Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Morning News Roundup

Michael Gerson writes today on a topic I don't follow too closely, about the persecution of Christians in foreign lands. In that essay, he raises an interesting historical observation that I wish to quote here:

But this is the criticism of a caricature. Democracy promotion — as embraced by the National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute or Freedom House — is about human liberty protected by democratic institutions. Securing institutional respect for minority rights is particularly difficult in transitioning societies, as we’ve recently seen. But clinging to authoritarianism further hollows out civil society, making the results even more chaotic and dangerous when a dictator falls. And even marginally more favorable dictators can’t be propped up forever, as we’ve also recently witnessed. So it matters greatly whether America and other democracies can help pluralism survive and shape the emerging political order.
This is a priority for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. As William Inboden of the University of Texas notes, there is a robust correlation between religious persecution and national security threats. “Including World War II,” argues Inboden, “every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” The reverse is equally true. “There is not a single nation in the world,” he says, “that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States.”
There are a number of possible explanations for this strong correlation. The most compelling is that religious freedom involves the full and final internalization of democratic values — the right to be a heretic or infidel. It requires the state to recognize the existence of binding loyalties that reach beyond the state’s official views.

Again, this is a problem about which I am not well read. I appreciate how Gerson offers a compelling rationale for America to remain an active force in the world.

Greg Sargeant, a columnist I don't often read, offers some thoughts on the politics of the Affordable Care Act I find interesting, and I largely agree with his advice that Democrats have to more convincingly embrace the troubled legislation rather than run from it. More interesting are the points he makes about the way in which legislation can regulate some of the market abuses of the industry. Makes me think of ACA as a New Deal for medical coverage. Eighty years ago, FDR's policies set the ground rules for a new economic reality, regulating an economic environment in which larger corporations had emerged from years of consolidation. How they fared was how the economy fared was how the common man fared. Regulations sometimes worked poorly (like the NRA) and sometimes well (like Glass-Steagall) to create a new, more fair landscape of rules. Perhaps that is what the upshot of Obamacare will be, a new playing field with more transparency of cost and benefits regarding health coverage.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 Winds Down

As 2013 winds down, I'm reminded that I've been writing here for several years. In that time, I hope I've become better at articulating what is on my mind. I also hope that writing here has given me an opportunity to better understand what I believe, and in some ways I've seen some shifts in my perspective on several worthy issues.

Rather than feeling guilt over possible wishy-washiness (haven't we mocked candidates for their changing stances?), I'm going to embrace the changes in my view on politics and life. John Maynard Keynes once quipped "When the fact change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Abraham Lincoln talked about the silent artillery of time (when discussing how over decades points of view might change on great issues due to the withering fire of logic). Some long-held ideas of mine have tumbled due to that silent artillery, or in recognition of the changing circumstances.

The problems of the Affordable Care Act's rollout have been a source of fascination for me. Four or five years ago, I think my feelings would have been simple revelling in the embarrassment of a president for whom I did not vote. Since then, I've come to think more and more about the lack of alternatives offered by the opposition. I've come to think that nobody wins from a flawed piece of legislation or a troubled rollout. I am starting to see how the legislation and its rollout, as flawed as they might be, are doing something very good in that they are accelerating a shift in consciousness regarding healthcare costs, a consciousness that we need to be awakened to. Namely, medical coverage costs a lot. Its costs are borne unequally and arbitrarily. Healthcare requires cost-shifting and cost-sharing, where the young and healthy overpay and the old and sick over-receive. It's been that way for a long time. The lopsided and uneven nature will only get more acute over time. The ACA makes that more apparent and more apparent sooner.

The ACA has also disabused me of the notion that the market handles this best. It's led me to embrace the idea of a single-payer, taxpayer-based system. This is a position I never would have embraced years ago. But I've come to see medical care as a merit good, or one all citizens are entitled to. In the status quo, it is in part paid by government, in part paid by individuals. As a result we have something very expensive that doesn't cover everyone. To me, it's more important that it covers all than that it be done inexpensively. In a perfect world, it would be both. Right now, we might only have time to do the former, and figure out the latter later. Obamacare has helped me realize this, and I hope it helps more realize sooner that our system needs change. ACA isn't the right change, but it's better than nothing, which is what the opposition, a party to which I'm a member, has offered.

One other perspective-shifting moment on this: my grandmother continues to battle a chronic condition that defies easy diagnosis. Despite her limited means, the coverage is there through Medicare. That coverage is hers by right of age and citizenship. Since she is in her 80s, she doesn't need to forego medical treatment due to cost. Why shouldn't someone in their 50s or 40s enjoy the same protection?

In my next post, it'll be time to tackle the "evolution" (paraphrasing the president) in my views on same-sex marriage. A post by William Eskridge on Politico prompts me to write on that. Next.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Top Ten List for Canada

A great article from CNN's website, entitled "10 Things Canada Does Better Than Anywhere Else," invites me to comment. From the list . . .

