Archive for April, 2013

Absolute Rights?

Absolutes?  I’m skeptical of them, if not downright hostile. Sometimes an absolute is a good guide.  After all, as a general matter of principle, it is not a good idea to go around taking other people’s things or shooting people. Or imprisoning them.   But… as I’ve noted on more than a few occasions, human beings have this desire for things to be black or white, absolutely good or absolutely evil.  We don’t live in a black and white world.  We live in a world filled with all shades of color and, for that matter, innumerable shades of gray, and we – and our societies – have to live in that world and, if we want even a modicum of civility and civilization, we have to create customs and governments that recognize that those shades and colors exist.

 The other day I got a posting on the blog insisting that the right to bear arms was a constitutional right and that my proposals to license and regulate firearms would negate that right because a constitutional right could not be restricted or taxed and still remain a “right.”  After I put my jaw back in place, I thought about the naiveté; the lack of understanding of what society is; the lack of knowledge about what the Constitution is and what it established, and what it did not; and the total self-centeredness represented by that comment… and the fact that all too many Americans share those views about “rights.”

 First, we need to start with the Constitution itself, and the first ten amendments, popularly known as the Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment states that the Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech.”  But more than a score of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established that the freedom of speech is not absolute, especially where that freedom harms others or has the clear potential to do so.

 The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” search and seizure and states that a search warrant cannot be issued without “probable cause,” but again, a number of Supreme Court cases have made clear that there are exceptions to those requirements, i.e., that the Fourth Amendment is not an “absolute right.”

 The same is true of the Second Amendment. One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions involving the Second Amendment was issued in 1875 and stated that the Constitution does not establish the right to keep and bear arms, but affirms an existing right.  A number of other Supreme Court decisions followed establishing the fact that the federal and state governments can establish reasonable limits on that right, and in 2008 the Heller decision stated “the right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…”

 Those who object to the Supreme Court decisions in such cases often complain that the Court is perverting or destroying the Constitution.  Yet the Constitution plainly states that “The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court…” and that “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made…”  In short, like it or not, in cases of dispute about what is or is not Constitutional, the Supreme Court decides.

 Now… people can complain about such decisions, and they can try to change the laws or try to keep new laws on such subjects from being enacted, but what they cannot claim – not accurately, anyway – is that such restrictions are “unconstitutional.” Some will then reiterate the idea that any tax or restriction negates a “right.”

 What they seem to ignore or forget is that the entire concept of an unfettered “absolute” right is contrary to the entire idea of what we call civilization.  Of course, the fact that so many people want to assert their individual and “absolute” rights in so many areas suggests that civilization may itself be endangered. Take the idea of absolute property rights.  We do not allow individuals totally unfettered rights to property. A business or individual cannot dump whatever trash and toxic chemicals he wants into the river or stream that flows through his property.  As a society, we recognize, at least in theory, that many individual actions can adversely affect or kill others, and we attempt to restrict such actions because it is all too clear that there are too many individuals who will not restrict their actions for one reason or another. Now… one can complain that there aren’t enough restrictions or that there are too many or those that exist are too onerous, but the fact that some restrictions are necessary for any society to survive has been proven, as the founding fathers put it, “self-evident.”

 In the end, anyone who declares that he or she has any “absolute” right is merely declaring that their “rights” transcend the rights of others.  “Your right” to free speech through four hundred decibel speakers denies your neighbors right to a decent night’s sleep.  Your right to dispose of your wastes any way you want fouls the stream and denies those downstream equal rights to clean water.  Your right to smoke in close quarters endangers someone else’s health.

 Anyone who claims an inviolable absolute right either doesn’t understand the requirements of a civilized society… or puts what they think are their “inviolable rights” above everyone else’s inviolable rights.  Either way, it’s dangerous for the rest of us, not to mention being a form of narcissistic denial of reality.

Electronic Soma… or Addiction?

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic novel, Brave New World, the government keeps citizens in line with soma, a drug described as having “all of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects.”  The “original” soma, of course, was a legendary Vedic drink said to convey immortality.

 Personally, I wonder if the current candidate for “soma” might not be the IPhone/Android/whatever handheld electronic communications/entertainment device.  Everywhere I look, people are buried in those devices.  They walk totally absorbed in such devices through city streets and college campuses, cross streets and often get hit, ignore crossing gates and get killed by trains… or they text while driving or doing something else.

