Things we can learn from those PISA scores!


Not that such facts get reported: What happens in American schools is important.

In part, that's true because of the acquisition of skills and knowledge. It's also true with respect to the personal happiness of the kids who attend our schools.

It's important when higher-performing kids, of whatever description, are bored out of their gourds by the level of instruction. 

It's also important when lower-performing kids are overwhelmed by the level of instruction and leave school every day with the sense—in the language of the child—that they must be "stupid."

What happens in school is important. Every so often, when major test scores are released, major newspapers get to make an important choice:

Which parts of the data will they report? Which parts will they disappear?

On December 5, test scores from the 2022 PISA were released worldwide. In the December 6 New York Times, the news report started like this, hard-copy headline included:

American Teens Still Trail Other Countries in Math

The math performance of U.S. teenagers has sharply declined since 2018, with scores lower than 20 years ago, and with American students continuing to trail global competitors, according to the results of a key international exam released on Tuesday.

In the first comparable global results since the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year-olds in the United States scored below students in similar industrialized democracies like the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, and well behind students in the highest-performing countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Estonia—continuing an underperformance in math that predated the pandemic.

The bleak math results were offset by a stronger performance in reading and science, where the United States scored above average internationally.

About 66 percent of U.S. students performed at least at a basic level in math, compared with about 80 percent in reading and science, according to the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

The report was written by Sarah Mervosh, a good, decent person. The focus of the report was on the performance by American students in math. 

On balance, the outlook was gloomy.

For the record, "Math Literacy" was the "major domain" in the 2022 testing. That said, the PISA also tested 15-year-old students in "Reading Literacy" and "Science Literacy," as it always does. 

We've shown you the way the New York Times' news report started. So far, it's hard to say that anything stated in the report is actually "wrong."

That said, Mervosh continued as shown below. The highlighted statement is quite gloomy, but is that highlighted statement accurate? 

At best, we'd call it grossly misleading, though it's also highly familiar:

The exam was last given in 2018 and measures the performance of 15-year-olds around the world, with an emphasis on real-world skills. Typically administered every three years, it was delayed a year during the pandemic. Nearly 700,000 teenagers around the world took the exam in 2022.

The results are the latest indicator of an American education system that struggles to prepare all students from an early age, with proficiency in math dropping the longer students remain in the system. National test results last year also reported greater declines in math compared with reading, a subject that can be more influenced by what happens at home and was less affected by school closures.

Is that an accurate statement? Does the American education system, such as it is, "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?" 

At best, we'd call that statement grossly misleading. Once again, and for the last time, we show you some of the basic data from the Reading Literacy test: 

Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 579
Singapore: 543
U.S. white kids: 537
Japan: 516
Korea: 515
Taiwan: 515
Canada: 507
United States: 504
Australia: 498
U.K.: 494
Germany: 480
France: 474
Spain: 474

Our Asian-American kids vanquished the world. Our "white" kids basically scored off the charts.

When you look at data like those, does it really seem that American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?" Also, does it look that way when you look at some of the basic data from the Science Literacy test?

Average scores, Science Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 578
Singapore: 561
Japan: 547
U.S. white kids: 537
Taiwan: 537
South Korea: 528
Canada: 515
Australia: 507
U.K.: 500
United States: 499
Germany: 492
France: 487

Needless to say, everyone's schools could be better. 

That said, when you look at the Science Literacy data, does it look like our American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?" Or does it look like two major groups of American kids are performing at the highest levels recorded around the world?

No international testing program could ever be perfect. Over the past twenty-plus years, the PISA has been one of two such international programs.

(The other is the TIMSS.)

In certain ways, it seems to us that the PISA may have some substantial quirks. But based upon these new data from the PISA, did it really make sense when Times readers were told, in paragraph 6 of a lengthy report, that our stumblebum American schools "struggle to prepare all students from an early age?"

Yes, that claim was highly familiar. But did it really make sense?

A person might claim that Mervosh was only referring to the PISA math scores when she offered that assessment. In our view, that would be an overly generous reading of that gloomy statement. 

(For whatever reason, American kids have always performed much less well in that third "domain" when they take the PISA. For whatever reason, American kids score much better in math when they take the more straightforward TIMSS.)

In our view, that would be a generous reading of that gloomy statement by Mervosh.  That said, even in Math Literacy, one group of American kids scored near the top of the world on the PISA. 

A second group of American kids produced a fully respectable average score. We'll post the data below.

Even in the PISA math test, two major groups of American kids produced average scores which were either decent or quite good! That said, our American schools have tended to struggle with two other groups of our good, decent kids. 

That is a problem we still all live with. It's also a problem which newspapers like the New York Times have persistently refused to confront, report or acknowledge.

How strange! At some point in her lengthy report, Mervosh drew almost every possible comparison under the sun, involving all sorts of demographic groups.

She tells us how American boys performed on the PISA as compared to American girls. She tells us how higher-income American kids performed as compared to their lower-income peers.

She tells us what the achievement gaps were like between "the highest and lowest U.S. performers." She describes the performance by "students from disadvantaged backgrounds," without explaining the specific meaning of that fuzzy designation.

The one comparison she never makes—the one set of gaps she never reports—involves the gaps which obtain between our struggling nation's major "racial" / ethnic student groups. 

Those achievement gaps were disappeared in the Mervosh report. In a highly familiar editorial judgment, the average scores produced by those four major groups were never mentioned.

At this point, let's state the obvious:

It's painful to look at the very large achievement gaps which obtain between our four major racial / ethnic groups. Those gaps reflect our brutal American history and its continuing fallout.

It's painful to look at the different average scores recorded by those groups of kids. It's painful to look at those average scores. Also, it may seem embarrassing.

Presumably for those reasons, entities like the New York Times and the Washington Post have always chosen to disappear those painful achievement gaps. In the Mervosh report, every other type of comparison is cited. Comparisons between those four major groups simply never appear.

Let's be clear! Many black and Hispanic kids do brilliantly well on tests like the PISA and the TIMSS. Many white and Asian-American kids produce very low scores.

(There's a lot of unhappiness in those low scores, no matter who has produced them.)

That said, very large gaps obtain between the average scores produced by these four major groups. At the New York Times, for reasons only the Times can explain, the struggle involving our good and decent black school kids isn't important enough to be reported, not even every three or four years.

For the record, this is a long-standing editorial decision by the New York Times. Almost surely, Sarah Mervosh, a good decent person, didn't make this decision.

On its face, this is peculiar work. It's also who we actually are, and who we've always been.

How did American kids do in math? Below, you see the relevant scores from the Math Literacy test.

Painful gaps can be seen in those average scores. Those gaps help define one of the major actual ways our schools continue to struggle. 

Painful gaps can be seen in these scores. The New York Times disappeared those scores and those gaps, as did the Washington Post:

Average scores, Math Literacy, 2022 PISA:
Singapore 575
Taiwan 547
U.S. Asian kids 543
Japan 536
Korea 527
U.S. white kids 498
Canada 497
U.K. 489
Australia 487
Finland 484
Germany 475
France 474
Spain 473
United States 465
U.S. Hispanic kids 439
U.S. black kids 412

The struggle we all continue to live with is sitting right there in those (average) scores. That's "the problem we all live with"—unless you read the Washington Post or the New York Times.

As noted, and for what it's worth: American kids have always scored much better in math on the more straightforward TIMSS. For Kevin Drum's brief assessment, click here.

We'll note that two groups of American kids outscored press corps darling Finland in math. Even on the PISA!

How well did American kids do in math?


We'll conclude these reports on the morrow: How well did American kids do in math on the 2022 PISA?

Also, how were the new PISA scores reported in the Washington Post and in the New York Times? We're speaking about the scores in all three "domains"—in reading and science and math.

You're asking excellent questions! According to the New York Times report, the new PISA scores tell us this:

"The results are the latest indicator of an American education system that struggles to prepare all students from an early age."

That statement strikes us as baldly inaccurate. Beyond that, we think we may know of a (pointlessly controversial) term for such sanitized claims.

That statement strikes us as grossly misleading. We'll conclude our reports tomorrow.

(Our elite college presidents don't know how to talk. Our papers make sanitized claims.)

HARVARD THEN AND NOW: Fuzzy language to the left of us...


Clown shows to the right: Full disclosure, in the form of a confession:

Long ago and far away, there may have been a time when we wouldn't have been able to identify this latest collection of words as an example of fuzzy language.

