Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Emporer Wears Stylish Clothes amd Uses A Blackberry but . . . .

I'm going to begin a post by agreeing with Pat Buchanan.  Actually, I'm going to agree only with the title of his book A Republic Not An Empire.  I haven't read it, so I won't say anything about the substance.  If Buchanan is contending that the United States does not have a king and its officials should not act as if they're emperors, I agree.  Unfortunately, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are acting as if they lead an empire instead of a republic.

Talking Points Memo (TPM) breaks the story  here.  Glenn Greenwald gives his take here. Andrew Sullivan adds his voice here.  The story is Hillary Clinton's assertion that the Obama administration is not committed to follow the provisions of The War Powers Act. According to TPM
"They are not committed to following the important part of the War Powers Act," he told TPM in a phone interview. "She said they are certainly willing to send reports [to us] and if they issue a press release, they'll send that to us too."

The White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a classified briefing to House members Wednesday afternoon.  [emphasis mine]
Let's place the blame where it belongs:  Obama, the Congress, and us.

Andrew Sullivan makes the point that Obama is at fault better than I can here.  Greenwald's analysis is tremendous as well. 

Matt Yglesias points out out congressional failures,
Members of congress will complain about this, but they won’t really do anything about it, nor will next year’s defense appropriation bill (or the one after that or the one after that or …) contain any effort to constrain presidential warmaking power. That’s because members of congress want to be kept in the dark, they want to be able to complain if things go poorly without taking ownership of the situation. And I think in adopting that attitude, members of congress demonstrate a rare bit of good sense. The level of uncertainty surrounding these activities is huge. There are unbounded downside risks all over the place. But instead of knowledge of those facts leading to greater hesitation about the profligate use of force, it just leads to a congressional flight from responsibility.  [emphasis mine]
The blame for us citizens can be summed up by Shakespeare who in Julius Ceaser has Cassius tell Brutus "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."  More recently and locally, a rather honest admission at South Dakota War College illustrates how many people behaved during the Bush years and how many responded to Obama's escalation in Afghanistan.

Daniel Larison at The American Conservative sums up the situation quite well.

Do we actually value self-government, the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, and constitutional republicanism, or are we content to let all of those things be trashed on the whim of a relative handful of people for the sake of ideology and good intentions? Do we believe that the President must act within the law, or do we believe he is above it? Will we resist “angelic Caesarism” (as Rieff put it) or fall in line like the passive subjects the administration expects us to be?

The United States is in danger of permantly ceding too much power to the President.  In fact, recent Presidents may have accomplished a peaceful usurpion of congressional power already.  If that's the case we will indeed be waging perpetual war for perpetual peace.  Once that irony is accepted, Orwell's Ministry of Truth will not be far behind.

Why Don't Education Policy Makers Learn from History?

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about a David Gelernter article, commenting favorably about his assertion:  "There are brilliant, admirable people at Internet institutes. But if these institutes have the same effect on the Internet that education schools have had on education, they will be a disaster."

Education schools have done little to help education, but education leaders who lie have done far more harm. Two recent Diane Ravitch articles forcefully remind us of that fact.

First, in a Newsweek piece entitled "Obama's War on Schools," Ravitch reminds readers
The theory behind NCLB was that schools would improve dramatically if every child in grades 3 to 8 were tested every year and the results made public. Texas did exactly this, and advocates claimed it had seen remarkable results: test scores went up, the achievement gap between students of different races was closing, and graduation rates rose. At the time, a few scholars questioned the claims of a “Texas miracle,” but Congress didn’t listen.
In fact, the “Texas miracle” never happened. On federal tests, the state’s reading scores for eighth-grade students were flat from 1998 to 2009. And just weeks ago, former first lady Barbara Bush wrote an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle opposing education budget cuts on the grounds that Texas students ranked in the bottom 10 percent in math and literacy nationally. After two decades of testing and accountability, Texas students have certainly not experienced a miracle when judged by the very measures that were foisted on students across the nation. [emphasis mine]
This week USA Today reported that the remarkable gains in test scores that former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee pointed to in an effort to vindicate her controversial reforms are, at best, controversial.  At worst, they are fraudulent. 

The article points out that "Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers."  Rhee created what was called an "education Ponzi scam" that paid on improved test scores but cost people their jobs if scores did not improve.  Hence, some administrators may have cheated to increase their test scores.