In nearby St. George, earlier this year, a fifty-year-old woman was speeding and texting. She hit another car, throwing it onto the sidewalk where it killed a man and so severely injured his wife that she had fractured bones all over her body, had to have her skull rebuilt, and suffered 15,000 stitches.  The texting driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and assault and faces up to 15 years in prison.

 Every single day in the United States, there’s another spate of accidents and fatalities or injuries resulting from texting or from using some handheld electronic device, despite the proliferation of laws against use while driving.  Yet, for all the publicity, for all the laws, the possible legal consequences or even death from usage in the wrong places, the near-total absorption in such devices by tens of millions of Americans continues.  Why?  It’s not as though people don’t know the dangers.

 Could it be addiction?

 Just look at people. If they’re not on the device, they’re always checking it, and when they get a signal that “something” is arriving on their device, their faces light up in anticipation.  It’s the sort of look that people in love once displayed upon seeing their significant other, and I’m not sure that even happens any more. More and more often, since Cedar City is a university town, we see couples together in public places. More than a decade ago, they use to talk to each other.  Now they’re silent, sitting together, yet totally alone, each on his or her electronic device, seemingly oblivious to their partner.

 And, as for those messages… well… lately some parents of young people who’ve died in accidents while texting have published those texts… and they’re all absolutely trivial.  There’s nothing earth-shattering, or even interesting.  Yet there’s obviously something more addictive about being electronically connected than being personally connected.  Otherwise all those couples would be talking to each other rather than texting someone else.  And, frighteningly, in some cases they’re actually texting each other.  This gets you closer?

 From what I’ve seen, the electronic communications craze isolates people.  The other day, my wife and I wanted to invite an acquaintance and his wife to a party.  We see them on and off, but when we tried to call them, we discovered both their landlines had been disconnected.  He didn’t answer his office line or the message left on it.  Nor did he even open the email offering the invitation. We still haven’t been able to reach them.  And frankly, I don’t think I should have to drive over to their house some three miles away and knock on their door to invite them.  Besides, they’re likely so engrossed in their electronic diversions that they might not even answer the door.

 This is far from unusual.  Several of our grown offspring have disconnected their landlines.  But the problem with all this is simple – no one can reach you who doesn’t already know your number…or your Facebook name or account [and, dinosaur that I am, I refuse to do social media].  If you’re so into your handheld device that you don’t look at anyone around you and aren’t accessible to anyone who already doesn’t know you… how can your circle of true friends and acquaintances do anything but shrink.  Given social media, the only online “friends” you’re likely to get are people who think exactly as you do.  And all that means is that social polarization and individual isolation are increasing with the growth and addiction to electronic soma.

 Orwell’s soma made the routine of his Brave New World bearable, and apparently the handheld device of choice is doing something similar for people today, but unlike the Vedic soma, reputed to convey immortality, the most likely outcomes of excessive electronic soma are social polarization, growing physical isolation and an early death because sooner or later the outside world will crash into you, or you into it, in some form or another.

Capitalism and the “Business Model”

These days, and for the past decade or so, in almost every venue of government and public works, the politicians and much of the public have extolled the virtues of operating everything from schools, universities, municipalities, and prisons according to the “business model.”   The current “business model,” as applied to government and public services, is based on application of capitalism and “no new or increased taxes’” for anyone or anything.  I honestly don’t know whether all these advocates of the “business model” are sincerely misguided or just uninformed idiots, but it’s time to put a stop to this nonsense.

 First off, I want to make one thing clear.  I am not anti-business, and I firmly believe that the only workable form of an economic system has to be based on capitalism.  That said, capitalism in its purest form is absolutely efficient, and absolutely merciless.  It rewards dedication, skill, luck or good fortune, and the advantages of position handsomely, and disadvantages those lacking in any of those qualities in proportion to their deficit.

 Moreover, in capitalism’s “purer” forms [i.e., those forms unregulated by government], as Americans discovered in the roaring 1890s and somewhat thereafter, such issues as ethics and fairness took a back seat, or were totally ignored, as a result of the quest for profit.  This is not an aberration.  Capitalism is the use of business (defined as the combination of ability, resources, labor, capital investment, and technology) to create a product or provide a service with the greatest differential between the cost and the price one can charge. If inferior or tainted resources are cheaper and the purchaser cannot tell the difference [and there are no laws to contrary, and sometimes if there are], someone will use those cheaper resources in order to maximize profits.  Period.  History has demonstrated this time after time.  We still see this occurring politically today.  If a company or an industry can influence Congress to obtain a tax break or a subsidy, then they have effectively reduced their costs and increased their profits.  If they gain an exemption from environmental rules, such as air or water pollution regulations, they gain a cost advantage, while shifting medical, health, and environmental costs to the general public.  

