Uncommon Sense

March 30, 2013

Unintended Consequences

The poor Republicans struggling to “relate” to black, Hispanic, and Asian voters are suffering from an unintended consequence. When I was a boy, the post WW2 middle class had just been built and the attitudes of the older generations were basically unchanged as they grew up under the old system. It was easily to look down on immigrants and poor people and “other looking” people as they were right there on view, living in their slums and filthy conditions. Clearly they were not like us and were to be avoided as being the wrong class of people.

But the conservative Republicans (is that an oxymoron now?) have succeeded so well with their plans, that the bottom 90% of Americans are indistinguishable from one another. All of the wealth in the bottom 90% has been sucked up into the top 10% (more so the top 1%, even more so the top 0.1% and yet more so in the top 0.01%).

Since all of us here in the bottom 90+% are so much alike, what’s to hate about others in that same group? Should we hate the immigrants taking our jobs? But wait, they aren’t; it is the 1%ers who are selling our jobs overseas. Should we hate the poor? Heck, most of us are now poor. The poor are just like us, living from paycheck to paycheck. Is it those black and brown people? They used to look different and smell different and eat different foods (black bread or tortillias to our white bread, etc.) but now they seem to be just like us.

Republicans used the differences between us in the bottom 90% as wedge issues to separate us. They used to think, wait they still do, that all Hispanics are Catholic and are anti-abortion and pro-life. But they aren’t. They are just like us.

They used to think, wait they still do, that all Black people were gangbangers, hos, or hip hop artists, but they aren’t, they are just like us.

They used to think that Asians were born Republicans as they want the best for their children, keep to themselves, and don’t get involved in politics. But while they do want the best for their children, they aren’t those other things, because they are just like us.

The scum sucking Republicans have basically recreated America into, not their own image, but in our image. Their problem is they are still thinking it is the way it used to be.

Hey, now that they have united us, let’s take this puppy out for a spin. First we will kill all the lawyers (thanks, Will Shakespeare) and then maybe all of the conservative Republicans, after that maybe the rich bastards behind the Republicans. I don’t know where to start, how about you?

Oh Where, Oh Where Have the True Conservatives Gone, Oh Where, Oh Where Can They Be?

Conservatives, real ones, not the milquetoast ones we have today, were supportive of society’s institutions as bulwarks against chaos and the animal natures of the people. Where, oh where, have they gone?

Today’s conservatives are for just one thing: making money for their wealthy paymasters. Societal institutions be damned. For example, the police are for policies taking military style weapons (and high capacity magazines full of “cop killer” cartridges) out of the hands of criminals. Conservatives are against this and for the NRA, front man for the $6 billion annual sales firearms industry.

Here’s another: conservatives used to strongly support public schools as a mechanism to socialize immigrants (turn ’em into ’Mericans). Now, corporations want to make profits teaching our school children, so teachers are pigs at the public trough with their greedy little fingers and overly generous pensions.

Conservatives (Our Country: Love It or Leave It!) used to be supportive of government, at least in its role of keeping the unwashed hordes in their place. Not any more. They have their armed closed communities now, so government has outlived its usefulness. (“I want to shrink its size until I can drown it in a bathtub!”)

Conservatives used to support our military, but now they would rather gain campaign contributions from military weapons systems manufacturers than accede to what the Pentagon says they want. (“You say you don’t want this weapon system, but trust us, you really do.”)

If we can’t bring the old, the true conservatives back, it is time to just do without them. They aren’t serving our institutions. They aren’t serving the people. They are serving corporations to lower their taxes. (Corporate taxes are now only 9% of federal tax receipts where they used to be about 50% in the not too distant past. Yet, conservatives are still whinging about corporate taxes being too high.) They are serving wealthy people to be able to declare their yachts as vacation homes to save on their property taxes and to declare their stock market income as “special” so it only gets taxed at a 15% rate.

I want the old conservatives, the useful ones, back. This current crop isn’t worth the powder to blow them to Pittsburg.

Free School Breakfasts and Lunches, Part 2

Hot on the heels of a national report emphasizing that the meals served in fast food restaurants are nutritiously poor for today’s youths, I want to follow-up on my recommendation that all minor school children get free breakfasts and lunches.

Since I don’t want to get involved in a “ketchup is a vegetable . . . it is not!” debate I want to suggest that each state form a committee of experts to design a large number of menus for schools. If the state is in the Southwest, such menus will reflect tastes there (I love Chili Verde!). If in the North there would be menus with specialty foods for Poles, Jews, and Irish folks. And there would be plenty of Jell-O salads for those of you in the Bible Belt. These menus then could be shared via a national school menu database so that all schools would never suffer from a lack of variety should they desire that. The only requirement for these recipes is that they should all start with fresh ingredients to the greatest extent possible.

