Monday, March 31, 2014

March 31, 2014--The Republican Clown Car

As the 2016 presidential election season begins to boil, with Republican pretenders genuflecting before $40-billionaire Sheldon Adelson this past weekend in Las Vegas, how is this cycle's version of the GOP candidate Clown Car shaping up?

Literally and figuratively, thus far the biggest clown of all is Chris (Sergeant Schultz) Christie. As the most moderate hopeful (for example, he is less ferociously opposed to same-sex marriage than the competition), he showed up in Las Vegas to kiss Adelson's ring. But as a moderate he is the least favorite among the Tea Party wing of the party.

The other moderate, Jeb Bush, slightly more acceptable, met with Adelson but out of sight of the media, slipping into one of Sheldon's casinos through a back door. There is, after all, a limit to how much public groveling a son of Barbara Bush is willing to do.

But, sadly for late night comedians, and me, there do not as yet appear to be any Donald (you're fired) Trumps, Herman (Pokemon) Cains or Michele (my husband's a great dancer) Bachmanns on the horizon to liven things up. Maybe Newt (and Callista) will give it one more try. He at least can be amusing. And Rand (named for Ayn) Paul, who appears routinely to wear clown makeup and has funny hair will at least liven things up when he will inevitably be asked why he as a physician and a self-declared Libertarian opposes abortions even in the case of rape or incest.

But if it's going to be Jeb versus Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio, I'll be sticking with Dancing With the Stars and The Colbert Report for my entertainment.

There is, though, hope that Ted Cruz will get in the race. He does a mean imitation of Winston Churchill ("We will never surrender") and is a dead ringer for Joe McCarthy. So he should be good for a few gaffs and laughs. And, I almost forgot, there's Rick (high executioner) Perry. He can be a hoot, especially if he's high on pain medication.

But if you're wondering why so many run for the presidency even though they know in their hearts they have no chance, think money.

There's a fortune to be made out there by speaking for cash at all sorts of untra-conservative political, religious, and corporate events. Being on the record opposing everything about Obama is all that's needed. And celebrity. That's where to Clown Car comes in. It makes you a household name and as your Q Scores go up, so does your speaker's fee.

Remember during the last campaign how Mitt Romney's fees for talks of this kind in 2012 yielded a neat $375K, which he famously shrugged off as "not very much"?

Before running, Rick Santorum made literally nothing. He struggled to put food on the table for his wife and dozens of children. But then after being in the lead for the nomination for a week or two he saw his average fee soar to $100,000 an appearance. This is not a typo.

How much do you think Herman Cain made before also being ahead of the pack for a week? As we would say in my old neighborhood, that would be bupkiss. He now gets $25K for 40 minutes of standup and singing.

And as soon as Michele Bachmann's congressional term is over in December, she is expected to be paid at least $25,000 a pop.

Even old Ron Paul whose shirts and suits look like they were bought off the rack at Kmart is paid a whopping $50K per appearance. No need to practice medicine anymore or live in Galveston.

Sarah Plain, who has made tens of millions since running with John McCain in 2008, pockets more than $100,000 to show up and entertain. I don't know what Tina Fey commands.

Then there are the right-wing media celebrities who live off this circus. If you think that Dick (Romney-in-a-landslide) Morris is working at the checkout counter in Publix, think again. He "earns" $15-$20,000 a rant by spreading paranoia that Barack Obama is about to launch black helicopters to round us up and take away our guns and other "freedoms."

Endnote--In fairness, I should mention that Hillary gets an obscene $200,000 to talk about everything except Benghazi.

And, on a recent Bill O'Reilly Show, Herman Cain hinted he is giving serious consideration to running again in 2016. Please God.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

March 28, 2014--Optical Systems Technology

Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY offers the certificate programs listed below. 

These are typical of those offered by nearly 1,000 community college nationwide. The only significant differences one finds when comparing Monroe's offerings with, say, West Los Angeles Community College's is that a few of the programs reflect their local economies and potential employment prospects.

Pretty much everywhere there is at least some need for dental assistants, restaurant workers, and security guards. But considering that Xerox and Corning are located near Monroe, custom-designed for these companies, the college offers courses in Optical Fabrication and Optical Systems Technology while at WLACC they offer a program in Aviation (the college is located near LAX airport) and Real Estate (we know about LA real estate!).

Monroe Community College Certificate Programs

Addictions Counseling
Automotive Training Apprentice Program
Computer Aided Design and Drafting
Criminal Justice: Corrections Administration
Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
Culinary Arts
Dental Assisting
Early Care
Electronics Technology
Emergency Medical Services
Food Management
Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning
Hotel Management
Human Services
Interior Design
Law Enforcement
Office Technology Specialist
Office Technology: Medical Office Assistant
Optical Systems Technology
Paralegal Studies
Paramedic Certificate
Precision Machining: Optical Fabrication
Precision Tooling
Small Business Management
Solar Thermal Technology
Teaching Assistant: Adolescent
Teaching Assistant: Early Childhood/Childhood
Teaching Assistant: Technology
Tooling and Machining
Travel and Tourism
All things being equal, considering the state of the economy, and as a reflection of the kinds of offerings and training that Guest-Blogger Sharon suggested yesterday should be available for the non-college-bound student (a position I in many ways share), this would make a lot of sense and should receive the resources needed to assure that these programs are of high quality.