 The second distinguishing feature of capitalism is one so obvious that it is totally ignored in most economic and political discussion, and certainly in attempts to model public services and education along the lines of the “business model.”  Capitalism has no interest in providing goods to people who cannot afford them.  This is not cold-hearted, per se, but a fact.  A business will go broke if it cannot at least cover all its costs, and you cannot cover costs if you give goods or services away on a large scale or keep prices too low to cover costs, in order to provide more goods or services to those who could not otherwise afford them.

 The third distinguishing feature of capitalism, especially today, is that it must make a profit in the short-term.

 These three necessities for success in a capitalistic society are why capitalism requires some degree of regulation. The amount varies by the society and by political consensus, and how much corporate abuse the public will accept, but the necessity for some regulation is absolute.  These necessities are also why the so-called business model is an absurdity for providing such public services as education, police and fire protection, water, sanitation, and trash collection, not to mention environmental protection.

 Take education.  As we all know, or profess to know, education makes people better workers and benefits society as a whole, but the payoff from the investment in education is years, if not decades away… and contrary to what the proponents of emphasis on STEM education insist, one cannot tell which student benefits most from what education.  Attempts to “steer” education in a particular direction have invariably been, at best, marginally successful, if not disastrous, for societies.  Likewise, when the cost of education increases, the business model, particularly on the college and university level, is to insist on raising tuition, increasing class sizes, or eliminating classes for which demand is low.  The results are that: (1) some students are priced out of education or saddled with enormous debt that many will not pay (which in turn shifts the costs to society as a whole); (2) the quality of that education is diluted; or (3) certain skills and disciplines will not be taught at all, and future society will be impoverished as a result. That is the predictable capitalistic response to increasing costs, especially when “no new taxes” have resulted in state colleges and universities getting fewer and fewer resources compared to the number of students enrolled.

 If we take other public services, the same problem arises.  The current “business model” insists that municipal budgets must be cut, rather than increasing taxes. That means fewer police and firefighters, and slower response times and greater damages to people and their property.  In point of fact, that means that the costs are effectively shifted to those who can least afford the damages – capitalism at its purest, loss of goods and services for inability to pay.  This is particularly hard on the less advantaged when it is applied to vital services, such as food, housing, and health care.

 The result of applying the business model in this fashion is that, without public investment in those who have fewer resources, i.e., the poor and especially the working poor, the youth in those situations will have less opportunity to improve themselves, and this will contribute to the growth of income inequality.  Greater income inequality results in greater social unrest, and if that unrest becomes too great, violence becomes even more widespread.

 As one of the forgotten commercials said, “You can pay me now… or you can pay me later.” [And the cost later was enormously higher.]   But right now, the third aspect of this current business model is all that anyone considers – we want lower costs NOW… and the hell with what comes later.

 So… let’s hear it for the business model.

Right… and Responsibility

Now that the U.S. Senate has killed pretty much any attempt to place any meaningful controls on the use and sale of firearms in the United States, it’s time for a more objective look at the situation.  First off, there is no practical way guns are going to vanish in the United States, despite all the NRA and right-wing paranoia and concern about “big government” taking away guns.  It won’t happen.  Period.  Over 40 million U.S. households have firearms, over 320 million of them. Put in perspective, according to a 2007 United Nations study, fifty percent – half – of all the world’s guns were then held by U.S. residents, and since then U.S. gun sales have boomed.

Hard as those facts may be for some to swallow, U.S. guns are not going away and most likely never will.  Nor will measures such as restricting sales of certain types of weapons and ammunition, as commenters to this blog have noted repeatedly, be terribly effective.  At the same time, gun violence and accidental deaths and suicides caused by guns are epidemic. In 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. 73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds in 2010. Yet, as others have pointed out, the U.S. does not have anywhere close to the highest homicide rate in the world or even the highest number of total gun fatalities, BUT we have an astoundingly high rate compared to any other industrial nation in the world, so much so that’s there’s virtually no comparison.

