Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

In “When Families Fail” Bobo says President Obama’s new prekindergarten initiative focuses on reform, as it should.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Success That Failed,” says the story of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, is a case study in wasted opportunity.  Prof. Krugman looks at “Rubio and the Zombies” and says the Republican response to the State of the Union sure was revealing.  Here’s Bobo:

Today millions of American children grow up in homes where they don’t learn the skills they need to succeed in life. Their vocabularies are tiny. They can’t regulate their emotions. When they get to kindergarten they’ve never been read a book, so they don’t know the difference between the front cover and the back cover.

But, starting a few decades ago, we learned that preschool intervention programs could help. The efforts were small and expensive, but early childhood programs like the Perry and Abecedarian projects made big differences in kids’ lives. The success of these programs set off a lot of rhapsodic writing, including by me, about the importance of early childhood education. If government could step in and provide quality preschool, then we could reduce poverty and increase social mobility.

But this problem, like most social problems, is hard. The big federal early childhood program, Head Start, has been chugging along since 1965, and the outcomes are dismal. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution summarizes the findings of the most rigorous research: “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Over the past several years, there’s been a flurry of activity, as states and private groups put together better early childhood programs. In these programs, the teachers are better trained. There are more rigorous performance standards. The curriculum is better matched to the one the children will find when they enter kindergarten.

These state programs, in places like Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey, have not been studied as rigorously as Head Start. There are huge quality differences between different facilities in the same state or the same town. The best experts avoid sweeping conclusions. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these state programs can make at least an incremental difference in preparing children for school and in getting parents to be more engaged in their kids’ education.

These programs do not perform miracles, but incremental improvements add up year by year and produce significantly better lives.

Enter President Obama. This week he announced the most ambitious early childhood education expansion in decades. Early Thursday morning, early education advocates were sending each other ecstatic e-mails. They were stunned by the scope of what Obama is proposing.

But, on this subject, it’s best to be hardheaded. So I spent Wednesday and Thursday talking with experts and administration officials, trying to be skeptical. Does the president’s plan merely expand the failing federal effort or does it focus on quality and reform? Is the president trying to organize a bloated centralized program or is he trying to be a catalyst for local experimentation?

So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs.

But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. Washington will insist that states establish good assessment tools. They will insist that pre-K efforts align with the K-12 system. But beyond that, states will have a lot of latitude.

Should early education centers be integrated with K-12 school buildings or not? Should the early childhood teachers be unionized or certified? Obama officials say they want to leave those sorts of questions up to state experimentation. “I’m just about building quality,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. The goal is to make the federal oversight as simple as possible.

That’s crucial. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how to educate children that young. The essential thing is to build systems that can measure progress, learn and adapt to local circumstances. Over time, many children will migrate from Head Start into state programs.

This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.

But of course they won’t, Bobo.  Haven’t you noticed that the president’s a n[CLANG]?  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The most progressive and innovative Palestinian thinker on a Middle East peace settlement has been steadily isolated over the past several years. Undercut by Israel, undermined by his own people’s factionalism, unable to meet even once with President Obama, this dynamic Palestinian leader is now close to the end of his rope.

The story of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the enfeebled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is a case study in wasted opportunity. Obama, who chose not to see Fayyad during his first term, may do so during his visit to the region next month. What the president will hear is how bad things happen when America looks away.

Texas-educated, more interested in the future than a tormented past, a former International Monetary Fund official determined to fight corruption and establish security, a doer not a dreamer, Fayyad was a new kind of Palestinian leader: a nonviolent pragmatist with a genuine readiness for territorial compromise.

To Israel he was a conundrum: a potential partner but also the politician from hell. For if Fayyadism was the new reasonable face of Palestine, why could putative Palestine not come into being?

In Ramallah last month I sat down with Fayyad for a couple of hours. I had negotiated the time-warp traverse from Israel to the West Bank, through the barrier into the mess Israelis would rather not think about, past the striking teachers who had not been paid because the Palestinian Authority is starved for cash, and found the prime minister, dapper as ever, in a dark mood. His program of preparation for statehood, which won a World Bank stamp of approval before its completion in August 2011, was a success that failed: It led nowhere.

