Saturday, May 25, 2013

There are lots of Trojan Horses

Two recent pieces of opinion with which I disagree gives me a chance to think:

First, Charles M. Blow's op-ed in today's New York Times

Second, a position put forth by Demos on the future of old-age pensions (what an ugly term . . . I'm channeling the terminology The Economist likes to use). 

It was one line in Blow's piece that jostled loose my thinking: "Republicans who said their position on economic issues was conservative — the Republican Trojan Horse for a retrograde social agenda." 

Increasingly, I notice that the political commentary I read likes to point to some grand agenda on the part of other side. George Will certainly does this in his right-of-center commentary at the Washington Post. By instinct I usually chuckle when someone like Will ("Aha") points to someone pursuing some sort of liberal end-game and I fume when someone like Blow talks of a conservative agenda, retrograde or otherwise. 

I'm now starting to think beyond those initial reactions. 

Both sides are point out something that is essentially true, and the more commentary I read, the more it prompts me to think about the essence of most debates on the economy and the security of people in it. 

Cost is a concern of anyone in economic life. And I speak of cost in very broad terms. Who will foot the bill for, well, life? Who will foot the bill for retirement? Who will foot the bill for health care? Who will foot the bill for education? Who will foot the bill for roads and highways? Who will foot the bill for revitalizing the disappointing downtown of my town? The things in life that are worthwhile have costs that are real and have to be paid by someone or something. 

And so we debate. Should cost and risk be borne by government and taxpayers or by firms and wealthy interests? Should cost and risk be borne by individuals or by the collective society? And when we decide it should be borne by society, which part of society should bear it? Each position has its drawbacks and benefits. 

For some reason, in these issues I think about a relatively narrow instance of a meat processing plant nearby (stick with me for a moment). Some time ago, a court ruled that workers had to be paid by their employer for the approximately 30 minutes it takes to don the protective gear they need to do their job. It was an interesting tale in employer vs. employee responsibility. It's the law (and good policy) to wear things that protect life and limb in a dangerous trade. Who pays for the time to don that gear? Is it on the clock or not? Who bears the cost: the firm or the individual? 

In response to Blow and Will, I might say that it's fine if the other side is pursuing a deeper agenda about who bears the cost and risk. It's helpful for us to think about what that side would ultimately prefer as the way for Americans to live, work, earn, and learn. Maybe slippery slopes lead to realities that aren't as frightening as columnists lead us to believe. Maybe we should be humble about the agendas which we abhor or to which we adhere. 

As for Demos . . . I don't know what I think about a government-run retirement Plan B. I see the merits of it. I also see potential for cronyism and for moral hazard. I was glad to have heard one of that plan's authors on Fresh Air a few weeks back. His chief criticism of 401(k) plans was that saver bore the whole risk for their retirement funding. I'm glad I didn't just react and turn him off . . . I'm glad I heard his principled indignation against that reality, not because I ultimately believed with him, but because I could walk away from it and think, "You know, he has a point." 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Still More Cleaning Out

I'm trying to summon the courage to ditch cable television. Here's what I'm thinking . . .

  • Ditch cable and the DVR = $72 savings per month
  • Ditch telephone service = $30 savings per month 
  • Increase capacity of internet service = $10 additional cost per month 
  • Get hit with leaving Verizon agreement early = $100 one-time charge 
  • Adopt Ooma = $200 start-up cost but then $5 per month 
  • Acknowledge there will be more buying of digital media from Amazon = $15 per month 
  • Buy some box for DVR of over-the-air television = $100

So up front I'm out $400
Monthly savings end up being $77

This is a bit of a tough call.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Education and Inquality

I found this column in today's New York Times quite meaningful. I don't know to what extent educational attainment is a cause or symptom of inequality in the U.S., but it certainly seems to me that the world is an inhospitable place for those who don't have a college diploma. With a few exceptions, trades such as plumbing and electrical work come to mind or a good record in the Armed Forces, that diploma is the ticket to well-paid employment. 

A danger of such a world and such a set of assumptions is a watering down of the expectations needed to get that diploma. If we start to think that one has no hope without one, we start to believe denying a diploma to somewhat is akin to a death sentence or terminal diagnosis (I'm being a bit melodramatic). Could the assumption that one is handicapped without a college diploma the root of professors having to lower standards, deans bowing to parents' pressure to revisit grades, or the creation of programs catering to those who want to cruise on through? 

Unfortunately, that has happened, from my perspective, with the high school diploma. The lack of a college diploma might exclude one from job security and good pay, but the lack of a high school diploma might just render one unemployable in the first place. As a result, schools push kids through the system, watering down expectations, creating creative means to get to graduation, and putting enormous pressures on teachers, principals, and guidance counselors to not let the students fail. There has been little energy at putting the responsibility on kids to step up the efforts to earn the right to walk at graduation. 

This is to be expected in an age where we want to curtail funding to education. (Ironically, when something is seen as a need, as high school education is, it loses its value. People don't like paying a lot for an entitlement.) We tell schools to do more with less, but then punish schools when students fail to make it to graduation. Ideally, schools would establish and fund the means for students who can't make it through on the first attempt. It would be wonderful if students who fail to earn a C or higher in a high school course could be assigned some sort of guided study program where they completed work or received tutoring until they were able to earn that C or higher. This is, in essence, what summer school once did. 

Eventually that philosophy should be part of what colleges offer, too. We have heard of the tremendous burden student debt is for college graduates, and many kids are walking from campus owing more than they would pay for a couple of cars. But the nastiest burden of those debts weighs down the kids who couldn't earn that college diploma. 

