Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Class Warfare"

The last few days have seen a flurry of charges and counter-charges over President Obama's proposal to include tax hikes on the wealthiest American's as a solution to our debt crises and to create enough money to implement a "jobs program." The immediate and vociferous response from the Republican's was that he was initiating "class warfare" pitting one class against another.

The sad truth is that we have had class warfare for some time and the war is basically over--the rich won. The last three decades have seen an unprecedented rise in persoanl wealth for those at the top of the food chain while those in the middle and at the bottom have stagnated. The irony of the foodfight that erupted over the President's proposals is that it came on the heels of the announcement that there had been an increase in poverty in the U.S. and it had hit modern highs. So the reality is that the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer for a long time now. Call it the ravages of a class war that was never even or fair.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the gain of wealth by the top five percent of income earners had increased by 81% since 1983 while the middle fifth and and lower had decreased by 7.5%. This is not just a description of the current situation where the rich have won the war, but it is a prescription for serious trouble in the future.

We hear cries that we cannot raise taxes on the "job creators" in the middle of a recession. And yet, these very "job creators" have had an unprecedented ride of prosperity that hasn't really produced jobs. We hear cries that we must fix Medicare and Social Security for so that future generations can benefit, but the solutions offered are private sector solutions--voucherize medicare which would increase the costs to each senior (who tends to be in the bottom group that the EPI study showed had already lost ground economically) by over $6000. Other ideas have been to put the program into indivicual savings accounts that could be invested in the market--at place of great peril and instability.

The proposal made by the President would be to raise taxes at the upper limit from 35% to a little over 39%. These were the rates during the boom era of the nineties which much of the wealth indicated by that upper five percent were grown. Now is it me or does the discussion just not make a lot of sense.

I have traveled extensively internationally and have seen for myself other countries outstripping us with their infrastructure and their safety nets whcih create a more stable and equitable society. I have also seen countries where the rich have accumulated the vast proportion of the wealth and must live in armed, gated enclaves to protect themselves from the poor. These are the extreme examples of where the class war has been won and settled but there is no peace. The question for America is which road will we choose?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Ego Has Landed

Watching Donald Trump's press conference where he claimed to have been responsible for President Obama's releasing his birth certificate was a little like watching a drunken driver who had just caused a ten car pile-up taking credit for the police arriving. He had created much of the recent furor on Obama's birth by claiming inside knowledge on something fishy about it. Make it a topic of 24 hour a day speculation and then, when refuted took pride in his role. How much ego does it take to think the world revolves around you? Just ask Trump. His hubris and meglamania is exceeded only by his forays into selling snake oil and charlatanism.

Now I am not one to make fun of his hair, but it is a great metaphor for his personality--all fluff and no stuff. One must ask, what is he hiding under the do? And that is the real point. Here is a guy who has gone bankrupt four times but claims to have never lost any of his personal wealth. If that is true, that means other people who partnered and invested with him, lost theirs. It makes you wonder how he would handle our money if put in charge.

His simple answers to complex probems and his ready answer to any question of "it's so easy" should disqualify him from serioous consideration as a presidential candidate. Dealing with the world is not easy and anyone who thinks it is is delusional. But when speaking of the Donald that is redundant. And his ability to make everything in the world about himself is reminiscent of the wonderwoman of Wasilla's reaction to the tragedy in Tucson--it was a "blood libel" against her. Makes you wonder what kind of public servants they would make.

We have seen that America's romance with celebrity can go to an extreme and those who pursue fame and wealth are not to be trusted with our hearts and money.

As a educator I was most concerned with "the Donald's" latest salvo at President Obama. He wonders how could anyone who was a poor student end up at Harvard? As a poor student myself, who ultimately ended up at Harvard, I will tell him--hard work. You don't inherit it, like some people get their father's fortunes. You work hard and take advantage of an American system that forgives people their earlier trespasses and allows "do-overs." We are unique in the world for having a system that does not hold you to life-long account for early indiscretions. I would venture to say that most American's who are successful would have not been that way at the age of fourteen.