The experts selected for these Menu Commissions need to have just one qualification: they need to be the Mom or Dad of a current school age child. It would help if they also had no ties to the food industry. Committee tyro’s would need to learn how to scale up recipes to the sizes appropriate for their school kitchens and then only need a modest budget to test out a few recipes. Maybe these commission need to be convened once a decade, because tastes just don’t change that fast. (Anybody hate Mac and Cheese? Didn’t think so.)

If you don’t like that idea famed chef Jaime Oliver of England talked parliament out of a considerable sum of money to upgrade school lunches over the pond. That could work here, too.

Stand back; I don’t know how big this thing gets!

March 29, 2013

The “WetBack” Problem

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:02 pm
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All of the MSNBC talking heads had their hair on fire tonight because of a gaffe made by Alaskan Congressman Don Young who made the comment “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.” The outrage was focused on the term “wetback.” (Rebublicans were supposed to be currying favor with Hispanics and got confused because they associated curry with India.)

The unfortunate aspect of the parade of disapprobation was that the key point was missed by one and all. Apparently the ranch or farm (apparently in my home state California) hired what they thought were undocumented workers to pick their tomatoes. (For you conservatives, undocumented workers are what you call “illegal aliens” or “illegals.”) And this is the problem with the entire illegal immigration issue. And everybody knows that it is. Let me show you.

Question to You Why to people come here illegally?
You To get jobs?

See, I told you. You got it in one! There would be no illegal immigration if those coming here illegally couldn’t get jobs. The solution in virtually all of the other civilized countries is to require work permits for everybody. We apparently can’t do that because “this is ‘Merica!” or some other such nonsense.

The real reason why we can’t solve this easily soluble problem is that there are a great many people in this country who benefit from having a supply of cheap labor, labor which won’t run to the authorities because of some minor labor regulation violations, who won’t form a union or stage a wildcat strike. All right, boys and girls, can you guess who it is who wants to hire such workers? Can yuh?

Yep, it’s those same scum sucking job creators . . . the same gods damned conservatives who are blocking immigration reform.

It is time to try going on without conservatives. There are in this country but are out only for themselves. So, let’s put them out. Ship back where they came from if a large enough rock can be found for them to crawl back under.

Marriage, Schmarriage

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:49 am
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With all of this talk about the “legality” of gay marriage, I think it is time to take a step back and ask a more basic question: what the heck is marriage good for? My answer is like war: “absolutely nuthin’.”

An objective look at marriage that one could get from, say, an alien secretly observing us is that it is a ceremony in which a great many witnesses are gathered to see and hear the promises two people will make toward one another, promises that are impossible to keep by the way. I mean “I promise to love, honor, and obey” another human being for ever and ever. Right. Love is flakey at best and what are you supposed to do if the love departs? Fake it? Are you in control of what or whom you love? or honor?

I say dump marriage. If hospitals want to know who to admit to a terribly sick person’s room, have the admittance forms include a list of people allowed. Should there be a tax break for married people? Why? The government is disincentivizing being single? Ridiculous.

Instead of marriage, we need an ironclad, government-enforced contract to have children. Requirements of parental conduct (feed, clothe, house, protect, etc.) would have the force of law for those who violate them. These are our society’s next generations of citizens. Many, many studies show that child abuse is the source of a great deal of adult dysfunctional behavior. There is a governmental interest here, a large one. Folks having kids without contract would automatically be under a generic contract entered into by the mere fact of having a child. Parents who abandon or mistreat their children will have a ton of bricks dropped on their heads.

What, then, would marriage be good for, when either spouse can end it with a call to a lawyer? Who does it protect? Anybody? Nope.

I am in favor of marriage equality: we should do away with mentions of it in civil codes, thus making us all equal. We should also forbid it being used as a requirement of service by other organizations. It is merely a religious ceremony that serves no societal purpose. We are all equal under the law. The only exception I would make would be to cover those who might be persecuted by their religious sect for abandoning their religious vows. For this we have a clear motivation and that is the First Amendment of the Constitution.

We want marriage equality! Do away with marriage!

March 28, 2013

Hunger and Education: A Start on a Solution

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 11:21 am
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One of the biggest roadblocks to educating many school children is that many show up to school very, very hungry.

I have a solution.