According to Dana Goldstein, the cheating was predicable:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
Commenting on the Rhee situation for The Daily Beast, Ravitch concludes that Rhee's apparent success "now appears to be a chimera."  Rhee's very real monster has made her "the national spokesman for the effort to subject public education to free-market forces, including competition, decision by data, and consumer choice."  Like the alleged Texas miracle, Rhee and her supporters have made popular a formula that will produce terrible results including "cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum."  Ravitch points out,

This formula, which will be a tragedy for our nation and for an entire generation of children, is now immensely popular in the states and the Congress. Most governors embrace it. The big foundations endorse it. The think tanks of D.C., right-wing and left-wing, support it. Rhee helped to make it fashionable. If she doesn't pause to consider the damage she is doing, shame on her. If our policymakers don't stop to reflect on the damage they are doing to public education and to any concept of a good education, then our nation is in deep trouble.
Given the effect of Governor Daugaard's budget on South Dakota schools, I'm not sure the state's schools can withstand much more damage.  We may indeed be "in deep trouble" if schools are forced to try to follow reforms like those Rhee championed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Price of Teacher Layoffs

The NYT reports that "As Sweeping Layoffs Loom, Schools Gird for Turmoil."  Although the report focuses on states that have a much stronger seniority system than South Dakota, the conclusion will likely apply in South Dakota as well:  “layoffs can be extremely disruptive and hurt student achievement,” said Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director. “And conditions are ripe for disruptions to be dramatic this year.”

Of Big Government and Big Corporations

Neil M. Barofsky, former special inspector general of the TARP bailout program, penned a rather disturbing op-ed in yesterday's New York Times.

Barofsky's assertion that the provisions of the bailout designed to help Main Street "have been a colossal failure" should surprise no one.  In fact, it's surprising, if not shocking, that a former government official has admitted that failure.  Nor should one be surprised that the "Treasury [Department] apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform."  I seldom expect Washington to make things better; I foolishly continue to hope that they will do no harm.

The disturbing element of the editorial is "[t]hese banks now enjoy record profits and the seemingly permanent competitive advantage that accompanies being deemed “'too big to fail.'"  More frighteningly,
The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever. They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary. Indeed, credit rating agencies incorporate future government bailouts into their assessments of the largest banks, exaggerating market distortions that provide them with an unfair advantage over smaller institutions, which continue to struggle.
 If one parses that last quotation a bit, the true failure of TARP and the true hubris of corporate America becomes clear.  The institutions that caused the financial collapse expect to be bailed out again.  Further, they are bigger than they were when they were to big to fail.  Logically, that means that when they bring America to the brink of collapse again the economic devastation will be greater.  Finally, smaller institutions will not be able to catch up.  If that's the case, individuals have little or no chance of getting ahead.

Is This What’s the Matter with South Dakota?

Yes, I stole the idea for this post’s title from Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank contends that Kansas, a solid red state voting pattern is “self-defeating.”

Second, I want to add the caveat that Richard Florida does in his piece “The Conservative States of America”: “this analysis only points to associations between variables; [and does] not make any claims about causation. . . . Still, a number of intriguing findings cropped up.”

According to Professor Florida, South Dakota is among the most conservative states in the country. Over 45% of our residents consider themselves conservative. Mississippi is the most conservative state, and the only one to have over 50% of its residents self-identify as conservatives.

Florida’s research found the following correlations. His article contains statistics and graphs that support his conclusions
Not surprisingly, states with more conservatives are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states.

Conservative states are also less well-educated than liberal ones.

States with more conservatives are less diverse.

Conservative states are more blue-collar.

States with more conservatives are considerably poorer than those with more liberals. . . . While rich voters trend Republican, Gelman and his colleagues found, rich states trend Democratic.

Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America's least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.

Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds.
Several obvious questions arise from Florida’s research.

First, why does the current "trend stand. . .  in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal”?

Second, are South Dakota’s residents poorer than the national average because they are conservative or are they conservative because they are poor?

Third, does Governor Duagaard’s and the Republican legislature’s assault on education funding really stem from budgetary concern or does it stem from an antipathy toward education?

Fourth, will states like South Dakota become more blue collar, less well- educated, and poorer?

Fifth, will social issues driven by religious zeal continue to dominate South Dakota's politics?

Finally, if the thesis of Florida’s most well-known work The Rise of the Creative Class is correct, creativity and diversity are inextricably linked. If that’s the case, does South Dakota have the diversity to develop the creativity to solve many of the problems confronting the state?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Many Logical Fallacies Can You Find?

From Politico, Newt Gingrich offers an amazing bit of rhetoric.
"I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9," Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
For those who haven't thought about logical fallacies since high school or college, a list is here and here.

Leave your homework in comments.  Write in complete sentences.

The comment box here claims that Gingrich inadvertently forgot to say "or" before "potentially dominated by radical Islamists. . . " so noting that Islamists probably aren't atheists won't count.

Follow Up on Swearing and Tax Dodgers

Big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan adds to the swearing textbook that I'll never get to use by comparing the most commonly used profanity in England and on the American East Coast.

