Monday, July 29, 2013

Don't Cry for Me Morgan Stanley

Two stories out today in Salon point to the growing disparity between average Americans and the Masters of the Universe (aka leaders of investment banking, as coined by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities). In good news for those masters, we learn that banks are soon to become the most valuable industry on Wall Street again, repeating a feat they accomplished in 2008 (Link). Of course this is arguably bad news for the rest of us, as we saw what happened the last time they held that mantle. In a second story (Link), we learn that 80 percent of adults in the U.S. face near-poverty and/or joblessness. Yes, that’s 4 in 5. We are not there yet, of course, and I’m not sure I buy that percentage really (it seems excessively high), but the numbers are still staggering: 46.2 million living in poverty (15 percent of Americans), poverty rates for blacks and Latinos three times higher (that’s almost 50% to the mathematically-challenged), more than 19 million whites falling below the poverty level of $23k for a family of four, 25 percent of recent college grads underemployed and another 25 percent unemployed and a still historically high unemployment level. On top of all this, pessimism about economic opportunity has reached its highest point since the halcyon days of 1987.  

The obvious moral of this tale is work for Wall Street at all costs. If it’s too late to make that mid-career change from McDonald’s Assistant Manager of Garbage Disposal to Hedge Fund Manager, I highly recommend sending your children to an Ivy League school majoring in Finance. That way they can fund your retirement, particularly as Social Security may be gone or so gutted as to be useless by then. On the other hand, the 99 percent of the world’s population who suffer from big bank excess – including exorbitant fees and interest rates, poor risk management and dramatic state and global political power – could simply rebel against the de facto leaders of the “free” and “unfree” worlds. It does seem Americans could learn something from the Egyptians, among whom a small, newly-created grassroots organization of young, dedicated social reformists overthrew an inept government within a few months.   

Friday, July 26, 2013

Reconsidering Creative Destruction

For a time, Joseph Shumpeter’s idea of creative destruction was all the rage in business meetings across the country. I'm not sure if it still is these days, as I haven't been in one in a decade at least, but maybe now is an appropriate time to reconsider the phrase, particularly as Obama is rumored to be considering Larry Summers as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. I'll get there in a second, but let's considers Summers as a choice for a moment. He is the same man that caused many famous academics to leave Harvard during his tenure, including Cornell West, based on his bullying, overbearing nature and disrespect for anyone who doesn’t cow tow before his clearly superior intellect. He is the same man that sanctioned the open debate of whether women were simply less genetically-suited for math and science. He is the same man who is crass and has a tendency to alienated those around you. However, maybe all of these could be forgiven if he were not one of the key architects of implementing neoliberalism under Clinton. Summers is a guy who continues to believe in the unfettered free market and the rather tired assumption that global trade will lift all boats. And even as the most brilliant men in many rooms, he also has a long history of getting the big decisions wrong.

On to creative destruction, the popular notion that the new destroying the old is one of the key drivers of capitalism and technological innovation. While it is hard to argue that this is not often the case, it is based on an assumption that might fail under closer scrutiny -- namely that what is creative and new is implicitly superior to what it replaces. The examples are endless, particularly from a technological standpoint, but here I want to focus on Wall Street and, more briefly, on Washington DC. Wall Street was the engine of the most recent financial collapse and this largely resulted from people like Larry Summers advising us to stay away from regulating banking activities, even something as dangerous as the increasingly complex derivatives that were being developed in the late 90s. The new Wall Street at the turn of the century had largely decided to abrogate any responsibility to manage economic and market risk (one of their two primary goals together with providing investment funds for new ideas and expansion). Instead the new brands of Wall Street analyst and Trader were engaged in increasingly risky behavior that reaped huge benefits for themselves and their firms, but often did little to actually help the economy. The creative destruction here was of Wall Street's essential role in evaluating a company’s health, the prospects of going public, expansion (through investment), mergers and the general health of the economy. It was also creative destruction of their role in placing available funds into investment opportunities with the highest potential returns, controlling for the risks. Wall Street had replaced these two roles with going after the biggest opportunity for internal profit without sufficient fear or understanding of the risk and too often investing in instruments, markets and stocks that provided no additional value or growth to the economy. This was perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that bonuses for the few investment banks left standing in 2008 were the highest in history (and the next year even higher still).