One of the more amusing historical books I've read is Bastards and Boneheads, a tongue-in-cheek history of Canada. But it makes some very significant points in the midst of the chuckles it tries to induce.

File:Canadian Red Ensign 1957-1965.svgI can't disagree. It's a brilliant choice of symbol. It creates such a simple flag, certainly more simple and more distinct than the flag that the Maple Leaf replaced. Some other brilliant simplicity from Canada: it's name (the official name of Canada is Canada . . . no "Republic of" or "Kingdom of" or "Federal Dominion of"). I'd like to say their anthem is simple (beautiful, too) but it does come in two languages and the meaning of the French and English lyrics are quite different.

I prefer Tim Horton's over Dunkin' Donuts, but I cannot tell you why aside from that it's Canadian. I ate at a Swiss Chalet one time, but didn't see all the fuss. I'm frustrated CNN left St. Hubert off the list, because that Quebec institution is awesome. St. Hubert is like a cross between Bob Evans, Hoss's, and Ruby Tuesday's. 

Now I have some terms that I need to include in my daily conversation for the upcoming year. I wonder how often I can use "given the gears" at school. I will look for ways I can say "your gitch is showing" without being fired. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Conversation with a New Friend

In getting to know a new friend, John, we established a common interest in history. Funny, given his Economics B.S. and my current teaching gig, I would've thought common interest in bond yields would be more our thing. Whew, we dodged that bullet and instead swapped interests in history.

He said that a colleague once posed him a question: What was the most significant day of the 20th century. His answer: June 6, 1944.

Good answer.

I'm glad he asked me for mine. It took me a few moments, but then it came to me: the day President Truman rejected General MacArthur's recommendation to turn Korea into a global war.

It's not a glamorous answer. In fact, it's so obscure I needed to look up the date (Truman dismissed MacArthur on April 11, 1951). But I find it so significant because it was the day Truman decided that victory in Asia wasn't worth a Communist Western Europe. It was also the day in which a global power decided that there was a limit to what a nation would, or should, or could do to win a war. Korea wasn't worth an atomic war, nor was a shot at "winning back" China worth sacrificing allies in Europe. The decision crystallized a Cold War stalemate. In the long run, it was a great call despite the unpopularity greeting it at the time. Less than four decades later the Cold War was over, and South Korea was a prosperous, growing power.

Two other days in Truman's presidency rival April 11, 1951 for their importance: his decision to respond to the Berlin Crisis with the Berlin Airlift and his decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His decisions on both of these fronts were made in the shadow of, and with an eye towards, Joseph Stalin, one of the 20th century's most cunning and evil figures.

How ironic that such weighty decisions were made by one of the more unlikely figures to ever become president.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Today is the anniversary of the date on which President Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to declare war against The Empire of Japan. In short order, Germany and Italy declared war on us and we reciprocated.

World War II was my first fascination in history. I wasn't much younger than my son is now when I first started reading heavily about it. At that time, I would find the Pacific war far more interesting than the European. I found the stories of combat more interesting than the stories of diplomacy, economics, and popular culture. I've matured, and am a bit more inclusive as to what parts of the story merit my attention. 

One clear memory of my youthful fascination I have, however, is that I really dwelled on battles and events near the end of the war, such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and D-Day. Perhaps it's because the instruments of war were more interesting (my favorite planes included the F4U and the B-17G). I think the bigger reason was that the outcomes didn't seem as much in doubt if I read about events in 1944 and 1945. 

A few years ago I had the chance to watch Ken Burns' The War from beginning to end. It's a masterful documentary, though I don't savor it the way I do his The Civil War. A particularly chilling part of that miniseries, however, discusses the mood of the country in the earliest months of that war, and there is a wonderful interview in it of a woman who wondered why we weren't doing anything to help the poor boys stranded on Bataan. The simple answer: there wasn't a thing we could do. 

One of the many things that sets our military apart from others today is that we have the power to go anywhere. We can insert battalions of highly trained troops anywhere in the world within 36 hours. And if someone would threaten us the way Japan did in 1945, well, they wouldn't even dare to threaten in that way. We have vulnerabilities now; the era since 9/11/2001 leaves no doubt as to that. But the threats to us aren't existential. 

In that winter of 1941/42 victory was anything but certain. It's hard to fathom that as a citizen of the world's sole superpower. Seventy-two years ago, the American people had fear to believe their way of life was truly in danger and they lived in a fog of war, with no social media to help them make sense of events, and even a government who was keeping some of the more pessimistic developments under wraps so that we wouldn't lose any hope. 