So… what can we realistically do? Besides nothing, which seems to be the position of the NRA?

 As I’ve been considering the issue of guns in our the great American representative democracy, it occurred to me that there’s one aspect of the whole Second Amendment mess that has been totally ignored – and that’s the issue of responsibility.  Oh, everyone pays lip service to “responsible gun owners,” but the actual issue of responsibility in practice has been totally overlooked.  My suggestion is that instead of futilely trying to ban firearms, we give some firm legal support to all those “responsible gun owners,”  and by doing so provide at least some attempt to restore the “rights” lost by all the firearms victims.

 Let’s look at it this way.  If you own a car and drive, you have to be tested and licensed, and if you’re caught driving without a license, you face legal sanctions. If your vehicle causes damages to others, even if you’re not the driver, you have a financial responsibility.  Now… let’s do a comparison.  Guns result in 31,000 deaths and over 70,000 injuries in the U.S. annually.  Vehicle accidents kill 33,000 people and injure close to 100,000.  We regulate automobiles and who can drive them and under what conditions.  We require insurance, apply criminal sanctions to grossly unsafe vehicle use, and insist on wide-spread driver education and training.  The result of all this is that since 1972 automobile deaths have dropped 41%.  Why not apply the same approach to firearms?

Do we want people who can’t see being able to own and shoot a firearm?  We don’t let them drive. Why should we let them have a gun [And please don’t tell me that’s unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court declares what’s constitutional and what’s not, and it’s said that reasonable restrictions on the right to bear arms are constitutional.]  Why not require a firearms license?  And like a driver’s license, it could have categories.  If you want to drive a semi-trailer, you need more training and more insurance. If you want to have an arsenal of high-powered weapons, perhaps you need to be certified in handling them.  And the license, like a driver’s license, should require renewal.

A few other legal changes would also be helpful, such as licensing of weapons, just like cars – and forget all the screams about big government. Big government already knows all that about you anyway… and so does every major corporation, and I don’t hear any screams about invasion of privacy there. Besides, a nation that endorses social media such as Facebook has no right to claim privacy, anyway.

Perhaps we should also require firearms insurance, based on the number and class of weapons one owns, and a percentage of that premium could go to the various law enforcement agencies to give them the officers and equipment to go after real lawbreakers.  Perhaps we should impose an ammunition sales tax, like the gasoline tax that funds highway programs, in order to fund programs to support various aspects of firearms safety. There also ought to be a provision that if an owner doesn’t report the loss, sale, or theft of a firearm, and that weapon is subsequently used in a crime, the owner can be charged as an accessory after the fact.  None of these provisions should really trouble responsible gun owners.  I mean, after all, don’t they just require you to act the way you claim you should?  And make certain that anyone injured by your firearms, or their family, can be compensated, with, of course, an uninsured firearms operator provision as well.

And besides, it’s the American way – use a combination of required education, insurance, and financial responsibility.  More bureaucracy?  Of course, but it’s more than clear that simple solutions that have worked elsewhere in the world – like restricting firearms – haven’t worked here and won’t. So… we should do it our way, rather than doing nothing.

Musings on Safety…?

We all want our food to be safe to eat, the vehicles we drive to be mechanically and technically sound, the medicines we take not to be unduly hazardous to our health… and so forth.  But the problem we face is that as society becomes more technological and complex, the less an individual can do to assure that safety, and the abuses of business in the nineteenth and twentieth century have proved rather conclusively that businesses and corporations can’t be trusted to ensure the safety of their products and services, at least not without federal regulations and oversight [and, alas, sometimes not even then].

But beyond what one might call the “understandable” realm of government rules comes yet another level of safety… and that is the regulatory acts and structures we support and pay for as a result of the actions of crazies. To maintain safety from these crazies in a civilized society, we pay a huge premium, and one that shouldn’t, at least in an ideal world, be so necessary.  And, yes, I’m among the first to admit we do not live in anything close to an ideal world.

There are the crazies of greed, the scam artists, the ones who try to con money and assets from the gullible and the trusting, and those not intelligent enough to realize they’re being swindled. Another variety of the crazies of greed are the businesses who offshore the production of goods to places where there are no regulations, or very lax ones, on pollution, working conditions, and hazardous chemicals, and while, technically speaking, this practice may “save” us dollars in the cost of goods, it increases the costs and damages on the planet far more than what it “saves” us in lower prices.