Creative destruction only works if what replaces the old is better. And it appears that too often that is not the case, at least if we move beyond the bottom line to petty things like economic growth, poverty, unemployment rates and other measures of quality of life. This also appears to sum up what has happened in Washington DC since at least the 80s, though it started much earlier. Corporations, whose profits fell throughout the 70s, became the main pushers of the conservative revolution and the first hints of the neoliberalism to come. To facilitate their more active role in undermining government, they set up the biggest and most successful lobbying establishment in the world (though some other countries like Italy just bow to corruption more openly and readily). Business interests not only pushed their particular interests, but the overall interests of corporations and their boards in America -- including deregulation, lower marginal tax rates on individuals, capital and corporations themselves, anti-labor laws, a transfer of responsibility for retirement and health care to their workers (at least partially), freeing of markets (interior and exterior), shrinking of government services and expenditures, scaling back of environmental and job safety regulation and lowering of barrier to trade. In this case the creative destruction was of the established social contract of rights and obligations for citizens within a democracy. This was replaced with a veritable Plutocracy with citizens rebranded as consumers. Maybe it's time to creatively destroy creative destruction, eh? 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Joyless Silly Season, Gooner-Style

I promised to write less about Arsenal during the summer break, but us Gooners again find ourselves on the cusp of major depression. The silly season is just that, full of rumour after rumour, with Arsenal linked to almost every available player. Yet we have made but one meager signing, and that for free and for the future. Two of our main targets are already gone, with Fiorentina striker Stevan Jovetic off to rival Man City and Real frontman Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli, and the Rafael Benitez project. The Jovetic interest dried up when the price was set above Wenger’s appraisal and rumours of a switch to Juve materialized. Instead Man City snatched him up last week for 22 million pounds, only slightly above what we were willing to play. But this is not as disheartening as it seems as he is clearly a talented player and has major potential upside at the young age of 23, but has a rather meager goal total (35 goals in 116  matches for Fiorentina and 12 in 33 for Montenegro). We then moved on to Higuian, whose numbers are substantially more impressive for Real (107 in 187) and Argentina (20 in 32). According to rumours, the deal was days away at 23 million pounds, but then Real balked with the excuse that they were waiting for their new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, to arrive. Today we find out he was sold to Napoli for 34 million pounds. This was admittedly far above our valuation of 22 million but, given the available remaining top striker talent, would have been a reasonable investment.

Now all our hopes remain in two baskets, both with rather large holes that could again leave egg on Wenger’s face. The main target is Luis Suarez and we just bid an astounding 40,000,001 pounds for his services, though it was quickly rejected by Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers and the board are clearly hoping to keep their best player at the Kop, or maybe sell him outside of England. Real are rumoured to be interested, but only value the Uruguayan star at 25 million. Wenger and the board are confident they can prised away the immensely talented, and troubled striker, but will Liverpoool give him away for anything less than 50 million – most of our available summer signing pot? It is still to be seen, though he could certainly facilitate the move by putting in a transfer request. The allure of Champion’s League football and working with a man known for helping get the best of strikers (from Henry to Bergkamp to trader RVP) might be enough to convince him, but what of the long trophy drought and perception of a declining empire? The other target seems even less likely, unless Chelsea turn their attentions elsewhere. He is, of course, the unsettled Man U striker Wayne Rooney. Capturing Rooney could be a coup for the Gunners, as he shouldn’t cost much more than 25 million and is still considered one of the top players in the world. However, questions about his fitness and a slight loss of form remain and he clearly prefers a move to the Blue section of London.

If Arsenal fail to secure either of these two players, the summer will again be considered a failure – amplified by the fact that several midtier teams in the EPL like Stoke and Sunderland have done serious business and Chelsea and Man City appear to have strengthened. Could it be that Wenger’s tendency to over-haggle over a few million quid or wait too long to swoop in for his main targets again relegate us to has-beens fighting for fourth place in the EPL? If so, I can only imagine this will be the Frenchman’s last season in charge. I still hope against hope that we sign Suarez and then follow up with a backup goalie who can challenge Sz for the starting job (preferably Julio Cesar) and a centre-half (Ashley Williams seems reasonable at 10 million pounds), as well as another flair player or defensive mid (Everton’s Fellaini would be my top choice, though he seems set to either stay or head to Man  United). United find themselves in a similar position, having failed to acquire any of their targets and seemingly in a losing battle to secure Fabergas, who Arsenal could then snatch for 25 million anyway, assuming the Spaniard would consider a return two years after breaking our hearts oh so nicely. In any case, all is up in the air with 5 weeks left and we Gooners forced to once again live on hope alone.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Surveillance State University, Inc

Penn State has joined a host of other colleges and universities, together with corporations and businesses across the country, in advocating for healthy living among its employees. This is a positive trend in America, where prevention had long ago fallen prey to the monopoly over life acquired by the hospitals, medical profession and pharmaceutical companies at (as well described by Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality (free copy here). People will live longer, healthier and thus more-fulfilling lives and the overall cost of healthcare should go down in the long run (in fact, studies show that medical costs fall by $3.27 for every dollar spent on prevention). While I can already hear the right-wing cries of nanny-state whistling through the Fox News airwaves, a deeper concern lies in the method Penn State has chosen to incentivize their employees (Inside Higher Education).  

