Archive for August, 2013

Empathy and Action

On a recent book-related trip and then at a dinner after I returned I overheard two conversations remarkably similar in content, if from two dissimilar sets of individuals.  Both were discussing, often heatedly, concerns about the mistreatment of animals in the United States and the concerns about starving and suffering children in war zones and third-world nations across the globe. The underlying question posed by one person in each of those settings was, essentially, why are Americans so concerned about suffering animals in the United States when there are so many suffering people, especially children, in the world who could use the dollars and caring lavished on animals here in the U.S.?

It’s a seemingly straight-forward question that isn’t, similar in many ways to the statement made a few generations ago to children who wouldn’t “clean their plate” by parents who said, “Finish your dinner. There are millions of starving children in China,” or some variation on that theme. Just as I wondered how cleaning my plate would do anything for starving children, since I perceived no way that my uneaten dinner could get to China, so too, today, the problem remains that much of the care lavished on mistreated domestic animals in the U.S. cannot be transferred economically or practically to malnourished children, even in the U.S., let alone across the globe.

But beyond that rather practical observation, and beyond the protests that there must be a way, lie even more fundamental questions/issues. Why must some people assume that concern over mistreated or deserted animals precludes concern over maltreated, abused, starving children?  Does a preoccupation with alleviating human misery, to the extent of ignoring animal misery, reflect not only real concern, but also an innate assumption of human “superiority” and a minimization of the ills of living creatures less able to control their fate and destiny?  Given that we are a part of the ecological weft and web of the world, and that our survival requires the continuation and prosperity of that web that is also the food chain of the world, in the “grand scheme” of the universe are we really that special?  Who says so?  Besides us, that is?  More and more studies show that the more intelligent mammals, as well as some reptiles, have what we term feelings, such as concern for offspring, affection, grief, and even forms of altruism.

Add to that the fact that studies have indicated that individuals prone to mistreating animals have a far higher propensity to mistreat vulnerable humans, such as children, spouses, and the elderly, and given that, wouldn’t it be better to not to create such a firm dividing line between the need to help animals who clearly experience suffering and humans who do?  That might also have a social and political effect on those not-so-“human” individuals, not only throughout history, but even today, who characterize groups of humans that they dislike as “little more than animals,” because in a very real and absolutely physical sense, none of us are more than animals who can think and use tools better than the other animals.

Messianic Fever

I’m extraordinarily tired of single-factor solutions to all ranges of problems, and yet the more I look around, the more I see of such approaches to everything, from “repeal Obamacare and all our problems will be solved” to either “less government is the answer” or “more regulations on business are necessary.”  Universities and state legislatures are adopting the “business model” as the latest solution, despite the fact that the business model hasn’t worked all that well for business, let alone for education, especially in the area of “for profit” education which has the highest percentage of student loans and especially defaulted student loans.

The accounting department and the sales department of a business have different requirements and needs, yet all too many corporations attempt to impose the same management structures on both.  In education, the performing arts have different requirements from history or business, and the science departments differ from either, and yet administration after administration and state legislatures all seem to impose “one size fits all” requirements on colleges and universities. 

In political issues, especially the hot-button ones like abortion and immigration, the same “messianic” single-rule for all people and all situations is pushed by all too many interest groups and politicians, who ignore totally the fact that one size does not fit all.  An “illegal” immigrant who was brought into the U.S. by his or her parents as an infant in arms, and had no choice in the matter, who was raised as an American, who thinks as an American, who has never committed a crime, and who speaks no other tongue than English is a far different “illegal” than a thirtyish drug runner, but one-size-fits-all mentality either cannot grasp this or doesn’t care.  If they can’t grasp the difference, they don’t have the brains to be making or influencing policy, and if they don’t care, their attitude is little different from a psychopath, and I’m not particularly thrilled about either type deciding laws and policies.

