The Unreceived Message of the College Admissions Scandal

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The message of the College Admissions Scandal is not that there is cheating in college admissions.  As one commentator put it: “This Just In: Rich People Game College Admissions for Their Kids (Stop the Presses!)  . . .Are we shocked—shocked?”

This scandal, like each of the innumerable articles about helicopter parents, shows how desperate parents are to protect their kids from the vast inequities of the educational system (and what comes afterward).  The real scandal is that the college admissions game really matters.  So the main message isn’t about Harvard, it’s about PUBLIC education.

This country used to care about public education.   It created the GI bill.  It vastly expanded the state university systems.  It showed the rest of the world what broad access to education could do for prosperity of a country.

Then, as a conscious goal of the Koch organization and the new Republican Party, we lost it.   Education has been a major victim of the drive for lower taxes on the rich, and the 2008 crash brought this to crisis levels.  Funding for schools has never recovered.  Rises in state tuition fed the student loan debt crisis.  K-12 school funding collapsed to the point of nationwide teacher strikes.  We even have Koch-funded propaganda attacking the whole idea of mass education.  Trump’s first State of the Union address pointedly talked only about welders and vocation education.

Public education needs to be first-rate.   We didn’t achieve it for everyone in the 60’s, but we showed it could be done more broadly that ever before.  Other countries, following our lead, are now well ahead of us for both education and (as a consequence) upward mobility.

Fixing education is not a trivial matter, but it mostly depends on a commitment to doing the whole job.  There are a number of aspects:

– Money

Money doesn’t solve things all by itself, but we’ve got to stop believing it doesn’t matter.  Raising tuition and fees defeats the whole purpose.

– Value teachers

Teachers, rather than consultants and administrators, should be prime contributors to the direction of the system.

– Common core

There need to be clear national standards of what we are trying to achieve.  However, that should still leave room individual teacher creativity.

– Graduation rates

We need to understand and counteract the current declines.

– Full range of institutions

All types of student objectives should be supported with traditional universities, community colleges, and vocational institutions.

 

Above all we need to fight the current ethos of superheroes and losers, and recognize that the strength of the country is in providing everyone access to the tools to succeed.  That’s why education matters.

The Epiphany of the Right

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It’s often difficult to understand the logic behind the right’s continued embrace of Trump’s lies and corruption.  In thinking about it, it seems that there is something even more fundamental than identity behind it.  You might call it the epiphany of the right.

This already existed in rather pure form with the Tea Party.  Tea Party participants had the enthusiasm of true believers, and they were pretty clear about their new beliefs.  When interviewers asked people on Medicare and Social Security why they were ready to deny government benefits to everyone else, the answers came down to a simple idea: “I don’t have to care!”.  In Strangers in their own Land, the author asked a Tea Party defender of personal responsibility how a poor child in a drastically underfunded school system was supposed to succeed, and she got the same response. “I don’t have to care”.

That “I don’t have to care” has become the epiphany of the right.  It’s the all-purpose answer.   It not only absolves the believer of moral responsibility, it gets you off the hook for anything you’d rather not think about—say climate change or the actual operation of world economy.  All that nagging about equality, facts, or expertise is optional!

It’s the perfect elixir for the Trump world.  Responsibilities or standards of behavior are gone.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.  Whatever you don’t like can be dealt with by any means, however brutal.  Democracy is just something else to nag about. Same for any other argument.

As with one’s personal life, this kind of behavior feels liberating and great until it isn’t.  But until then—there’s nothing anyone else can tell you!

Saving the Country

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This note grows out of a comment made during the election night coverage of the midterms.  Analysts were breaking down the vote in various categories, and one of them remarked that if you just look at white voters, this seems like a completely different country:  Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2.  They were all-in for the Trump program.

It’s worth paying attention to what that means.  Diversity is not a matter of tolerance; it’s a matter of national success.

Immigrants and their families are assets by any statistical measure.  They need to work harder to succeed, and they do it.   As the various waves of immigration entered this country, they have adapted and prospered, and the country as a whole has benefited.  It’s no accident that the most prominent players in our new economy—Google and Apple—were founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant.

But there is another aspect to this as well.   Outsiders (and not just immigrants) are not so easily tempted by images of an idealized past paradise.  Those siren-song images are not from their past, so they can keep focused on reality and the future.

Despite the many similarities between the Trump regime and the early stages of the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary, our diversity provides perhaps a degree of protection.  White voters have not called all the shots in the midterm election.  And it’s possible to believe that we’ve taken a first step back from the brink.

The problems of the Trump regime affect everyone.  First and foremost, we are squandering our strongest economic advantages out of ignorance and arrogance.  And we are at each other’s throats by conscious choice.  Dictatorships are not just bad for outside groups, they are historically bad for everyone.

So we should give credit where it’s due.  Three cheers for diversity in all of its shapes and colors—the saviors of the country!