The new policy involves a $100 surcharge each month for those staff and faculty that refuse to complete an online wellness profile and a physical exam that includes biometric screening (a full lipid profile, glucose, body mass index and waist circumference measurement). Against the most basic findings in effective incentive modeling, they have decided instead to take a punitive approach – just as NCLB did a decade ago, to little positive effect. This is not surprising at a research one university, where expertise in teaching is considered on par in importance with the athletic prowess of the faculty (until now), but hard to argue is the most effective way to push the program. How about incentives for those who complete the survey and exam? How about making the screening, which occur on campus, somehow part of a larger celebration?

Actually, it is not surprising that the punitive approach was taken given the increasingly combative relationship that has emerged in the wake of new neoliberal models, which are really based on reducing labor costs to increase corporate profits after the dramatic declines that occurred in the 70s. This included a multi-pronged approach including reducing job security, attacking unions in both the legal and political arena, transforming employer-funded pensions (defined benefit) to portable, largely employee-funded 401(k) plans (defined contribution), reducing government power and oversight, attacking progressive taxation (to give elites a larger share of the pie and increased political power), building a lobbying state that dominated DC, outsourcing jobs and manufacturing in general and weakening employee protections. The universities and colleges across America were slower to follow these reforms, though the reduced federal and state funding pushed them to slowly reduce the ranks of tenured faculty in lieu of cheaper part-time faculty. The shift from the 70s to now has been dramatic and has led to two distinct and oppositional parties within many universities – the leaders of the school who often have business backgrounds and look at the bottom line like corporation execs and the faculty and staff who are actually interested in the old mission of schools – educating students and advancing knowledge in a relatively autonomous milieu. Thus “be healthy or else” appears to be right in line with the new employer-employee relationship at many institutions of higher learning.

One final concern, of course, is the notion that this data is only being collected for the employees benefits. All of the data out there today on every one of us – from the websites we visit, to everything we do on Facebook, to the web forms we complete, forms we fill out for jobs, dating sites, to buy a book and the like to the medical records themselves – leaves us at the disposal of anyone who wants to use that information. Corporations have been the biggest crunchers of this data so far, capitalizing on these online profiles to target us with things that fit our consumer profiles. Recently we have learned that the government is also quite interested in this data, with the NSA using it to find the next terrorists among us. And now there is compulsory medical testing, together with many people choosing to learn their genetic makeup. With the failure to pass comprehensive healthcare reform that really altered the current system, the real fear is that insurance companies will start refusing coverage, or charging risk-associated premiums to those with predilections (or higher probabilities) of getting sick. While most people are worried about Big Brother, and maybe rightfully so, the real concern for me is the corporations and their power to  make us little more than commodified numbers in their pursuit of maximum profits. 

Pax Britannia Deux

By 1922, the British Empire was the largest in the history of the world, holding sway over 1 in 5 people on the planet and controlling almost a quarter of the earth’s land mass. For over 100 years, they had been the dominant force in the world, though Germany and the United States were cutting into their economic and military power. The end of WWII essentially ended that reign as colonies were either granted or demanded their independence. The U.S. became the global power and England slowly faded into “has been” status. Their hegemony in the world of sports, never as daunting, was also fading away and but for the surprising 1966 World Cup, there was little to cheer about except for minor victories here and there. But 13 months ago, things began to change and arguably have resulted in the best year of British sport ever.

It started with a surprise victory for Chelsea in the finals of the Champions League, beating first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich on home turf with a late goal that ultimately sent it to penalties and a Drogba clincher. Then, on the eve of a home Olympics that included a third-best medal haul of 65 gold, silver and bronzes, Bradley Wiggins ended 99 years of futility in the Tour de France by becoming the first Brit to win the greatest endurance test in sports. The Olympics included the victories of a number of stars including Mo Farah’s double in the 5,000 and 10,000, numerous victories on the track and road in bike racing (including gold for Wiggins), Jessica Ennis’ win in the Heptathlon and bronze and silver for gymnast Louis Smith, among many other compelling stories. Maybe most famously, Andy Murray came back from a heartbreaking final loss a set up against Roger Federer to claim the gold medal in tennis. The Olympics were followed by the Paralympics, with more golds and memories for England. And then Murray broke through at the U.S. Open, becoming the first male Brit to win a major championship since Fred Perry 77 years earlier.