The Daily Beast reports that GE is not the only company to dodge paying taxes.
Last year, Google reduced its tax burden by $3.1 billion by altering its tax practices. Boeing hasn’t paid any federal corporate income taxes in the last three years, despite earning $10 billion in domestic pre-tax profit. Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Forest Laboratories habitually avoid paying U.S. income taxes by recording profits in a country a world away from where the sales occur. (For reference, interactive explanations of the tax strategies of Google and GE can be found here and here.) A study released in 2008 by the Government Accountability Office concluded that 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the country paid “no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.”
The frightening part is that
“Companies don’t even have to be creative,” says Robert Willens, a taxation professor at Columbia Business School. “All they have to do is attribute or ascribe as much income as possible to foreign subsidiaries.” Companies register their intangible assets—intellectual property, for example—and income outside of the U.S. and register their liabilities and expenses in the U.S. to effectually reduce their taxable domestic income. Ireland and the Caribbean Islands are common tax havens.
I have to sardonically wonder if that lack of creativity is why China is becoming an economic juggernaut and the US is lagging behind

More Censorship

Glenn Greenwald reports
Some day soon, when pro-democracy campaigners have their cellphones confiscated by police, they'll be able to hit the "panic button" -- a special app that will both wipe out the phone's address book and emit emergency alerts to other activists. The panic button is one of the new technologies the U.S. State Department is promoting to equip pro-democracy activists in countries ranging from the Middle East to China with the tools to fight back against repressive governments. . [emphasis in original]
I applaud the effort to make it easier to oppose dictators.  I won't even excoriate corporations for double-dipping and selling blocking software as well as this so-called panic button.

More important than reporting about this panic button is Greenwald's reminder that the US government is also in the business of monitering people's communication.  Greenwald cites the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNET to illustrate the pervasivness of the intrusion before ironically noting
Thankfully, the U.S. is working hard to protect people around the world from "repressive governments" which are "capable of breaking into" the Internet and -- even worse -- use that power to invade people's accounts and learn with whom they're speaking and associating!
I guess it boils down to a simple reminder given by some old texts. The Bible asserts the love of money is the root of all evil.  James Madison claims that government is the greatest reflection of human nature.  It's worth remembering that the link between greed and power is always dangerous.
 . .

Monday, March 28, 2011

Today in Censorship: Frightening and Stupid Edition

Homer Simpson won’t be able to cause a meltdown.  Actually, he may but people in Europe won’t get to see it according to a New York Daily News article; “Broadcasters in Europe have begun reviewing episodes of "The Simpsons" to make sure that one featuring a meltdown doesn't air.  The Hollywood Reporter says networks in Germany, Switzerland and Austria have all taken a close look at episodes set to air in the near future.” 
On a much more serious note, President Obama is putting American troops in harms way by supporting the Libyan uprising while “Middle East regimes try to stifle dissent by censoring the Internet” using technology provided by American companies.  The Wall Street Journal article reports that plans to use “technology from U.S.-based Palo Alto Networks Inc. [that] promises to give Bahrain more blocking options and make it harder for people to circumvent censoring.”
While companies like McAfee help dictators, “the State Department has spent more than $20 million to fund software and technologies that help people in the Middle East circumvent Internet censorship that is sustained by Western technology.”
The Journal reports that “a forthcoming report from OpenNet, ISPs in at least nine Middle East and North African countries have used ‘Western-made tools for the purpose of blocking social and political content, effectively blocking a total of over 20 million Internet users from accessing such websites.’”
President Obama claims that military action in Libya is “the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values."   I have no idea how selling censorship software to dictators fits with those values unless the only value American corporations have is making a profit no matter the moral cost.

Can I Swear In Class Now?

This past week, I jokingly told students that I wanted to teach a summer class in swearing.  My wife believes that I have a MFA level profanity.  I had one text in mind, but On Bullshit is really about lying and truth telling not swearing.  A PDF of the essay that became the book is here.

I was thrilled today when big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan pointed me to this John McWhorter article on swearing in pop music.  McWhorter asserts, "Modern English does have true curse words, however: Currently the main one is the N-word . . . and this is because a genuine taboo does continue to reign in American discourse when it comes to race."  McWhorter supports his proposition by reminding us that the FCC decided that Bono would not be punished for using an F-bomb because "his usage . . .did not refer to 'sexual or excretory organs or activities.' To wit, its meaning has changed despite its etymology, and it is no longer, properly speaking, a 'curse' at all. It is more informal than profane."

What would George Carlin say?  He, after all, made himself famous saying the 7 words one can't say on TV.  More importantly, how can I use a textbook that claims that the class is unnecessary?  McWhorter concludes,
Because change is gradual, the transition of our other “curse” words to informality is not yet a full one. Questions will continue, for example, as to whether children should be exposed to them and at what age. Even here, however, modern twelve-year-olds of many demographics use “curse” words among themselves with a fluency that further deflates any meaningful classification of these words as generally “inappropriate.” The main issue is that in real language, yesterday’s hot stuff is always today’s papier-mache. Hence language change is not only a matter of people giving up prithee and forsooth, but one of The New Yorker printing shit and ordinary people texting WTF 24/7 and dancing at weddings to a song called “Fuck You.” Zounds indeed. 
On a personal note, I always thought that the Chicken Dance at weddings was a bit profane, so McWhorter's prediction doesn't really phase me.

