Thursday, January 1, 2015

Era of Good Feelings

My brother-in-law sent me a neat piece from Vox profiling presidents' sixth years. You may wish to read it here. The article calls to mind how I urge my AP U.S. History students to ponder the trend that no president seems to have a good second term (except one). The job really does become thankless in the second term. The country tires of the president by that time. Congress no longer respects his authority. Enough time has passed for the initial gleam of his initial promises to have rubbed off. Some of the best advisors and cabinet members have departed, and the bill for some of the poor first generation of officials comes due. The sixth year is when these pessimistic and cynical forces crystallize.

I did enjoy seeing how the article said James Madison had the worst of it in his sixth year. Good choice. An ironic part of that story, however, is that the cabinet official presiding over the ignominy of that year was James Monroe who held both the positions of Secretary of State and War when the capital was burned. Amazingly, that fellow found work again, as Madison's successor in the presidency. And he went on to accomplish a great anomaly: being the only president whose second term went better than his first. The article, by the way, says Monroe enjoyed the 4th-best penultimate year in presidential history. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Musings from the Scrapheaps of History

The New York Times ran an interesting column penned by a German editor today (you can read it here). The upshot: many older Germans hailing from the old East harbor a great sense of skepticism toward those who criticize Russia. They're distrustful of policymakers and opinion-makers who may be slaves to a pro-American world view. Perhaps the most interesting angle the author offers is that the sense of loss these east Germans feel at the vanquish of the East more than 25 years ago runs deep. Those old enough to remember life in East Germany remember making all sorts of sacrifices, both small and large. They must have seen some merits in their system. And that system was declared the loser in a conflict between two greater powers. The defeat of that system ended up being their subjugation in a Western system. And, the author points out, there's little that east Germans can point to as evidence of their active role in the end of East Germany, unlike the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and others who more actively brought about the end of the old regime.

There's a powerful lesson here in how we treat the defeated and other victims of historical forces outside their control. There's also an interesting lesson in what measure of pride victors should take.


It's so exciting to see gasoline prices in the low 2's. My wife's little car sips fuel and has a small tank: filling it the other day cost less than $20. I filled up my minivan for less than $50 yesterday. The drop in prices acts like a coupon for $20 per fill-up.  

But it's not a change in disposable income. And I'm getting increasingly aggravated when I hear journalists say that. 

Misuse of economic jargon like this is becoming to me what wreaths on the door in February has been to my wife. A change in disposable income would be the result of a change in personal income (all the wages, interest, profit, or rents coming into a household) and/or a change in the level of taxes and/or a change in transfer payments. Disposable income is the amount left over for a household to spend after the government gets its bit (or the household gets its entitlement). 

What's happening at the gas pumps right now is significant, for a lot of reasons. For us, it means our purchasing power grows. The dollars we're earning are able to buy more things because a very critical thing on which we rely has become significantly less expensive. In a broader sense, this drop in prices is significant in that it undermines the power of some regimes we dislike (like Vladimir Putin's), discourages some economic activity on which we are ambivalent (like fracking), and encourages some activity that might cost us more money in the future (like buying fuel-sipping automobiles). 

Monday, December 29, 2014


We did worship for the 11th consecutive week. Being the Sunday after Christmas, our church's worship revolved around Lessons and Carols. The neatest part of that was it afforded Sam the opportunity to be a lector. One other eight-year-old got to serve in that role as did a middle school aged boy. It was neat to see some younger folks up there at the pulpit.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Five Myths

Normally I'm not a fan of The Washington Post's Five Myths weekly series. Usually the use of the word "myths" in a column title turns me off with its whiff of condescension. However, this week's offering is a gem, tackling some stories that meandered through 2014.

I've got to agree that the death of the NFL was greatly exaggerated. Yours truly is watching the Bengals-Steelers game as he pens this post. However, if the NFL were a stock, I wouldn't buy. I might sell it. I might hold it. But I wouldn't invest more of my time or money in the sport. The steady flow of players to the sports highest ranks seems to be slowing. The impact of the shrinking numbers of students whose parents will permit them to play football may take years to affect the NFL. In the meantime, the league will probably need to institute rules that will take the violence out of the game. Such changes will begin with prohibiting meaningful contact with the quarterback. Eventually it will turn toward implementing flag football rules in the sport, and those changes will eventually diminish fans' interest in the game.