When I was an educator, we wouldn’t think of having a day long or days long training of staff without feeding the participants. Now that I am retired, I still do trainings (of archery coaches) and when the participants show up we have coffee and donuts and fruit there for them. We also take care of lunch if we have a tight schedule. This is how adults are treated, but kids?

So, how to solve the problem of hungry kids unable to learn? Simple: feed them . . . all of them.

By all of them, I mean all of them. Every child attending school gets a free breakfast and a free lunch, if they want it. Those more well-off folks who want their child to have ancient grains cereal for breakfast and a tofu burger for lunch can send them to school already breakfasted and with a bagged lunch. That’s cool, but if they want to eat in the cafeteria, it’s free.

I can hear the sound of wringing hands now: how can we afford all of this? Gosh, I don’t know? Maybe cancel the F-35 Fighter project? Maybe tax capital gains the same as money one earns from the sweat of one’s brow? A country that can pull off the Manhattan Project can surely figure out how to offer school breakfasts and lunches.

More solutions soon to follow as I am still thinking.

Income and Wealth Inequality: What If?

I live in a racially polarized city, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.: Chicago. There are gangs and subgangs on virtually every block of the “dangerous” sections of this city and people are being shot and killed because of gang activities at a furious clip.

Reflecting on this I wondered: if we as a people were deeply offended by economic inequity and we were to take political action much as was taken in the 1950’s and 1960’s to equalize economic opportunities, would there be as many gangs or even gangs at all? I suspect not.

I have written a great deal about what is wrong with our educational system, but one factor, a large factor, can’t be addressed directly by our schools and teachers: economic inequality. A Stanford researcher’s study of standardized test data (Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children, New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011) reveals a 40 percent growth in the gap between high- and low-income students since the 1960s. Are you surprised?

We basically eliminated hunger as a problem for school aged children in the 1970’s but currently it is back, substantially so. It is really hard to think or even give a shit when you are hungry, especially as a child.

I can hear the conservatives screaming now: he’s talking about redistribution! He wants to take our money and give it to the poor!

Effectively, yes. Government exists because of one ability: to redistribute wealth. If the government couldn’t take people’s money, through taxes, tariffs, fees, etc., and use that money to pay public servants (police, soldiers, politicians, etc.) and buy things (weapons systems, socks for soldiers, new highways, computers for the IRS, etc.) what could it do? Anything? It could pass laws it could not enforce, hmmm. Back in the Vietnam War Era there was a bumper sticker “If the Pentagon Had to Put on a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber …” Imagine. Government doesn’t exist without the ability to redistribute wealth.

So, the question is: what is the most effective way for that redistribution to be done?

My suggestion is that if we were a little more creative, a little more compassionate, school children in Chicago could walk to school without the fear of being shot and without their stomachs growling so loudly they can’t hear their teachers.

The benefits from those actions would be huge. Lower crime rates, less dependent children (in that they get better educated, etc.) who are also healthier and all for the cost that the rich have a little less money. They will still be rich, even filthy rich, but the world would be a better place.

For those of you who think the rich (the “job creators”) can’t afford that, consider that fact that in a recent year, the Koch Brothers wealth increased by $6 billion dollars. Now there are two of them, so that is only $3 billion each, but if you assume a 40 hour work week (to be fair they probably work more than that) and the normal federal holidays, etc. each of them made over $150,000 per hour that year. Since they spend a great deal of their money to get their taxes reduced, to undermine the alternative energy movement (they are in the coal business), to undermine the ability of minorities and the aged to vote, and various other nefarious efforts, I think they could afford a bit to help the less advantaged.

Tax the rich, give it to the poor.

One way to do this would be to raise the minimum wage. This would encourage work and restore dignity to working folks. Conservatives are against that? Okay, how about a guaranteed minimum income. This would place people in a position that they would have no excuses for not being responsible and the full weight of societal disapproval could fall on those who failed to be responsible. Conservatives are against a negative income tax, you say. Hmmm.

Sounds like what we need to do is rid ourselves of conservatives. They seem to be in favor of the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, in favor of greed, and against fair wages.

Tax the rich, stamp out conservatives!

Now, that has a nice ring to it.

Addendum: For those of you who think the source of these inequalities is racial, I quote from the aforementioed study: “First, the income achievement gap (defined here as the income difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile) is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two times as large as the income gap.”

March 27, 2013

Finding Meaning

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 3:11 pm
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For thousands of years people have been exploring the meaning of literally everything. “What does it mean?” has to rank as one of the most frequently asked questions. Thousands of books have been written on the subject, whole religions created, movies made, conferences held, all to explore what things mean.

Finally the question has been answered.

The answer to the question: What does it mean? is . . . nothing. That’s right, there is no meaning . . . of anything.