“Everything evolved negatively,” Fayyad told me. “In deeds, Israel never got behind me; in fact it was quite hostile. The occupation regime is more entrenched, with no sign it is beginning to relinquish its grip on our life.

“There are more settlements, more settler violence, more intrusiveness into all aspects of Palestinian life, and there are overlooked actions that are wholly unacceptable, like systematically making the Jordan Valley, about a quarter of our land mass, inhospitable.

“I was in a tent with people there recently — most Palestinian life in the valley is nomadic — and they were meters away from a water main. Not only did they not have access to running water, even water tanks were subject to periodic confiscation by the Israeli Army.”

As we spoke, three unarmed Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank in disputed circumstances by the Israeli Defense Forces since the start of the year — two young men aged 15 and 16, and a 22-year-old woman walking on a college campus south of Bethlehem. “The treatment of nonviolent protest has been very violent,” Fayyad noted.

Not one Israeli was killed in the West Bank in 2012. Under Fayyad, the U.S.-backed training of Palestinian security forces, with cooperation from Israel, has brought guns into state control — a prerequisite for statehood. Israel in general enjoys a calm that has allowed jobs and better pay to become Israelis’ main preoccupation and the Palestinians a peripheral issue. The West Bank economy has grown in difficult circumstances.

Yet despite speaking for the first time in 2009 of two states for two peoples, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed intent on sending this message to Fayyad: Good behavior brings further punishment.

“People say Netanyahu remains in power for the sake of power,” Shlomo Avineri, a prominent Israeli political scientist, told me. “I don’t agree. He has a core agenda. He is not going to give up one inch of Eretz Israel. He stays in power for that. The speech about two states was a tactic that gained three years of peace and quiet. He said it and did nothing about it.” Eretz Israel is a biblical term widely used to refer to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, encompassing all of the West Bank.

Or, as a disillusioned member of the outgoing Netanyahu government put it to me: “The world does not believe we are serious about two states because of the settlement policy. If we are building all over the place, where is the Palestinian state?”

Fayyad sees a de facto attempt to undermine the Palestinian Authority. “I still believe the Authority is a key building block in the effort to resolve the conflict,” he said. “Then somebody needs to explain to me how something viewed as central to building peace is left on the ropes for three years, reeling under bankruptcy, and every action is taken to erode its political viability.

“We have sustained a doctrinal defeat. We have not delivered. I represent the address for failure. Our people question whether the P.A. can deliver. Meanwhile, Hamas gains recognition and is strengthened. This is the result of nothingness. It is not just that we have been having a bad day.”

Part of that “nothingness” emanated from Obama’s Washington. “After the failed attempt to stop Israeli settlement expansion, the administration gave up,” Fayyad told me. “After the first year in office, U.S. diplomacy shifted to maintenance — getting a process going rather than looking at the issues.”

So there has been negative drift, largely peaceful but increasingly uneasy. “The risk this situation poses is of sliding back to a cycle of violence,” Fayyad said. “When you keep getting banged on the head, you know one day it will be one bang on the head too many.”

He identified some of the issues: settlement expansion; Israeli military incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas; the failure to extend the Palestinian security presence in the West Bank; the “complex and capricious” process of gaining access to the more than 60 percent of the West Bank known as “Area C” and under direct Israeli military control; the Israeli use of tax revenues as a spigot that can be turned on and off to hurt the Palestinian Authority; the lack of access to 3G technology and Israeli control of frequencies; the difficulty of exporting to Israel. All of these factors together, Fayyad said, had made governance “an exercise in impossibility.”

Then, of course, there is the internal Palestinian question, now referred to as the “reconciliation” issue. The Palestinian national movement is crippled by its split. Hamas rules in Gaza. President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah rule in the West Bank.

The Palestinians have still not decided whether the war is between two nationalisms with rival claims to the same land — one that could in theory be settled by territorial compromise, as Fayyad passionately believes — or whether it is an anti-colonial war, comparable to the Algerian conflict, whose end result must be the expulsion of the Jews and the destruction of the state of Israel, as Hamas contends.