Victories in cricket and rugby were also achieved and Rory Mcilroy won the PGA Championship for his second major (though he’s done little since). Things slowed down a little from there, though Chelsea did add a Europa League title this past June. It was at Wimbledon where the heart of England has turned for almost 80 years, waiting for another Champion. And it was Andy Murray who finally gave them their dream victory this year. It was one of the moments of the year, or maybe the new century in sports so far. But less than a month later, with Wiggins unable to defend his Tour title, Chris Froome took the mantle and pulled off a stellar, dominant victory in one of the hardest tours in history – marking a century with God Save the Queen for two years running. And one shouldn’t forget the Ryder Cup miracle comeback on U.S. soil last year. Sure there have been failures along the way including talk of the decline of the EPL in relation to Spain and Germany, the danger of missing the World Cup next summer and failure today at The Open for Lee Westwood, who again failed to maintain a lead in the final round of a major (though The Open had another compelling narrative when Phil Mickelson shot the round of his life to pick up his first British Open and fifth major overall. In fact, Phil just won for the first time in Europe in his career last week, at the Scottish Open).

So what can England do for an encore? It is hard to see another 13 months like they have just experienced, but future glory is certainly available. They will continue to compete at the top of cricket and rugby, Manchester United, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal will continue to challenge in Europe, they appear to have the best tour bicyclist in the world (and one of the top sprinters), Hamilton could find his way to Formula One glory as he settles into Mercedes, Andy Murray looks set to continue vying for majors and some of the top golfers in the world still hail from that tired old empire of yore. Whatever the future holds, this has certainly been a year to remember – like Chariots of Fire playing in repeat for 13 long months that flew by faster than the Champs-Elysees peloton. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

EPL Losing its Luster? and Arsenal Blues

I like to largely ignore the silly season, otherwise known as the transfer window, but it’s hard for an Arsenal fan hopeful that this will be the year we will finally stop our miserly ways. This summer Gooners were promised a spending spree, with a 70 million pound war chest at our disposal. As we approach the halfway point, however, all we have to show for our high hopes is a free transfer of a future prospect. We have been rumoured to be in for some big names from a dramatic Cesc Fabergas return (unlikely), to a first-class striker signing. So far we have elided our early interest in Jovetic (just signed by Man City), appear to be losing out on Higuian (who would be a great signing in my estimation, but could be headed to Napoli or maybe even Chelsea (though that rumour seems bizarre), will probably lose out on a spectacular move for Rooney (to Chelsea or some overseas team) and might be in a futile battle to prise away Luis Suarez. Any of the latter three would clearly signal a dramatic change in philosophy and ramp up a charge for a first league title in nine years, but it is quite plausible we could lose out on all of them. We still arguably need a central defender (with Ashley Williams still linked), a defensive midfielder (Wanayama has already signed for Southampton though Fellaini is an admittedly expensive option), another goalkeeper (the loan move by Napoli for QPR’s Cesar just fell through) and maybe another midfielder. One hopes the summer doesn’t end with more heartbreak, though us Gooners really only live on hope these days.

Overall, it has been a bit of a reality check for the EPL’s contention that it is the best league in Europe. Far too many top targets have chosen Italy, Germany, Spain or even France over the birthplace of the beautiful sport. Falcoa and Cavani arguably chose the money in going to Monaco and PSG, respectively. Alcantara chose to move to Bayern with old boss Guardiola just as he seemed on the precipice of signing with Manchester United and Kevin Strootman chose Roma over the Red Devils. Lewandowski would rather see out the final year of his contract at Dortmund and move on to Bayern than test the waters in England and teammate Goetze has already made that move over overtures from several EPL clubs. Several top targets even chose Russia over top English clubs. What does all this tell us? Is it merely the tax structure and weather in England? That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case when compared with Russia. Is it the recent decline in form in European competitions, ignoring Chelsea’s near miracle run to the Champion’s League title last year and their Europa League title this past season? Is there a sense the English football is just more physically taxing and less technically interesting than Spain or Germany (who has fundamentally changed its approach at the national and club level)? Tevez and Balotelli are gone, many more have moved on, the two best players in the world play in Spain, the assumption is the best player in the EPL (Bale) will ultimately move to Spain, the best club in the world is arguably Bayern Munich and signs abound that there is a general decline across England. On the other hand, Man City has made a number of quality signings grabbing players from Spain and Italy, one of the best coaches in the world just moved from Real to Chelsea, mid-tier teams like Southampton, Stoke and Sunderland have made impressive signing improvements to their squads and Liverpool and Arsenal could be on the ascendancy. It is also too often forgotten that Arsenal were very close to going 2-2 in the first leg of their UCL tie with Bayern before giving up a silly third goal and had a chance, blown by Giroud (what a surprise), to still win the aggregate score against the future champions in the return leg.

