Romney gaffe-prone campaign supports a dangerous foreign policy approach. Photo by Dave Lawrence / Flickr.It's all about Jewish culture, apparently – you know, Jews are so good with money? Where have we heard that before? That was his explanation of why Israel is so much wealthier than its Palestinian neighbors in the occupied territory. More specifically, it was Romney's explanation of why Israel's GDP "is about $21,000" and on the Palestinian Authority it's more like $10,000 per capita." It's just culture – occupation, Israeli control of economy, land, movement of people and goods, borders, water, airspace….that has nothing to do with Palestinian poverty.

(And oh, by the way, in fact Israel's GDP is not twice as much as the Palestinians' as Romney claims; it's actually about TWENTY TIMES bigger because of occupation. In 2011, Israel's GDP was more than $31,000; in 2010, the Occupied Territories' was $1,500.)

In terms of his election, none of this mattered very much, of course, because as the New York Times lead editorial recognized, "the real audience for Mr. Romney's tough talk was American Jews and evangelical Christians." This was supposed to be the easy itinerary – Candidate Romney would visit three U.S. allies, all governed by right-wing leaders much closer to his brand of Republicanism than to Obama’s centrist style. He started with London – how hard could that be? Well, there was the criticism of the Olympics. There was the public trumpeting of a supposedly secret meeting with the head of MI6. There was the anonymous campaign staffer talking about Romney understanding the special "anglo-saxon relationship" with the UK better than the [OMG he's black!] president. The Sun's "Mitt the Twit" headline probably summed up the British reaction pretty well.

Israel was next, and with the British fiasco still simmering, some of the goals changed. The pressure was on to not only impress his pro-Israel donors, but to prove his clearly-wanting gravitas and diplomatic chops. In one sense, that was the more dangerous part – because it was in real policy issues, especially the possibility of war with Iran, that Romney's Great International Journey showed his true colors.

But before he got to Iran, of course, there were more you-can't-make-this-stuff-up moments. Before Team Romney even arrived in Israel, they had gaffed already – scheduling a festive $50,000/plate fundraising dinner during the solemn Jewish holiday of Tisha Ba'av, requiring believers to fast for an entire day spent in sorrow, remembrance and prayer. They hastily moved the money event from Sunday night to a Monday morning breakfast, but still it rankled.

Then he made the mandatory visit to the Western Wall, one of the holiest Jewish sites in Jerusalem. That was for the photo op – and sure enough, the next morning's Washington Post and New York Times dutifully featured large full-color renditions of Romney at the wall, wearing the traditional Jewish skullcap. But he had gone to the Wall surrounded by a scrum of photographers and a huge security entourage – disrupting the prayers of the ultra-orthodox Jews already there. Even one of the settler leaders, Romney's most stalwart Israeli supporters, said the settlers were "disappointed." Then he canceled a long-scheduled meeting with the opposition Labor Party leader – an act the Israeli press speculated was pushed by Netanyahu himself.

And he essentially ignored the Palestinians (and the fact that his visit was in the middle of Ramadan). The only Palestinian he met with was the U.S. favorite, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who, according to the Globe and Mail, "was summoned to meet the candidate under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem." The Wall Street Journal reported their talk "mainly stuck to the Olympics."

It goes on. The pre-Israel London gaffes were matched by those that followed in Poland. Romney's foot-in-mouth disease shows no signs of healing.

Iran: who would go to war when

But there's danger as well. Beyond the snarky fodder for late-night television, there were some serious indications of just how extreme candidate Romney's policies really are. The Times editorial was correct that "On Iran's nuclear weapons program, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney support trying to halt it with sanctions and negotiations but say military action is an option." That's horrific, but technically accurate.

Because as bad as both the candidates are, as willing to threaten the use of force as they are, there is a huge difference between them. Candidate Obama reflects the official U.S. position that a "nuclear-armed Iran" is a red line which could justify the use of force. That's a dangerous, sure-to-fail recipe for foreign policy. But it refers to Iran having a nuclear weapon – something all analysts agree is years away.