Sadly, far from in every case are things equal. 

At Monroe and WLACC, which is unfortunately typical, very few of these programs have ever been rigorously evaluated. We do not know, for example, how up-to-date they are in regard to the latest technologies or methodologies; and, perhaps more important for programs that are designed to prepare students for the world of work, beyond anecdotes, we do not know if graduates get the jobs they have been trained for and how well these courses and programs prepare them for the work that actually exists.

At Monroe, for example, if you click on Optical Systems Technology and look to see how graduates fare when it comes to employment, there is an asterisks (*) that states in effect that the college is "not required" to offer this data and thus they do not. One suspects that if the employment data were positive, the college would be eager to trumpet them. And why they are not required to see how well public money is being spent on these programs is a whole other story.

This does not blunt Guest-Blogger's main argument. She is right to call for high-quality programs of the sort that exist in Germany. 

We know that people enroll in and pay for these career programs, but we do not know if they work. This in spite of the resources that have been directed toward our community colleges and high school career programs.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

March 27, 2014--We Can Never Go Back to Before

In response to a number of recent blogs in which I wrote about our public education system, guest blogger Sharon has a number of interesting perceptions and recommendations--
The March 25 blog, "Chem Lab," brought to mind my reaction to a sound byte I recently heard. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel briefly stated his goal is to make sure that every child in Chicago is college ready.
I'm not sure that's the right goal, unless he also meant community college and even then . . .
Here I cite an observation from a long-time teacher in Maine who from her experience concluded that most of the kids she encountered were just "average." Yes, there were kids who wanted help figuring out how they might be the first ones in their family to go to college, but unlike the hyper-competitive era we now live in, most of these kids aspirations and aptitudes were more modest.
So I thought, wouldn't a better goal for the Mayor and other leaders be to prepare these children for skills that would make them ready for the realities of today's job market?
And for some (many) this doesn't mean a B.A. with graduate school to follow. The cost alone is increasingly prohibitive.
Of course the larger challenge is to remove the "second best" stigma, a perception that I admit I've been guilty of.
Senior year of high school I chose not to take physics or calculus and instead took fashion design and merchandising courses and guiltily, since I was an academic track kid, made off with the top awards in both areas at graduation. In those days NYC high schools had academic, commercial and general tracks.
I really loved those classes, although no more than history, but a lot more than math and science. I got applications for FIT and Parsons but at 16, I got the message from friends and teachers that this would waste my academic promise and didn't apply.
But after a B.A. and graduate education in history, there were few openings for history professors then and for the next 20 years. Although still an advocate for a liberal arts education, given the economic realities of today (my first apartment's rent was $235 a month so paying back my loans wasn't tough) I wonder if my career path would have been clearer if I had completed the other applications and was accepted.
Relating training and education with employability and quality of life, I've encountered many small business owners: car repair, salon owners, restauranteurs, contractors, etc. living very comfortable lives without college degrees.
Yet I was especially surprised to read recently the comments of a young German woman noting that her college-bound friends didn't get why she would want to participate in a factory-based apprenticeship. These long-existing successful programs in Germany are now being considered in the U.S. as a possible answer to the skills gap and unemployment. Yet even in Germany peer and perhaps parental pushback exists.
Although I think the unequal deployment of resources is wrong morally and philosophically, sadly I think even if you could wave a magic wand and bring all facilities up to code, I don't believe it would change much. Not unlike the impact of technology and globalization on the economy, these forces too have made our traditional education structures obsolete. Many on the right and left are still thinking (or wishing) we could go back to before, at least the parts that seemed to work.
Instead of applying limited resources to buildings maybe there needs to be more channels for access and financial support to rescue kids from under-performing schools who do want to go to college and beyond as early as possible. I've seen a few very gifted and privileged kids who fell behind out of boredom when they were sent to schools with under-achieving children.
This brings to mind my last year of high school and my first and only experience with a teacher who couldn't control the class, who didn't want to be there, the shape of the things to come. I learned nothing. And this in a public school that produced senators and a Supreme Court justice. A few years later, but before metal detectors, kids were afraid to go to the bathroom.
Perhaps opportunity of access and a better fit for aspiration, drive, and ability would provide better results, rather than zip code and financial support. Danger and disruption to learning not only take place in failing schools. Bullying takes place in schools where kids have every advantage--one child was threatened that his house would be burned down if he told. Other children have told me they want to avoid a hyper-competitive atmosphere where there are a few suicides each year. The difference between them and the kids at Roosevelt is their parents can more easily remove them from the situation.
One of the reasons charter schools are popular is parents and students who care enough see them not only as a way out of their struggling public schools but a refuge from the scary kids who go there who are impeding their children’s progress and safety.
Creating a pathway for teachers who can spot and rescue the academically inclined kids and another for those who may not be so inclined, but are motivated and teachable, and getting them into more appropriate schools might be a start. It’s such a waste that bullies in better equipped schools get to squander their advantages while others have to enter lotteries to get their motivated kids into a better situation.
And with increasing income inequality where a few people own five houses and many can't even afford rent, I return to a comment made by Steven Zwerling’s dad, "What does happiness have to do with anything?"
We may have come to the end of a brief golden period where many of us sought careers that would be satisfying and not just a means to provide food, clothing and shelter. Maybe future generations who aren't technology whizzes for now will need to refocus on education and training commensurate with their potential before they have the luxury of a career path to happiness. And society needs a way to identify the children who can and want education and or training and make sure they are not penalized by where they live.
Thinking everyone wants to or can succeed on a path to college or better circumstances for all is thinking for another time. And what will become of the bullies and disaffected? There's a job waiting for them on Wall Street . . . .