There are still signings available, for both Arsenal, and the other top clubs. One hopes some are made and it should certainly be an interesting race for the title, with Man United and Chelsea doing little to improve so far, Man City strengthening considerably (though maybe losing a key figure in Tevez) and Arsenal still itching to add the few ingredients that could make us contenders (lest us forget we would have won the league if it started in February, though that argument is clearly absurd). And I do still believe the EPL is the most exciting league in the world, even if it can no longer claim to be the best (though with substantially more parity than Spain and Germany (and arguably France and Italy as well)). One more month to go!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fever Pitch

In the autobiographical book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby writes about the hysteria and obsession that football (aka soccer) can elicit in the true fan. He happens to be writing about his relationship to Arsenal, the very same team that can alter my mood dramatically based on their performance in a given match, or lack of activity in one or both of the two transfer windows (we have been linked with every player imaginable this summer, but have one meager signing so far, and he was essentially free). Football fans make American sports nuts seem relatively tame by comparison, from the 24-7 news cycle of football news (isn’t ESPN quaint?) to the outbreaks of violence and harsh racism that have often plagued the sport. Football fans are a rough and tumble bunch that consider their team as an extension of, or sometimes replacement for, their actual family. Two stories this week demonstrated this obsessive nature and the ways that it can cross over, far too easily, into insanity:

First was in Brazil, where the dark fantasy of far too many fans came to pass with tragic consequences. All rabid football fans can point to critical games that their team lost based on a bad call by an official, often one that you start to sense has it out for your team. Until this year, Arsenal has often been the victim of bad calls that cost us games, league titles and advancement in the Champions League – as well as nightmares and agida that persist for years. Thus dreams of decapitating said referee occasionally find their way into our thoughts, though we would never act upon them (though egging their car certainly seems reasonable, right?). In Brazil they lived out this fantasy after decapitating a referee and hanging his head on a stake: Guardian. The fact that he had murdered a player beforehand certainly made the act seem a bit more justified, but many football fans the world over were snickering through their shock.

In the second incident, fans took their desire to keep a player with Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon a step too far. Loyalty to the home club is an essential feature of the football fan’s life, and those players who have the gall to seek out greener pastures are worse than the most traitorous Benedict Arnolds (I still despise RVP, for example, and can’t help but secretly root for a minor injury in a game against the Gunners). But fans in Portugal took this loyalty oath a little too seriously, hatching a plan to kidnap a player potentially destined to leave for Chelsea (Daily Mail). Luckily their plan failed, while in South America Columbian defender Andres Escobar was later killed after scoring an own goal (GQ) and several others have suffered similar fates (or narrowly escaped the meting out of “justice”).

While the Americanized film version of Fever Pitch might have been cute in looking at a rabid Boston Red Sox fan, it might have fallen a little short of capturing the maniacal nature of the authentic “sports nut” and their preferred sport, football.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What the Zimmerman Case Tells Us about America

I have not followed the Zimmerman-Martin case with much interest, as media spectacles of these sorts generally bother me. But it has been impossible to ignore and the not guilty verdict rendered by the all-female, sex member jury yesterday certainly does give one pause. What, if anything, does it tell us about our legal system? How does it relate to larger debates on race and gun control? How does the case relate to masculinity? I will consider each of these in turn.

The first point to be made regards the rather troubling Florida laws that allowed for this decision in the first place. Florida has a very broad definition of self-defense and allows for deadly force in response to imminent threat. However, as with the Zimmerman case, it’s extremely hard to prove that someone was in imminent threat. Zimmerman’s lawyers claimed as much, but it seems telling that he wouldn’t take the stand in his own defense. The reality of the case, as summed up well in an op ed in the Miami Herald (Link), is that a man with a loaded gun saw a black teenager he thought was suspicious, called the police, was told not to pursue the teen, did so anyway, got into a confrontation with said youth and then shot him dead. Even if the teen was in fact threatening his life, which seems unlikely, none of this would have happened if he simply let the teen take his skittles home with him. If legal systems across the country adopted the stand your ground standard in Florida, I feel the country would soon feel like the wild wild west, with racial, class and even age profiling leading to even more senseless deaths than already occur in the U.S. each year because of our lax gun control laws.

This leads to the second point, about said gun control laws. Far too many innocent people are dying every year because of the ready access to weapons. I have made this point repeatedly on this blog and this is yet another example of the danger that exist in providing access to hand guns much less “assault” weapons. Given the power of the military and even police forces today, the old argument that we must remain armed to fight back government tyranny is absolutely absurd, coupled with the fact that largely peaceful revolts by people across the Middle East have sprouted democracy from the ashes of dictatorship. Gun control makes sense to everyone except the NRA, the corporate interests that back them and conservative pundits who need ammunition to keep their audiences angry and buying their ghost written books, redundant, hate-filled podcasts, rabble rousing t-shirts, patriotic hats and other Fox-bling bullshit.