Quantifying an Art

A frustrating development in teaching this year has been the advent of the Danielson model for evaluating teacher effectiveness. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, it has become the rubric by which teachers are being formally judged. As with a lot of reforms in education, an idea starts with good intentions and clear rationale, but becomes bureaucratized and oppressive.

So far, it seems the model is creating a lot more work for administrators as well as some greater amount of anxiety for teachers. To summarize it succinctly, the Danielson model sets up a somewhat unrealistic expectation for distinguished teaching, making it likely that most teachers (those who are mediocre, average, good, and great) will be rated as proficient. I heard that some technocrat in Harrisburg quipped that distinguished is only a place one visits. Turns out I was wrong . . . Danielson herself said that, many times over. At the end of the day, however, it really only matters if the teacher is evaluated proficient. Whether or not the rating is proficient or distinguished, the same final judgment is put down on the ultimate teacher form.

Mustering the artifacts to render judgment on a teacher in this model takes time. There's a program for it, of course, which now brings to a total of five the required computer programs I must use on a somewhat regular basis to do my job (in addition to Microsoft Word, Infinite Campus, SchoolWires, and Outlook . . . and let us not forget the recommended programs I use to effectively reach my students such as Promethean, Powerpoint, and Excel). So, Danielson takes more time on the part of administrators (especially) and teachers, leads to pretty much the same conclusion, but adds some seasoning at the end that makes the professional more frustrated that they haven't attained the highest level, a level which might really be unreachable. A PDF on the website for the Danielson Group details what distinguished teaching looks like.

In an attempt to inspire excellence, the Danielson Framework instead ventures into arrogance. It's one rubric for a job that is guided a lot by intuition and subtle decisions that build important relationships. It's a job that involves children as young as five and as old as eighteen, in subjects as diverse as handwriting, music literacy, and physics. It's also a job that involves kids in a wickedly diverse set of strengths and shortcomings for a equally diverse set of reasons. It presumes a lot to have a one-size-fits-all rubric that identifies what great teaching is for as varied and diverse as our job is.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Economic Fatherhood

I backed into a neat parent trick for the 21st century. Here's how.

My son missed his school's photo day back in October. In the flurry of household activity, we didn't see information regarding picture retake day last month. He was in school, however, and had his picture taken. But we hadn't sent with him any check or order form.

Two days ago his backpack contained a proof sheet and means by which to order his portrait online. I was able to complete the transaction from the comfort of my favorite chair this morning.

Is it just me, or isn't it glorious to have the ability to see if the photo is worth buying or not before making the order? In the old days, we sent in the order form and check, had the kid's picture taken, then wait a few weeks to see if it was a good or bad portrait. If it was bad, you could send in your photos for retake day, but still that second round could go badly, especially in the range of years (ages 7 through 17, I suppose) in which dermatology and orthodontia (as well as just plain awkwardness) can play havoc with photographing our kids.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Two Small Gems from the Economist

The Economist has created something like an advent calendar for infographics. Today's first entry makes me think I need to visit this site daily between now and Christmas.

Last week's issue featured some interesting essays on American power, painting a picture that's more optimistic about the nation's place in the world than our mood usually permits. I invite you to read it here. The topic of China's economic rise often comes up in my class, and one perspective I offer students is that China was artificially suppressed and America artificially elevated (in an economic sense) by World War II, and that today we're seeing something of a historical correction. I'm so used to thinking economically I forget about how this pertains to projecting national power and influence.

The essay makes a few good points that help me keep our political stagnation in perspective. After the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the nation had an unprecedented opportunity to influence the world, and we (on the balance) used that influence prudently. After the Wall fell in 1989, we largely exaggerated the promise of the new post-Cold War era and overlooked some grittier realities. We took as unquestioned western mental models about liberty and democratic rule. As the essay points out, in the West such ideas have the power of Gospel. It's easy for us to forget that in other areas of the world, trust in political officials and trust in the people's decisions (exercised through fair elections) is anything but taken for granted.

I'm optimistic that we're nearing the end of a period of political stalemate in our nation. We've been highly dysfunctional for the better part of a decade. The problematic roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, the persistent deficit, the inability to compromise on immigration reform are all symptoms of that dysfunction. Our friends in Europe are, in similar ways, fighting dysfunction. In Japan we're seeing signs that they're fighting through the political stalemate of their own lost decade. In our democracies we've gotten caught up in some ugly ideological warfare. By engaging that warfare, we have stalled our nation's trajectories, in much the same way that sectarian violence stalls the trajectories of nations we read about in the Middle East (thankfully without the violence we see in those nations). I began this paragraph by claiming optimism because I think the dust is beginning to clear from our ugly battling. National leaders on both sides have been humbled by setbacks and policy failures. The nation and the economy are showing signs that they have tired of these leaders' charades. We're seeing a new corps of potential leaders emerging from outside the normal roster of national leaders.