Once I believed that it was the product-tampering crazies, those nuts who have injected toxins, poisons, and other harmful substances into foods, medicines, and the like, and who created a billion dollar industry of additional packaging that was totally unnecessary in a sane world… but then I realized that child-proof packaging is also necessary in a world where everything is presented as attractive.  Who would ever have thought that detergent pods would resemble candy?  But then, maybe that’s another facet of excessive corporate greed.

Of course, the emphasis on safety is selective.  We still allow sixteen year-olds possession and use of a two thousand pound plus potentially lethal weapon – the automobile – although we do require that the vehicle and operator be licensed and registered, unlike guns, where registration and licensing, in the USA, at least, are violently opposed

But I do find it interesting that the instance of thirty-some poisonings from tampered Tylenol more than twenty-five years ago spurred the eventual requirements of tamper-proof packaging on everything, and there’s not even a requirement for a gun owner to be licensed, when there are over 13,000 gun-related deaths annually in the USA.


Bullying… and Bullying

With the firing of the Rutgers University basketball coach for bullying, the media and educational concern over bullying by teachers and coaches has intensified.  In the case of the Rutgers  coach, there’s substantial video evidence that he did indeed bully his players, not to mention engage in abusive and unprofessional behavior.  Likewise, there is a real problem in the educational system in students bullying other students.  Unfortunately, all the publicity about “bullying” is threatening to create a situation that may become in time, if not already, another serious problem.

 As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the tendency for students and educators to insist on teachers and professors providing “positive feedback” to students, regardless of whether such positivity is warranted, is already resulting in what I called the “Rah, Rah Cheerleader Effect.”  Now, more and more often, some students are deciding that any form of observation of their failings or any constructive criticism, even of the most egregious failure on the part of the student, is a form of “bullying.” 

 There is a clear distinction, at least in my mind, and, I suspect, in the minds of experienced and knowledgeable teachers and professors, between the abusive bullying behavior exemplified in the Rutgers basketball video and a quiet but firmly delivered statement about a student’s failure to do an assignment, to follow directions, or the errors committed by the student.  Yet all too many students today, in this era of political correctness and “anything negative will scar a child for life” equate almost anything that even suggests negativity with “bullying.”

 Human beings learn from their mistakes, and students are going to be handicapped in both future studies and in life if teachers and professors are restrained from honestly evaluating students because of a fear of being called “bullies.” Given the wide reliance on anonymous student evaluations by virtually all colleges and universities, this is anything but an unfounded fear, and what is worst about it all is that the teachers and professors who demand the most in achievement and excellence are the ones already getting comments about their being bullies. Studies of student evaluations already indicate that, in general, the most demanding professors get lower student evaluations than less academically demanding professors. For example, a recent controlled study at the U.S. Air Force Academy found that students who studied with more demanding professors got lower grades, gave lower student evaluations… and learned more.

 At a time when there is a real problem with bullying, especially student-student bullying, the last thing education needs is the problem of deciding that an honest assessment of a failure to meet academic standards is a form of bullying.   

Productivity, Technology, and Society

U.S. worker productivity dropped in the fourth quarter of 2012, and overall worker productivity growth has lagged for the past several years, even as unit labor costs have risen. The economists’ explanations for the decline range from the lack of hiring to a surge in new hiring in the last part of 2012, as well as some highly technical considerations. Despite all the explanations and rhetoric, I have one basic question.  Given the continuing capital investment, the comparative stagnation of wages, and the vastly increased computerization and use of technology, why isn’t productivity a whole lot higher?

 Some economists claim that productivity isn’t higher because companies are trying to wring more work out of already overworked and tired workers, and that may well be true, but I think there’s another factor at work, and one that’s significantly larger… and completely overlooked by the statisticians, but not by actual middle managers, of whom there are probably too few these days.  What is that factor?  The on-the-job proliferation of personal technology use unrelated to the business at hand, and especially its use, overuse, and misuse

 There’s a fine line between use and overuse, but emails illustrate that difference.  Because emails have proliferated, many recipients either ignore more vital or important emails or are late getting to them because their electronic in-boxes are overflowing. Of course, that has created a greater use of Twitter, and that means more complex issues in emails aren’t addressed… or are delayed… or recipients just sigh and play a computer game.

