Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Characters

Revisiting an old blog post reminded me of how I spent some time this summer watching old M*A*S*H episodes and gave me reason to explain how I revered Hawkeye Pierce as one of my great TV character heroes. Here's a list.

Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H - The first character I remember admiring as I grew up. Mom and Dad were huge fans of the show, and I was watching it well before I could appreciate all that was going on in it. Despite my somewhat conservative leanings, I found the liberal, irreverant, and somewhat narcissistic main character of the show heroic in his efforts to look out for those who couldn't look out for themselves, and to poke a finger in the eye of full-of-themselves authority figures. Truth be told, I'm more like B.J. Hunnicutt than Hawkeye. Perhaps Hawkeye reminded me of who I'd like to be.

Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. The lovable jerk. It's the only way I can think of him. He was endearing in his authentic quest to do good policework, even if it meant crossing ethical line after ethical line. And just as one was coming to admire him, he would do something to remind you that, deep down inside, he was a jerk. I don't see myself as being like McNulty and don't want to be. I'm more like his boss, Lt. Daniels. McNulty was one great character in a cast of great characters, a cast unlike I remember from any other television journey.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many Trek fans would consider this blasphemy, I say it still: Picard, not Kirk, is my default captain. I admired the way the character always kept his temper in check, and I relished the way he delivered choice lines: ones from "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "The Wounded" come most readily to mind.

I guess I'm a sucker for men in uniform: Commander Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica was the flawed but revered commander, often allowing his personal feelings cloud his decisions regarding subordinate officers who occasionally failed him.

Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order was my favorite from that long-running show. It's a slight nod for him over Jack McCoy. Still, I loved Lennie's one-liners, his professionalism, his flaws. The episode "Marathon" is a brilliant look at a man fighting old man time to stay relevant as an officer. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An old favorite photo

In the summer of 2008 the photograph you see below came home from preschool. The frame has finally deteriorated so badly I had to throw it out, but not before saving the photograph.

Funny. At age 2 he shows the same kind of expression one might see on him today.

Monday, September 21, 2015


The textbook for my Macro class discusses wealth distribution in one of the first chapters, and in doing so it introduces the term "income quintile," a term which really flummoxes my seniors. When it comes to vocabulary and jargon, they're rigidly literal. I was very interested, therefore, in an article that appeared in The Economist two weeks ago with the ironic title "It's Expensive to be Poor." It features a pretty good example of an income quintile. More importantly, it does a great job highlighting the difficulties that poorer Americans have navigating a financial system that is reluctant to offer fee-free checking and more than happy to offer payday loans.

Now that's a quintile. 

I see it as something of a duty to talk about matters of poverty with my students. We work and learn in an area of affluence. All the metrics - median household income, median household value, unemployment - point out how wealthy our attendance zone is. Of course there are students from families who are shut out from this. Generally speaking, though, I teach students who don't encounter poverty much at all. This explains why I seek out articles like this to help build some idea about the faces behind the statistics and stories they see and hear in the media. 

One student's reflection. 

Short and to the point. 
Spending time with the article was particularly timely given a blog post that appeared, penned by a somewhat recent graduate of the school where I teach who tried to articulate what it's like to be on the outside looking in. To be from the one neighborhood all know isn't so fortunate in the midst of a community characterized by wealth and affluence. 

It's part of my job to make the students conscious about matters of wealth and poverty. I don't do this because I have some grand plan to bring about equity or foment a political movement. My goal is somewhat hazy: to elevate consciousness about how Americans of lesser means that is typical in my area live. It might not be an ambitious undertaking, but if I can get a dozen or two teenagers to walk from my doors thinking of a checking account as a luxury, because to some it is an unattainable one, I've done something important. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Blatantly Self-Serving Post Commenting on Political Affairs

A nearby school district is making headlines by way of its refusal to pay into the pension system.

I can sympathize with the sentiments and frustration of that district's board and the taxpayers who support their protest. It's maddening to see government not meet its obligations. It's maddening to feel like one is in a situation in which one's tax dollars are simply being transferred to another citizen rather than paying for a service or good that benefits them or their community. Over the past couple of years, however, I've tired of being in the cross hairs of political anger and I guess my patience has worn down a little bit. If I look at the actions of the Quakertown board selfishly, I can't help but think that they are threatening my financial future, I guess just as they think a program that benefits me is threatening their financial present and future.

Since my wife is employed in the financial industry, and since I teach economics, I've given a great deal of thought over to the pension problem | crisis | uncomfortable conversation (circle one). In some ways, I'd be comfortable with transferring over to a defined benefit system for providing for my retirement. I see what such a system can look like when it's done well in the private sector. Savers are free to make financial choices, and live with the good and bad consequences of those decisions. Employers match employees' contributions, at least in part. There are tax benefits for savers if they properly make use of federal tax law. I could live with such a system.

If one looks closely at the most recent proposal in Pennsylvania for pension reform, it doesn't deliver those things, in general and in particular to my younger colleagues. Existing 403(b)(7) law limits the number of vendors who can serve a district, thus restricting the freedom to find the best retirement services provider. There is a limit as to the potential gains one can make on their savings decisions (but no limit on the potential loss). And, finally, there's no whiff of any option for an employee match.

In fairness, those latter two limitations come from the fact that pension reform attempts to maintain a stream of revenue to the pension fund to benefit older employees, which (*gulp) is what I am at age 39. But these speaks to one of the great political limitations of pension reform: It's still politically unpalatable to destroy benefits current retirees or people well in the system (like me) have earned. Therefore, even if we cut the youngest teachers out of a future pension there still must be a means of providing for the older ones. Ugh. That's a tough one.