The collection of words to which we refer appears in today's New York Times. Here's how the news report begins, with its fuzzy language highlighted:

Federal Judge Approves Georgia’s New Voting Maps

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that the Georgia legislature had complied with orders to draw voting maps that allowed Black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice, signing off on new districts created earlier this month.

The Republican-led legislature had drawn new state and congressional maps during a December special session, after a federal judge in Atlanta said the original districts created after the 2020 census violated the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.


Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia, who first struck down the [original] maps in late October, said that the legislature had now done enough to comply with the Voting Rights Act with its new maps, which are likely to maintain the 9-5 majority Republicans hold in the state’s congressional delegation.

“The court finds that the General Assembly fully complied with this court’s order requiring the creation of a majority-Black congressional district in the region of the state where vote dilution was found,” Judge Jones, who was nominated to his post by President Barack Obama, wrote in one of three rulings rejecting challenges to the redrawn congressional and state legislature maps.

So begins the report by King and Cochrane, fuzzy language highlighted. 

According to the Times reporters, Georgia's new legislative maps "allow Black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice." It sounds like something you'd want to allow, but what exactly does that formulation actually mean?

The reporters make no attempt to explain. Beyond that, the term "vote dilution" appears several times in their report, in the absence of any attempt to explain what that term means.

We'll return to the question of "fuzzy language" before we're done today. First, we want to show you something we saw and heard on Wednesday night as we groaningly watched the Fox News Channel program, The Five.

The Five airs at 5 p.m. Eastern. Also, it features a shifting panel of five (5) panelists. Plainly, a lot of cleverness went into this popular program's name and construction.

As part of The Five's basic format, four (4) of the panelists take turns emitting red tribe Storyline regarding the topic under review. At some point, the panel's one (1) blue tribe panelist is allowed to try to respond.

This format could hardly be dumber. That said, what we heard on Wednesday night crossed the border of the merely dumb, venturing into the uncharted territory of the Baldly Stupid.

On the night in question, the panelist serving as moderator was Lisa Kennedy Montgomery. "Referred to mononymously as Kennedy," she's "an American libertarian political commentator, radio personality, author, and former MTV VJ." 

Or at least, so the leading authority says.

At 5:27 p.m., the former VJ kicked off the segment in question. In all honesty, you really can't get too much dumber than what you see below. 

To watch the full segment, just click here. But this is what Kennedy said at the start of the soul-draining, eight-minute pseudo-discussion:

KENNEDY (12/27/23): Democrats had a busy year declaring war on appliances in the name of green energy. But one liberal leader got a pass on her gas. 

Kamala is getting burned online—Get it?—for posting this photo of herself and the second hubby, Douglas Emhoff, cooking up some Christmas beef Wellington—sounds kinky—on a gas stove, which the regulation-obsessed Biden administration considered banning over health concerns.

And it's not just gas stoves. Biden's anti-consumer crusade is targeting four more types of appliances—including but not limited to, dishwashers, air conditioners, washing machines and furnaces. 

Had enough nanny state? I've been telling you. Well, how about Mayor Pete going after your wheels?

Actually, no. According to experts, it can't get dumber than that.

There followed a brief, misleadingly edited video of a recent appearance by Pete Buttigieg on a Fox Business Network program. (For the record, Buttigieg was treated with perfect courtesy on that particular show.)

Eventually, Kennedy threw to the rest of her panel, including the former pro wrestling heavyweight champion; the former marine whose family boasts "a colorful past as moonshiners and race car," and the 35-year-old Arizonan who, "as an adult woman with eligible ancestry, became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution."

The four red tribe panelists proceeded to stage a meandering pseudo-discussion of every energy issue under the sun. No attempt was made to explain why anyone might be concerned about any of the three hundred topics under pseudo-review. 

Any one of those topics would have been appropriate for a real discussion. Instead, the four red tribers generated an endless stream of self-pitying nonsense—nonsense which had started with the unfounded, apparently bogus claim that the Biden administration considered banning gas stoves this year.

Finally, the torch was passed to Jessica Tarlov, the panel's one (1) blue tribe member. As is typical in these imitations of life, this exchange quickly ensued:

TARLOV: No one has mentioned why there's any conversation about getting rid of gas stoves. It's because of childhood asthma. Gas stoves are responsible for 12 percent of the childhood asthma cases in the United States—

KATIE PAVLICH: That's not true.

TARLOV: Yes, it is true. Twenty-one percent oft he cases in Illinois, 20 percent of the cases in California. It's a health and safety risk more than it's just about liberals wanting to exert maximum control over the populace that we think that we're smarter than...

The interruption was instantaneous. Only a fool would suppose that Pavlich actually knows what's "true" about this technical matter. 

That said, why did Tarlov include the statement about what liberals do and don't want to exert? She included it because the four red tribe participants—the former VJ; the former heavyweight wrestling champion; the ex-Marine with the colorful family; the former conservative blogger of the year, so named at age 23—had insisted, all though their pseudo-discussion, that liberals want to engage in such regulations because they think they're smarter than us the regular people, and because they want to control us.

Full disclosure: Everyone is smarter than the people who pump the tribal line on programs like The Five. 

(We'll offer a pass to Johnny Joey Jones, the ex-Marine with the colorful family history. Jones is unfailingly courteous, and strikes us as being completely sincere.)

At any rate, no one isn't smarter than these people are! That said. we the people will commonly lack the analytical tools with which to discern the level of clowning being performed on such "cable news" programs.

As a general matter, we the people lack such tools—and at this site, for the past twenty-five years, we've noted a certain cultural problem:

No one from our finest schools is going to dirty his or her hands by stepping forward to discuss the degrees of deception and misinformation involved in these endless gong shows. At schools like Harvard, MIT and Penn, such things simply aren't done.

It simply isn't done! Nor will the collection of billionaires, donors and corporate heirs assembled on the Harvard Corporation ever step out of their mahoganied  rooms to take note of this failure to serve.

Regarding the fuzzy language with which we began, let the word go forth:

There was a time when we ourselves might not have noticed the fact that this morning's Times report is built around fuzzy language.

In the major piece of fuzzy language, we're told that yesterday's decision in Georgia means that black voters in that state will now be "allowed an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice."

Go ahead—try to paraphrase that formulation! Try to explain what that means! 

In fairness, there was a time when we ourselves probably wouldn't have seen that as fuzzy language—but what does that fuzzy language mean? It's very had to say. Nor will any Harvard professor ever step forward in a guest essay to address any such point of concern.

To appearances, the professors are too busy inside their bubbles to offer any such service to the world. With that, we think back to our own freshman year at Harvard, and to the handful of years which have followed.

The clowning on the Fox News Channel is an existential threat to our failing nation. Harvard professors are too refined to emerge from their studies to say that.

Nor is it likely that any such professor would actually have the skills with which to perform some such service. Meanwhile, the jugglers and clowns on Harvard's governing body lack the social awareness to notice the end drawing near.

The board sits in mahoganied rooms making its "key decisions." When the president they selected showed up in Washington at the start of this month, it turned out that she didn't have the slightest idea how to speak in public. 

In fairness, neither did the other college presidents, those from MIT and Penn. Simply put:

After decades inside the bubble, the three lacked any such skill.

These are the jugglers and the clowns who are conventionally described as "highly educated." The three college presidents were beaten and cowed by the screeching lunacy of Rep. Elise Stefanik—and Harvard's own Professor Tribe couldn't run fast enough to tell the world that Stefanik had been right! 

So spoke the highly educated, at that point in time.

"You've gone to the finest schools," Bob Dylan derisively said. On Monday, the New York Times launched a sneak attack on the "highly educated" people who count their money and successfully hide inside such high-end bubbles.

By our senior year: By our junior and senior years, we'd been directed toward the admittedly incoherent work of the later Wittgenstein. 

Incoherent as that work may have been, it did offer a way to untangle the spider webs of fuzzy language and conceptual confusion afflicting high-end thought. According to Professor Horwich, his colleagues  decided that life would be easier if they simply averted their gaze.

His colleagues retreated back into the bubble. When the three college presidents showed up in D.C., you saw where such lethargy leads.

The donors and heirs sit on the board, with a pair of scholars thrown in.

How well did American kids do in science?


But also, what happened to Finland? Yesterday, we showed you how American students performed on one part of the 2022 PISA.