As far as teaching the class, McWhorter's assertion that twelve-year olds can render the content meaningless doesn't worry me either.  Most students think the content of grammar and literature class is meaningless.  The fact that the N-word is the only real curse word does give me pause.  I really can't teach a class on one word word, and I certainly don't want to spend a my whole summer using the N-word.

On second thought, I guess it really doesn't matter; no one is going to be able to offer anything new to the curriculum, not even classes with substantive content instead of fanciful classes about one or seven words.  The bullshit that is Governor Daugaard's budget fucked up that possibility.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Bit of Sunday Morning Optimism

Ever so often, I wonder if the right and left, the secular and the religious, humans and computers on Jeopardy, or the young and the old can co-exist in the American public sphere.  I need to go no further than this poll about Charlie Sheen.  It shows
Democrats would support him by a 44-24 margin for President over Palin and that Republicans would support him 37-28 over Obama. People may not have any respect for Sheen but they still think he'd be a better alternative than their opposing party's leading figure.
With Sheen "Winning!" the Presidency, even a introverted pessimist like me needs to look for a bit of hope that Americans of different stripes can live together.  Today, that hope comes from Syfy channel.  At 6 pm (CDT), the Atheists (I'll capitalize the term since it's close enough to a formal religion) get watch The Golden Compass.  At 8 pm CDT, Christians get to watch The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Heck the 9 Christians and Atheists who are actually friends could get together and watch both.  Living room debates go well with popcorn.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Guess It Could Be Worse

Valerie Strauss of Washington Post's The Answer Sheet reports on Florida Governor Rick Scott and his attempts to balance the state's budget by cutting support to education.  South Dakotans should find some Scott's policies familar:  cutting support for schools by 10% and giving corporations tax breaks.  Not everything is identical of course; South Dakota did not have an alligator egg collection fee to cut.

Scott adds one major wrinkle to the playbook he and Governor Daugaard share, however.  He "signed into law legislation aimed at public school teachers that ends tenure for new hires, established a merit pay system and requires the creation and implementation of new standardized tests in every subject that does not have a test already attached."

I hope that Daugaard doesn't vacation in Florida anytime soon.  I don't want him to get any new ideas that will make my ulcers worse.  As Strauss notes,"There’s enough in the bill to drop a lot of jaws: the new testing requirements or, say, the fact that Scott thinks he will attract a slew of great teachers by putting all new hires on one-year contracts for the entirety of their careers, or the linking of at least half of every teacher’s salary to how well their students do on standardized tests even though the tests aren’t designed for such use." [emphasis in original]

Daugaard's vacation plans probably won't matter.  Those of us who thought the 2011 session was filled with ill-conceived legislation are likely to discover that Bachman-Turner Overdrive was right: "[W]e Ain' Seen Nothin' Yet."

More On GE's Tax Avoidance

The fact that GE paid no US income tax in 2010 is not the only reason to worry about the lobbying efforts that the NYT reports and this article from The Atlantic summarizes.  GE has posted a response here.

This February Derek Thompson article from The Atlantic reminds us that "President Obama named General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt the chair of his new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which is expected to suggest changes to the corporate tax code."  I may be a bit paranoid, but is really good policy to have the CEO of a company that spent $4.1 million in lobbyists and who paid no 2010 taxes in a position of influencing tax policy?

Thompson links to a Martin Sullivan page that provides the following analysis and conclusion.  Visual learners should feel free to follow the link for a few charts.
Fact: #1 GE's effective tax rate reported to shareholders has dropped precipitously from the 30s in the 1990s to extremely low levels.

Fact #2: The decline in GE's effective tax rate has little to do with domestic tax breaks but is almost entirely due to low-tax foreign profits.

Fact #3: More and more of GE's business and employment is outside of the United State. Still, profits booked outside of the United States have grown even faster, suggesting GE is taking advantage of lax U.S. transfer pricing rules that make it easy to shift profits into tax havens.

Fact: #4. The rapid increase in profits booked abroad has resulted in a massive accumulation of earnings "permanently invested" outside the United States.

Like the CEOs of most U.S. multinationals, Jeffrey Immelt wants the option of repatriating GE's accumulated $84 billion under the provisions of a temporary tax "holiday" where U.S. tax would only be 5.75 percent instead of the full 35 percent corporate tax rate. Immelt and his CEO brethren argue this will create jobs although evidence from the prior holiday (enacted in 2004) does not support this. Citizens have a right to be concerned the president's new advisor will give priority to promoting the competitiveness of U.S. multinationals rather than the competitiveness of the overall U.S. economy. And why shouldn't he? He has a fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders to do exactly that. 