Candidate Romney, on the other hand, accepted the official position of his host country – Israel – which is that a nuclear capable Iran is the red line. As Romney advisor Dan Senor put it, as president Romney would respect any Israeli decision to use unilateral force "to stop Iran from developing the capability" to build a nuclear weapon.

And that is a WAY more dangerous proposition.

There is no accepted international definition of "nuclear capability." Usually it refers to some combination of access to enriched uranium or the ability to enrich uranium, and the scientific know-how to follow the how-to-build-a-nuke instructions that are pretty much all over the internet. Like every country that produces nuclear power, Iran has all that. Years ago, when Israel first started referring to this concept, the running joke was "what are they gonna do, kill all the scientists?" That isn’t a joke any longer; at least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last several years, Israeli responsibility is so widely accepted internationally they have all but acknowledged their role.

Dangerous as they both are, there's a huge difference between threatening to use force if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and threatening war to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capacity – since by Israel’s definition they already have that. When a potential U.S. president accepts the Israeli terms for when military force is acceptable, rejecting the position of his own government, we are way beyond the problem of a candidate criticizing a sitting president when he promised he wouldn't.

No surprise that even some Israelis accused Romney of harboring "an extremist, dangerous, war-mongering agenda." Romney's Israel trip shows us the threat of war in a whole new way.

Exchange Rates and Debt Bondage

August 1, 2012 ·

The increasingly sordid LIBOR scandal has pulled back the curtain shielding the international financial system, revealing decaying regulatory bodies and rampant corruption. People around the world are indignant that a key financial benchmark could be distorted with such ease and that this tampering could go unnoticed for so long. This should be a wakeup call around the globe to take stock of other financial tools that are also vulnerable to manipulation and under-regulated.

Argentina's Peso devaluation in 2001 reflected another case of investor speculation. Photo by Alex Proimos / Flickr.The means by which exchange rates are determined is one such example. Often, exchange rates changes are discussed as if they are part of a quasi-mystical realm that is completely disconnected from the real world. But currencies don't rise and fall in accordance with some divine will. They're set by investors and speculators in financial capitals around the world. Basic international monetary economic text books explain that the exchange rate between two countries is determined by the interest rates in each country and the expected future exchange rate between the countries. The formula is: E= Expected future exchange rate [(1+interest rate of the foreign country)/(1+interest rate of the home country)].

The term "expected future exchange rate" is nothing more than a way of making what investors in London, New York, and Tokyo think might happen seem legitimate. When developing countries announce any major policy shifts, new expenditures, or forecasts for their export-driven crops, investors around the globe take note. They change their expectations about the future exchange rate, which in turn shapes the current exchange rate.

The recent debacle demonstrates that financial actors neither impartial nor ethical. The LIBOR scandal should raise concerns about the validity of any financial indicator or benchmark that hinges on the whims of financiers.

The volatility of exchange rates wouldn't be nearly as damning were developing nations able to borrow in their own currency. Investors and financial institutions that loan money to developing countries prefer to be repaid in stable currencies such as U.S. dollars, yen, or euros. Investors contend that the currencies of developing nations are risky because of the likelihood that they will depreciate.

This laughably ignores the role that the investors themselves play in that depreciation. Though countries have the option of pegging their currency to another country’s to maintain a consistent exchange rate, such as Argentina did in the 1990s, international investors can speculate against the peg and break it. This can contribute to a currency's sharp devaluation, such as the one Argentina suffered in 2001.

Many poor countries owing dollar-denominated debts that must be serviced with revenue raised in part in their own depreciating currencies are thus forced to make payments on increasingly expensive, and often untenable, loans.

This constant threat of devaluation, in addition to mounting debt, has shackled developing countries for decades. Impoverished, debt-ridden countries have modeled their policies in accordance with the whims of financial institutions to no avail. The events surrounding the LIBOR debacle shouldn't be considered an anomaly within the financial world. It's simply a new, and rather reliable, red flag signaling the urgent need to repair our corrupt and broken financial system.

<p >Bankers, investors, and financiers wield too much leverage over key financial indicators and benchmarks and regulatory systems are too anemic. The LIBOR scandal isn't an anomaly in an otherwise efficient system. It's a natural outgrowth of an untethered and corrupt sector. Deep reforms that protect against the financial industry's abuses are long overdue.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

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