The PISA administers tests in three subject areas: Reading Literacy, Science Literacy, Math Literacy. Here are some of the scores we showed you from the 2022 reading test:

Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 579
Singapore: 543
U.S. white kids: 537
Japan: 516
South Korea: 515
Taiwan: 515
Canada: 507
United States: 504
Australia: 498
U.K.: 494
Finland: 490
Germany: 480
France: 474 

As you can see, two groups of American kids scored at a very high level on the reading test. As we'll help you see tomorrow, that's a type of fact you'll never be told in major American newspapers.

Also, what happened to Finland? After we raised this general topic on Monday, Kevin Drum posted the graphics from the blogger Cremieux. He also rolled his eyes at the descent of mighty Finland, which had long been the mainstream press corps' favorite.

In real time, we wrote and wrote, then wrote again, about the possible lack of insight involved in the Finland worship. So what the heck happened to Finland last year?

We know of one possible explanation. Please come back tomorrow.

In the numbers posted above, you see two groups of American kids whose scores headed straight off the charts. Your major newspapers won't tell you such things. Tomorrow, we'll offer the links which will let you see this.

We've omitted some of the data we showed you yesterday—data presenting the lower scores of two other groups of American kids. Simply put, our mainstream journalists never report these subgroup scores. Tomorrow, we'll offer a fairly obvious guess concerning the reasons for that.

For today, we'll show you a bunch of scores from the PISA Science Literacy test. In this case, we'll include four subgroup scores by American kids, the good along with the rest:

Average scores, Science Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 578
Singapore: 561
Japan: 547
U.S. white kids: 537
Taiwan: 537
South Korea: 528
Canada: 515
Finland: 511
Australia: 507
U.K.: 500
United States: 499
Germany: 492
France: 487
U.S. Hispanic kids: 471
U.S. black kids: 449

You're right! American kids didn't score quite as well on the science test. In the aggregate, our kids were even outscored by Finland!

In the aggregate, American kids did outperform their counterparts from Germany and France. They were basically even with their peers from the U.K. 

Also this:

Once again, two groups of Americans kids scored at a very high level on this international test. For whatever reason, it's the sort of thing you'll never be told by our major newspapers.

We'll ponder the meaning of all this tomorrow. Also, we'll show you the scores from the Math Literacy test, on which American kids have tended to score quite poorly.

(In the past, American kids have scored much better on the math test administered by the TIMSS, the other major international testing program.)

When it comes to performance by American kids, these PISA scores involve the current long and short of it. Tomorrow, we'll look at the PISA Math Literacy scores, and we'll consider the way these data get reported.

For full PISA data, you should start here. After that, you're on your own.

HARVARD THEN AND NOW: DeflateGate sits on the Harvard board!


Along with the Tootsie Roll fortune: We have a great niece who's heading off to Columbia as a freshman next fall.

For ourselves, we feel a bit sorry for the kids who have to navigate the problems which may exist at These Elite Schools Today. 

In truth, we can even feel sorry for the people in charge of supervising these high-profile schools—for example, for the twelve people who currently sit on the board which is formally known as the Harvard Corporation.

The group was subjected to a sneak attack in Monday's New York Times. They're the higher-ranking of Harvard University's two (2) governing bodies—and according to the Times report, they're charged with "weighing in" on such decisions as this:

COPELAND AND FARRELL (12/25/23): The board seeks to build a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise to help govern the university, said Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at Harvard who studied governance in higher education and was an adviser when the Harvard Corporation expanded in size over a decade ago.

Even after expanding, the panel is still smaller than the boards of many other leading universities, according to Dr. Chait, who said the average private university has about 30 or more board members.  

Board members are not paid for their role. “Not only is it unpaid, but there is an expectation of a reverse cash flow—all trustees have an expectation that the institution will be a philanthropic priority consistent with their means,” Dr. Chait said.

The corporation has weighed in on key questions—for example, in 2016, it approved a change to the shield of Harvard’s law school, which was modeled on the crest of an 18th-century enslaver.

Even that! Seven years ago, the members of the corporation approved a change in the law school's shield! The undaunted dozen are asked to weigh in on such "key decisions" as that!

We're not saying that their decision was wrong in that particular case. It did strike us as somewhat odd—but also, as a sign of the times—that the Times chose to highlight that "key question" as its one example of the kinds  of actions the board has been required to take in the somewhat recent past.

Today, the board is involved in a great civil war—a war concerning Claudine Gay, Harvard's current president. 

By all accounts, Gay performed quite poorly at a recent House committee hearing. For ourselves, we'd be quick to add that Rep. Elise Stefanik, her grand inquisitor, performed in a way which was substantially worse. 

To our ear, President Gay seemed wholly unequipped to respond in the face of Stefanik's persistent non-questioning questioning. In fairness, the same was true of two other presidents of elite schools who appeared on the panel with Gay. 

They seemed to have emerged from a bubble, where people like Stefanik don't exist and jumbled questions like hers don't get asked.

By now, President Gay has also been charged with various acts of plagiarism. Because it was the current board which selected Gay last year, the Times describes them as caught in "a maelstrom" of their own making—a maelstrom which stems from their possible failure to execute an adequate vetting before their choice was made.

We can't help you with that topic. We can describe our personal reaction when we read about the  embattled members of the board in the wake of that sneak attack.

Misty memories of the way we were lit the corners of our mind! We thought of the 1970 Love Story film, in which the rebellious young Ryan O'Neal battles with his father, a very wealthy, very crusty, highly old-school school Harvard grad.

As we read about the current board members, we thought of O'Neal's wealthy dad, as played by Ray Milland. 

In fact, a large amount of very big money sits on the current board. Below, you see the way the leading authority on this topic thumbnails the first three members on its alphabetical list:

Current membership:
Timothy R. Barakett: former CEO of Atticus Capital
Kenneth Chenault: former CEO of American Express
Paul Finnegan: co-CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners

Alphabetically, they're the first three on the list! That said, what the heck is Madison Dearborn? Since you almost surely don't know, we'll let the authority clue you:

Madison Dearborn Partners 

Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP) is an American private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts of privately held or publicly traded companies, or divisions of larger companies; recapitalizations of family-owned or closely held companies; balance sheet restructurings; acquisition financings; and growth capital investments in mature companies. MDP operates using an industry-focused investment approach and focuses on the following sectors: basic industries, business and government software and services, financial & transaction services, health care, and TMT services. Since the founders established MDP as an independent firm in 1992, the firm has raised seven funds with aggregate capital of approximately $23 billion, and has completed investments in more than 130 companies.

Madison Dearborn Partners was founded in 1992 and is based in Chicago, Illinois. The founders, John A Canning Jr, Paul J. Finnegan, Samuel M. Mencoff, and Nicholas W. Alexos, had previously made private equity investments for First Chicago Bank...

Frankly, we don't understand much of that. Also, we can't say that there's anything "wrong" about any of those revelations. 

For all we know, MDP may be doing real good in the world. That said, a lot of big money is sloshing around whenever this corporate board meets. 

What's the overall shape of the board? Here's the way the New York Times scanned the membership during its sneak attack:

COPELAND AND FARRELL: The modern corporation, which currently has 12 members, is responsible for the financial health of the university and certain key decisions, but perhaps its most important role is the selection and success of the Harvard president.

In 2022, after Lawrence S. Bacow, then Harvard’s president, announced that he planned to step down, Penny Pritzker, a board member, billionaire businesswoman and an heir of the Hyatt hotel fortune, led the corporation’s search for his successor.


Harvard’s board is led by Ms. Pritzker, who was an early backer of Barack Obama’s presidency and later served as secretary of commerce under his administration. Despite her leadership role, Ms. Pritzker, a champion of Dr. Gay’s, has not spoken publicly since the controversy began, leaving the corporation to communicate through a single public statement.

The other 10 members, in addition to Dr. Gay, include relatively unknown financiers, donors, a former justice of the Supreme Court of California, the former chief executive of American Express and former presidents of Princeton University and Amherst College.

The board does include those two former college presidents, each a scholar in her own right. In this companion piece, the Times reports that Biddy Martin (Amherst) "is a German studies scholar," while Shirley Tilghman (Princeton) is "known for her work in molecular biology."

Their scholarship seems to lighten and brighten the board in a fairly obvious way. That said, a lot of big money exists on this board. Is Pritzker the only billionaire? We can't say, but based on our reading, a few of the others could imaginably even be billionaire-adjacent.

That said, please note:

As we stated yesterday, a person can be a billionaire and do enormous good work in the world. We take that to be a blindingly obvious fact. 