This Week In Opt Outs

Tom Holmstrom wrote a letter to the editor supporting the opt-out.  Using Department of Corrections data, Holmstrom noted that that South Dakota correction facilities need from $5,777.95 to $29,189.05 to house an inmate whereas schools got by on $4,804.60 last year.  Holstrom does not remind his readers that schools will have $4,389.95 next year.  Given that over $90 of that is one-time money, schools will probably have less than $4,300 in the 2012-2013 school year.

The Yankton Press & Dakoton's River City section contained an advertisement questioning, among other things, the construction of the new administrative building and bus barn and YSD's retire and rehire practices.  It also alleges that YSD has a history misleading the public.  I can't find the ad online, but will try to scan a PDF and post it later.

The Yankton County Observer gives front page coverage to the Charlii Gilson's efforts to bring the opt out to a public vote.  The online Observer requires a subscription, but the print edition reports that Gilson, a Yankton realtor, will return to Yankton from and undisclosed Arizona location to turn in a "pile" of petitions before the April 4 deadline.  Gilson hopes to have over 1,000 signatures.  Fewer than 600 would be needed to put the opt out to a vote.  The Observer quotes a senior citizen who signed the petition as saying that she "doesn't want anyone to lose a job"; she favors "across the board cuts" including "giving all school district personnel less pay than they have been receiving."

Inside, Wayne Pibal, one of the Observer's publishers, opines that YSD officials should carefully answer the questions posed by the P&D ad.  Pibal concludes with the following advice, 
Should there be an opt-out vote, and we think there just might be, people that want it passed might have to hold our hands a little more than should be necessary.
If they do your job well, though, they will lead us to the place we ought to be.
The pronoun references in the last sentence confuse me a bit, but I believe that last sentence means that Pibal concludes YSD might get the opt out if they play the political game shrewdly.

Finally, in my continued effort to introduce mythological digressions, Rumor, the swiftest of all evils, dashed through one of the district's buildings and caused whiplash and welts as employees tried to determine which aging debutante working in the building had signed the petition to bring the opt out to a vote.

Friday, March 25, 2011

When Geeks Collide

I like books, reading them, buying them, owning them, stacking them, talking about them.

I've held off buying a Kindle, a Nook, and a Sony Reader for a couple of reasons including the money and the fact that I am only leasing the books on a Kindle.  More importantly, they're just not books.  Still, I have no doubt that I will get a digital reader at some point in the near future, especially if I can get one that is a bit like an electronic reader version of a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman.

I also love comics, they satisfy for 30 minutes.  Although many characters from Iron Man to Mr. Fantastic to Batman rely on science and tech, I never really thought I'd have to think about having a reader for digital comics.  After all Thor, Wonder Woman, and Captain American still rely on traditional weapons.  How naive and foolish of me. Today, Lifehacker gives a guide for digital comics

I'm a bit ambivalent about this development.  I love going to Rainbow Comics, but if digital comics are cheaper, and if I can avoid having the paper books take over the house so Mrs. Plainsman is placated, maybe digital comics won't be so bad.  Even if I hated the idea completely, I don't think the Hulk would be able to SMASH it.  Now, I have to look for a reader with an adamantium cover; those damned computer geeks can't get the last word on everything

A Major WTF Moment

I knew corporations dodged taxes, but, like Ronald Reagan, “I didn’t realize things had gotten that far out of line.”   According to a NYT article,
General Electric, the nation’s largest corporation, had a very good year in 2010.
The company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States.
Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
The reason is pretty simple; "The company spent $4.1 million on outside lobbyists last year, including four boutique firms that specialize in tax policy." [page 4 of article]

Tax cuts are supposed to produce jobs.  Since GE is able able to "write its own tax rate,"  one would assume that the company had produced thousands, if not millions of jobs.  That assumption would be wrong:  "Since 2002, the company has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment. In that time, G.E.’s accumulated offshore profits have risen to $92 billion from $15 billion." [page 4 of article]

I often tell my students to put facts in context and not to assume that readers will draw the same conclusions that they do.  In this case, I'm not sure there's much context.  Earning $14.2 billion and getting a tax refund of $3.1 billion is an insult to everyone who files and pays on income of $20,000 or $50,000 or even $500,000.  It also shows the flaws of South Dakota's efforts to gain jobs by bribing businesses; clearly, businesses know how to manage bribes far better than government.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Minor Musing About Myths

Earlier today, I asserted that myths contain symbolic truth.  Now, Hugh Macleod from The Gaping Void points out that myths are practical.  Damn, it's been a good day for those of us who love the old stuff.