I also don't see any situation in which there'd be political support for districts to match any portion of voluntary retirement savings by employees. Districts have a hard enough time justifying any sort of tax increase: justifying a tax increase to permit a match of, say, dollar-for-dollar for up to five percent of one's salary isn't going to happen.

All of this leads to some real political conundrums. Many want to treat teachers more like private sector employees. But the retirement savings match which is common in much of the white collar corporate world wouldn't take place in education. That being said, I'm conscious of how self-employed Americans never get an employer match. Yet, I don't see many making parallels between teachers' station in life and business owners. We're not consultants or contractors.

Many decades ago we decided, as a country that professionals in public service would receive pensions as a safeguard against financial hardship in their later years. This was, in part, a way to keep professionals in public service. It was also a way of offsetting the lower pay one typically earns in public service relative to private sector jobs where pay raises can be more impressive. Unraveling a decades-old bargain is difficult.

Quakertown's board is attacking just such a complicated bargain. Any solution will create losers, just like staying with the status quo creates losers. I guess I'm one of the many who need to fight so as to make it less likely I lose.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering a Teacher

Mr. Bechtel, a teacher of mine, passed away last week after a battle with cancer. Some might be surprised to hear me call him a teacher because of his outstanding reputation as a police officer in the Pottstown area. Mr. Bechtel's call to teaching was a call to the periphery of the work week: on Sunday mornings and evenings teaching youth at church.

Among the many things that touched me reading his obituary (which he penned himself) was that he thought of himself as a teacher as well as a police officer.

His obituary (found here) is worth reading. It's a very eloquent reflection on one's life. I hope I can be so eloquent when I am looking at the end of my life.

Raymond D. Bechtel Jr. Obituary

What do I remember of his teaching? I cannot recall any particular lessons, but I do remember four examples he taught through simply being him.

I remember his expectation that even though we were confirmed high school kids, we still had a responsibility to arrive at Sunday School on time.

I remember the day he came to Church after a night shift in his uniform and sidearm. No time to go home and change. It was time to teach kids.

I remember him happily orchestrating soup dinners served at Church to coincide with the Super Bowl, and how he had all of us teenagers working as a happy, efficient team.

Most importantly, I remember his acknowledgement that the older youth needed a place to call theirs on Sunday morning. It's easy for congregations to overlook the confirmed high school students and let them drift. Mr. Bechtel knew there was a corps of us who sang with choir at 8:00 am then had nothing specific to do until rehearsal at 10:45 am. To him the problem had a ridiculously simple solution: teach them Sunday School.

Mr. Bechtel taught me a lot about service. Service as a Christian. Service as a citizen. Service as a dad. Rest in peace.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Silly Canadian Tales

It being 9/11, I wish I had had the presence of mind to share with my students this wonderful story about our neighbors to the north and their hospitality on that dreadful day.

Part of the joy in teaching Macroeconomics comes in unsettling the students' wisdom about money. Early in the course, I need to spend some time getting us to comprehend how large 18 trillion dollars is. Later, I need to work with the students on understanding that most of they money supply doesn't exist in physical form, but it is no less real. Oh, and we need to get to that whole not-backed-by-gold thing. At the end of the year we need to examine how the value of one currency can rise or fall relative to others. It's fun. A bit sadistic though in that I derive pleasure from seeing what they thought to be true not be so true or simple.

So, today in class I had the chance to share one of the more interesting news stories I've seen in some time, about how a region in Quebec is accepting cut-in-half bills as money. Seriously. The people and merchants there are treating one half of a $20 bill as $10 and one half of a $10 as a $5. They call it Demis. Talk about a fun way to upset kids' understanding of money.

But a student topped that. He put me wise to another crazy tale, a tale of how Canadians have noticed that Sir Wilfred Laurier, the P.M. depicted on the $5 note, bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Leonard Nimoy. And with a small bit of assistance from a marker, it can look as if Science Officer Spock himself is the portrait on that note. Here's a story.

spock banknotes

Oh, the irony. Nimoy wasn't Canadian, but William Shatner was. Is there any chance Shatner looks like The Honorable John MacDonald, whose likeness graces the $10?

Consistency, I guess, isn't my strong suit

I was going to blog daily for a month about my new school year. I made it about four days before I forgot to post. Oh well, I never was a very good one for routine.

I finally got into a good lecturing, note-giving groove today, as if that was a positive thing. The presentation I delivered (I also prefer the euphemism "direct instruction" over lecture) was on the circular flow model, a pretty abstract concept that is a foundation for much of the learning for the class. Despite the high tech wizardry of which I'm so proud I had to give some of the presentation on an old chalkboard to my final class after my program stopped recognizing the stylus I was using. I guess that 20th-century educational training came in handy: I can still rock the economic diagrams in chalk.

Two points of pride come to mind as I finish the week: I'm developing a pretty good knack for timing instruction at unconventional times. It would seem strange to save the final 30-45 minutes of class in a week for one of only two direct instruction sessions. But the students seemed attentive, almost happy that I settled into a teacher-directed groove after several days of more loosely structured teaching. I really aim to put the teacher-centered stuff after the student-centered: it's a way to counter the natural tendency to think class is over if the notes precedes the practice.

The other point of pride: Many of my former law students have come to me and told me how much they appreciated the class last year, even saying they miss it. In a few instances, that praise came from students who I didn't think liked the class that much. One girl talked with me for a few moments, and I asked her why she liked the course. After all, in my words, I thought I just got out of it alive. As she put it: it was nice, you didn't make us work too hard.

Really? Did I make you think? 

Oh, definitely.

We're often our own toughest critics. Such is true of my work last spring.