Blue tribe members will also note that two board members, Pritzker and Karen Gordon Mills, were Obama cabinet officers. Beyond that, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, that former justice of the Supreme Court of California, "now serves as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," an organization we've always regarded as a force for good in the world and as a source of sanity on "cable news" broadcasts.

A lot of talent sits on this board. Presumably, that talent represents a lot of good works in the world.

That said, good lord! There's an enormous amount of very large money sloshing around on that 12-member board. The board features ancestral ties to separate Hilton Hotel and Radisson fortunes, and even to the invention of supermarket trading stamps and the Tootsie Roll Industries empire.

That's right—Tootsie Roll Industries, an entity which came to include Charleston Chews, Charms Blow Pops, Junior Mints and Sugar Babies! For a remarkable read about this slightly gonzo entity, we'll suggest that you click here, though we note that you'll be reading about the death, at age 95, of a beloved family member.

How lightly psychedelic can this board's connections get? The leading authority offers this passage about board member Ted Wells, an extremely high-powered New York lawyer who seems to have represented every corporate miscreant still located somewhere on earth:

In 2015, Ted Wells was again hired by the NFL, this time to investigate the New England Patriots' alleged "Deflategate" infractions. His report concluded that it was "more probable than not" that Tom Brady was "generally aware" of tampering with NFL game footballs during the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Ted Wells's independence and impartiality has been called into question in the wake of the report because of his extensive prior business relations with the NFL, his use of a scientific consultancy with a reputation for questionable client-serving results, and because of his track record of success exculpating high-profile clients and corporations during public scandals.

Whatever! We're sure that Wells is a good, decent person. That said, it's one thing to get Philip Morris off the hook—but chasing after Terrific that way? It's hard to forgive Wells for that!

On balance, this board might be called "high-flying." With respect to current disasters, we offer this sociological question:

When's the last time President Gay had to venture out of the board's mahoganied rooms and interact with the salt of the earth—with people like Rep. Stefanik, who confounded Gay, and the other two presidents, during that gruesome House hearing? When's the last time President Gay had to deal with people like that?

True story! One of our own Harvard roommates was cast in the role of the Harvard roommate in the Oscar-nominated Love Story! Mainly, though, there sat the Ray Milland character, representing an older, heavily cosseted, bubble-wrapped Harvard elite.

Milland was drowning in his old money as his rebellious son went another way. Last month, President Gay—and the two other college presidents—showed few signs of knowing how to speak to those from the other side of our floundering nation's red and blue cultural tracks.

Can ivy grow on a bubble? Can it obliterate inhabitants' views of the lesser outside world?

These are the questions which came to mind as three elite college presidents seemed to be unable to speak. The woods are lovely, dark and deep—but our institutions may sometimes be hobbled by certain types of highly visible, extremely high-end versions of success.

Hail to thee, Fair Harvard! That said, the school is no Berea College. For a recent NewsHour profile of that small Kentucky school, we'll suggest that you click this. Warning:

The profile starts with a comment from Brittany Ash, its Assistant Dean of Labor.

There's a lot of big money on Harvard's board, not that there's anything (automatically) wrong with it. Giant money doesn't have to corrupt, but it may sometimes tend to cloud and distort, to render inhabitants clueless and speechless as it sloshes around.

Is there a George Bailey on this board? Based on our research, we'd float one name, but it isn't entirely clear that there necessarily is.

Tomorrow: Misty memories of the way we were inside our freshman "classrooms"

How well did American kids do in reading?


PISA, 2022: As we noted yesterday, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is one of two (2) high-profile international public school testing programs. 

Here's the overview offered by the leading authority on the PISA:

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the OECD in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It was first performed in 2000 and then repeated every three years. Its aim is to provide comparable data with a view to enabling countries to improve their education policies and outcomes. It measures problem solving and cognition.

The results of the 2022 data collection were released in December 2023.

The other such program is the TIMSS. At the risk of sounding extremely jaundiced, the PISA became the international program of choice in this country because of the fact that, for whatever reason, Americans kids score extremely poorly on its math component.

The fact that American kids scored poorly in math on the PISA made the PISA a popular press corps choice. This was back in the day when everyone had bought into a certain, somewhat selective program for public school "reform."

Our journalists are still strongly inclined to adopt the gloomiest possible posture concerning our public schools. In the next few days, we're going to show you results from the 2022 administration of the PISA—results which were released at the start of this month.

Today, we'll start with reading. We're going to start with some good news, and with some news that's not so good.

For starters, riddle us this! In the face of persistent claims about the failure of our public schools, here's the way U.S. pupils scored on last year's PISA reading test. We're including nations of substantial size. You can see a complete listing here:

Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2022 PISA:
Japan: 516
Korea: 515
Taiwan: 515
Canada: 507
United States: 504
Australia: 498
U.K.: 494
Germany: 480
France: 474
Spain: 474

American students outscored their counterparts from the U.K., Germany and France. They scored three points below Canada. (We can't offer you a rule of thumb by which to assess the size of those score gaps.)

You're right! Our public school kids weren't the basketcase of the world on the PISA reading test. They even outscored miraculous Finland, the perennial press corps darling, as you'll see in the data below.

Now we're going to bring introduce "the eternal note of sadness." Here's a slightly larger list of reading scores, including the average scores recorded by the four major American demographic groups:

Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2022 PISA:
U.S. Asian-American kids: 579
Singapore: 543
U.S. white kids: 537
Ireland: 516
Japan: 516
Korea: 515
Taiwan: 515
Canada: 507
United States: 504
Hong Kong: 500
Australia: 498
U.K.: 494
Finland: 490
U.S. Hispanic kids: 481
Germany: 480
France: 474
Spain: 474
U.S. black kids: 459

There are certain kinds of problems involved in comparing scores this way. That said, American white kids scored at what would generally be regarded as a very high level. Asian-American kids basically scored off the planet's charts.

Having said that, alas! In those data, you see the enormous "achievement gaps" which obtain between our four largest student groups. As we'll see in the next few days, our major newspapers continue to work extremely hard to keep their readers from ever having to think about those very large gaps.

(To verify those subgroup scores, you can just click this, though you'll have to click again.)

Our Asian-American kids scored off the charts. Our black kids scored much less well. What explains those giant gaps? Also, what explains the mediocre score recorded by Finland, the former press corps darling?

We'll offer some possible answers in the next few days.  Before the week is done, we'll also look at the PISA scores in science and math—and we'll show you how test scores like these get reported (and get disappeared) in our nation's major newspapers.

Simple story! For reasons at which we're forced to guess, the Washington Post and the New York Times never expose us the people to basic data like these. 

Simply put, it isn't done! As you'll see in the next few days, it wasn't done when these new PISA scores were released at the start of the month.

HARVARD THEN AND NOW: The fruit of These Elite Schools Today!


A failure to adjust: According to its own web site, it's "the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere."

As far as we know, that assertion is accurate. We're referring to the Harvard Corporation, a group which, by its own account, "exercises fiduciary responsibility with regard to the University’s academic, financial, and physical resources and overall well-being."

It's easy to poke fun at such groups. We'll do so before we're done.

Today, though, a sensible person's sympathies surely go to this congregation, which suffered a surprise, Christmas Day attack this week in the pages of the New York Times. 

Few had seen it coming! As we revealed yesterday, the headlines on the Christmas attack read exactly like this:

Print editions:
Claudine Gay Turmoil Brings Harvard Board Out From the Shadows

Online edition:
Claudine Gay Turmoil Forces Harvard’s Secretive ‘Corporation’ Into Spotlight

According to those headlines, the secretive group has been forced to emerge from the shadows. This has happened due to the turmoil surrounding Harvard's president, Claudine Gay.

For the record, this particular governing body seems to carry its secrecy only so far. For the names of the board's current members, you can click to its unencrypted web site once again.

Links are provided to biographical profiles of the various members. The shadows in which this board has lurked only extend so far.

Stating the obvious, there's no perfect way to assemble a board of this type. In an interesting passage from the New York Times report, an observer describes the good intentions surrounding the board's composition:

COPELAND AND FARRELL (12/25/23): The board meets several times a year, and members serve six-year terms that can be renewed once. How it identifies and chooses its members, who are known as fellows, is something of a mystery. Outgoing members help select their own replacements.

[Penny] Pritzker has been the principal point of contact for major donors and others seeking to counsel Harvard on the path forward.