 Two schools exist on the impact of social media on productivity, but the actual studies are limited.  On the one hand, the business research firm Basex issued a study declaring the productivity cost of workplace interruptions, primarily employee abuse and misuse of social media, at $650 billion a year, and a British study by, claimed a 14 billion pound annual loss to UK firms from time spent on social media. Another British study found that that, on average, employees spend almost 20% of their workweek  involved in personal online activities rather than on work. In 2012, Americans racked up 74 billion minutes, 20% of their time on social media sites, according to Nielsen/Incite’s Social Media Report for 2012, and it’s more than likely that a significant fraction of that time was on the company clock, so to speak.

 On the other hand, there are several studies claiming that blocking social media creates demoralized employees, retards communications, and actually costs industry billions annually.

 I’m not sure I trust anyone’s statistics completely, but I do know that I have to spend more time than I’d like scanning emails that purport to be useful and discarding them – and that’s not counting those in the spam file, which I also have to scan, because the filters still throw out mail I should be getting.  I also know local employers who continually are frustrated by finding employees on personal cellphones and social media sites when they should be working. My wife has colleagues who can’t get around to what they’re supposed to be doing because they’re always tweeting or on their cellphones.

 And when you have a whole generation of students who insist on continual communication, either through texting, tweets, or cellphones, I have the feeling that we’re not going to see a great deal of productivity improvement in the years ahead.

Criminal Priorities

Last week thirty-five teachers in the Atlanta school system were arrested/indicted for cheating… that is, they were accused of changing and inflating students’ scores on the standardized tests that reputedly measure student achievement and thus determine teacher effectiveness… and bonuses. The district superintendent, who retired in 2011, was charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy, and making false statements, allegedly in order to obtain $500,000 in performance pay. She could face 45 years in prison, and prosecutors recommended a $7.5 million bond for her.  In addition to the 35 charged so far, another 143 were named in an 800 page report.  Of those named, 82 confessed to altering test scores.

 Now… I would be the last person to approve of such behavior, but, as my wife the university professor pointed out, there is a certain inconsistency, as well as tremendous hypocrisy, involved in these prosecutions, from the charges against individual teachers to the amount of the bail-bond set for the retired superintendent.

 Let me get this straight. Teachers and administrators rigged test scores to improve their salaries, and in some cases, merely to keep their jobs, because the teachers with the lowest student scores, regardless of the class composition, risked losing their jobs, and they’re being prosecuted.  That prosecution is absolutely necessary, sadly, as it should be. Over three years ago, however, mortgage bankers, investment bankers, and other financial institutions falsified the risk of trillions of dollars in mortgage securities and sent the country into the second worst economic recession in U.S. history… and not a single investment banker has even been charged.  In the case of the mortgage bankers, millions lost their homes, jobs, and savings, and entire communities were economically devastated, while in the case of the teachers, far more modest damage has occurred… damage limited to one school district in one metropolitan area…

 Well… some might say that teachers should be held to a higher standard.  But… if they should be held to a higher standard, why aren’t they being paid as well as mortgage bankers, who clearly haven’t been held to a high standard?  The average teacher doesn’t make a fraction of what those illustrious individuals who crashed the economy made… and still make.

 There’s no law against making bad economic decisions, others might claim, but there is a law against creating fraudulent test scores for economic gain.   Except… what about the fraudulent grading of bundled mortgage securities and derivatives that made the investment banks billions… money that was lost and never repaid?

 I don’t have much sympathy for the teachers, none, in fact, but I can understand why some of them did what they did.  We have a society that worships money, and little else, and in education, only the test scores and credentials, not the actual learning, seem to matter. Those teachers saw that only money, credentials, and numbers seem to count, as well as the fact that some of the highest executives in the financial industry benefited from defrauding the purchasers of bundled securities and got away with it.  Given that scale of fraud, what does it matter if test scores are fudged a bit?  Why should teachers worry about ethics and that sort of thing, if the government and the American people aren’t going to do anything about massive financial gains from fraud or even care about the lack of ethics exhibited by those financiers?