The Problems with Solutions

In this past weekend's NYT, David Greenberg asks why last chapters of books that dissect social or political problems often fail to deliver.  Greenberg gives numerous examples to support the assertion that "[e]ven those social critics who acknowledge the difficulty of their solutions cannot help offering up the equally quixotic hope that people will somehow rise up spontaneously against the diagnosed ills."

He offers two possible reasons. One is "the sheer difficulty of devising answers to complex social problems that are sound, practicable and not blindingly obvious" especially when "those who give the most subtle diagnoses may not have the problem-solving disposition needed to come up with concrete, practical recommendations."

Greenburg  later contends that "most authors have themselves to blame."  Because they have researched and become an expert in the subject, "almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems."

Blogging for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum concludes, "any social or political problem that's hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions. In fact, most of them are hard enough not to have any short-term solutions at all, obvious or not."

I'll add two more.  First, American readers won't listen to anything but an optimistic conclusion.  To his credit Greenburg hints at that possibility when he writes "[p]ractically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book."

Greenburg's examples certainly illustrate the banality.  For example, Walter Lippman concludes his 1922 Public Opinion by saying that "[t]he preceding years of world war and crisis . . .offered models of inspiration as well as despair, and a new realism might yet beat back 'the brutality and the hysteria' of modern life."  More recently,
Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” (1987), still an influential filleting of university life, features on its last page this thought: “I still believe that universities, rightly understood, are where community and friendship can exist in our times. . . . They have served us well.” Al Gore’s Bush-era polemic “The Assault on Reason” (2007), which argues that the rise of new media, increasing income inequality and deepening partisanship have driven evidence and logic from public debate, still ends with the former vice president declaring, “I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail.”
My students demand happy endings to nearly every piece of literature the read; I can't imagine them or very many other people accepting that the problem can't be easily solved.

Second,  the authors have drunk so much of the ideological Kool-Aid that prompted them to do the research that they can't or won't listen to solutions that don't fit into their framework nor will they accept solutions that come from political foes.  No one seems willing to deal with substantive arguments.  Instead, most seem to prefer to deal with only the easiest straw men.  I suppose that problem is tied to the hubris that Greenburg cites. 

Greenburg has done enough to convince me that the simple, banal, one-size-fits-all solutions are as problematic as the situations they purport to solve. Dramatic cuts to education, busting unions, mandating everyone buy insurance, or bombing the hell out Mideastern country are simple solutions, but thehaven't fixed any complex problems. 

Refuting Anti-Teacher Lies*

Offered with minimal comment, this link to an Answer Sheet post about some popular untruths.

*I prefer the term lies to myths because myths should contain some symbolic truth.  The lies refuted in the post have little symbolic or literal truth.

A Really Minor Musing

One would have to be high on Koch brothers money (a little policy debate humor for the Madville Times) not to anticipate the events chronicled in this New York Times article "States Pass Budget Pain to Cities".  Locally, District 18's Representative Nick Moser "would take with a grain of salt that the Legislature went up there and raised your property taxes through the roof."  Technically, Moser is right; legislative action means that cities and counties will raise property taxes, so the legislature didn't.  Metaphorically, I'll take him at his word.  Taxes probably will go through the ceiling and fill the attic, but they probably won't go through the roof.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Wonder I'm Paranoid

I am not shocked when a blog at The American Conservative hopes that Republican governors will continue their assault on teachers.  After all, every conservative takes as gospel that "school teachers, hardly represent a cross-section of the country on social and cultural issues. They are well to the left of most of the population."  And, of course, we don't have enough to do as we try to teach history, math, science, or English; therefore, only a dupe would believe "that union-faithful teachers favor educating the young in some value-free manner."  I would be remiss in my blogging duties if I did not mention that conservatives also take as gospel the assumption that every school limits itself to one or two token conservatives who are ritualistically mocked in the teachers' lounge.  In short, I expect conservatives to assert I'm out to turn their children into Marxist Muslim terrorists.

On the other hand, a Diane Ravitch editorial reminds Newsweek readers that "Obama has not sought to turn back NCLB. His own approach, called Race to the Top, is even more punitive than NCLB."  More frighteningly, Ravitch says,
The Obama agenda for testing, accountability, and choice bears an uncanny resemblance to the Republican agenda of the past 30 years, but with one significant difference. Republicans have traditionally been wary of federal control of the schools. Duncan, however, relishes the opportunity to promote his policies with the financial heft of the federal government.
So the right wants to use local and state government to make my life miserable, and the Democrats want to use the federal government to make my life miserable.

A couple of days ago I quoted  Adam Frank who wrote, "In poem or paean, in music or metaphor, in silent homage to whatever powers make sense to the heart in that moment, we may (or may not) find our way."  I can think of two small pieces of literature that fit the present situation.  Stanzas two and three of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" seem to fit the political situation, at least metaphorically.
 'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
. . .
Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
. . . .
The other is James 3:1 "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."  I always thought that passage was reserved for people who taught Sunday school.  I guess it applies to those of us who teach Monday through Friday school as well.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What's in A Word?