The board seeks to build a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise to help govern the university, said Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at Harvard who studied governance in higher education and was an adviser when the Harvard Corporation expanded in size over a decade ago.

According to Dr. Chait, the board seeks to assemble "a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise." 

Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at the board's current makeup. But with respect to the current board, let the word go forth to the nations:

As Copeland and Farrell report, Pritzker is "a billionaire businesswoman and an heir of the Hyatt hotel fortune." 

Balancing Pritzker's role on the board, Diana Nelson is co-chair of Carlson Holdings, a family enterprise (and Nelson is part of the family). Essentially, she seems to be one of the heirs to the Radisson hotel fortune!

A person might choose to poke fun at facts like those. We're going to leave that to others.

Stating the obvious, there's nothing "wrong" with being the heir to a giant fortune.  Stating the obvious, a person can be heir to a giant fortune and do great good in the world, operating with great success and with only the best intentions.

That said, there are many things going on in the world which cry out for correction. Today, we'll call attention to the imperfect basic skills which may sometimes seem to emerge from These Finest Schools Today.

What we have here is a failure to adjust:

This brief aside concerns a new post by Kevin Drum. Drum offers one of his standard complaints in a post which carries this headline:

Holiday sales were flat this year

Holiday sales were flat? In his post, Kevin quotes a news report in the Washington Post—a report which gushes in the following way about the direction of the economy:

SIEGEL AND GREGG (12/26/23): As 2023 comes to a close, holiday shoppers offered yet another sign that the U.S. economy will roar into the new year. On Tuesday, fresh retail sales data from Mastercard showed that consumers spent big on gifts, meals and apparel in November and December.... U.S. retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 were up 3.1 percent compared with the same period a year before, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures sales in-store and online across various forms of payment.

As Kevin notes, it isn't until the report's fifth paragraph that the authors report an awkward fact:

That 3.1 percent jump in retail sales hasn't been adjusted for inflation! And not only that:

According to Drum, inflation from last November to this November was also recorded at exactly 3.1 percent. 

This seems to suggest that we consumers didn't "spend [especially] big" on gifts, meals and apparel this year. In fact, it seems to suggest the possibility that holiday sales were flat.

This very morning, we read Drum's post, then scanned the New York Times. Sure enough! On page B1 of its print edition, and high atop its Today's Paper site, the New York Times is offering a version of that very same report:

Holiday Spending Increased, Defying Fears of a Decline

Despite lingering inflation, Americans increased their spending this holiday season, early data shows. That comes as a big relief for retailers that had spent much of the year fearing the economy would soon weaken and consumer spending would fall.

Retail sales from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 increased 3.1 percent from a year earlier, according to data from Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales across all forms of payment. The numbers, released Tuesday, are not adjusted for inflation.

In fairness, the Times offered its key disclaimer—these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation—in its second paragraph. But each of these newspapers gushed about the way the jump in holiday spending suggests that the economy is powerful, booming, strong.

Does that specific assessment really make sense? We can't say we're sure that it does. We can say that this sort of thing is extremely familiar.

Drum has written, again and again, about economics and business reporting in which major publications fail to adjust for inflation. Back in the mid-1990s, a similar, systemwide journalistic failure created several years of press corps confusion concerning the Gingrich Medicare proposal, and led us toward the decision to create this site.

In the current instance, does it make sense to draw major conclusions from those (unadjusted) spending numbers? 

We'll guess that it basically doesn't. That said:

As we pondered that Washington Post report, we discovered that its lead reporter is a graduate of one of our finest schools (Yale). The other reporters involved in this pair of reports emerged from Emory and Southern Cal, two other high-end universities.

On its face, it may not make sense to blame the Harvard Corporation for reporting which tracks back to Yale. Presumably, though, these reports passed through the hands of editors who may have come to us, live and direct, from four years on the banks of the Charles. 

Bungled technical work is amazingly common at the upper ends of our mainstream press corps. That's true in reporting on business and economic issues. It has also been true in persistently bungled and sanitized writing about public school test scores.

Such bungles are virtually endless. This sort of thing can be said to raise questions about the work of These Elite Universities Today.

Tomorrow, we'll return to the membership of the Harvard board. We'll try to take a closer look at the "well-rounded group of people" whose "complementary expertise" allows them to supervise their famous school's "overall well-being."

Along the way, we'll ask the obvious questions:

Just how well-rounded is that group? How complementary are their outlooks, skills and experiences? Should it necessarily be surprising if they've failed to offer the kind of direction their famous university needs?

Increasingly, a lot of somewhat embarrassing conduct is associated with Our Finest Schools, Harvard now included. President Gay's groaning performance last month in the face of Rep. Stefanik's inane questioning would be one high-profile example.

(Also, Stefanik is a Harvard grad! Who's accepting the blame for that?)

Tomorrow, we'll call the roll of this well-rounded board. On Friday, we'll recall the types of academic questions we've never seen asked or answered—questions involving a string of misty memories from our own freshman year.

The Hilton hotels are found on the board; the Radissons offer some balance. Increasingly, though, These Kids can emerge from Our Finest Schools without knowing how to adjust!

Tomorrow: Our Corporate Bodies, Ourselves

How well do American students perform on the PISA?


Also, what does the public get told? Do smartphones make students dumber?

Back on December 19, Derek Thompson discussed that persistent allegation in an essay for The Atlantic.

He seems to think the answer is yes. That won't be the focus of what we're discussing here.

Instead, we want to show you something Thompson included in his report as a bit of a throw-away comment. Quite literally, we're talking about a parenthetical remark. Very early in his report, Thompson offered this:

THOMPSON (12/19/23): The Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in almost 80 countries every three years, tests 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science. It is the world’s most famous measure of student ability. Most years, when the test makes contact with American news media, it provides instant ammunition for critics of America’s school system, who point to PISA scores and ask something like “Why are we getting crushed by Finland in reading?” or “Why are we getting smoked by Korea in math?”

The latest PISA report has a different message. Yes, Americans scored lower in math than in any other year in the history of the test, which began in 2003. (Once again, the test recorded America’s persistent inequalities; Black and Hispanic students, on average, scored below Asian and white students, who typically do about as well as their peers around the world.) But COVID learning loss was even worse elsewhere, creating what the authors of the PISA report called “an unprecedented drop in performance” globally that was “nearly three-times as large as any prior change.”

Thompson proceeded from there, discussing his preferred topic. We were struck by part of what he'd offered as a parenthetical, throw-away comment. 

In part, this is what Thompson had said:

Asian and white students [in this country] typically do about as well as their peers around the world.

By "Asian," Thompson meant Asian-American. In his remark, he was saying this:

In American public schools, Asian-American and white kids do about as well on the PISA as their peers around the world.

That was offered as a throw-way comment. Quite literally, the statement appeared within parentheses as Thompson moved ahead to a different topic. 

Along the way, Thompson provided a link to a Twitter / X post in support of what he'd said. "America overperforms on the PISA," this Twitter poster said.

In part, that Twitter post had come in response to the release of scores from the most recent administration of the PISA. The PISA is normally administered every three years. The most recent testing occurred in 2022, after a one-year delay due to complications from Covid.

The results from the 2022 testing were released on December 5. Headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times adopted the standard approach to any such topic, with stress on the gloom and the doom.

Here are the headlines on the December 5 news reports:

The Washington Post:
Math scores for U.S. students hit all-time low on international exam

The New York Times:
Math Scores Dropped Globally, but the U.S. Still Trails Other Countries

The headline was gloomier in the Post. That said, does some possible upside lurk inside these latest PISA scores? 

We've been reporting on topics like this for the past hundred thousand years. There are few topics which make the role of mandated press corps Storyline quite so clear.

There are certain things the public gets told about PISA scores—about public school test scores in general. There are also facts which the public will never be told, as if by rule of law.

This week, our afternoon reports will show you some of the things the public didn't learn from those reports in the Post and the Times:

"America overperforms on the PISA?"  What in the world could Cremieux, the Twitter poster, possibly have meant by that?

By law, there are certain facts which we the people will never be told about data like these. Only The Shadow knows why that is, and The Shadow has agreed not to tell.

Tomorrow: American scores on reading

HARVARD THEN AND NOW: Harvard is in a world of hurt!


Questions unasked, unanswered: Harvard College is the undergraduate arm of Harvard University. At least on the national stage, that world-famous institution suddenly finds itself in a world of hurt.