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014--Political Celebrities

I was thinking the other day that one of the very few benefits of being a progressive is that liberal entertainers are much better and cooler than conservative ones.

Who, for example, would prefer Tom Selleck to Matt Damon? Or (an easy one) Ted Nugent to The Boss?

But then I did a little more Googling and I'm not so sure.

Democratic supporters include--

Demi Moore
Jack Nicholson
Regis Philbin
Hugh Hefner
Jerry Springer
Paula Deen
Hulk Hogan

I like the Hulkster, but Paula Deen's a Democrat? That's just too much.

So, I took a closer look at the roster of GOP supporters, thinking maybe there are a few less-than-75-year-old white guys on the list. In fact, there are some--

Kid Rock
Susan Lucci
Britney Spears
Sylvester Stallone
Larry the Cable Guy

But then there's Pat Boone, who's at least 100 and very white. And, equally ancient and Caucasian, Clint Eastwood of the empty stool.

Some say Taylor Swift's a Republican, and I suppose that counts for something. Though her singing sounds pitchy to me.

On the other hand, a still prominent liberal to be endured is Babra Streisand.

Life can be so complicated.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 25, 2014--Chem Lab

In an analysis of the nation's 97,000 public schools, the Department of Education last week issued a report about the unequal deployment of resources among schools that enroll predominantly white students and those that serve children of color.

In every way it is disturbing.

Racial minorities are much more likely than white students to be suspended; they have access to fewer math and science courses; their teachers are lower paid and less experienced; and the schools in which they are enrolled are older and less well maintained.

Black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students; a quarter of schools with the highest percentage of Hispanic students do not offer any math courses beyond Introductory Algebra; and a full third of them do not have any chemistry courses.

And when it comes to the availability of advanced placement courses--important for college admissions and success--schools with African-Ameircan and Hispanic students fare as poorly.

It is no wonder then that the academic achievement gap between the races is so pronounced and persistent.

This inequality of resources gives the lie to the claim of many conservatives that the opportunities are there equally for everyone and if certain people do not succeed (and we know what that is code for), it is their own or their parents' fault.

Some years ago I was working with the lowest-performing school district in New York State--Roosevelt, Long Island, a wedge of poverty squeezed between communities of great wealth.

The high school had the lowest graduation rate in the state and as a result the smallest percentage of students going on to college. The Ford Foundation was looking to work with all the schools in the district, offering to bring to them approaches to teaching and learning that had been shown to work in other impoverished school districts.

On my first tour of the high school, the principal pointed proudly to a gleaming chemistry lab. It was during school hours but there were no classes being held in the lab. When I expressed curiosity about that, the principal said, "Oh, we don't actually use the lab."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because there's no gas for the Bunsen burners and no running water."

I was incredulous. "So no one takes chemistry lab? Isn't it a state requirement that to earn an academic diploma students need to take two to three years of lab science?" She acknowledged that was true.

"So what do you do?" I asked.

"We arrange field trips to Great Neck High School," she told me proudly, "and they allow our students to watch their students do lab work."

"They watch them? Doesn't that rub it in your students' faces that Roosevelt is, well, less than second-rate?"

For this she had no reply.

Nor, I suspect, do the thousands of principals and teachers who labor in under-financed and resourced public schools across the nation.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

March 24, 2104--The Blinding Dawn of a New Russian Revolution

If we approach matters with Russia assuming Vladimir Putin and his advisors and supporters are motivated by rational self-interest, we will be sadly disappointed.

Rational self-interest, which assumes he and they care more about the Russian economy, the wellbeing of the Russian people, and their standing in the international community than in the emotions that patriotism and nationalism unleash.

It is rather these latter forces that are motivating and driving the agenda for Putin and his allies.

Anyone who knows anything about Russian history and literature knows about the surging psychological and xenophobic passions that have driven Russian imperial ambitions for centuries.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground alone should be on all Western policymakers' desks as they and our president try to understand what to think about, expect, and then do. Little of what they learn will make conventional sense and thus would provide essential insights.

In Notes, the unnamed narrator, a retried civil servant living in isolation, is so guided by subterranean, underground forces that he repeatedly acts, as Dostoyevsky puts it, against his own seeming self-interest.