Donald Trump's understanding of America and its strengths is just as bankrupt as his business partners. And if you don't believe me I am sure he has some ocean front property in the Sahara he could sell you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taking Our Country Back

I have found the political discourse (or what passes for that) facinating over the last few years. We have heard a thundorous roar from the right that they want to "take their country back." This, of course, raises some questions in my mind. Who are they taking it back from? How did they lose it to begin with? Just who are these people who want to take something from someone else and when did they get title to it?

The reality is that we live in a very diverse country and a country that achieved its greatness from its diversity. It is a country that was never really owned by anyone. In fact our early history is bound up in rebeling against outside forces who would lay claim to the the country and by the constant immigration of individuals seeking something new and something better. This constant push and pull created a dynamic tension that caused us to constantly try to be better than we were and to seek new vistas of opportunity.

Those who feel that someone took something from them are denying by that very claim the basic history of who we are as a people. No one has owned us or the country. We all share it--we even share it with the people we don't like, can't relate to and who disagree with us. It isn't something we can take or give. It is for all of us. How then can one portion of the country try to lay claim to it?

We can speculate what brought us to this point. We have seen a rising surge of immigration of those who look and sound different from the so-called mainstream American culture. Of course, at one poiont most of our ancestors fit that description to a greater or lesser degree. The only sub-group who could rightfully claim the country for themselves are the Native Americans who were, indeed, here first and who had to put up with a lot of trash from the newcomers whose decendents now want to claim the country for themselves. Then there were the large group of Africans who were BROUGHT here against there will and enslaved for several hundred years. Did they earn some ownership in the country for their troubles?

The sad reality is that most of our earlier influx came from Western Eurpoe whose people LOOKED a lot like the settlers who were already here. Today's new arrivals come from lots of other places and they often look very different. Would we be having such discussions over immigration if it were the Canadains who were coming across the border? Afterall, we haven't built a fence along the North Dakota border to keep THEM out! I can only conclude that much of the angst is built upon racial perceptions. My belief is stirred by the fact that most of this "take back our country" talk came with the election of a President of mixed race, something that took us forty four tries to acheive. The sad fact is that lots of people in this country are bothered by this and feel like "the others" have taken control. This is what fuels the paranoid and conspiracist "Birther" movement. Can you prove you belong here and how much proof is enough? This is probably close to what the Native Americans felt--except in this case no one slaughtered anyone. Change came as it is supposed to come, at the ballot box and a majority voted for a president who didn't look a lot like the preceding forty three had looked.And he had the audacity, not just to hope, but to have a strange name and an African father.

Now I have to worry about those who want to take their country back because I think they are trying to take it back from me! I like the rainbow quality of our country. I have traveled all over the world and we are in a distinct minority of countries who have worked this out peacefully. We ought to be celebrating what we are instead of fighting over how we think we used to be and trying to recapture a time when we weren't as open and welcoming.So I want my country back from those who are trying to take it from me-the narrow, the bigoted, the frightened. We are better than that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Two and a Half Men

Of late, the country has been mesmerized by the shenanigans of Charlie Sheen, highest paid actor on television and star of the sitcom "Two and a Half Men." I have to admit that I have been an avid follower of the show and have found it hard to turn away from the train wreck that Sheen's life has become. He has veerd from accusations of physical abuse against his wife, to wild parties that seem to involve too much liquor and drugs to now talking to every reporter with a microphone.

He has become the poster child of excess. When someone has too much of everything and not enough of being told what they shouldn't do, they become the alter ego of Charlie Harper (Sheen's character on the show.) It seems like Sheen is determined to throw away his fame and fortune on hedonism. It would appear that he has few Hollywood supporters beyond Mel Gibson, which is another story altogether. People who are suffering meltdowns such as Sheen appear to be allow all the rest of us to feel a little better about our own lives. "Things are bad but at least I am not Charlie Sheen." Of course, Sheen claims to love his life just as it is. He insists that he has the DNA of Adonis and the blood of a Warlock. So I guess he sees that as pretty good. Meanwhile his hugely successful career seems to be careening towards the limbo of late night comics and whether he can come back from the brink is questionable.