So many alumni, so little time! Let's touch on one famous pair:

In the fall of 1936, Pete Seeger and John F. Kennedy enrolled as fellow freshmen in the class of 1940. 

Seeger dropped out after freshman year. A few years later, he became a member of the American Communist Party, a membership he maintained for seven years. 

Kennedy graduated on time in June of 1940. Later, he served as President of the United States for a bit less than three years. 

(In our own street-fighting class of 1969, Gram Parsons dropped out after just one semester. He became a musical icon himself, then died at age 28.)

Many well-known figures have emerged from the "10,000 Men of Harvard," a group which now includes a very large number of women. (That was already true when we were at the famous school, though the women were enrolled at that time under the Radcliffe name.)

Also, a number of highly accomplished figures have emerged from the famous school. That said, let's return to the current state of affairs, as overseen by the New York Times in an awkward news report from yesterday's print edition:

Claudine Gay Turmoil Forces Harvard’s Secretive ‘Corporation’ Into Spotlight
Harvard’s powerful board has backed its president and said little else, yet a member privately said “generational change” may be needed.  

Oof! Online, those are the headlines which sit atop an awkward report. The report spotlights Harvard's "powerful / secretive board," which describes itself, on its website, as "the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere."

(It does so in a slightly tone-deaf way, perhaps for better or worse.)

For ourselves, we'll guess that Harvard and its board could benefit from something more than a bit of "generational change." In fairness, the same can be said of all of us, red and blue tribals alike.

At this particular point in time, we've moved past Frost's "darkest evening of the year"—or at least, we've moved past the year's longest evening. That said, Harvard is in a world of hurt—and so is the "Corporation."

How the mighty are possibly falling! Print edition headline included, the news report, by Copeland and Farrell, started off like this:

Claudine Gay Turmoil Brings Harvard Board Out From the Shadows

On Tuesday, the day before Harvard acknowledged more problems with its president’s scholarly work, two members of its governing body sat in a private dining room at Bar Enza, a popular Cambridge restaurant, and faced a grilling.

It was an exceedingly rare opportunity for a small group of prominent academics to speak directly to members of the reclusive board in charge of the school, as it endured a turbulent period. The campus was convulsed by demands for the resignation of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, after allegations of plagiarism and anger over her handling of antisemitism and threats to Jewish students, which spurred a donor revolt.

The two board members, the nonprofit founder Tracy Palandjian and the private-equity executive Paul Finnegan, were told directly that they had to do more to address the ongoing maelstrom consuming the campus.

“You need to be more out front of this,” Jeff Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, recalled telling them. “If people are saying the university is making mistakes—they are talking about you!”

Board members were grilled—in a dining room—concerning a range of problems. A maelstrom is consuming the campus, the two board members were told. 

The maelstrom concerns the university's president, but the maelstrom doesn't end there. Having said that, we'll also say this:

In the stillness of the Christmas season, we found ourselves thinking back on certain things we observed during our own freshman year at the famous open-air prison in question.

Harvard is in a world of hurt, but so is our struggling nation. It seems to us that this news report in the New York Times allows us to ponder the formal and informal ways we Americans are all governed. 

That includes the ways our public discourse is formed by our most elite institutions.

Seeger came and Seeger went; we stayed for the full four years. Along with one of our roommates, we stumbled upon the brand-new Hee Haw TV program in June of our senior year! It happened on Cape Cod!

For ourselves, we still have basic, somewhat amusing questions about the things we saw freshman year—questions we've never seen asked or answered. These questions take us to the heart of the way our failing discourse functions.

For starters, though, who sits on the "secretive" board in question? Two members were willing to subject themselves to a grilling, and they deserve credit for doing so. 

All in all, though, who sits on that board? We'll start with that question tomorrow, though we'll soon let our memories emerge.

Tomorrow: "The board seeks to build a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise."

The New York Times disappears Justice Thomas!


Plus, Drum delivers the mail: We hadn't planned to post today. We'll do so for two reasons:

The Times disappears Justice Thomas: 

First, there they go again! In print editions, these are the headlines which sit atop the featured front-page news report in today's New York Times:

With Ex-Clerks and Allies, Thomas Builds Power Block
Extended Family Shares Justice's Ideology and Wields Influence in High Posts

For better or worse, there it is, as you can see right here. In this morning's print editions, that report about Justice Thomas sits in the upper right-hand corner of the New York Times front page.

Having said that, so what? For whatever reason, this major report isn't listed in any way at the Times' "Today's Paper" site. 

Plainly, that site purports to provide a full listing of all the reports, analyses, essays and columns in today's print edition. Indeed, the full heading on the site says this:

Today's Paper
The Times in Print For Dec. 24, 2023

Inevitably, subscribers scrolling through that site will think they're seeing a list of every article in today's print edition. But for at least the fourth time in recent weeks, the featured report on the Times front page is MIA at that site.

So too with a second front-page report from today's print edition! (Headline: "World Economy Faces a Jumble of Risk in 2024.")

Everybody makes mistakes, but this seems to be a regular practice. This strikes us as very, very strange. Then again, what else is new?

Also this:

Drum delivers the mail:

In yesterday's report, we were puzzled by some of what we read about a court decision concerning Wisconsin's gerrymandered state legislative districts.

Kevin Drum to the rescue! In a subsequent post, Kevin explained the basis upon which the Wisconsin Supreme Court made the statement which was reported in yesterday's Washington Post:

Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns GOP-favored legislative maps

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday overturned Republican-favored legislative maps, ordering new boundary lines for the state less than a year before the 2024 election.

In a 4-3 decision along ideological lines, the justices said that at least 50 of the 99 Assembly districts and at least 20 of the 33 Senate districts in the map violate a mandate in the state’s constitution that requires state legislative districts be composed of “contiguous territory.” Many of the state’s districts include portions that are not attached to other parts of the same district.

So it said in the Washington Post! For various reasons, we were puzzled by the claim that "at least 50 of the 99 Assembly districts and at least 20 of the 33 Senate districts" violated the mandate concerning “contiguous territory.” 

In yesterday's post, Kevin explains the (somewhat tortured) basis for that claim. Along the way, he expressed this view about the Wisconsin Supreme Court's two factions, producing some howls in comments:

The primary question is whether to change existing precedent on municipal islands, and you can make a perfectly good case for either side. Nobody really wants to say this out loud, but it's pretty obvious that the previous Republican court ruled in favor of Republicans and the new Democratic court has ruled in favor of Democrats. Neither side is especially imbued with either virtue or villainy here.

Is it true that neither side is "especially imbued with virtue?" That takes us well beyond any place we ever intended or wanted to go.

We will say this:

We'll guess that the pre-existing (marginally defensible) treatment of those "municipal islands" was not the source of the vast partisan imbalance the outlawed legislative map had helped create. 

We'll guess that the actual source of that vast imbalance involved the crazy shapes of many legislative districts the previous Republican majorities in the state legislature had devised. The crazy shapes of those previous districts reek of the ancient practice known as "gerrymandering."

As we noted yesterday, the woods are very dark and deep, and few things are ever clear. That said, Kevin's excellent exploration takes us further down a lightly trod journalistic path. 

Meanwhile, as it turned out, alas!

The State Constitution's insistence on "contiguous territory" in forming legislative districts actually wasn't a piece of "plain text" to the extent we originally imagined! Our question:

Where does a citizen have to go to find some plain text around here?

The Wisconsin decision involves some plain text!


The decision in Maine? Maybe not! In the past two days, we've disputed the notion that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is written in "simple language"—that it involves a "plain text."

It's easy to see why many smart people have mistakenly thought that Section 3 does involve a "plain text." Consider:

The passage in question doesn't involve any technical language—the kind of language which instantly lets us see that we're on unfamiliar ground as we examine a text.

It doesn't involve statistical measures of a type we've never encountered before.  It doesn't seem to rely on some type of specialized knowledge which readers may know they don't have.

Then again, there may have been some wishful thinking as blue tribe members rushed to say that Candidate Trump could be sent to the showers in an unambiguous, legally mandated way, based on the 14th Amendment. 

To us, that seems like a bit of a pipe dream. Possibly by way of contrast, consider a news report in today's New York Times.

This news report does involve a bit of simple, clear language. It does involve a constitutional provision which contains, or at least seems to contain, an unmistakable bit of "plain text."