Timothy Noah offers something helpful in linking educational opportunity to equality. I hope we can determine a way to make earning a diploma an opportunity rather than a ticket to be punched. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Finding other things to cut

So, I've gone about a week without my old news source, The Philadelphia Inquirer. I don't necessarily miss it yet, but I'm still somewhat adrift as I try to figure out an efficient way to digest news. An observation: the choices are abundant, but they're confusing and shifting. It looks like Google Reader is going the way of the dinosaur, which is okay by me. Flipboard is quite a good app, but I can't get the precise local and regional stuff I want from it. News Republic seems similar to Flipboard, but more newsy. Though I dont' feel like I trust it the way I trust content on Flipboard. Google News is coming closest to me as a means of having to open both the Intelligencer and Reporter websites.

I bounce back and forth between The Times and The Post. And, after two years of teaching Macro, I now get the Wall Street Journal content my wife's employer makes available.

This scene is very fluid. On one hand, I think we're on the verge of paywalls redefining this landscape. However, I think the players are arraying themselves as nicely as they can before they raise those paywalls. If Flipboard charged a fee, how many would pay? I think quite a lot. I already pay The Times and will pay The Post when it goes behind the wall. An interesting podcast on "On the Media" examined these changes. It's nearly an hour long, but worth the listen.

Speaking of podcasts, that has become my chief form of entertainment as I drive back and forth to work. It's making me question what I'm paying for satellite radio. I guess that, too, will follow the Inquirer out of my life.

Back to the news: The news of the IRS scandal has me bummed. Politico's coverage of the issue is pretty thorough. A year or so ago, I might have been satisfied or indignant over the alleged IRS misconduct. However, what seems now like an incident that could undermine what remains of a president's term seems deflating. I take no joy seeing something occur which could cripple a man's agenda. Politics is a savage business, and the two parties are in a cycle of recriminations where scandals consume all the oxygen of the political stage, robbing good legislative ideas of what they need. Whoever is to blame for the IRS scandal, the event is going to divert energies from ideas which might address the nation's future and instead feed the culture of cynicism and obstinate behavior that is now threatening to linger for this whole decade. There is no joy in that.

Funny . . . if I look back over my posts from the past few years, I think I might see an evolution in thought on political ideas. Next thing you know, I'll be changing my registration to independent.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Goodbye, Old Friend

I pulled the plug on one of my longest friends, the Philadelphia Inquirer. I've been a subscriber to it either in print or electronic form since 1998. I have been reading it longer than that. But I ended it. In short: the quality of the paper was diminishing (it was taking me just ten minutes to read from it what I wanted or needed) and I could no longer justify paying a monthly subscription for it. I'm subscribing to other news sources that are giving me value, and I anticipate that another will start charging me soon, too. I had to make a cut.

I feel a little bit adrift as I figure out how I'll get my local, regional, and state news reliably. I'm experimenting with Twitter, Google Reader, and some free newspaper websites, but I feel like I'm missing something.

Readers might be curious what I am using however.

The Washington Post remains my favorite spot for commentary. I imagine they'll get their pay wall going in June. I'll pay.

The New York Times is one of the best values for the money, as long as you are a teacher. For $7.50 a month I get access to their web site and all its content. I also get the app for it on my phone (but not my tablet . . . seems a bit silly).

The Week. The print magazine is excellent. Their website is very good too.

The Economist, though it feels a bit like homework at times.

Flipboard, where I link to CNET, Slate, automotive news, the blog that I follow, is heaven-sent.

I'm not a novice anymore with online news. But I'm not a master yet. I think cutting the cord to an old friend will help me move toward mastery. As for now, I'm officially a journeyman.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Reminder

A subject that I have a difficult time teaching is The Holocaust. In fifteen years of teaching history, I don't think I have committed a whole lesson to it. In part, I have a hard time teaching it because I sense some degree of morbid fascination on the part of learners approaching it . . . and the fascination makes me uneasy. Moreover, I avoid teaching it because of an experience I had learning about it in college. My History Methods professor used the topic of the Holocaust to introduce us to some novel ways of doing history: we read a little-known first-hand account (When Memory Comes), watched several segments of Shoah, and read Maus I and Maus II. The power of the latter two of those works remains with me still, and I left those classes feeling as if I had learned the era so deeply that I couldn't do further study of it more justice. 

Today was the first time in years that something on the Holocaust moved me as much as those sessions of History 300 back in 1996. A colleague at my school hosted a Jewish War Veterans group and invited classes to attend. One of the featured speakers was a Holocaust survivor, an 81-year-old man who hid in several spots in Belgium and France during the war years  (he's pictured with the war veterans and with my colleague who made the event possible). 

He ended his presentation with the powerful tale of how he had learned of his father's fate. A chance encounter at the National Holocaust Museum pointed him to a book where he learned of his father's passage to Auschwitz. From that book, he went to another which inventoried the day-to-day events at that camp, and it was there that he received confirmation his father had been murdered at that camp. 

That guest's tale of how the diligent work of historians allowed him to learn for certain the fate of the father, from whom he was separated at the age of 10, reminds me of the purpose historians have. I shy away from contact with the history of that great evil which was The Final Solution. In some ways, I don't have the stomach to look more at the soulless slaughter of six million. Thankfully, an army of historians have done the arduous and profoundly sad work of cataloging and triangulating the evidence of that evil. 

Until today I have not had much interest in visiting the National Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. Now I do. Our guest, Mr. Goldstein, spoke of the Wall of the Righteous that is there, which I think I now have to see. I'm ready.