Speaking of brinks, I go to the next man, none other than Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's dictator for life who is putting on his own show a half world away. Charlie Sheen at least dresses normally. Gaddafi looks like he is audtioning to be Lady Gagal's escort. But the trouble is that he isn't a joke. He claims his country loves him while he threatens to consume it in the blood of those who oppose him. Gaddafi has been caught in the wave of reform and unrest that is sweeping across northern Africa and the middle east. It is not a good time for despots and dictators and right now it is a really bad time for Muammar. His ego and monomanical hubris is stunning even in an area known for leaders who put themselves first. He has crossed the stealth of Mubarack with the charm of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile his country is not amused by his behavior such as this one is by Charlie Sheen. In the case of Sheen the outcomes will largely be his own. With Gadaffi, the outcomes affect the entire country. While he has taken crazy to a whole new level, the outcome is not so clear.

Speaking of meglamania, and crazy I offer up the half man in the title of this--none other than Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. What Walker has done is take his election as a mandate to change fifty years of Wisconsin history. His first moves in office was to give over a 100 million dollars in tax breaks to business and the wealthy. His second was then to declare a financial emergency (which he had just created) and his third move was to target state workers (or at least the ones who did not support him in the election)to solve the problem he created.Of course, the unions smartly countered by agreeing to the financial takebacks he demanded. But he has not comprimised because that wasn't the real issue.

Let's look at the broader picture here. Most unions have supported Democratic candidates under normal circumstances. Further the unions have been a major source of campaign contributions to the Democratic party. The Republicans have never been happy with unions and have constantly complained about them. Now, with real financial worries across the country they have seized this moment as one to destroy the union movement once and for all.

It is good to step back and remember that the state financial struggles were created, in part, by the recession. The recession was created by Wall Street greed and lack of oversight--both supported historically by the Republican party. But part of the problem with state budgets has come from a constant cutting of taxes that started thirty years ago. Scott Walker whinning about the difficult financial situation in Wisconsin is like the child who murders his parents and then asks for leniency from the court because he is an orphan. Scott Walker and his comrades around the country have largely created the problems they are now trying to foist onto the backs of the middle class. So the next time you read about something crazy that Charlie Sheen has said or done or the next time you contemplate the complete "batshittiness" of Muammar Gaddafi think also of Scott Walker or John Kasich or the other governors around the country who, in their own lame ways, are just as destructive as the more extreme examples we see every night on the news.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fairly Unbalanced

Over the last couple of years I have tried to ignore Faux News. They claim to be fair and balanced. If that is so then I am rich and irresitible. Just calling yourself something doesn't make it so. The reason I can no longer ignore them is that they are everywhere. By that I mean every time I am in an airport or even a fastfood place I am confronted by Bill O'Really or Glen Blecck. Now I don't care what perversions people do in their own home up to and including watching Faux news, just as long as they don't hurt someone else.

And that's my point. Pushing that particular perversion in my face in public places is degrading to me and I shouldn't have to deal with it. I should be able to enjoy my Big Mac without having Glen Blecck up in my face. The other day I was under the golden arches when I looked up to see ol' Glen going on about how the current conservatives where really the civil rights heroes and the "progressives" (I never realized a four letter word could have that many letters!) were the racists. This segment was fitted between segments on why up is down and black is white. I'm sitting there trying to figure the logic of how you could call those who were responisible for the Civil Rights Act, The Voters Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were the perpetrators of racism and how those who fought all those things were really the champions of civil rights. Of course, it isn't supposed to make sense to me--just to the people who watch Faux.

Like I said, I don't mind others watching that drivel. It is a free country (Blecck, O'Really, Sean Insantiy and Rush Dimbulb (or is it Doughball?) notwithstanding.) Folks can choose to watch what they want. But don't make me watch it. I won't make them watch Olberman, Maddow and Schultz. So here is what I propose. Everytime you are in a public place and they are showing opinion television ask to speak to the manager and complain that they are foisting their stupid ideas onto you in a public place. And complain up and down the line. I don't think it will harm Faux that much, but it will help my indigestion and preflight flutters if I don't have to watch that junk. Junk food is bad enough--don't serve it to my brain too!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sticks and Carrots

During the eight years of the recent Bush administration education was subjected to a school reform model that relied largely on "sticks"as a motivational device. The "No Child Left Behind" version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, while having some redeeming qualities (eg the focus on disaggregation of data), largely depended on coercive strategies to get things done. Schools and school people were put on notice that if schools did not meet the arbitrary standards set by states, they would be put into a track whre more and more decisions were made by those outside the school.