I particularly get incensed when lawmakers go out of their way to find means to reach religious goals through the law-making process or through community-based extra-legal means. In Utah, that semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret where I live, lawmakers, business leaders, and the LDS church are particularly adept at this.  I understand that Mormons believe drink is the devil, but the convoluted liquor laws resulted in the wine industry citing the state as the most unfriendly to wine drinkers of all fifty states.  I don’t drink, and that’s a personal and health choice, and I wouldn’t want to be forced to do so, but just because I don’t drink doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, should have the right to restrict what beverages are on the market [and I’m not talking about food safety issues] and make bringing wines into Utah that the state liquor stores don’t sell a crime.  All these restrictions haven’t stopped people from drinking – all one has to do is look how much beer vanishes from the stores over a weekend and what the liquor store parking lots look like – but it raises costs and inconveniences everyone else. In Utah, we have no state lottery, again for religious reasons enshrined in state law, but Utahans travel to Idaho and Colorado to buy tens of millions of lottery tickets that support education in those states, and the net result is that Utahans still gamble, and everyone else gets the benefits.

Not that what I have to say will make any difference, because simple solutions are just so much easier to sell… and besides, according to so very many people, one size really does fit all, regardless of reality.

The Danger of “Inspiring” Teachers

Just before the university at which my wife teaches began its fall term, every faculty member was sent a copy of a book [What The Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain].  Because I did spend four years teaching at the collegiate level, I also read the book.  At first, as I progressed through the book, I was intrigued, then vaguely displeased.  When I finished I was fuming. 

Why?  Because the examples that Bain chooses invariably are “inspiring” teachers.  Now, I have nothing against “inspiring” teachers, or at least not too much, but it’s absolutely clear that Bain regards the primary function of teachers is inspiring their students to learn.  All other aspects of education are secondary in his view, from what I can tell.  Just how far have we come from the reputed statement of Thomas Edison that declared that success was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration? The fact is that the majority of students – and people – learn from their failures, not their successes, and failures are usually not inspiring. Learning from them is work.  And work requires more effort than inspiration.

This is particularly important to consider, given that figures just released by ACT reveal that more than half of all entering college students lack either the reading, analytical, or mathematical skills, if not all three, adequate for college level courses.  All the inspiration in the world isn’t going to help much if students lack the grounding necessary for collegiate-level work.

In conjunction with this messianic text of praise to inspiration, the university also passed out to all faculty members a glossy color booklet entitled Extraordinary Educators, which profiled 12 faculty members for their “passion in inspiring excellence in their students.”  Since I was trained in a certain amount of analysis, I looked through the booklet and found it very interesting, and not in a particularly positive way.  Half of those profiled have been at the university five years or less, a quarter three years or less. Only two had been there more than ten years. I’m sorry, but you can’t prove excellence in just a few years. Half were women, all of them attractive, and five of the six were young.  Only two of the men and one of the women were past their late forties.  Because I have taught at the university and been active in university-connected matters and because my wife has been teaching there for twenty years, including stints as a department chair and a member of faculty senate, it’s fair to say we know a significant number of faculty members, and there are educators who are far more effective than at least half, and possibly 80% of those profiled.  Why were those educators who were profiled chosen?  Because, it would appear, they’re popular, and everyone wants into their classes. Popularity doesn’t preclude excellence, but it also doesn’t define it, and from what I’ve seen, too many college educators dumb down their classes to be popular, and administrations, at least in public universities, tacitly encourage it, in order to keep enrollments up. 

 The message I got from the book and booklet was that extraordinary educators must be young, attractive, and popular. Forget about evaluating professors on what they demand of their students or what those students actually learn.  Just look at the popularity numbers, student evaluations [which study after study has shown reward easy-grading faculty members], and class enrollments.

Inspiring educators?  How about more who require learning, effort, and perspiration?


In the United States, as Warren Buffett put it, we live in a country where valor on the battlefield is rewarded by a medal, and the best teachers get thank-you notes [except now teachers are more likely not to get thank-you notes, but blame for their failure to overcome all the obstacles placed in their way by permissive parenting, excessive and counterproductive regulations, and the need to teach to the tests in order to keep their jobs], while speculators and financial executives get millions.  And similar levels and types of rewards exist in most other industrialized countries.  As most readers know, my wife is a university professor, and this year, after several years of no increases in salary, or token raises of one percent, the faculty at the university received another one percent raise that wasn’t one.

Why not?  Because the university took it all back – and more — in other ways.  Health insurance premiums weren’t raised [that happened last year with a massive increase], but the cost to faculty still went up because the co-pay for prescription drugs was doubled; the co-pay for physician visits was increased; and the procedures covered and the amounts covered were decreased.  Faculty parking charges were instituted.  Departmental budgets were cut by another 15%.  On the other hand, the new university president will get a 15% higher salary than the departing president.