The question of race is clearly at the heart of the matter. To put it simply, if we reversed roles, it is hard to believe the discourse and media framing surrounding the case would have been the same. Let’s just consider the alternative scenario for a moment. There have been several robberies in a working class black community over the past year and several men decide to start a neighborhood watch. A white teenager buys some skittles at a local 711 and decides to walk through said neighborhood on his way home. A black kid, who is a little scrawny and has been mugged in the past, sees the white kid and thinks he is suspicious. He approaches the white kid, who confronts him and a scuffle ensues. In the scuffle, the black man, who is armed, shoots the white kid in self-defense. Now, is there any chance that black man would get off? Would Fox News dedicate most of its “news” programming to defending the black man for months on end? Would people question the white teenagers background and conclude that he presented an imminent threat to the black man? Enough said on this point, I think.

Finally is the question of masculinity, which has been largely ignored in this trial. The emasculation of the American male has arguably been occurring for over a century, often indirectly reflected in popular culture from superhero comic books and films to Film Noir to Action Films and American Dream fare like Rocky (is it an accident the Italian Stallion beats a black man named “Apollo Creed” who is rich, successful, brash and wears an American flag during the fight?). Since the conservative revolution of Reagan, and maybe even earlier (look for example at King Kong, where a big ape is brought to America in chains on a boat from a far off island, serves as a slave to American consumers, breaks free, falls in love with a white woman and ultimately dies (“twas beauty that killed the beast”)), the restoration of masculinity lost by the white working class male in the 70s has been placed at the doorstep of affirmative action. Even as the claims of reverse racism are often absurd, they continue to dominate the conservative media landscape and political scene. Zimmerman was framed as a “soft” man who had failed to realize his dreams of a military or law enforcement career, a short, stocky guy who feared for his life against a young, MMA-trained black man who seemed steeped in that lost masculinity. But is it surprising that a young black male pursued by a Latino male on his way back from the store would confront that man? Is a teenager really to blame for a show of masculinity in the face of what appeared to be racial profiling? Are the challenges to masculinity brought on by the success of feminism and changing nature of what it means to be a man and a woman really the foundation for justifiable homicide? These are questions that should have been a larger part of the debate, rather than tired old racial stereotypes and notions of justifiable use of guns.

In the end, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a half-white, half-Latino man with a gun, who had pursued that black teenager for no other reason than his race. No one except George Zimmerman knows what happened that night, but do we really want to live in a society where that is acceptable?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Flawed Educational Reasoning Dominates Debate

Framing is a powerful rhetorical tool used to sway public opinion to a particular perspective. As George Lakoff, has been arguing for the past two decades starting with the publication of his first book on the subject Moral Politics (1996, You Tube Clip), conservatives and liberals think differently and metaphors are a key aspect of the discourse that rouses public approval or disproval of a particular policy initiatives. Educational discourse today tends to be dominated by conservative perspectives that are sold as commonsensical, while containing major flaws in reasoning and empirical evidence.

These assumptions about education fit within the larger neoliberal reforms (of smaller government, attacks on unions and workers, less regulation and oversight, market solutions, dismantling of the social safety net and major regressive tax reform) and elicit a policy based on 1. increased accountability (NCLB), 2. standardization of curriculum, teaching and teacher training, 3. privatization efforts (charter schools, vouchers, business infusion into schools), 4. Professionalism (outside experts exert heavy influence on school and system management), 5. schooling as primarily economic in nature, based on training and sorting, and 6. the deskilling of teachers. Underlying these changes are a series of arguably faulty assumptions, including the following:
1.     Teachers, parents and students are largely to blame for the declining state of public education. You can see this assumption in NCLB, as one key component is the assumption that grading schools and making it public will force schools to try harder, with the underlying assumption that they aren’t trying hard enough now.
2.     Racial and class educational achievement gaps are thus predominantly the fault of students, parents and communities (what Richard Valencia calls deficit thinking Book)
3.     Funding (money) is not an important factor in educational achievement (even as the Education Trust provides a strong argument for the opposite position: Funding Gaps 2006)
4.     Affirmative action is no longer necessary and we actually suffer from reverse racism today. This is among the most wrongheaded assumptions to me, as the UCLA Civil Rights Project has consistently shown over the past 14 years the increased de facto (rather than de jure, by law) segregation along racial and class lines – and its deleterious effects on those students consigned to predominantly minority, poor schools (Report on Deepening Segregation).
5.     Market solutions like Charter Schools (though not vouchers) are far superior to government solutions at the state and federal level (even though there is little empirical evidence to support this claim inside or outside education – which is a public institution with substantial positive externalities (i.e., benefits that are not part of the calculation of its effectiveness or in the formation of “price”)). See Ravitch’s Blog for ongoing discussion of this topic.
6.     The proliferation of technology and media use by children is not a key factor in educational achievement and attainment (see this report from the Kaiser Family Foundation).
7.     America is falling behind the rest of the developed world in educational achievement and thus must engage in the very policy reforms that arguably contribute to this reality. While the underlining fact is true, the proposed policy initiatives to address it are questionable. There are also some questions about the validity and reliability of some of the studies as there are more selective samples of students in some countries.
8.     Schooling is predominantly about future career opportunities and the nation’s economic health (economic imperatives) and not about ameliorating social problems, developing cultural or political (democratic) competency, opening the mind, becoming well-rounded, social development or the like. This instrumentalized and economistic perspective of education is at the heart of the neoliberal policy model.