He takes pleasure in pain and unhappiness, even when his liver throbs or he has a toothache. None of this, in a post-Enlightenment world, makes "sense." But, then again, to him it does and to the Russian people for whom he is an exemplar.

It is in this way that he and they validate their existence.

We have been seeing this kind of paranoiac behavior on display recently in Russia as it reappropriates Crimea and in Putin's behavior.

After the Crimeans voted to reaffiliate with Russia, Putin made an impassioned speech to the country's political elite in which he spoke about perceived slights from the West, how Russia had been humiliated following the collapse of the Soviet Union and in turn denounced the domination of the U.S. and Western Europe.

He said, "They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presented us with completed facts. That's the way it was with the expansion of NATO . . . They always told us the same thing, 'Well, this doesn't involve you.'"

According to the New York Times, at a public rally later that night, reaching deep into Russian and Soviet history to embrace the national soul, Putin anointed himself the guardian of the greater Russian people, including those living beyond current Russian borders. He spoke about restoring a part of the old Russian Empire that the collapse of the USSR had overthrown.

"Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up abroad,"he intoned, "Overnight, they were minorities in the former Soviet republic, and the Russian people became the biggest divided nation in the world."

He then joined the rally in singing nationalistic songs as tears flowed among the enormous Moscow crowd.

Even more disturbing was a second piece in the Times that reported about Putin's inner-circle of confidential advisors--individuals steeped in Russian imperial aspirations and mysticism.

Take Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, who in the late 1990s called for "the blinding dawn of a new Russian Revolution, fascism--borderless as our lands, and red as our blood," for a flavor of those who have Putin's ear--

Aggressively anti-American he has called for a "conservative revolution" that combines socialist economic thinking with ultra-conservative cultural traditionalism. He is responsible for the movement to establish a Eurasian empire, "constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy," which he called "Atlanticism," a concoction of liberal values and U.S. hegemony.

Also in Putin's circle of private advisors is Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railroads. He points to a "global financial oligarchy" and the "global domination that is being carried out by the U.S."

Last week, he offered plans for a Soviet-style megaproject to develop transportation infrastructure in Siberia, something he called "an economics of a spiritual type" that would insulate Russia from the West's alien values. He compared this vision to the adoption of Christianity in ancient Rus, the conquest of Siberia, the electrification of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet space program. As a bone to his friend Vladimir Putin, not as an after thought, he added the recent Sochi Olympics to that list of historic accomplishments.

Looked at through Western eyes, none of this makes much sense--the Soviet Union is no more, a government-directed version of a market economy has resulted in a large Russian middle class, tens of millions have been brought out of poverty, and the new Russia has been a powerful and respected player on the world stage. Why place these gains in jeopardy--the Russian economy is already showing signs of serious decline just over the past few weeks?

The answers may best be found in a collective longing for the Russian past and a form of self-abnegation that embraces behavior that appears to be against Russia's self-interest. We would be wise, however, to understand that what looks like that to us may very well be their own unique and characteristic form of self-interest. And dangerous at that.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

March 21, 2014--Capitalization Woes

Miss Flynn, my high school freshman English teacher, if nothing else, was about rules.

As a Jewish kid who had at most two Italian friends, from what they reported about Catholic school, Miss Flynn for me was as close as I was ever going to get to understanding, feeling what that experience must have been like for Tony Gato.

What Tony reported was not to my liking. Not because I was so creative and free-spirited, straining the boundaries of convention to chart a remarkable life for myself. Or anything approaching that. Quite the contrary--I wasn't really anything or anyone special. I was just inept when it came to grammatical rules. Actually, to following any rules.

Diagraming sentences was Miss Flynn's special form of torture. Even today, all these years later, I break out in sweats when it comes to thinking about the difference (or differences?) between dependent and independent clauses. What I do remember, though, is that if the clause is independent, there is no need for a comma to introduce it. In fact, it is incorrect, forbidden to do so; whereas if the clause is dependent, a comma is required. And Miss Flynn meant required.

Do I have even these punctuation rules right? Or, is it, "Am I correct in regard to these punctuation rules"? And, while I'm at it, where does the question mark go--before or after the quotation mark?

You see my problem? (I think, under certain circumstances, I could have left this question mark off. Or, should I be saying, I could have left off this question mark. What contortions.)

Recently, I've been having trouble with capitalization. Capitalization both within sentences and in titles and headlines.

Miss Flynn would have lots to say about this. Of that I am certain (or sure?); but, alas, I have moved on and, I assume, since she was easily in her 50s at the time, she too has moved on (I am tempted to write, Moved On) and so I am on my own to figure it out.

In a quandary, I thought, let's see where Google would lead me.