The absolutist approach — not compromise at the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps but rejection of the 1947 U.N. resolution to create the modern state of Israel — has led to Palestinian defeat and humiliation. All the evidence is that it would continue to do so.

So far reconciliation talks have produced only accords that have proved meaningless. “This rivalry and instability are very destructive,” Fayyad said. “The most basic requirement for this plane to take off is, first, security. If we all commit to nonviolence, this will be basic to our interests. We need to formalize this: The path of nonviolence to freedom. If we can unify under that banner, it would be an adequate basis. After all, much of the current coalition in Israel does not subscribe to a two-state solution.” Hamas, the prime minister noted, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the United States now “deals in an open way.”

The other essential ingredient for the Palestinian movement is elections this year, Fayyad said. “Elections are critical. The thing I lament most is the absence of a functioning legislature. We need to rebuild our political system democratically with elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Democracy cannot be holding an election once. I think President Abbas should issue a decree calling for elections and if Hamas says no, so be it.”

The prime minister continued: “I have no sense of entitlement. I have done what I could; I am completely satisfied over that and at peace with myself. I don’t want to be a source of pain to anyone. It is just not acceptable to continue doing this while preaching democracy. A functioning legislature can give you a pink slip. The fact that there is not one does not mean there should not be a self-imposed restraint.”

Fayyad has reached the limit. Fayyadism is another matter. “People will go back to this story,” he mused. “It was about a new way of thinking. And ideas have lasting power.”

And now we have Prof. Krugman:

The State of the Union address was not, I’m sorry to say, very interesting. True, the president offered many good ideas. But we already know that almost none of those ideas will make it past a hostile House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the G.O.P. reply, delivered by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was both interesting and revelatory. And I mean that in the worst way. For Mr. Rubio is a rising star, to such an extent that Time magazine put him on its cover, calling him “The Republican Savior.” What we learned Tuesday, however, was that zombie economic ideas have eaten his brain.

In case you’re wondering, a zombie idea is a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both. The classic zombie idea in U.S. political discourse is the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves, but there are many more. And, as I said, when it comes to economics it appears that Mr. Rubio’s mind is zombie-infested.

Start with the big question: How did we get into the mess we’re in?

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath, which we’re still dealing with, were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. Circa 2005, the usual suspects — conservative publications, analysts at right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, and so on — insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Instead of learning from this experience, however, many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

Every piece of this revisionist history has been refuted in detail. No, the government didn’t force banks to lend to Those People; no, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t cause the housing bubble (they were doing relatively little lending during the peak bubble years); no, government-sponsored lenders weren’t responsible for the surge in risky mortgages (private mortgage issuers accounted for the vast majority of the riskiest loans).

But the zombie keeps shambling on — and here’s Mr. Rubio Tuesday night: “This idea — that our problems were caused by a government that was too small  — it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.” Yep, it’s the full zombie.

What about responding to the crisis? Four years ago, right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Now, this argument was obviously fallacious from the beginning. As people like me tried to point out, the whole reason our economy was depressed was that businesses weren’t willing to invest as much as consumers were trying to save. So government borrowing would not, in fact, drive up interest rates — and trying to balance the budget would simply deepen the depression.

Sure enough, interest rates, far from soaring, are at historic lows — and countries that slashed spending have also seen sharp job losses. You rarely get this clear a test of competing economic ideas, and the right’s ideas failed.

But the zombie still shambles on. And here’s Mr. Rubio: “Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn’t being invested to create jobs. And the uncertainty created by the debt is one reason why many businesses aren’t hiring.” Zombies 2, Reality 0.

In fairness to Mr. Rubio, what he’s saying isn’t any different from what everyone else in his party is saying. But that, of course, is what’s so scary.

For here we are, more than five years into the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and one of our two great political parties has seen its economic doctrine crash and burn twice: first in the run-up to crisis, then again in the aftermath. Yet that party has learned nothing; it apparently believes that all will be well if it just keeps repeating the old slogans, but louder.

It’s a disturbing picture, and one that bodes ill for our nation’s future.


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