Britteny Griner—Lifesize

Like me, you’ll enjoy this sixteen minute documentary if you have any interest in Skittles, global labor markets, Chinese culture, cross cultural hurdles, and stories of personal growth.

Yao Ming, whose reverse experience closely paralleled Griner’s, would’ve been an ideal friend/cultural ambassador/mentor.

Here’s an excellent and highly recommended Yao Ming documentary.

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Think Globally, Yeah Right

I predicted this story about Ethiopia becoming the next China nearly twenty years ago after living there, traveling in other sub-Saharan African countries, and becoming a student of globalization.*

Long story short, the outsourced manufacturing race to the bottom has entered it’s final stage. China’s average manufacturing wage is 3,469 yuan ($560) per month. Pay at Ethiopia’s Huajian shoe factory (18 miles outside of Addis Ababa) ranges from the basic after-tax minimum of $30 a month to about twice that for supervisors.

A paragraph to ponder:

Huajian’s 3,500 workers in Ethiopia produced 2 million pairs of shoes last year. Located in one of the country’s first government-supported industrial zones, the factory began operating in January 2012, only three months after Zhang decided to invest. It became profitable in its first year and now earns $100,000 to $200,000 a month, he said, calling it an insufficient return that will rise as workers become better trained.

Meanwhile, last week, George Mason economist and blogger extraordinaire, Tyler Cowen, wrote in the New York Times about income inequality. The title is the thesis, “Income Inequality is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.

Here’s the gist of Cowen’s argument:

We have evolved a political debate where essentially nationalistic concerns have been hiding behind the gentler cloak of egalitarianism. To clear up this confusion, one recommendation would be to preface all discussions of inequality with a reminder that global inequality has been falling and that, in this regard, the world is headed in a fundamentally better direction.

The message from groups like Occupy Wall Street has been that inequality is up and that capitalism is failing us. A more correct and nuanced message is this: Although significant economic problems remain, we have been living in equalizing times for the world — a change that has been largely for the good. That may not make for convincing sloganeering, but it’s the truth.

A common view is that high and rising inequality within nations brings political trouble, maybe through violence or even revolution. So one might argue that a nationalistic perspective is important. But it’s hardly obvious that such predictions of political turmoil are true, especially for aging societies like the United States that are showing falling rates of crime.

I’m positively predisposed to counter-intuitive thinking, but Cowen was hopelessly naive if he thought his NYT readers might concede even some aspects of his argument.

Here’s the comment Cowen’s readers most liked:

You’ve Got to be Kidding

This article is a classic example of a divide and conquer strategy. The gist is that less educated and skilled people in countries like the U.S are suffering but those in other countries are gaining. Hence, the world is equalizing. So, if you complain about the U.S., you are essentially wishing harm on others. In reality, what the “miracle” of capitalism has done is what it always does — it enriches owners of capital and exploits labor. Developing countries are, of course, better off; they started from nothing, and so anything is an improvement. So production is moved to places where people are desperate, and profits rise because of poor wages, no attention to work place safety, no regard for environmental concerns, etc. Yet, we are to celebrate because the workers in the poor countries are no longer earning zero. This logic then absolves companies from any criticism about the horrendous working conditions. After all, global inequality is falling!

The author also glides over the fact that people live in particular societies and their own inequality is most important. It matters for the distribution of political power (Citizens United, anyone?), for health (see, e.g., studies by Richard Wilkinson), for education, for housing and for a host of other things.

Finally, the author predictably criticizes redistribution (what, not unions?) But the real issue is changing the rules of the game so things aren’t rigged for elites. If so, redistribution will be less needed.

The other most highly rated reader responses were similarly critical. Taken together, they illustrate people’s unwillingness to compare themselves to foreign people in distant places. It’s no surprise that economically secure professionals like Cowen and myself choose cosmopolitanism, but for anyone else who lacks economic security, its a luxury they can’t afford.