Here from the Website are a few rules for capitalization within sentences (note how the rules are enumerated very much in Miss Flynn's voice--as commandments):
Capitalize this!
  1. The first word of every sentence.
  1. The first-person singular pronoun, I.
  1. The first, last, and important words in a title. (The concept "important words" usually does not include articles, short prepositions (which means you might want to capitalize "towards" or "between," say), the "to" of an infinitive, and coordinating conjunctions. This is not true in APA Reference lists (where we capitalize only the first word), nor is it necessarily true for titles in other languages. Also, on book jackets, aesthetic considerations will sometimes override the rules.)
  1. Proper nouns
  • Specific persons and things: George W. Bush, the White House, General Motors Corporation.
  • Specific geographical locations: Hartford, Connecticut, Africa, Forest Park Zoo, Lake Erie, the Northeast, the Southend. However, we do not capitalize compass directions or locations that aren't being used as names: the north side of the city; we're leaving the Northwest and heading south this winter. When we combine proper nouns, we capitalize attributive words when they precede place-names, as in Lakes Erie and Ontario, but the opposite happens when the order is reversed: the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains. When a term is used descriptively, as opposed to being an actual part of a proper noun, do not capitalize it, as in "The California deserts do not get as hot as the Sahara Desert."
  • Names of celestial bodies: Mars, Saturn, the Milky Way. Do not, howver, capitalize earth, moon, sun, except when those names appear in a context in which other (capitalized) celestial bodies are mentioned. "I like it here on earth," but "It is further from Earth to Mars than it is from Mercury to the Sun.
  • Names of newspapers and journals. Do not, however, capitalize the word the, even when it is part of the newspaper's title: the Hartford Courant.
  • Days of the week, months, holidays. Do not, however, capitalize the names of seasons (spring, summer, fall, autumn, winter). "Next winter, we're traveling south; byspring, we'll be back up north."
  • Historical events: World War I, the Renaissance, the Crusades.
  • Races, nationalities, languages: Swedes, Swedish, African American, Jewish, French, Native American. (Most writers do not capitalize whitesblacks.)
  • Names of religions and religious terms: God, Christ, Allah, Buddha, Christianity, Christians, Judaism, Jews, Islam, Muslims.
  • Names of courses: Economics, Biology 101. (However, we would write: "I'm taking courses in biology and earth science this summer.")
  • Brand names: Tide, Maytag, Chevrolet.
  1. Names of relationships only when they are a part of or a substitute for a person's name. (Often this means that when there is a modifier, such as a possessive pronoun, in front of such a word, we do not capitalize it.)
  • Let's go visit Grandmother today. Let's go visit my grandmother today.
  • I remember Uncle Arthur. I remember my Uncle Arthur. My uncle is unforgettable.
  1. This also means that we don't normally capitalize the name of a "vocative" or term of endearment:
  • Can you get the paper for me, hon?
  • Drop the gun, sweetie. I didn't mean it.
There's more. But hopefully you get the point. And, perhaps, understand my anxiety.

On the other hand, Miss Flynn emphasized the importance of vivid introductory sentences. Like the one I tried to write today. (See above.)

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

March 20, 2014--The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get . . .

The intellectual firepower in economic theory that claimed that economic growth over time reduces inequality was provided during the 1950s and 60s by Simon Keznets.

Most starkly, he put forth the Kuznets Curve that graphically illustrated what he argued was a natural curve, a natural cycle that begins with widening inequality while an economy grows but then decreases, again naturally, over time until a "certain average income is attained." In other words, after overall economic growth, inequality, if we are patient, is reduced.

His work was derived by his assembling reams of data primarily from tax returns. He argued that between 1913 when the income tax was introduced in the United States until the end of World War II in 1948, the portion of the national income earned by the richest 10 percent of Americans declined from a little under half that total income to "only" about a third.

In other words, Karl Marx and more benign progressives were wrong--the free market was a self-correcting system and governments should get out of the way and allow economic justice over time to express itself.

Now there is a new, massively data-rich study by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, Capital in the 21st Century, that looks at even more data. Much more data. He studied income and wealth disparity over hundreds of years in dozens of countries and comes to very different conclusions than Kuznets.

In brief, Piketty found that the rate of return on capital investment (machinery, real estate, land, financial instruments) is much higher that the rate of economic growth.

This means that wages cannot keep up with capital formation, inequality therefore increases rather than decreases over time, and it is not self-correcting. That is, if markets are left to themselves. But when governments intervene through, say, progressive taxation, the gaps between the haves and have-nots can be narrowed.

From his data Piketty cites numerous examples of how the unfettered market increases inequality but how with shifts in public policy it has been and can be reduced.

He shows that inequality today is reaching and exceeding the upper limits of the Gilded Age. According to a essay in the New York Times from data mined by Piketty, investment profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s and as a result, the richest 10 percent of Americans control a larger share of the economic pie than at any time since 1913.

In regard to Kuznets, Piketty demonstrates that the data that underlie the Curve were amassed from an idiosyncratic period in one country's history--the years in the United States when the Depression destroyed a large portion of the richest people's wealth while at the other end of the period Kuznets studied, the economy benefitted disproportionately by the spending and government investments required to arm the country to fight the Second World War.

Ironically, the forces that ultimately led to the end of the Depression and an era in which income equality was reduced were more the result of government taxation and spending policies than the Invisible Hand of the free market.

The free market brought about the Depression while government intervention and a world war were essential to ending it.