Adrian Petersen, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, created a bit of a dust-up when he compared the National Football League to "modern-day slavery."  He has been accussed of "not thinking at all," being "an idiot," and needing "a lesson in history."

I am saddened that "[t]here are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade"  Further, [t]he modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives." I wish more people knew that conservative estimates believe that there are 27 million people in slavery today.  That number "means that there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history."  Finally, I will grant that the word "slave" is "infamously rooted in history that [it is] are beyond nuance and context" and that using "that painful imagery in a five-second sound bite . . . was guaranteed to blow up in his face," especially since Peterson is expected to earn $10 million dollars next year.

Still, I'm bothered by the fact that everyone is going after him for the first half of the sentence and not focusing on the last half.  Peterson said, "It's modern-day slavery, you know? People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too." [emphasis mine]

What if Peterson had said that the NFL is like modern day sharecropping or serfdom?  Granted, Peterson is going to make $10 million next season and no serf or sharecropper ever earned that much.  On the other hand, he is limited to playing in the NFL.  No rival football leagues exist.  When he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, he would have had to wait for a year to play football if he had not wanted to live in Minneapolis.  In short, he had to choose between playing football and working where he wanted.

More importantly, NFL players who play 5 years have a life expectancy of only 55 years, decades less than the average lifespan of 77 years. To put an NFL player's life expectancy in perspective, it's the same as a man living in Ethopia.  Even those who condemn Peterson admit that "it's the players who risk bodily harm and brain damage, and are often left with chronic pain and debilitating conditions for life."  Most of those players won't be millionaires, but the company store owns their bodies, if not their souls.

Too many people take a "if it's so bad, leave attitude" toward anyone who complains that working conditions are unfair.  By doing so, they ignore the fact that many have to choose between a bad job and no job.  No job means no food on the table and no roof over one's head.  Peterson is right; a lot of people are stuck in a job that doesn't pay them enough to live, but that they can't afford to leave.  It may not be slavery, but it's certainly a perversion of the American ideal.  He was making a valid point, but he should have chosen his words more carefully.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why I Teach English Continued

Big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan points readers to this NPR article about the limits of science to console or make sense of an often irrational world.
Science gives us so much. It is the engine of our capacities, forging tools like the life-saving technological capacity to predict tsunamis. It is also the lens of our greatest aspiration, yielding broad narratives of cosmic and planetary evolution that set our personal stories in context.
But at some point we crash up against domains where science, or at least science alone, cannot help. In those moments, when we are numb with the immediacy of great suffering, explanations can become clay on the tongue. In that shattered place, our other human talents often find their place. In poem or paean, in music or metaphor, in silent homage to whatever powers make sense to the heart in that moment, we may (or may not) find our way.
What those moments teach is that all existence is, for us, provisional. They show that we are as much creatures of experienced feeling as we are of rational thinking. They show us the full range of what it means to be human, all too human, in a world alive with tremendous power, unspeakable beauty and, sometimes, shattering terror.
I doubt anyone who currently sits on a school board will consider that literature provides answers when science "becomes clay on the tongue."  I'm fairly certain that they all have drunk so much STEM Kool-Aid that even this scientist's eloquent admission will have no effect.  So when the budget axe falls, literature, art, and music will bear the brunt of the burden.

That fact is both frightening and a great pity.  Kids live in a world more wonderful and dangerous than anything those of us on the wrong side of 50 grew up in.  They need more tools than ever to make sense of everything going on around them,  No single discipline can provide those answers, but at the start of next year, most South Dakota students will be exposed to fewer tools than what I was when I went to a high school of about 60 students.  That situation is also frightening and a great pity.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Face(s) of Disillusionment

I'm not sure who produced this series that showed Bush morphing into Obama in 2009.  They probably had a good reason:  they could do it.

Now that Guantomo is to remain open in indefinitely, and President is winking at torture, the United States is going to attack a Muslim country without a declaration of war or "broad consultation with Congress," it seems to me that the orginal order was backwards.  The series should look like this.

Once again Orwell is being used as a road map instead of a warning.  He didn't want a Democrat who spoke eloquently about restoring hope and honor to turn into an imperialist concerned with projecting power when he closed Animal Farm with
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike.  No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.  The creatures ouside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
I don't think Orwell knew how to prevent power from destroying a grand ideal.  Apparently no one in America does either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

More Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax along with a Few Cabbages and Kings

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  According to a Cornell University study,  Twitter, divides itself into "two walled-off nations: happy people and unhappy people."  Sadly, the study doesn't examine whether happy tweeters send out the same tweets while the unhappy tweeters send out unique tweets.