Consider the planet Earth, the only planet with which we are intimately acquainted. If, somehow . . . even magically, all of the human beings on the planet were to disappear, what would happen to all “meanings” currently proposed? They would vanish, is what. There would be life, the whole planet is teeming with it, so there would be death. There would be consciousness and awareness and sensation. But there would be no meanings.

We create “meanings” and as such they are fictitious. So, searching for them is a fool’s errand. If you want one, make it up. Yours is no less valid than anyone else’s . . . or more valid. And if you want to know what your meaning means . . . well, now you know.

This has been brought to you as a public service message.

March 26, 2013

The Development of Educational Memes

An editorial in a local paper took on “education reform” today and there are a number of statements that I found comment worthy. For one:

“Elementary and middle-school teachers who helped lift their students’ standardized test scores changed the course of students’ lives, according to a 2012 study of 2.5 million students by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities. Researchers tracked those students over two decades and found that they had lower teen pregnancy rates. They attended college at higher rates. They had overall higher earnings as adults.”

I guess it is no surprise that good teachers are desirable, but as a scientist, one of the things I discovered about educational research is that it is of uniformly mediocre quality. I should hope Harvard economists would do better than average research but I wonder how they determined that it was the teacher that was the cause of the standardized test score improvements. Obviously the teacher was there while it happened, but was it just those individuals who got better scores or did the entire class in which those individuals were enrolled get higher scores? Was each teacher examined to see what the performance of all of their students improved or just that one individual? if it was just the individual or a small cadre of them, then the score improvement was an individual accomplishment and the primary praise should fall upon the individual. But if the whole class improved, then the teacher should get some of the praise (not all, just “some”). Having 2.5 million students attending those colleges to study makes for a very large sample size, but how many of them had the same third grade teacher in Kenosha, Wisconsin? The point is did just those kids take fire or did their teachers do for them what they did for the other students in their classes. (I can’t believe they went that far in their study because collecting records for all of the teachers encountered by 2.5 million students would be a mammoth undertaking, but I may be wrong.)

If that student was inspired by his/her teacher, great. If he/she was the only one or just one of several, what does that say about the quality of teaching versus the quality of learning?

“To aggressively cull mediocre teachers from classrooms if they don’t quickly improve.
And to find ways to reward the stellar performers. That is Job One for principals.”

Here’s another quote:

“A 2010 Los Angeles Times investigation found a huge gap between students whose teachers were highly effective and those who weren’t. The most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year, the newspaper reported.”

My comment: “a Los Angeles Times investigation” ah, a well-known research firm. Making any kind of conclusion based on a study done by investigative reports I think would be a mistake. One must also acknowledge that the quality of investigating reporting is at quite a low ebb. And, isn’t the definition of an effective teacher “one whose students do better than average” and the definition of an ineffective teacher “one whose students do worse than average?” So, this statement translates into: “there was a huge gap between students in classes that did well and students in classes that didn’t do well.”

Then comes the editorial’s conclusion:

“We hope principals use this new evaluation system the way parents demand: To aggressively cull mediocre teachers from classrooms if they don’t quickly improve. And to find ways to reward the stellar performers. That is Job One for principals.”

Ah, here comes the hammer, the meme is that the big problem in our schools system is sub-standard teachers and the way to “fix the system” is to reward the best and fire the worst. It sounds logical, but. . . .

Teachers as a group are not extrinsically motivated, that is they aren’t in it for the rewards. How many people do you know who get a college degree or college degrees and then want to work in a low wage area like teaching? As a counterexample, the sciences have been suffering from a lack of qualified graduates because so many mathematically inclined college graduates drifted over to things like business or finance where there was so much more money to be made. (Where do you think all of those exotic financial instruments that brought the world’s economy to its knees came from? Ah, our best and brightest.)

My thesis is that while salaries are important most teachers are in the education business because it fulfills deep seated desires to be useful to society. This is why you don’t hear college students talking about “cashing in” in a career in teaching and then retiring early. Those teachers thought to be so praise worthy (I have known a few) became really good teachers without any reward system and actually might find such a reward system a barrier to collaboration with other teachers.