Piketty argues that unless we amend current fiscal policy--especially taxation--the concentration of wealth will continue and inequality will worsen. There are no examples in history since the Industrial Revolution that the market will in and of itself make a difference. Not even expanded investments in education, which to many is the best way to proceed.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

March 19, 2114--The Education Mayor

I'm no fan of most big-city public school systems (I could tell you stories from my own work with them that would spoil your day) and though I think of myself as a liberal who believes in the importance of strong unions, most municipal teachers unions, again from my experience and research, are often impediments to effective change.

So, though I know the mixed data about charter schools and the threat they exert on business-as-usaul (which, in itself can be a good thing), with caveats, I favor their existence and even the expansion of those, and only those that have proven to yield good results.

Something needs to be done to shake up the way we attempt to educate our most vulnerable citizens.

With this as context, I am feeling that the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, as an education mayor, is off to a false start.

As a candidate he ran against the idea of charter schools, saying that if elected he would not allow any more to be established and would cut back on city resources for the 183 that do exist. These serve 70,000 of New York's 1.1 million public school students. Well under 10 percent.

As mayor, he had his school chancellor break deals that former mayor Mike Bloomberg made with the Success Academy, one of the charter operations that runs 22 schools and, again with caveats, has a record of producing good results--essentially, high test scores and graduation rates.

The parents of children in these schools are pleased enough with the outcomes that 11,000 of them (an incredible number even by Big Apple standards) recently schlepped 150 miles to Albany to pressure the state legislature and the governor, Andrew Cuomo (who favors charters) to continue to support these independent public schools.

Some claim, that since the teachers union opposes charters (they are permitted to employ non-union staff) and since de Blasio was elected with overwhelming teacher support, his opposing charters is payback.

I do not know if that is true, though I have my suspicions. But what I do know is that many charters are exceptionally good, serve the lowest-income students, and are passionately defended by parents.

Also upsetting, again attempting to fulfill campaign promises, de Blasio has been moving rapidly to implement universal pre-kindregarten. His first moves have all been about securing the hundreds of millions needed to do this. His plan calls for a surcharge tax on NewYork City residents earning more than $500,000 a year. But since Cuomo and the legislature will not agree to this, he has been lobbying them to come up with the money in other ways. He appears to be making headway.

I call the call for universal pre-K upsetting because its effectiveness has never been demonstrated.

It sounds like a good idea--to get kids into a learning-rich environment as early as possible makes common sense. But, there are no large-scale studies about whether or not prekindergarten programs shrink the academic achievement gap.

There are some small-scale pre-K programs around the country, quite small scale, that appear to be effective--participating in them seems to lead to long-term gains--but none that have been objectively evaluated and proven to show that they can be brought successfully to scale.

Thus, to get the money to put tens of thousands of New York 4-year-olds in school feels irresponsible when educators have no experience doing this for such large numbers and there is no evidence that it works.

But do it we will because ideology is driving this agenda, teachers unions support it, and the money will in one way or another be found to implement it.

I almost forgot, according to a report last week in the New York Times, there will finally be a longitudinal study. Conducted by the reputable MDRC, 4,000 children in pre-K in 69 schools and community organizations will be tracked. Half the kids will participate in the perhaps-promising Building Blocks Program and the other half won't. Along the way, at least until third grade, they will be compared. If Building Blocks works, that would be persuasive. That, then, would be the time to scale it up. Not now before we know its worth.

But then again, universal pre-K feels like a good idea so why not try it? From history, though, when it comes to school reform efforts, there is a long list of reform silver bullets that turned out to be blanks.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March 18, 2014--03/17/2014 07:13:35 PM

Talk about being under surveillance.

We drove to the Fort Lauderdale Airport to pick up a friend and planned to park in the close-in hourly garage. Just as we were approaching it I remembered that we could bypass the traditional entrance by using a special lane for cars that have a Sunpass, an electronic device that also allows cars to speed by toll booths on the Florida Turnpike. No need at the garage's Sunpass entrance to slow down, stop, open the window to reach for a parking ticket, all the while letting in a carfull of hot and humid air. And on the way out, I remembered, it would as well be automated. No need again to stop to pay cash and get change from the attendant.

"It worked!" Rona said as I glided in. But ever the skeptic she added, "Now if it works just as well on the way out, I'll be impressed."

We picked up our friend and indeed it did. We were able to avoid waiting in the cashier's line with a half dozen others as they crawled forward to the booth, enviously watching us zip through.

About 45 minutes later we were back at our place and I went right to the computer to see if there was any news from Ukraine or if they had finally managed to locate the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.

No news on either front, but waiting for me in email form was a parking receipt from the airport.

"Look at this," I said to Rona.

She looked over my shoulder. "What would anyone want that for?"

"Maybe to see if we were overcharged or for our records?"

"I suppose," Rona said, not sounded very convinced. "I'm tired. Let's go to bed."  Which we did.

The next morning, this morning, I looked more carefully at the receipt. Yes, there was a way to calculate if we were overcharged (it appeared that we hadn't been) and, yes, if I were inclined to keep records of these kinds of things--if I was traveling on business--I would want to print it out so I could be reimbursed.