Big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan keeps track of those who want the United States to waste more blood and treasure in the Middle East here and here and here.  Am I the only one who hears Pete Seeger singing, "When will they ever learn?"

On the bright side, researchers may have found Atlantis in Spain.

I think that I'm trying to avoid thinking about budget cuts, D-Step testing, and nuclear meltdowns

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Short Musing on the Mangling of History and Literature

Michelle Bachman, the Tea Party lust object du jour, has recently been caught mangling American history. When she confuses New Hampshire and Massachusetts because both have cities named Lexington, I’m pretty sure she has failed to meet one of the Common Core Standards. I don’t get to teach history because I don’t coach a an athletic activity, so I’m not sure which standard Bachman failed to meet, but I’m pretty sure it was one of the more basic ones.  Her failure to meet basic standards becomes more obvious when one notices that she has made similar mistakes in the past.

While I will hang my head in shame and ignore both her factual errors and her misinterpretations of history, I can’t let her misappropriate literature.

Representative Bachman has called a vote on a continuing budget resolution “a mice or men moment,” concluding that her Tea Party allies must ask themselves, “Are we mice or are we men.”

Literature has two famous “of mice and men” moments. Neither involves comparing rodents to humans. The first is Robert Burns’s “To A Mouse,” the poem that has its speaker muse,
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Clearly, Bachman, a woman brimming with Tea Party certitude, doesn’t have enough doubts about the alleged propriety of her cause to wonder who will suffer “grief and pain” if she gets to impose her “best laid plans” on innocent Americans.

The other, is the John Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men. At the novel’s conclusion, George must shoot Lennie to prevent him from being taken by a lynch mob. I’m not sure Bachman wants voters comparing her to either George or Lennie, a mentally challenged man who accidently kills a young woman. Besides, I’m pretty sure that Bachman doesn’t want anyone to read Steinbeck who had some left of center ideas.

I wish Bachman and the rest of her ilk would represent their districts and stop mangling history, the constitution, and great literature. It’s obvious she neither loves nor understands any of it.

What's Worse Than an Earthquake, Tsunami, and a Nuclear Meltdown?

Wall Street. 

The cost of Japan's disasters is estimated at $170 billion.  The Wall Street bailout was $700 billion. 

More importanly, if the movie Inside Job is any indication, the the poison Wall Street used to infect America is pernicious as nuclear radition.  According to a NYT review,
The end of the film raises a disturbing question, as Mr. Damon exhorts viewers to demand changes in the status quo so that the trends associated with unchecked speculation of the kind that caused the last crisis — rising inequality, neglect of productive capacity, endless cycles of boom and bust — might be reversed.

This call to arms makes you wonder why anger of the kind so eloquently expressed in “Inside Job” has been so inchoate. And through no fault of its own, the film may leave you dispirited as well as enraged. Its fate is likely to be that of other documentaries: praised in some quarters, nitpicked in others and shrugged off by those who need its message most. Which is a shame.
The fact that the message will be "shrugged off" may be why Charles Ferguson, the film's director has concluded "none of the post-2008 reforms will prevent a repeat of another global financial crash, particularly since the U.S. money houses which survived, thanks to bailouts, are more powerful than ever."

Radiation has a half life; Wall Street greed and corruption apparently don't.

HT Roger Ebert tweet of original comparison (posted from a spot where Twitter is blocked, so I can't do the link.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Mirror, Mirror" in America

For the young or non-Trek literate readers, "Mirror Mirror" is a classic episode of the original Star Trek series.  The plot featured an alternate universe with a tyrannical Empire instead of a benevolent Federation, a bearded Spock, and a Tantalus Field that the Department of Homeland Security is probably trying to develop at this very moment.  As with all Star Trek episodes, good triumphed and everyone had a laugh on the bridge.  I'm not so sure the episode Americans are experiencing now will have such a happy ending.

First, a tweet by Peter Daou points to this article that confirms that 400 Americans have more wealth than the 155 million poorest Americans. For the purposes of comparison, Irene, South Dakota, would have more economic power than the states of California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, the nine US states with the largest populations.

Second, the US military is actively torturing an American citizen who has been convicted of nothing.  I naively believed that the US believed that one was innocent until proven guilty.  I also thought Obama condemned torture, but I guess that was when it didn't apply to Bradley Manning who is alleged to have turned over documents to Wikileaks.  To make matters worse, the White House has apparently decided to fire P.J. Crowley who was perceptive enough to call the government's treatment of Manning "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid."  I guess that the prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and the protection of free speech can be selectively applied.

Third, via The Madville Times, I discover that South Dakota's budget is twice as large as it was in 1996 but it spends half as much on tax relief for the the elderly poor.

One of the running jokes about the original Star Trek series was that characters who appeared in a red uniform would die by the end of the episode.  Somehow, it seems as if a large portion of America just got beamed down wearing a red shirt.