It’s the same reason the well-to-do, who can afford higher prices elsewhere, brandish “I Don’t Shop at Walmart” bumper stickers. Cowen embraces cosmopolitanism because his university and book publishers and blog sponsors pay him handsomely; and his university provides his health care; and, like me, he has extraordinary job protections as a tenured professor; and he travels the world doing research, lecturing, and teaching.

I don’t begrudge him his professional success, but for him to assume others will embrace cosmopolitanism based upon his logic suggests he’s woefully out-of-touch with those that are struggling to get by.

Cowen might respond to that criticism by insisting that it’s in everyone’s best interests to think more globally, and I’d agree, but it’s going to take far more than abstract New York Times essays to get people to think beyond their household, community, state, and nation.

imgres * Rest assured, normally my predictive skills are nothing special. For example, I was sure Jay-Z and Beyonce would live happily ever after.

In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

When Monopolies Take Over

Businesses grow as a result of superior customer service. As a result, they sometimes come to completely dominate their market, then the quality of their customer service deteriorates. Often markedly.

A congressional committee—I don’t know which one would be most appropriate—should give this audio tape a listen. I’d title it something like “What our post-free-market consumer experience will be like”.

Give it a listen, then forward it to your political reps. I know, naive of me to think Congress might do something.

The caller’s preternatural calm is mind boggling. My favorite line, “Are you punking us?”

Thanks to Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont for lifting the curtain, I’m sorry to say, on my internet provider.

LeBron James > Michael Jordan

We kid ourselves when we think we know public figures—whether actors, politicians, or professional athletes. Hell, our next-door neighbors seem like the nicest people possible, but I have no idea what goes on in the privacy of their home. All of us have inner lives and see into the mirror dimly. Despite this, we can make tentative judgements about pro athletes in the media spotlight based upon what they say and do outside of competition.

For the life of me, I do not understand the American sport fan who makes judgements about athletes based entirely on statistics and championship titles. Forget whether an athlete treats people well, obeys the law, inspires fans, and uses their fame and fortune to help others also succeed. Character is irrelevant. Championship rings trump social consciousness.

This is odd. In real life we gravitate towards specific co-workers, friends, and family based upon holistic judgments about their personal attributes—are they kind, generous, positive, self-effacing, humorous, caring? But in sports, job competence trumps everything. That’s why, to the American sports fan, LeBron James isn’t even close to as good as Jordan—two NBA championships versus six.

In the game of life, LJ has MJ beat already. By miles. Many sports analysts are not taking LJ’s letter on face value*. Their cynicism makes them suspicious of his motives for taking his talents to Northeast Ohio. I’m prone to cynicism, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt—he likes living in NE Ohio, feels a sense of obligation to the people and place that cheered for him before he was famous, and wants to inspire Cleveland third graders to also defy the odds of what society expects from them**.

And Jordan? He quit basketball to “spend more time with his family.” Immediately afterwards he signed a contract to play minor league baseball in a different state. What does he stand for besides basketball excellence? Gambling. Hanes underwear. Unbridled ego. Tennis shoes. Cash money.

Granted, I was a third grader in Northeast Ohio, so I might be biased, but LJ’s letter was so beautifully written I might ask my writing students to analyze it this fall. Then, for extra credit, he stuck it to Ann Coulter by acknowledging the World Cup final was a much more important athletic competition than any NBA championship series.

Call me naive if you must, but I’m down with LJ. And it’s important to note he’s not the only basketball superstar whose excellence is even more evident off the court. In sports, as in life, we should make holistic judgments. Magic and Durant (zero titles) also have Jordan beat by miles. There are lots of others.

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* I find this economist’s perspective interesting.

** I suspect there’s one other reason, that I haven’t heard a single person mention, why LeBron chose Cleveland. His wife wanted to return home.

Confessional Writing Is Not Self Indulgent

Leslie Jamison has a message for my sister—confessional writing is not self indulgent. That thinking flies in the face of everyone who equates confessional writing with self-centeredness.