To challenge the nature of educational policy and reform in America today, we must challenge the public discourse, convincing parents, teachers and key stakeholders and decision-makers that a more holistic, well-rounded education will improve not only the quality of education but the performance on the tests that now dominate the entire educational landscape.

And the Shooting Goes On

Remember way back in December 2012 when the Sandy Hook shooting had many Americans hankering for gun control laws? Like most things in the collective American memory, it is history largely forgotten. Since then there have been a number of other high profile shootings and, surprise, surprise, no action by Congress to do anything about it. Over the July 4th weekend, we can add another incident in Ohio, the accidental death of a child and a rampage of gun violence across Chicago to the list. In fact, the New York Daily News reported that since Newtown, at least 40 children under 12 have died in “accidental shootings,” either by themselves or from another child. And in Chicago last weekend, over 70 people were killed in shooting violence. On top of this is the ongoing Trayvon Martin case (Salon just reporting on a short lived video game app where kids could play a vengeful Trayvon marching through the streets of ghettos across America, exacting his revenge finally being lifted from the App Store), where the defense appears to be arguing that one can shoot a teenager in self-defense, if he is black and scares you (ok, not exactly, but Salon just reported on a short lived video game app where kids could play a vengeful Trayvon marching through the streets of ghettos across America, exacting his revenge and Fox News appears to have made it their life mission to defend Zimmerman no matter what the facts of the case). Gun violence has become such a part of American life that we just assume that accidents and mass shootings are now part of our lives. But should we? As with so many problems in American life today, we must demand action for Congress to do anything and really should – before this becomes such a dangerous place to live that we all start wearing pistols in our holsters and a run on replacement big toes destroys the sandal industry.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Majoritarianism vs. Civil Rights

There was an interesting article in Salon today considering Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion in the recent “gay marriage” decision. Scalia essentially argued that majority rule is the essence of democracy and that this decision undermines that essence. As Nicolas Buccola (Salon) points out, Scalia thus engenders a rather limited view of democracy, based solely on majoritarianism. Is that what the founding fathers intended? Self-governance based solely on what 51 percent want? That position takes us back to the fundamental problem with Utilitarianism pointed out in 19th century debates – namely that 51 percent of the population could vote 49 percent slaves. As Thomas Jefferson noted when arguing that the constitution presented to him in France was “not worth the paper it was written on,” civil rights are an essential feature of a true democracy. We need to protect ourselves from the tyranny of the minority, through regular elections, the three branches of government, separation of powers, checks and balances, the veto and the like, but we must also be wary of the tyranny of the majority.

This has been the constant struggle in the United States. Democracy as an ideal versus democracy as an imperfect form of associated living. And civil liberties and civil rights are at the foundation of that careful balancing act. Slavery, women’s rights, affirmative action, the New Deal, the Great Society, Progressivism and all the other attempts to expand freedom came against the tide of that tyranny of the majority. And the courts and Congress are the place where that battle has always been fought. Majority rule has always been as dangerous a game as dictatorship and plutocracy, with the many as apt to oppress the few as the few to oppress the many. The freedoms promised in our founding documents are not based solely or even predominantly on freedom from (negative liberty) but also on freedom to (positive liberty). We thus need to protect the rights and freedoms of the minority against the oppressive power of not only the elites but the majority itself.

This to me is at the heart of the fundamental problem with conservatism today. It argues that government is the problem, standing in the way of true freedom. Yet who is the promoter of true freedom? Is it the market? Is it rationality? Is it majority rule? None of these provide true freedom to anyone. From economics and political science to psychology and cognitive science, we have found that rationality and markets do not work in creating a more perfect union – in fact it is only when both are regulated by government and consider each human life as inherently valuable that true freedom emerges. The Supreme Court has too often chosen the freedom of corporations and big business at the expense of the people in recent years, as have conservatives in general. We must demand that freedom and protection, struggling against both the tyranny of the minority and majority. The DOMA decision was a small step in the right direction, but much more is still to be done.  