 Oh… and add to that the current mindset that teachers are absolutely and totally responsible for student learning.  Parents have no responsibility for providing a learning environment at home; communities have no responsibility for the safety of students; and students have no responsibility for trying to learn.  In fact, from what I’ve seen, only a minority of students will accept any responsibility for learning.  Oh… most will give the idea of their responsibility to learn lip service, but that vanishes with the first difficult assignment or the first novel distraction… and it becomes entirely the teacher’s problem.  Well… obviously those teachers in Atlanta decided that, if the system was rigged against them, they’d re-rig it… and they got caught.

 What will be overlooked is the fact that, in some states, almost fifty percent of classroom time will continue to be spent on testing or test preparation… and that’s an even greater corruption of education than upgrading student test scores, unwelcome as such alternations are and should be.  The other question that the Atlanta case raises is why it took so long to come to light.  If all these objective tests are so accurate, then shouldn’t it have been apparent from the start that there were obvious discrepancies between the test scores and academic performance? Oh… I forgot.  No one measures academic performance except by test scores.  Or is it that the tests aren’t that accurate?  Or that no one wants to turn away from the simplistic – and wrong – assumption that tests don’t answer all, or even a larger proportion – of the problems involved in education?

 The even greater problem is that, now, most teachers – and most of them are dedicated, honest, and hard-working – will have to live down another problematical example… and they’ll have to do it knowing that the biggest cheaters in U.S. history got away scot-free… and knowing that no one really seems to care… except to have another reason to blame teachers.

The National Game?

Once upon a time, baseball was the national game.  For some it still is.  Others, I suppose, would pick football… or basketball, or even NASCAR.  I doubt we have the consensus on a national pastime that existed a generation or so ago with baseball… and I happen to think that’s sad.  It’s also revealing in a way that I often don’t see discussed.

As baseball aficionados have told me, one of the most difficult tasks in any sport is hitting a baseball.  Ted Williams said something to the effect that failing to hit the ball seven times out of ten was a great success, and batting over .333 for a career is likely to put a player on the short list for the Hall of Fame.  In fact, since 1900, the highest season batting average ever was .424, by Rogers Hornsby, and he is the only hitter during that time period to bat over .400 for three separate seasons.  The last hitter to hit over .400 for a season was Bill Terry in 1930.  By comparison, the worst fielding record by an outfielder playing a full season was .842, and generally the top-fielding outfielders literally miss no catches… with an average of 1.000.  For what it’s worth, that suggests to me a certain parallel with life in that new initiatives [hits] fail most of the time, while it’s critical not to make mistakes [in other words, make every catch].

So why does any of this matter?  Because it’s indicative of how American culture and values have changed over the past century, and I have my doubts about whether those changes have been for the better.

Baseball is a game of skill, and while one can argue, as Billy Beane has done as general manager at Oakland, that certain skills are overrated and others underrated, skills do matter.  It’s also a game of timing and finesse.  Even during the “steroid scandal” period, even all those overmuscled “power hitters” couldn’t manage better batting averages, no matter how far they blasted the ball. It’s also a somewhat slower game [some would call it glacially paced] compared to the increased appeal of football, basketball, and even NASCAR racing.

More important, sadly, appears to be the increased level of mayhem or violence present in those three.  There have been so many career-ending injuries in football that the NFL has been forced to investigate and make some rule changes.  Recent medical studies indicate that a truly significant percentage of football players have brain damage from repeated impacts.  Even basketball, which was largely a non-contact sport when I played in high school all too many years ago, has become so much more violent that knee and back injuries are commonplace, and now we’re beginning to see broken bones  — as witness what happened to Kevin Ware of Louisville in the current NCAA tournament.  As for NASCAR, the crashes become more and more spectacular.

In short, in terms of the national spectator pastime, it appears that Americans have opted increasingly against skill and strategy, against a quest for perfection against the odds, and for speed and violence in all forms… and this emphasis is everywhere, in such seemingly unrelated societal changes as emails replacing letters, and then tweets replacing emails… sorter, faster, and with a higher percentage of vulgar/violent language.  Or even in the rise of mixed martial arts, even more brutal, violent, and faster than boxing or wrestling.

These days I get more and more comments from first-time readers about my “pacing” – that it’s slow. There are other long fantasy series, but more and more of them focus on action and violence, not to mention sex. Many television shows are using technology to fractionally speed up the action, by snipping pauses, making faster cuts, etc.

So as Americans turn from baseball… what’s next?  Gladiatorial contests?  The Hunger Games?  Or something even faster and more violent?

And what does it say about us?