Jamison is the author of a new book of personal essays. Her brand of confessional writing has inspired many of her readers to share their personal stories, fostering community.

It’s counter-intuitive, but Jamison’s experience suggests it’s not only okay to bare one’s soul on the printed page, it’s a potent way to build deeper connections with people.

 

What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

Jacoba Urist in The Atlantic asks, “Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs?”

Urist references a new report just released by Finn’s Fordham Institute. Chester Finn’s answer is “Yes, principals should be treated like CEOs.” As usual, he’s clueless. And offensive.

According to Finn’s Fordham Institute, inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Consequently, good principals come and go. Their solution? “Stop viewing principals as ‘glorified teachers’ and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” “To that end,” Finn believes, “principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility.”  As in $100k more.

Hey Chester, the term “glorified teachers” is revealing. Now we know how you feel about the lifeblood of schools. Most teachers have at least as much expertise in instruction as their principals most of whom haven’t taught on a daily basis for decades.

And your suggested pay “bump” reveals how little you know about school culture, administrator-teacher relations, and faculty morale more generally. A typical teacher makes $50k, a principal, $120k*. Both work extremely hard and have lots of responsibility if you count shaping 30 children’s or 150 adolescents’s lives. The current pay gap often breeds animosity and contributes to adversarial relations. You’re proposing doubling the gap again, so that school CEO’s make four times more than teachers. The predictable result? Twice the current animosity.

In fairness, Finn deserves credit for acknowledging that an additional $100k by itself won’t solve the problem of attracting and retaining a new generation of excellent principals if they’re not given greater professional respect and autonomy. But Checker fails to connect the dots. Those are the exact same things teachers want and deserve.

Far more insightful than Finn is Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and author of the book What GreatPrincipals Do Differently. Whitaker says, “. . . most principals would rather have a full-time assistant than a hefty raise. It’s not necessarily even the hours. It’s the intensity. The truth is, if we gave principals an assistant or a lot more money, we probably end up giving them increased responsibilities and we’re right back where we started.”

Urist adds:

In other words,  one way to fix the leadership shortage may be not increased salary, but additional funding for assistant principals, school counselors, and other administrative support staff. Principals are like all people with high responsibility, according to Kate Rousmaniere, professor of educational leadership at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and author of The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal. They work better in teams, where they can share the workload.

Urist honors the complexity of the topic by concluding with questions:

The task, then, is to strike the right balance. How much should we pay principals to attract new talent, and how much additional support do they need to meet the demands of the modern job? How do we make the role more appealing to promising candidates without pouring more money into retaining ineffective people already in place?

Given the ratio of administrators to teachers, even paying principals a lot more would be considerably less expensive for districts. However, doing so will result in unintended consequences, most of which will be negative.

* I call bullshit on the “in many districts some aspiring teachers take a pay cut on the way to the principal’s office” assertion. There may be an isolated case or two of that, the technical term being “outlier”, but the average teacher doubles his/her pay when they become administrators.

 

What I’m Reading and Watching

Some readers are enjoying a previous recommendation, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking. I recently read this which I recommend and now I’m reading this, also excellent. Contemporary Christians are more interested in [fill in the blank] than they are the Early Christian Movement. Christian clergy contribute to the church’s ahistorical orientation by choosing not to talk about exactly what Erhman’s exploring and explaining. His writing is clear, challenging, and provocative, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in the historical Jesus.

I just finished season two of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. This male reviewer watched it differently than me. I often think sociologically, but this guy, who seems to think of it as a Frontline documentary, runs absolute circles around me. His thesis? Males are portrayed irresponsibly. I’ve never thought that while watching OitNB. All I thought was, “Man, this show is well written and acted.” I agree with this female reviewer, season two was even better than season one. So good it was hard not to binge watch. Only eleven more months until season three.

But Mother Dear, the content is definitely R-17, so no watching for you.

The historical Jesus and Orange is the New Black. Not sure what that pairing says about me. If you figure it out, let me know. I’ll be down at the lake.

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Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.