The report involves the famously gerrymandered maps for Wisconsin's state legislative districts. Headline included, the news report starts as shown:

Justices in Wisconsin Order New Legislative Maps

The Wisconsin Supreme Court said on Friday that the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislative maps that favor Republicans were unconstitutional and ordered new maps before the 2024 election. The ruling has the potential to produce a seismic political shift in a crucial presidential swing state.

Justice Jill J. Karofsky, writing for the majority, said that Wisconsin’s current maps violate a requirement in the State Constitution “that Wisconsin’s state legislative districts must be composed of physically adjoining territory.”

“Given the language in the Constitution, the question before us is straightforward,” she wrote. “When legislative districts are composed of separate, detached parts, do they consist of ‘contiguous territory’? We conclude that they do not.”

In this matter, the constitutional language is "straightforward," Justice Karofsky wrote. She then quoted a key phrase, in which the State Constitution orders that legislative districts must consist of "contiguous territory."

That seems to be a clear requirement expressed in simple, clear language. Moving right along:

A few months ago, we noted the fact that Wisconsin's gerrymandered districts actually are, at least in some cases, "composed of separate, detached parts." In part on that basis, Wisconsin's state legislative districts have long been described as the most gerrymandered in the entire country.

As far as we know, most of Wisconsin's legislative districts are not composed of separate, detached parts. Still, the overall gerrymandering has been substantial enough to produce, or at least to help produce, this improbable outcome:

Democrats will now have the opportunity to make gains in a legislature that is currently heavily tilted to favor Republicans. In a state with an electorate that is split roughly equally between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate. The Democratic governor, Tony Evers, was re-elected to a second term in 2022 and will serve until at least 2026.

As we've long noted, it's possible to imagine a state in which the geographic distribution of the population could produce that sort of outcome even without gerrymandering. Plainly, though, Wisconsin doesn't seem to be some such state.

As far as we know, Justice Karofsky is right! Wisconsin's constitution does present simple, clear language concerning the need to create legislative districts which aren't composed of geographically separate parts. 

As far as we know, that constitutional language is about as clear as clear language can get. That said, a bit of wishful thinking may have surfaced in response to yesterday's ruling, this time from a red tribe source:

In an angry dissent, Justice Annette Ziegler, one of three conservatives on the panel, denounced the liberal majority as “robewearers” who “grab power and fast-track this partisan call to remap Wisconsin.”

“The court of four takes a wrecking ball to the law, making no room, nor having any need, for longstanding practices, procedures, traditions, the law, or even their coequal fellow branches of government,” she wrote. “Their activism damages the judiciary as a whole.”

The specified bit of constitutional language would seem to be quite clear. That said, Justice Ziegler has issued an angry, name-calling dissent. 

In fairness, is it possible that Justice Ziegler has some sort of a point? As of now, we can't say that we're totally sure. Consider:

As we've noted, it's been our impression that the large majority of Wisconsin's districts actually are composed of "contiguous territory." That would suggest the possibility that the yesterday's order represented a bit of an overreach in response to a more limited constitutional offense.

That had always been our impression—and then we read a more detailed report in today's Washington Post. Headline included, the report in the Post starts by saying this:

Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns GOP-favored legislative maps

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday overturned Republican-favored legislative maps, ordering new boundary lines for the state less than a year before the 2024 election.

In a 4-3 decision along ideological lines, the justices said that at least 50 of the 99 Assembly districts and at least 20 of the 33 Senate districts in the map violate a mandate in the state’s constitution that requires state legislative districts be composed of “contiguous territory.” Many of the state’s districts include portions that are not attached to other parts of the same district.

Say what? Do that many legislative districts actually violate the "contiguous territory" requirement? 

We've never seen maps of Wisconsin's districts which seemed to show some such state of affairs. (Neither the Post nor the Times links to any map.)

Many of Wisconsin's districts don't seem to be compact, in some cases to a clownish extent. But are there really that many districts which contain wholly separate parts?

We have no idea. We find ourselves wondering this:

Is it possible that the Democratic majority on the court has adopted a somewhat fanciful interpretation of a provision of the State Constitution which seems to involve a bit of "plain text?" Is it possible that the Democratic majority is stretching the meaning of the apparently straightforward term, "contiguous territory?"

We don't know how to answer that question—and everything is always possible! After several hours of searching today, we felt less sure about the facts than we were when we started out.

That said, wishful thinking tends to play a powerful role in human affairs. Another report in today's New York Times appears beneath these headlines:

Maine’s Secretary of State to Decide Whether Trump Can Stay on Ballot
Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, has said she would decide next week whether Maine will join Colorado in disqualifying former President Donald J. Trump from its primary ballot.

A Democratic official in the state of Maine may kick Trump off that state's ballot in the coming year!

Unavoidably, that would be a fraught proposition even where the relevant constitutional language was unmistakably clear. In the current situation, can we blue tribe members see how that decision will inevitably look to those inside red tribe tents?

The woods are dark and deep! Plain text comes and plain text goes, and few things are ever real clear.

Recalling Paul Reiser's old joke: We thought we understood the situation in Wisconsin. Then we read that second report, the one in the Washington Post.

Once again, we recall Paul Reiser's old joke, the joke he referred to as Goldberg's Law:

The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure.


Have yourself a grimy little Christmas!


Red tribe, blue comedy style: What did we see on red tribe "cable news" last night?

It's depressing to tell you about it! 

At 10 p.m., we saw Greg Gutfeld go to work. First, though, a brief aside:

We almost share the old school system tie with the "cable news" star. Gutfeld went to Serra High, roughly one mile down the Alameda from our own Aragon High. 

Tom Brady graduated from Serra; Barry Bonds did too. That said, the school produces a certain number of Gutfeld types, or at least it used to.

Whatever! As you can see by clicking this link, he started the program like this:

GUTFELD (12/21/23): Happy Thursday! So, are the young ones about to give the boot to that drooling old coot?

Needless to say, the "drooling old coot" of this tableau was none other than Joe Biden. 

Gutfeld's opening monologue focused on a new Fox poll which showed Trump with a seven-point lead over Biden among voters under 30. About one minute into his rumination, Gutfeld described the two hopefuls:

"So we got two possible candidates," he thoughtfully said. "One of them is skin glued to a skeleton, and the other is Trump." 

Why have younger voters turned against President Biden? Gutfeld quickly noted that Biden "hasn't kept his promise to saddle taxpayers with the bill for their college loans." 

As you can see by clicking this link, here's what he then said:

GUTFELD: After all, he said he'd pay their debts for them using our money. He had no authority to make that promise, but he figured we wouldn't notice.

But we did, you asshole!

Yes, that's what he actually said, and producers didn't bleep it. At this point, we were two minutes into the cable star's thoughtful opening monologue.

As the monologue proceeded, Gutfeld announced that climate change isn't real, then described Biden as a "demented old circus monkey." He said that Andrea Mitchell is so old that she might be Amelia Earhart. 

By rule, a reference to Jeffrey Dahmer had also been thrown in.

He now said that, thanks to transgender policy, we were moving toward a time when the only babysitter you could find would be "a fat hairy dude named Francine." Then, he decided to describe the two candidates again:

GUTFELD: The fact is, if this election was a taste test between Trump and Biden, well, one would be a refreshing, ice-cold Coke and the other a warm glass of rancid piss.


"You know, as opposed to the fresh piss," he sagely added, bringing his world-class wit into play. 

Nearing the merciful end of his speech, he referred to Biden as someone who wanted to ejaculate into a young woman's hair—and no, we aren't making that up. This sort of thing has become a standard part of our rapidly failing nation's version of "cable news."

By now, we were roughly ten minutes into the Gutfeld! program. The host now introduced his standard lineup of guests—one pro wrestler, two low-grade comedians, and someone dragged in from Outnumbered.

Soon, they were discussing the favorite news topic of Gutfeld and Jesse Watters:

Whose names will be on the list of people who once took a flight on Jeffrey Epstein's jet? Last night, this is the way our most-watched "cable news" channel burned up the 10 o'clock hour.

Even back in our day, Serra High occasionally produced a rancid-adjacent soul like this. We think of [NAME WITHHELD], who got expelled for including a profane remark inside a ten-page term paper, mistakenly thinking that no one at Serra actually read such works.

In that instance, somebody did!

What no one in the mainstream press corps does is comment on what takes place on the Fox News Channel. This kind of dumbbell garbage-can blather is aired every night at 8 and 10 p.m. by current gutter stars Watters and Gutfeld.