 

Don’t Pretend This Election is Normal

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On the economy:  We’ve embarked on an unprecedented binge of deficit-financed stimulus in good times.  In just the past fiscal year the deficit ballooned by an extra $300 B, far more than foreseen.   That’s a great stimulus for the election, but it will be a long, cold winter.

Erratic tariff policy is already causing layoffs and market swings, with the major impact delayed until after the election.  George Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs cost 200,000 jobs;  this time effects will go much wider.  And there is no pot of gold from these trade wars.

Finally we’re setting ourselves up for the very considerable economic consequences of ignoring climate change.

On personal welfare:  Last year’s attack on ACA showed no commitment to do anything serious about healthcare—other than remove the progressive tax that funds it.

The huge business tax cuts have produced no wage increases beyond inflation (and no jump in business investment either).  Further those tax cuts have left no room for education, infrastructure, or social services, leading to recent plans to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Supreme Court justices were chosen to fight unions and satisfy the moral pretensions of the evangelical right.  Roe v Wade is only the beginning.

On freedom: We’ve had ongoing and increasingly brutal attacks on truth and the media.  Trump’s attempts to control the FBI have not succeeded, but by all accounts a win in the mid-terms means replacing Sessions with a more obliging alternative.  We’re reached the stage where we actually have to worry about the Justice Department!

On democracy:  It needs to be emphasized that the Kavanaugh appointment completes Trump’s control of government.  With a committed majority on the Court and capitulation by Republicans in both Houses of Congress, there is effectively no check on what he does.  We haven’t had time yet to understand how bad this is going to be.  Even Constitutional limits only work if the Court will enforce them.  Without a Democratic majority in the House, there is nothing protecting the nation from whatever comes into his head—trade wars, real wars, silencing of opposition, personal vendettas, whatever.

Our founding fathers chose democracy for a good reason.  They knew all about one-man rule.  Democracy is inherently fragile, but that’s what made us what we are.  We need to preserve it.  VOTE.

Kavanaugh Nightmares

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This subject is too painful to talk about but too painful to leave alone.  A few points:

– The fundamental danger of the Kavanaugh appointment was of course clear from the start—it was clear from the moment that Kennedy announced his retirement.  One way or another we were going to get a Supreme Court majority for authoritarian control of the country.   Since the Supreme Court enforces the Constitution, this is the fox in the hen house.

– The Kavanaugh hearing made matters worse in two ways.  The idea that law-giving on abortion and contraception might be determined by a perpetrator of sexual assault was bad enough, but additionally we were given the spectacle of Kavanaugh’s unhinged rant about liberal conspiracies with the implied threat (now soon to be realized) of revenge.  The final act, with Collins presenting the Party’s carefully-crafted whitewash of the whole affair, was an apotheosis of hypocrisy.

– The press has thus far, as usual, attempted to normalize the situation.  The word “conservative” is a handy tool in this effort.  As if these people represented an ordinary, conservative political wing rather than a takeover of the country to subvert democracy for the foreseeable future!  Even the focus on Roe v Wade has this effect, by making it sound like the problem is limited to a few specific issues.

Instead this takeover of the court will pervade all aspects of society.  Here are a few more examples of what may be in store:

  1. Essentially all regulatory agencies risk shutdown. The new “conservative” mantra is that delegation to regulatory agencies is unconstitutional, i.e. any regulation has to be a law passed by Congress.  Since that is as a practical matter unworkable, none of it can happen.
  2. The 14th Amendment can be weakened out of existence (the Constitution only exists as interpreted by the Court), limiting the ability to address racism or LGBT issues.  This is a stated “conservative” objective.
  3. Selected portions of Medicare, Social Security, and other aid programs can be eliminated as unconstitutional. This works directly to the Koch organization’s goal of drastically cutting government to reduce their taxes.
  4. Basic problems of the society can become unaddressable. Education, student loans, healthcare, opioid crisis, etc. can be made untouchable by any future Congressional effort.
  5. Fundamental free speech rules can become unenforceable. Trump could be able to shut down the NY Times or Washington Post on whatever pretext he chooses.
  6. Rule by Presidential fiat can become the norm, as only the Court can challenge it. With the example of the current trade wars, arbitrary control of the US economy will erode its strengths for all of us.

That’s what’s looming for the not-so-distant future.  It doesn’t change our immediate goals, as the mid-term elections are now more important than ever.  But it will be a tough battle, and the unprincipled savagery of today’s Republican Party has been vividly on display.

Mid-Term Diplomacy

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Given all the publicity around our trade wars and the North Korean negotiations, it’s worth taking a step back to look at what’s going on.  Let’s check each one.

Why have we started the trade wars?

It’s a good question, since

– The steel and aluminum tariffs have nothing to do with the real issue.

– We gave up half our leverage with China by going it alone, and there have been no significant achievements beyond what China was prepared to do anyway.

Given those facts, there is only one conclusion here—it’s reality TV for the mid-term elections.  “I’ve fought for you like no one else has ever done.”  That way every single news story is a win.  Who cares about the details anyway?