These sorts of “rewards” are far from limited to education. Despite the fact that those Americans who are working happen to be working longer hours than they were thirty years ago, family income, in real dollar terms, has decreased over the past decade for all but the top ten percent, and that decrease doesn’t include increased costs of various sorts passed on to employees in a myriad of ways.  But Goldman Sachs senior employees get hefty bonuses for figuring out how to double the price of aluminum so that the company gets a larger profit while passing the costs on to everyone else.

I don’t mind “rewards” that recognize true efficiency, where the costs for everyone go down, and profits go up without screwing someone else, but these days, all too many executive rewards are awarded for “efficiency” that results in essentially lower pay and longer hours for underlings and often even increased costs to everyone else.  That’s not efficiency, but passing the buck to those who can’t pass it to someone else.

 The last time this sort of business behavior was rampant, over a century ago, it resulted in trust-busting and corporate dismemberment.  That’s one of the very few parts of the not-so-good-old days that we ought to bring back… because it’s all too clear that American business and even large non-profits and state governments aren’t about to reform themselves on their own.  And that in itself is a shame.

Another Darwin Award?

The other day I almost committed vehicular manslaughter.  It was anything but my fault, and I’m still fuming about it.

I was driving back from the post office, approaching a light.  The light was green, and I was in the right lane, slowing and signaling for a right turn into the rightmost lane of a four-lane street.  Just as I got around the corner, a skateboarder whizzed off a sidewalk and straight down the middle of my lane going the wrong way and directly at me. I barely managed to get into the inner lane, fortunately empty at the time, to avoid hitting him. The skateboarder was no child, but a long-bearded young man, wearing earbuds and a bemused expression, easily traveling at fifteen miles an hour plus. Had I struck the distracted skateboarder, the results would have been exceedingly painful, if not fatal, for him, and possibly financially, morally, emotionally, and legally wrenching for me. 

The young man who almost hit me head-on was traveling quickly, going the wrong way, wearing earbuds and presumably distracted, and not wearing a helmet. That combination made him a perfect candidate for the Darwin Awards[ a satiric award recognizing individuals who have contributed to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the human gene pool by their own unnecessarily foolish actions], as did his apparent lack of awareness of just how dangerous what he was doing happened to be.

Looking at the statistics, this was anything but a freak occurrence. While in recent years, automobile fatalities have been decreasing, and overall pedestrian fatalities have decreased, injuries and fatalities have steadily increased among distracted walkers… and among skateboarders on streets and roads, rather than at skateboard parks. The number of pedestrians injured and killed while on cell phones has prompted several cities to propose penalties and citations for distracted walking, and many schools, universities, and other institutions have imposed restrictions on skateboards because of repeated occurrences of behavior dangerous to both skateboarders and others.

Part of this is because the electronics are clearly so addictive that their users lose touch with the everyday and seemingly mundane world around them, and part of the problem is that far too many young people have been given the message that they are the center of the world.  As a result, they don’t fully appreciate that if they walk or skateboard into the path of a 2,000-5,000 pound vehicle, they run a high probability of being immediately and painfully removed from both the real world and their personal illusory world… not to mention the fact that everyone else will also pay a high price.

But then… that lack of understanding may be why they’re candidates for the Darwin Award.

No One Wants to be a Stereotype

Almost all thinking people, and more than a few who couldn’t be considered the most pensive of individuals on the planet, bridle at the thought of being stereotyped. Stereotyping is decried, particularly by individuals in groups that are most subject to negative stereotypes, and stereotyping is considered by many as merely another form of bias or prejudice, leading to one form of discrimination or another. 

Yet stereotypes continue to persist, whether publicly acknowledged, and even if decried.  They persist, as I’ve noted earlier, because people believe in them.  They are two reasons for such belief, first, because belief in the stereotype fulfills some personal or cultural need, and second, because there is a significant percentage of individuals within a given group that suggests the stereotype has some validity.  And sometimes they do, often happily, but more often, unhappily.