But what about the section of the receipt marked Entry and Exit Information?

Entry Information
Transaction Date : 03/17/2014 07:13:35 PM
Plaza : FLL - Palm Hourly Entry
Lane : 12 
Exit Information
Transaction Date : 03/17/2014 08:20:12 PM
Processed Date : 03/17/2014 08:20:13 PM
Plaza : FLL - Main Exit Plaza
Lane : 05
Amount Charged* : $4.00
Do I really need to know that I entered at 7:13 PM? Much less at 07:13:35 PM? It was important for me to know how many seconds after 7:13 I entered the garage and then exited 12 seconds after 8:20 PM? 

I was impressed, though, to know that it took only a hundredth of a second to complete the transaction. 

I also thought that the next time I picked someone up at the airport there would no longer be a human cashier. I suppose this represents progress.

And I guess this is just another example of living in a Big Data world. 

Wouldn't it be good, I also thought, if we had as much data about that lost Malaysian plane? When and where it exited? That would be something worth working on.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

March 17, 2014--Barack O'Bama

So he didn't get the Obamacare rollout right. It is, after all, a complicated program and bugs should have been expected. No excuses though, it was a mess and shouldn't have been.

So he drew red lines in Syria and then backed away from them when Syria crossed them. No excuses, though it was and is a mess and shouldn't have been.

So he didn't get his political machine into action well or fast enough to help Democrats who are terrified that they will be defeated in November because of their support for his policies. That machine did get Obama elected and then reelected and it is either indifference or incompetence that this current lack of mobilization is true. No excuses, even though it is a difficult thing to pull off. But it really shouldn't have been.

So his N.S.A. was caught spying on foe and friend alike, so much so that Angela Merkel won't talk to him any more. It's a tough and dangerous world out there and perhaps much of this surveillance was necessary. No excuses though, Angela Merkel is not dangerous and spying on her shouldn't have happened.

So he tried to "reset" relations with Russia but that didn't work. Vladimir Putin and many of his supporters and advisers actually want to restart the Cold War. No excuses though--presidents get the big bucks to get these kinds of things right.

I could go on.

But there's a really simple one that's been screwed up that isn't tough or dangerous or even complicated--appointing an ambassador to Ireland.

We have not had one for about 18 months and it's not because the Senate is refusing to confirm the person Obama nominated. It's because Obama, who has Irish ancestors and likes his Guinness, has failed to act.

It's not because there aren't any who the Senate would confirm. It's because Obama, amazing as it may seem, hasn't gotten around to nominating someone. Federal judges I get. Directors of the CIA I get. Surgeon Generals who want to restrict guns I get. Assistant Attorney Generals who believe in a woman's right to have an abortion, in this crazy and perverted world, I get.

But an ambassador to Ireland? Aren't there any Kennedys around he could name? Like Caroline who is our ambassador to Japan?

There are hardly any controversial subjects that have to be skirted around. Incredibly, considering centuries of violent history, in Ireland now there is relative calm and peace between religious and nationalistic factions. So anglophiles and IRA supporters won't be throwing verbal bombs at each other.

But there is one tricky issue that would lead to another tricky issue if it were aired in public, as it very much might be during confirmation hearings--illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants, you may say. What do illegal Mexicans have to do with Ireland?

Quite a lot. It seems there are at least 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants living in the shadows in America and it might be awkward to bring this to public attention. It would mess up all the posturing and demagoguing underway about undocumented Mexicans.

In the meantime, many in Ireland are feeling quite dissed. As well they might.

Erin go bragh indeed.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

March 14, 2014--The Babe

It started innocently enough.

My friend Lee Frissell, knowing my interest in baseball, sent me a link to an article in the New York Times about Babe Ruth's 97-year-old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, who recently visited the other "house" that Ruth built, the Yankee's old spring training field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Lee wrote--
Isn't this a great story? I always thought the Babe was just a hedonist with massive appetites of all sorts. I had no idea he was an anti-racist who was kept from managing a team because he would have brought in black players. And, even if his daughter is wrong about that, it's gratifying to know he was both anti-racisit and anti-fascist. I always figured he had no politics or social views. I know he drank a quart of vodka, a gallon of orange juice, a dozen eggs, and a pound of bacon for breakfast, and preferred his women six at a time . . . but this makes me like him even more.
I wrote back with a story of my own, a true story--
My Uncle Eli owned a meat processing plant where the UN is now located. Paramount Meats it was called. The Secretariat  is built on top of what used to be Manhattan's eastside slaughterhouses and meatpacking district. 
Babe Ruth parked his car in a garage across the street and, Eli told me, when he smelled my uncle smoking pigs' knuckles, a Ruthian favorite, he would stop by to pick up a few which he proceeded to eat on the spot. Even without a quart of vodka to wash them down. 
One Saturday, Uncle Eli took me to work with him and, with the air on 45th Street saturated with the smell of smoking meat, the Babe was lured in. 
I was about ten years old and he was visibly near death. But to me he was not just a legend by a looming presence. Mammoth in size and, though it was not cold, wrapped in a full-length, belted cashmere coat. In addition, he was wearing his signature Babe Ruth tweed cap. 
He tousled my hair (I had a full head of curls then!) and you can imagine what a thrill it was for me, a lonely Yankee fan from far away Brooklyn. 
The next week, Uncle Eli brought me a baseball autographed by Ruth on which he had written, "To my pal." 
Of course I should have saved it. But back then street kids didn't have much sporting equipment and a new baseball was a rarity. All the others were battered and wrapped with friction tape. 
So we used mine until someone belted it a mile into some bushes where we couldn't find it. 
Ah, well. I don't have the ball stashed away in a safety deposit box but the memory is sweet.
Within 15 minutes, breathlessly, Lee wrote back--
This email of yours is going to take some time to reply to! But let me begin with--smoking pigs' knuckles???!!!
What did Lee mean? That he needed "some time to reply"? I knew he was at work. I assumed he was busy and wouldn't be able to get back to me until after his meetings. Or whatever. But then what about the "pigs' knuckles???!!!" business. Very strange.