That also fits with Wibur Ross’ explanation to the Europeans of the peculiar idea that the best path to negotiation is to declare war:

“China are paying their tariffs …. China hasn’t used that as an excuse not to negotiate… It’s only the EU that is insisting we can’t negotiate if there are tariffs.”

Otherwise stated:  why can’t you people be like the Chinese?  They let us play boss when we think it looks good.  You people just have to learn.

What’s going on with North Korea?

Trump needs a deal, and he’ll get one on Kim’s terms.   It will be just like all the other agreements with North Korea—phased (and easily reversed) build-down of nuclear weapons in exchange for benefits.  Except this time it will probably include phased withdrawal of US forces from the South—a bigger concession than any other American president has every made.

However, that will be enough for the Trump propaganda machine to get going, and the rest of the press will be so relieved that Trump’s worst impulses were contained that they’ll probably agree.  And so, for public consumption, Trump can be peacemaker for the mid-terms!

 

Back in the real world, though, there are two different questions worth asking:

What do these trade games mean for our future?

If there’s any policy, it’s that we’ve decided it’s no fun winning unless everyone else loses.  So we’re not interested in alliances or trade agreements.  Prosperity is only achieved at others’ expense, so conflict is good—a philosophy that is historically disastrous and particularly inapt today.

Where is the outcry about “national security”?

Our President’s “national security” trade wars are already a constitutional crisis—arbitrary control of trade is NOT an executive power.  And it’s just going to get worse until someone finally does scream.  Trump has been increasingly willing to make up a “national security” excuse for almost anything he wants to do.  Unless the Supreme Court (or public outcry) stops him, there is no limit to where that leads.

 

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

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There haven’t been any book reviews on this site before, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is something of a special case.  This is a political book with a message that doesn’t quite fit into the current political environment, and it includes a large body of relevant history.  Not surprisingly, Pinker finds Trump antithetical to the Enlightenment precepts he is defending.  But he also finds plenty of guilt to go around.

To start with, the book seems to have two competing objectives:

  1. Validating the fact of human progress and documenting how it has been achieved. This is really a call to action based on humanistic goals.
  2. Providing reasons for optimism about the future. This is different—good things that are going to happen for reasons such as demographics, outside the scope of specific human actors.

On the face of it, a reader expects the first subject to be primary, if only because (at this point in time) you expect any political book to end up with recommendations for what to do.  But that’s not quite where Pinker is going.  He’s trying to view history not just as a demonstration of what works, but also as a way to understand where things are going longer term.  Since the two objectives are different, it helps to treat them one-by-one.

On the first subject, Pinker does a remarkable job of demonstrating the successes that humanity has achieved—In the longer term, in the last century, and in the past few decades. This involves health, security, standard of living, and many other quantitative measures of human welfare.   Much of this is unfamiliar because, as he says, this kind of thing just doesn’t make news.  The book is worth reading for this part alone.  Pinker does a good job of demonstrating progress and what is responsible for that progress:  science, rationality, and a broad-based desire to create a better world for everyone.  It is hard to argue with the historical fact that prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

In passing Pinker tries to dispose of past arguments against enlightenment humanism.  As examples:  Humans are inherently irrational (except when they want to make a point).  Humanism is a white racist production (its advocates were on the anti-imperialist side).   Science ignores human values (just plain not true).

Predicting the future is harder, and overall I’d say that Pinker is not well-served by his desire to make things look positive.  He tries to say that nuclear war is improbable, but we know that just one outlier is bad enough.  He treats the climate change movement as a kind of hysteria, because science will just take care of it in time (based on mostly anecdotal evidence).  He views the populist phenomenon as a brief episode of backsliding until more liberal generations take over from the ones now on the verge of dying out.

So in the end it seems a shame that the future predictions tend to dominate discussions of the book, when it’s the first part—the defense of progress—that is its greatest contribution.

And then there is the question of the call to action.  What Pinker espouses is humanism—the broad-based, rational process that has delivered progress.  The problem is that humanism doesn’t have a political party.

Pinker points out that much of the political process just doesn’t work:  Issue-based movements systematically deny progress for fear of losing momentum (even though that means they frequently get caught in the bind of asking for more money to continue going nowhere).  Discussion of issues is based on faulty statistics and dishonest patterns of argument.  Democracy as a whole is not as rational or responsive as we would like to think (the chapter on that subject is well worth reading).  He gives plenty of examples of bad behavior on both the left and the right.  Both sides contributed to the grim view of reality that was instrumental in producing Trump.

So where do we go from here?  Individuals can learn to be more rational in their behavior and in their evaluation of what they see and read.  They can work with the flawed organizations that are fighting bad actors such as Trump.  They can involve themselves with specific issues and help to push them along.  All told—incremental change but no miracle solution.

That’s actually the optimism of the book.   There’s no silver bullet, but the process has worked thus far.  And hopefully we will keep it going.