The Obama administrtion has taken a slightly different approach. They are using more "carrots" as incentives to created change. The "Race to the Top" competition is putting four billion dollars into education and they are suggesting that the new reauthorization of ESEA will use competition between schools and districts as its lever for change.

Now there is not argument that carrots are tastier than sticks, but it IS good to remember that a carrot is just a stick you can eat. In other words, while the tone may be "kinder and gentler" (to quote another Bush)the approach relies on the same basic assumptions of how you get people to move. You either threaten them with a stick or entice them with a carrot.

The problem with both these approaches is that they rely on extrinsic threats and rewards to move people. They assume that education is external and mechanistic and if you can just leverage things different behavior will result. However, education is not external and mechanistic--it is internal and organic. It comes from the inside out and it depends on the humanity of the teacher and student to succeed. It is perhaps more dependent on intrinsic rewards than any other business out there.

Daniel Pink, the author of "A Whole New Mind" (which should be a must read for any educator) has written a new book called "Drive: The Truth About What Motivates Us." In this book, Pink mounts extensive research to make the point that extrinsic motivation works when the work is repetitive and simple. When it requires creativity and innovation, intrinsic rewards are best. He suggests that work that involves autonomy, mastery and purpose go further in promoting creative expression.

Teaching and learning, by their very nature, require creative expression and would best be promoted through a reliance on intrinsic rewards. Merit pay and other forms of pay for performance, which currently are the rage in Washington and which are being promoted by the Obama administration, seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do in the context of expecting better classroom performance. Perhapds policy makers should abandon the idea of sticks or carrotss and focus more on how we might promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose in our classrooms.

(This entry first appeared on the Developmental Studies Blog.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Trifecta of Stupidity

I moved to Arizona a couple of years ago for the sunlight. Unfortunately, that does not create more enlightenment, as we have witnessed the last few weeks. While the rest of the country is experiencing political gridlock, the Arizona legislature has proven they can pass anything by doing so.

First came the concealed weapons law. A number of years ago I was surprised to learn that anyone can carry a weapon here as long as it is visible. It gives the state a feel of the old west to see folks packing their six-shooters. The Arizona legislature, in its quest to go where few have gone before, decided that wasn't enough so they passed a law allowing anyone to carry a CONCEALED weapon legally. That moves us from the Old West, to a reprise of the Godfather.

The next day or so they passed a "birther" bill requiring presidential candidates to "prove" they are a natural born citizen of the U.S. Even though laws pertaining to presidential candidates are governed by federal statute, Arizona is now protecting America from leaders who might have been born in Panama (as was John McCain) or even Hawaii/Kenya as other might have been.I thought they had reached their nadir with this one but they were just getting warmed up.

Later in the week they passed the law that allows (no demands) police to check people who might look "suspicious" to determine if they are legally in this country. Immigrants would be forced to carry their papers proving they are here legally. But in fact ANYONE could be stopped and asked for papers. I stopped carrying my birth certificate some time ago so I suppose I am vulnerable.

But I have been assured that won't happen because I do not "look" illegal. I suppose it is the light hair and blue eyes that gives me away. And yet the proponents of the law have insisted it will not lead to racial profiling. One question. How in God's name does a policeman determine that someone looks suspicious except by the color of their skin and their accent?

All this harkens back to the good old days of Nazism and Aparteid where those who were different had to label themselves by wearing a gold star of David or by carrying their papers. Even though this law has created a national firestorm, polls indicated that about 70% of my fellow Arizonans think it is a good law.

Some of this stems from violence along the border and the heavy influx of illegals into the state which has gotten folks on edge. Certainly the federal government needs to step up and deal with the border issues so that craziness like we are seeing out of Arizona will not happen.

On a related note, the genius astro-physicist Stephen Hawking has indicated he believes their are alien cultures in space and if they come to visit earth they will not be coming in peace. Never fear, if that should happen, just come out to Arizona. If they try to get in here, we will throw their ugly alien butts in jail!