Friday, July 05, 2013

Higher Education & Student Loans

On July 1, Congress allowed student loan interest rates to double, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent (Fox News). While they may go back and fix the problem it is just the latest example of the ineptitude of this Congress and our government in general. Education is constantly touted as the key to our future economic prospects in the increasingly competitive global economy and yet our government doesn’t seem to take education very seriously at all. We still have No Child Left Behind as the law of the land, undermining the quality of education of far too many children in America. We have shifted the onus dramatically from scholarships and federal aid to student loans as the mechanism for funding college education. And as our public school populations become more and more diverse, little is being done to reform curriculum and pedagogical practices to address these concerns; while the Supreme Court appears poised to end any and all affirmative action programs.

So where does that leave us? The reality today is that there are not enough quality jobs for the students graduating from college. This could be the tail end of the latest financial crisis or it could be the new economic reality, where the middle class is crunched and we really want fewer, not more, kids going to college. If that is the case, the latest legal decisions and legislative action make sense. In a more competitive environment, the elite class and race will do everything they can to give their children a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, this is not best for the country for a number of reasons including 1) A crowding out of too many quality students who don’t happen to be progeny of the elites, 2) A less educated public that serves the powerful but not democracy (which depends on an informed, educated public – a line I am tired of writing, but one that seems more relevant than ever today) and 3) A less diverse decision-making body (made up of college grads), which tends to undermine innovation, new ideas and new solutions to our most pressing issues.

Beyond the increased cost of attending college, is the problem of the debt acquired while in school. As I wrote in an article I recently published on the matter, students now must question the rationality of even getting a college education if they have the opportunity to make money in other ventures (like online or in the world of computing). Given that 50% of recent college grads are either under (25%) or unemployed (25%), the opportunity cost of attending college is going up. This is further amplified by the higher interest rate on subsidized loans, which increase the cost of college more than the estimated $2,600 a year, given the 10 to 30 years of accruing interest students will pay. The debt that students leave college with today is often the size of a first mortgage and more and more are defaulting on their loan repayment, given the dire economic outlook, at least in the short to medium term. As I mentioned in a previous post, debt forgiveness is a sensible policy to give the economy a bolt and push us back toward sustainable growth and employment. Of course, it would also push up inflation rates and the elite stranglehold on government means this is a very unlikely scenario, like most that would actually help the common American today.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for a bill to at least consider this issue. Watching what has been occurring in the Middle East the past couple years reminds us that democracy can still work for the people if they demand it.

For those who are interested, Democracy for America has a great series of infographics on student loan debt today: Link.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Punishing the Unemployed

In the 1960s, LBJ waged a war on poverty and racial discrimination with some positive results (as outlined in previous posts). Beginning in the 1980s, under Reagan, many of the advances made during the 60s have been reversed, under the notion of reverse racism and the belief that government is the problem not the solution (though it does appear to be the solution to making the rich richer). So what is the war we are fighting today? There are many from the cultural wars to the "clash of civilizations," but the war on poverty still remains, though arguably in a radically different incarnation. Today it appears the war is not to end poverty but against the poor, and working class and even middle class. It started in the 80s with cuts to federal programs but really accelerated under Clinton, with Welfare reform, tougher drug laws and mandatory sentences, banking reform and the like that all had deleterious effects on our most unfortunate citizens. Cuts to these programs have followed ever since, with a few exceptions, as have attempts to undermine Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

The most recent examples include cutting food stamps in the latest farm bill, even as big agribusiness got further subsidies from the government (which also has the side effect of exacerbating global poverty and hunger in the Global South), failing to help those who lost their homes in the latest financial crisis while bailing out the banks and attempting to punish the unemployed by cutting benefits (NYT). Krugman argues that this latest policy of cutting or eliminating unemployment benefits is not only mean-hearted but wrong-headed. Economically, cutting benefits under the faulty assumption that it will force these ne'er do wells to get a f***ing job just doesn't stand up to economic analysis (or empirical evidence). What it may do is force them to take bad jobs outside their area of expertise, which could put downward pressure on wages. This does not guarantee higher employment, just lower wages. Lower wages increase overall debt while leading to a decrease in consumption (which accounts for 70 percent of GDP). Thus the attempt to punish those who can't find jobs in our current economic malaise actually makes the overall economic picture worse. It is just the latest example of how orthodox thinking undermines sensible policy -- and how fundamentalism in general is the foundation for blind adherence to poor decision-making. 

But forget all this boring economic talk about our collective future, the planet might or might not be heating up, a few important murder trials are going on, gay marriage is about to destroy the moral fiber of America, women clearly have too much control over their own bodies and an epic eating contest is happening in Coney Island that has ramifications of global import (at least for Nathans fans).