We have some very dear Greek friends, who have a large and very vociferously vocal family passionate in expressing their views on pretty much everything – and all of them take pride in that characteristic, insisting that it is a feature of most Greek families. I have yet to meet a shy and retiring Greek, although it is certain there must be more than a few.  This is a case of fairly innocuous stereotyping, but other stereotypes can and have been brutal and fatal, as Hitler’s “final solution” for the Jewish people of Europe demonstrated.

Yet… what if a stereotype has a basis in fact, in cold and statistics, if you will?  What if, for example, “white collar crime” is indeed indicative of the overwhelming prevalence of Caucasians engaging in it [which does seem in fact to be the case]? 

Under these circumstances, when should we ignore the stereotype?  Go out of our way to make certain we don’t “prejudice” our actions or attitudes?  In some cases, probably we should.  I certainly shouldn’t be surprised or astounded to find a quiet Greek.  But in other cases… ignoring stereotypes can in fact be dangerous.  Walking down dark alleys in inner cities, stereotyped as dangerous, is indeed dangerous, and because it is, one might be better off in heeding the stereotype. 

In short, like everything else, stereotypes arise for a reason, sometimes useful, sometimes not, and sometimes very deadly, and we, as individuals, have to decide where a given stereotype fits… which requires thinking, and that, unhappily, is where most of us fail, because stereotypes are a mental shortcut, and blindly accepting or rejecting shortcuts can too often lead to unexpected and, too often, unfortunate results.

The New Monopolists

As human beings, we’re quick to react to sudden and immediate dangers, from the mythical snapping twig that suggests an approaching predator to sirens or an ominous-looking individual. Often, we react too quickly and at times totally incorrectly.  But we react… to those kinds of dangers.  We also react to perceived threats on our “rights,” not so quickly, but at times even more violently.

What we don’t react well to, and slowly, and usually less than perfectly, are to those changes in our world that have turned perceived “good things” into indicators of dangers.  And the recent Department of Justice “victory” over Apple and the major publishers on ebook pricing is just one recent example of this.  Now… I’m not exactly an Apple fan.  I own no Apple products whatsoever, and I think that the I-Phone and its clones are harbingers of disaster [although in the interest of full disclosure, I will note that my wife does own a single IPad and that I am indeed an author whose income depends very much on the health of the book market.].  As I noted much earlier, the DOJ case against Apple and the publishers was based on the case that Amazon’s dominance of the ebook market [over 90% at the time] was essentially irrelevant because Amazon was charging lower prices than those Apple and the publishers were charging under the “agency model.”  And the letter of the anti-trust laws supported DOJ, as did the courts. 

The problem/danger here is the failure of Congress, the Judiciary, and the American people to recognize that “lower prices” aren’t always better, and in fact, they can be a symptom of great danger.  Lower prices are great, assuming that your income is stable or increasing.  But are lower prices so good if they cause the actual standard of living of the majority of Americans to decline?  Certainly, homebuilders and construction workers might well argue that the oversupply and cheap prices of existing housing was anything but good for them or the economy. What is important is the relationship between wages and prices, not just how low prices are.  If prices are down twenty percent, but your income is cut in half, you lose… maybe everything.  This tends to be overlooked in today’s economy and consumer culture.

And what is the relevance to law and the Apple decision?  Simply this – old style monopoly was the restriction of trade to raise prices and increase corporate profits.  Under the old-style [and current definition] of monopoly, lower prices are not a danger but a good thing.  The problem is that today we have a new kind of monopolist, as embodied in Amazon and Walmart.  These “new” monopolists use low prices to gain a dominant market share, and once they have that share, they use their power to force their suppliers to provide goods and services at lower prices, outsourcing overseas, doing whatever it takes.  This means those suppliers must cut their costs to stay in business, and that means lower wages.  It also means that manufacturing here in the United States either automates or outsources to lower wage areas.  In the end, the new monopolist still has large-scale profits which are not so high in percentage terms, but so much larger in scale that the percentage decline is acceptable.  This kind of “new” monopoly has taken over especially in consumer goods and retail industries, but it’s also appearing, if more slowly, in everything from finance to automaking…and, at the same time, Americans keep scrambling for bargains… without realizing exactly what the long-term cost of those “low prices” happens to be.

Happy shopping!