I can relate to the comment “the most effective teachers push students from below grade level to advanced in a single year” in that I was a chemistry teacher at a community college that didn’t attract the most academically gifted students (they tended to go to other colleges nearby). We testing students upon entry and found them to be below average for students taking such a curriculum, so we had a similar goal: to take the students who came to us, whatever their accomplishments, and get them up to standards before they moved on to other colleges. We told the students this. We showed them the numbers. We enrolled them in the idea that if they worked reasonably hard, they would have nothing to fear when they transferred to university, and we were mildly successful at doing this (to the extent that our students were recognized as being acceptable to those institutions where other students from across campus were not). But it was difficult and hard on the students. And those students were adults who could be persuaded with logic and passion to try hard. They were also no longer required to be attending school; they could leave (and many did). This is a quite different situation from that of children trapped in classrooms they can’t opt out of.

This “teachers are the problem” meme also ignores infrastructure issues. For example, in Chicago this last summer, a whopping percentage of the classrooms had no air conditioning. Now, when I was a kid, I remember some quite sweltering classrooms (we had no air conditioning then, too) but that was only during the last couple of weeks of school before it let out in June. I also remember summertime temperatures in the 110+ degree range, but I wasn’t taking summer classes. I also wasn’t in underperforming classrooms trying to get students to achieve at rate greater than they were used to.

Now, I am not saying that effective management of teachers is not an issue, I think it is a big issue, but there are others. While I was in high school, occasionally a few students got into trouble by drinking beer or even (gasp) hard liquor. There was no drug scene then. There were no gangs in my neighborhood. My classmates weren’t getting shot from time to time. Virtually every one of my classmates had two parents (the quality of which I cannot vouch for, but. . . .).

What we were expected to learn was different. The textbooks were better then, yes, better. The best thing I can say about modern textbooks is that they certainly are heavier than they were in my day. Oh, yeah, in color, too, but also poorly written, unfocused, written by committees, overly dry, uninteresting, etc.

There are more than a few problems in our public education system, but most will not be resolved with a “reward the good, punish the bad” simplistic system, especially since these are extrinsic rewards and punishments and teachers are intrinsically motivated.

But educational reformers (a pox on their house) have to have a drum to beat, one that sounds reasonable, and this is their current choice.

We must stop thinking we can solve complex problems with simple schemes.

We must ask hard questions like: if a principal is supposed to help a struggling teacher, how are they supposed to do that? Does anybody know? Is any educational research facility looking into this question, an answer to which would actually be helpful? And a principal is responsible for how many teachers? How much time do they have to spend with new and/or underperforming teachers? And how qualified are they to do this task?

And we need to stop undermining the intrinsic rewards of teaching. When I was a youth, teachers were a much admired class of workers. They were admired for the reasons that we all know: smart people who got college degrees and then opted to work with kids to make the kid’s lives better for low pay. Now teachers are “the problem” with our schools and, by the way, they are greedy, too, with their lush pensions and summers off.

Well, I have one of those lush pensions, having worked teaching college students for almost forty years. My pension provides me an income that is comparable to the national average, not the average of retired college professors, the actual national average, hardly lush. And my salary, as a college professor, was approximately half of what someone with my qualifications would have been making in the chemical industry (based on published industry-wide salary surveys). So, ask yourself: would you give up half of your salary for two months off during the summer?

Please think about this and not just reflexively, think hard about this: our future and our kid’s futures are deeply affected by education.

March 23, 2013

Put Them to The Question!

To put someone “to the question” was a phrase associated with the Inquisition and while I intend no torture, I expect more than a little discomfort.

The people to whom “the question” needs to be put are those who, like the guy at the CPAC gathering blurted out that slaves should have been grateful for the food in their bellies and the roofs over their heads (apparently he didn’t know that slaves mostly had to build their own shelter and grow their own food . . . after work, of course). Other pro-slavery comments seem to come from the Christian Right and, predictably, from Southern politicians.

Appalling. For every one who utters such appallingly ignorant views, I suggest the question below to be put:

You are awoken from sleep, clapped in handcuffs and ferried in the dark to a new location. There you are forced to work for free, are expected to eat very substandard food, and sleep in very substandard circumstances. Complaints result in beatings if you are male and rapes if you are female. You may be sold to some other but you get none of your purchase price. Your life doesn’t change. If you try to escape your bondage, you will be mutilated or crippled but not so much that you cannot still work . . . for free. The question is: “Would you volunteer for this?”

If slavery were such a fucking bargain, if Africans were to benefit so much for being exposed to American culture and be given free food and free shelter, would they not have volunteered?

There were such cases, called indentured servants, mostly involving poor Europeans but there were laws and rules governing how they were to be treated, and there was a time limit with each such contract. If you were abused by your “bondsman” you had legal recourse. No such guarantees were offered to slaves.

All of the above mentioned idiots need to have the question put to them. If they answer “yes” you will know everything you need to know about them. If they answer “no,” there might be (just “might” be) some hope for them.

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