I often don't agree with Eugene Robinson, the author of this particular segment of "Five Myths" yet I often gain a lot from reading what he has to say. Here he offers a useful perspective that we've moved on a great, great deal from the Jim Crow days. I can think of three reasons for concern, however, regarding race relations: 1) the disconcerting perception that the police community disproportionately targets young men of color, 2) the very real disappointment black Americans might feel about progress not being more impressive than it is by 2014, and 3) the naivete I see in my students about racial stereotypes (not always about blacks, but about other peoples of color). I work with great students and acknowledge that they are products of a world featuring faster-paced entertainment and mixed messages about racial identity. These wonderful young men and women might have very superficial ideas about the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. It worries me a little bit.

Dead on. Wages are stagnant. America is dealing with an unfortunate demographic trend that has us getting grayer and our population growth slowing. We're weathering these demographic changes better than our peers in the rich world, but ultimately our growth trend is slowing. 

I admit that I've lost track of developments in this corner of the world.

I'm looking forward to another year of news from the Washington Post. Far and away it's my favorite news source. 

Another sample of irony

Just as I published my last post, a post which meandered until it touched upon how important objectivity is to what I do, I came across this column, penned by a Heritage Foundation writer. I'll likely use this column in class next week. It's actually very timely to what I'm teaching in AP Macroeconomics. The students, if we've done a good job, should be able to recognize the bias of an opinion piece (heck, it comes from the Opinion section of a newspaper). Even if they disagree with it, they should be able to objectively use it to better understand what we've been doing regarding policy decisions and the consequences of economic trends.

Happy birthday, Laffer Curve.


This column regarding the Washington Redskins by a Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer caught my eye more than a week ago. I tucked it aside assuming I'd be in the mood to write on it after an Eagles victory. That victory didn't occur. It's been hard to look at or read about anything sports so it slipped my mind.

There's an analogy Mike Sielski makes to Chris Redman in the column that I think falls flat. Otherwise, I think he offers an intelligent perspective on what a professional does about something uncomfortable. The team name and logo for the Redskins bothers me, not so much that I'm inspired to activism, but enough to make me uneasy with its use. I would really like for the team to make a change in name and logo to something else. I'm not a fan of the team, though, and there's no power in me withholding my merchandise or ticket purchasing. From the perspective of moderately interested bystander, there's not much I can do.

Sielski, however, isn't a bystander. He's a reporter and he has to confront and possibly employ the term that may offend him. So I appreciate, therefore, the position he takes about how not employing the term can get in the way of doing his job well.

I find his standards helpful as a teacher. Issues of race, gender, and religion constantly color the topics I must discuss with my students. In those discussions, I choose words that reveal values I have about what is polite, what is sensitive, and what is objective. I also choose words that keep a conversation as unencumbered as possible. Quite some time ago, for instance, I stopped using the phrase "African American" regularly in my classroom. An essay by a former newspaper editor suggested that when race is important to a discussion the term "black" is clearer and less prone to awkward inaccuracy (such as what one does when having to discuss Canadian Olympian Ben Johnson . . . an African-Canadian). There's a lot of trust my students, their parents, and my bosses must extend to me and my judgment of what's not a pejorative, but that's a slippery slop on which one just has to stand in education.

Economics challenges me more in terms of speaking clearly and accurately without offending. As I get more comfortable with that discipline, I increasingly see dilemmas and policies through the prism of rich and poor. When I use the term middle class, I often am lumping that group in with the rich. And this comes up often, for there are implications about wealth distribution in almost any policy discussion I have with students. Issues of unintentional wealth redistribution also come up when I talk with my students about news developments (I have often quipped with them that Costco is a middle-class benevolent society). I can think of more times in the past year, however, when I've cringed at an indiscreet way of phrasing something in that class rather than in the field with the more obvious verbal landmines, history.

Sielski's column serves as good reinforcement for the place of objectivity in one's professional work. Students love to use "biased" and "unbiased" in class dialogue. Though those terms have their use in evaluating informational sources we see, I don't care for using those words to characterize someone's intentions. We're all biased. We all have preferences and tastes on things innocuous (like chocolate vs. vanilla) to things significant (like religious faith). The behavior I want to model for my students is objectivity, the ability to see things as clear from personal preference as possible. That's a habit of mind I think they can emulate.