In closing, we'll offer this:

We're sure that Gutfeld is secretly better than this. (We once saw our friend Will Durst, San Francisco's own, appearing on one of Greg's earlier programs.) 

According to Santa, Gutfeld is secretly less stupid and rancid than this. That said, it's going to be a blue, blue Christmas as his rancid, red tribe comedy stylings continue to fill the air.

RED AND BLUE BLUE CHRISTMAS: Two other provisions involve "plain texts!"


The 14th amendment doesn't: Later today, we'll show you part of what you missed on the Fox News Channel last night.

Here's a spoiler alert:

Our journalistic culture is thoroughly broken when the material in question can appear as part of a prime time show on a major "news channel." Also, when the rest of the journalistic world averts its eyes, gazes away, agrees to say and do nothing.

Our red tribe "journalistic" elite is hopeless, disordered, deranged. That said, is our blue tribe journalistic elite really that much better?

That question popped into our heads when we watched today's Morning Joe—specifically, when we watched an extremely lengthy, taped account of Donald Trump's legal entanglements. 

Our youthful analysts wrung their hands, then tore madly at their hair, as this lengthy tape played. They were filled with despair at our blue tribe's deep investment in this dead-end train of thought—at the lack of interest in all other topics our blue tribe elite displays. 

That said, we thought Donny Deutsch offered a deeply insightful set of remarks after this lengthy tape played. We'll bring that material to you when videotape becomes available—and no, that won't be today.

Alas! Within our failing journalistic order, our red and blue elites are thoroughly segregated at this point in time. Hannity still screeches on Fox every night—but the late Alan Colmes is long, long gone, replaced by a red tribe studio audience which applauds every pronouncement.

Our professors have nothing to say about this. With that, we return to yesterday's question about the judgment which came down, on Tuesday afternoon, from Colorado's Supreme Court.

For yesterday's report, click here.

Should Donald J. Trump be barred from the Colorado ballot? Presumably, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on that remarkable question—but how is the matter being reviewed by blue journalistic elites?

Yesterday, we showed you a set of blue tribe observers making a certain statement. They referred to the simple, clear language, to the plain text, found in this, the relevant part of the 14th amendment:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

That's the provision which led to Candidate Trump's banishment from the Colorado ballot. One liberal journalist after another has described the "simple language," the "plain text," of that newly famous passage.

In fact, the relevant language in that passage isn't simple or plain at all.  It's a comment on the analytical skills we bring to our failing national discourse that so many blue tribe journalists have rushed to describe it that way.

In fairness, let's be fair! When the 14th amendment was written, there would have been little uncertainty about the relevant part of that provision.

The passage in question says that a person couldn't hold certain federal offices if he had "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against [the Constitution of the United States]." 

That was very plain language—back then. Here's what it plainly meant:

The United States had recently emerged from the Civil War. A federal fort had been fired upon. Various states had then declared that they were leaving the union.

Those states had declared themselves a new nation, with a whole new name and a new Constitution. They had assembled an army to help them in that undertaking. That army had fought for four years against the army of the United States, in a bloody war whose mortality rates were unknown in previous history.

With that as the historical backdrop, let the word go forth to the nations:

In 1866 and 1868, it wasn't hard to know what the authors of the 14th amendment had in mind when they referred to people who had had "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the United States. 

What rebellion did the authors have in mind? It would have been amazingly obvious at that point in time. 

In that sense, the passage plainly was a "plain text"—at that point in time. 

That actually was a plain bit of text at the time—but is it a plain text today? We'd say the answer is plainly no. This is why we say that:

As of 1868, everyone would have known what "insurrection or rebellion" the authors had in mind. For better or worse, the authors provided no further definition of terms—no further explanation which could be used, moved forward, to determine whether some future erstwhile candidate had engaged in prohibited conduct.

This leads us to Candidate Trump. Has he engaged in an "insurrection or rebellion" against the United States?

Josh Marshall is very sharp—and he's a blue tribe voter. That said, it's as we showed you yesterday. After referring to the amendment's "plain text," Josh went on to say this as part of the analysis we posted:

For myself, I’m equivocal about the whole idea [of barring Trump from the ballot]...I’m not totally sure the disqualification provision applies to his set of facts. I have some small questions about whether this passage applies to presidents. I have bigger questions about whether the passage’s “insurrection” matches Trump’s insurrection.

Josh Marshall is very smart, and here's one way you can tell:

He says that he's not sure whether Trump engaged in an "insurrection" which fits within the meaning of the 14th amendment's language. He isn't sure whether Trump did that—and the 14th amendment offers no guidance as to what that crucial term should be understood to mean.

In fairness to Donald J. Trump, let's take note of this:

He didn't claim to be starting a new nation in the aftermath of the 2020 election. He didn't state that Mar-a-Lago and West Palm Beach were seceding the union. 

He didn't assemble an army in any straightforward sense of the term. He didn't fire on any federal forts. He didn't write a new Constitution or march on Gettysburg.

In our view, what he did do was insane, but was it an "insurrection or rebellion" within the meaning of the 14th amendment? Because he's smart, Josh Marshall says he isn't sure. 

For ourselves, we wouldn't necessarily say that Trump engaged in an "insurrection" at all—and the rather slapdash 14th amendment offered no guidance as to what future generations should take that term to mean in any future cases.

Because he's smart, Josh Marshall said he isn't sure that Trump engaged in an insurrection of the type envisioned by the 14rh amendment. And yet, in the same passage we quoted, Josh started by referring to the amendment's "plain text!"

In fact, there's nothing simple, clear or plain about that part of the 14th amendment! As a way of illustrating that point, let's compare that passage to two other parts of the Constitution which bar people from the ballot.

In the past few days, many blue tribe pundits and journalists have referred to this part of the Constitution:  

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

There! It's quite conventional to bar people from the ballot on a constitutional basis, these self-assured savants have said.

Plainly, that assertion is true. The difference would be this:

That passage does involve a "plain text." It involves a "plain text" because everyone agrees on the way we determine a candidate's age.

Imaginably, a candidate could come along whose birthdate was in dispute. But as a general matter, everyone will agree whether erstwhile Candidate A really has, or actually hasn't, attained that required age.

We all agree on what it means to say that someone has "attained to the Age of thirty five Years." But, as Josh's post makes clear, we don't all agree, in any way, or what the terms "insurrection or rebellion" might plausibly mean in the current context. 

One passage does involve a plain text. The other passage doesn't. While we're at it, let's consider another passage in the Constitution which describes the way a federal office holder can be barred from office:

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

There! There's another way a person can be barred from holding future office! But in that case, the Constitution provides a clear direction as to who will render the disqualification, and as to the process by which the judgment will be reached.

The Constitution gives the Senate a lot of leeway concerning the basis on which it can decide to convict an impeached office holder. But in this case, we're at least told who will make the decision—who will decide that a person can't run for any future office. 

The 14th amendment offers no such guidance. It doesn't tell us who will decide that the erstwhile candidate has engaged in a "rebellion." Nor does it try to define what a "rebellion" is.

Should Trump be barred from the Colorado ballot? We regard Trump as deeply disordered, but our inclination would be to say no.

That said, we aren't here to argue that point today. We're only here to say this:

There is nothing simple, clear or plain about the relevant constitutional text. 

Back in 1866 and 1868, it would have been perfectly clear who was being barred from holding federal office. Everyone would have known what "insurrection or rebellion" was being discussed.

In that sense, the relevant part of the 14th amendment actually was a "plain text"—at that point in time. That said, it isn't a "plain text" today. This is a point Josh helps make clear when he says that he himself isn't sure if Trump engaged in an "insurrection" as intended by that text.

Should Trump be barred from the ballot? You can argue it flat or round. After that, you can deal with the consequences, with the reactions.

You can argue it either way. Our point today is this:

No, that actually isn't a simple / clear / plain text. The fact that so many blue tribe leaders rushed to say that it was helps us see how limited our analytical skills really are.

It also showed that, as sacred Chekhov said, "the most complicated and difficult part is only just beginning" as we try to assemble a workable and intelligent red-and-blue public discourse.

In truth, that's a rather fuzzy text. It leaves us to handle the hard part.

No professor is going to step forward to help us sift that point. When it comes to our failing discourse, they walked off their posts a long time ago, nor is there any sign that they have any plans to come back.

Meanwhile, Elvis warned of a blue, blue Christmas. Did you watch red cable last night?

This afternoon: What the red tribe offered last night

Still coming: What Donny Deutsch said