But it didn't take him long to get back to me. What should I make of this???!!!--
Well, I'm not going to get any work done today until I respond to your original email. 
To meet Babe Ruth was probably the most deeply held dream of every American boy born between 1925 and 1975, and to have your hair tousled by Babe Ruth, and then to have been given a ball autographed by him, "To my pal." 
And you fucking played ball with it and lost it! 
How poor could you have been? You had Uncle Eli's knuckle smokery; your Uncle Schlomo's chittlin' factory, and your Uncle Ralph's Cuban sandwich shop. There must have been enough family money to buy a friggen baseball. Or to have used one of those pigs' knuckles. 
I advise you not to tell that story to your wife, Rona. Despite a subsequent considerable body of evidence to the contrary, that is such an act of monumental stupidity that it's hard to believe you could ever make anything of your life. Maybe if playing with that precious ball had laid the foundation for your getting into the Major Leagues and breaking the Babe's records or approaching your 7th Cy Young Award, it would be excusable. Otherwise, there really is no exculpation for you.

I know Lee has quite a sense of humor, but he was sounding serious. No exculpation? I'm not even sure what that means, but it sounds serious. Even biblical. Hey, to me, though I know if I had saved the autographed ball and kept it it would be worth a fortune, at the time, to me, it was just a baseball. And life on the streets was mean. Even though there was enough family money, if I took up a collection, to buy a new ball. No likelihood of that.

And, by the way, Lee made up Uncles Schlomo and Ralph. They don't exist. I did have an Uncle Harry who never had a job and an Uncle Bob who owned a gas station on Myrtle Avenue. And also there was Uncle Jack who was in the clock and watch business, decidedly not in the non-kosher, treif food business. And if he didn't live all the way out on Long Island, if he had known we were using rocks as baseballs, he might have come through with some real sporting equipment. He was that kind of generous guy.

But not knowing what to say back to Lee and worried that somehow thinking about Babe Ruth and my, I guess, stupidity, had made him crazy, I thought to try to calm things down by dashing off a bland note staying--
I suppose you're right. I guess you had to be there at the time, blah, blah, blah . . .
But this didn't work. There was more fired back from Lee--
Of course I had to tell this story to our orthodox friend Ed G, who agrees that meeting the Bambino was the fondest dream of an American boy. But he's not perturbed by your Uncle Eli's treifish occupation. "You can't eat it," he said. "But no one said you can't touch it. Nu. It's business." 
I know you're no fan of the hassidim [true], but a pig smokehouse is a little too reformed even for a quintessential goy like me.
Concerned about Lee's blood pressure, again I tried the calm approach--
Does this mean Ed G has exculpated me? That's it's OK that I had an uncle who was in the pork business? 
And while we're talking baseball, did I ever tell you my Jackie Robinson story?
I should have known better. Lee wrote--
I shudder to think what the Jackie Robinson story must be.
Caring a little less about upsetting Lee, though still not understanding what had gotten into him when I mentioned "knowing" Babe Ruth, I couldn't contain myself from writing--
When I was again about ten, that would be 1948 or so, a year after Jackie Robinson began to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he and his wife and baby son moved into an apartment four blocks from where I lived. At the corner of East 52nd Street and Snyder Avenue. 
It was a mainly Jewish neighborhood with a few Italian families sprinkled in. When the Dodgers played at home, at Ebbets Field, at the time they were all day games, each evening Jackie would come out and play baseball with us in the street. Can you believe it, teaching us about fielding and batting. His wife Rachel would sit on the stoop with their young son, Jackie Junior, and we would play until it got dark. 
Then one day, as usual when the Dodgers were at home, we raced over to the Robinson's and . . .
That's as much as I wrote. I haven't yet heard back from Lee, which is fine since the story doesn't end well.

That's an exaggeration--I did hear once more from Lee--

As soon as we're back in New York, he wants to go together to Hawthorne, New Jersey, to visit the Babe's grave. And quintessential goy that he really is, he still knows a lot about treif and Jewish cemetery customs--that when visiting a grave we leave a stone on it to note we were there. In Babe's case, he suggests we leave a baseball.

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