Standing Ovations and “Discrimination”

My wife the opera singer and university professor has been involved in pretty much all levels of public performance and voice and opera teaching, production, and administration over more than three decades…and one of the most appalling changes she [and I as well] has noticed is the shift from a standing ovation being an infrequent occurrence after a performance to it becoming apparently almost obligatory. She is certainly not the only one in the field who has noted this. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, made the same observation, especially in regard to Broadway plays, several years ago.

There are doubtless numerous reasons for this shift, one certainly being the aging of generations taught to believe that everyone is “wonderful,” but there are two others that likely play an equal part in this decline of apparent ability, or unwillingness, to judge quality, particularly in the arts. The first is a growing belief that, in areas of society where qualitative excellence cannot be quantified or measured “objectively,” everyone’s opinion is equal, and that what one likes is always excellent, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is simply out of step.

The other contributing factor is an almost inchoate belief within current society that suggests that any judgment embodying negativity, or even a belief that competence is not excellence, is somehow “bad.”  This is evidenced implicitly by the shift in the word “discrimination” over the past fifty years.  At one time, to show discrimination meant the ability to distinguish between good and bad, to be able to distinguish between what was good, very good, or excellent.  Now, to discriminate means to show bias or prejudice, a totally negative meaning with unfavorable connotations as well.  At present, there does not exist a single word in the English language that conveys approvingly the idea of being able to make such judgments.  Because simple and direct words are the strongest, this lack effectively, if you will, denigrates the entire concept of constructive judgment or criticism.  By the same token, critical judgment now carries the connotation, if not the denotation, of severity or negativity.

Since when is NOT giving a standing ovation a measure of negativity?  Yet it appears that audiences have come to feel that “mere” applause is not enough. 

Then again, perhaps I’ve missed it all, and standing ovations are merely the supersized version of applause, the symptom of a society that always wants more, whether it’s useful or healthy.   

Another “Elephant”?

With the outcry over the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, rhetoric, charges, counter-charges, explanations, refutation of explanations have appeared everywhere, including comments on this website, but there’s one elephant in the room that has yet to be satisfactorily explained, an elephant, if you will, that lies at the heart of what occurred in Florida.  And that elephant, for once, isn’t the far right wing of the Republican party, but one that has been overlooked by those who ought to be most concerned for more than a generation.

Why do black youths commit homicides at rates four times as high as the average of all murders committed by youths? 

Typically, many answers are given, but the one most currently in favor is that poverty and single-parent homes create conditions that result in aliened youths more likely to join gangs and kill others.  But there are more than a few problems with this simplistic explanation.  First, the largest racial group of the poor still remains white;  nineteen million whites fall below the poverty level for a family of four, nearly twice as many whites as blacks. Second, the number of white-single-mother households has been increasing over the past decade so that single-white-mother households outnumber single-black-mother-households, as well as single-Hispanic-mother households.  During this period, youth homicide rates fell across the board, but the 2010 rate for black youth still remained nearly four times that of whites and Hispanics, despite the decline in the percentage of black children living in high-poverty neighborhoods and the increase in white and Hispanic children living in such neighborhoods.

While racial tensions remain, the vast majority of black youth killings are those of young black men killing other young black men, not black young men killing whites or other minorities, and most of the other criminal offenses committed by young blacks are against or within the black community. No matter what anyone claims, this is not an interracial issue, but an intra-racial problem, almost certainly a subcultural affect, which although exacerbated by a larger problems, is not primarily caused by such.

The answer isn’t likely to be that there is a greater genetic/racial predilection toward violence or “less civilization” by blacks, either, not given history, which has shown great civilizations raised by peoples of all colors, or even current events, in which it appears the greatest violence and killing at present appears to be that committed by white Islamists against other white Islamists, if of a different Islamic persuasion.

Like it or not, such statistics suggest that the reason for the high level of violence perpetrated by young black males doesn’t lie primarily in externally imposed conditions, even if those conditions — such as prejudice, bigotry, poverty, poor education, and police “profiling” – are debilitating and should continue to be addressed, and such conditions improved.  Both large numbers of whites and other minorities have suffered and continue to suffer these conditions and, at least so far, their young males do not murder each other at anywhere near the rate and frequency as do young black males.

Might there just be some facets of the urban black culture that contribute to this situation? Facets that cannot be remedied by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning, and well-intentioned?  Facets that outsiders risk being immediately attacked as racist for even suggesting? Facets that even notable black figures have been attacked for suggesting?