I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

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The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Unstuck

Daily routines give our lives needed structure. My day typically starts with an early morning swim or run followed by a green tea latte. And newspapers. I use the same locker at the Y and shower in the first stall. Sometimes when I’m showering, dudes still half asleep mindlessly do a U-turn towards “my” stall necessitating my “take a hike” glance. I cycle Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I wrap up most days like Winston Churchill, reading in the tub (well, more accurately, he dictated speeches). Maybe I should add in cigars.

The problem with daily routines is that we reach a point of diminishing returns, a tipping point where our lives become too predictable. Absent spontaneity and serendipity, life is uninteresting. Especially as we age, we’re prone to getting stuck in over routinized ruts. The question is how do we get unstuck?

Reagan Underland, an Olympia High School senior, knows how to get unstuck. Read her story here. Even though Reagan most enjoys the humanities and has no family ties to the military, she’s attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs next fall. Why the Academy? Reagan said, “. . . I wanted to do something that scared me and that had purpose.

That’s a wonderful formula for getting unstuck. Find something that scares you and has purpose. I did the same thing as Reagan when I was eighteen. I chose a college that I wasn’t really prepared for. Because I was scared of failing, I ended up flourishing.

The last thing I did that scared me was two years ago when I raced an iron distance triathlon. But truth be told though, I’m not sure if that experience was sufficiently purposeful. In my interpretation of the word, purpose implies something that’s socially redeeming. Maybe it’s time for you and me to follow Reagan’s lead and do something scary and socially redeeming.

 

 

Spring Reading

For when you’re done with your spring cleaning.

1) Teaching Tolerance—How white parents should talk to their kids about race. A must read if your goal is to be “color blind” and raise “color blind” children. I started out skeptical thinking adult behavior easily trumps parent “talk”. But Wenner Moyer makes a convincing case for both.

My “kids and race” story from my junior year of college. I was a teaching assistant in a culturally diverse 3rd grade magnet school classroom in West Los Angeles. One day I was sitting at a round table helping five or six students write stories. One light skinned African-American girl began to rub my pinkish, freckled forearm with her hand. Thinking deeply, she finally blurted out, “You have salami skin!” Feeling a need to return serve, I replied, “Well, you have chocolate skin.” To which another darker skinned girl said, “Huh uh, she has carmel skin, I have chocolate skin!”

2. The Oracle of Omaha, Lately Looking a Bit Ordinary. Can we finally wrap up the active versus passive investing debate and move on to more pressing issues like who will replace David Letterman next year? Even Warren Buffet says Vanguard Index funds are the single best way to invest one’s money.

3. Her First, and Last, Book. Graduation season is around the corner. This is a grad story to remember. “I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” Paragraph to ponder:

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

Your Success at Work Depends Upon This

Likability.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The ability to come across as likable is shaping how people are sized up and treated by bosses and co-workers.

Likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven.

More employers track employees’ likability on in-house social networks and chat services. They recruit those who are trusted and well-liked to spread information or push through changes. Some companies take these employees’ social clout into account when handing out raises and promotions.

Is this news? It’s always been the case, but maybe we’re not as cognizant of it as we could or should be. The middle and high school teachers-to-be that I work with sometimes talk about what makes them most anxious when they think about finally having their own classrooms. Most often it’s not knowing enough. When they toss and turn at night it’s because they’re worried about super intelligent students posing difficult, anxiety inducing questions. Inevitably, they find out that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

When teaching, it’s far better to know one’s subject matter inside and out than not, but classroom success most often hinges on one’s ability to create a rapport with students. More simply, to be likable, which you should never confuse with being a pushover.

Here’s how to be more likable according to the WSJ’s workplace experts:

• Be authentic—To be more likable, behave in a way that feels natural and comfortable, rather than stiff or self-absorbed.

• Be curious—Show interest in others, make eye contact and ask questions about others’ opinions and activities.

• Be expressive—Vary tones of voice and smile, and show enthusiasm about what you’re saying.

• Listen—Focus on what others are saying and show that you are listening carefully, rather than getting distracted.

• Mimic others—Mirror the expressions or posture of the person you are talking to, in order to create a sense of familiarity.

• Find similarities—Actively try to find topics of interest you share with a listener, rather than talking only about what interests you.

The experts contend that likability is learned, but I can’t help but wonder, when a work coach of sorts advises an employee to act more naturally, wouldn’t being conscious of that notion make it even more difficult? I’d be skeptical of any stiff or self-absorbed person were to suddenly say, “Okay, watch this, now I’m going to act more naturally.” I want to believe teachers in training and others can learn these skills, I’m just not sure how best to teach them.

What say you?

The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.

 

 

 

 

Too Busy To Be Bothered

imgresThis book is getting lots of positive press. I heard Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, interviewed on National Public Radio (her husband is Tom Bowman, NPR’s Pentagon reporter). She’s likable and insightful, but most people will say they don’t have time to read Overwhelmed because they’re so. . . overwhelmed.

I’m not overwhelmed. Haven’t been for a few months. I hesitate to admit that because our culture values being busy, overextended, overwhelmed, pick your synonym. In fact, the busier one is, the more status they enjoy. For anyone under age 65, being busy is the only socially acceptable choice. If you intentionally step off the treadmill of long work hours and hectic family life, you threaten not just the status quo, but many of your neighbors’ and friends’ lifestyles.

Busyness provides more subtle benefits too. One friend of mine routinely rips me for working half-time, meaning full time some parts of the year and none at others. He doesn’t have to worry about me asking him for any type of meaningful help because he makes it clear he doesn’t have the time. Busyness provides a buffer. His life is more predictable and less messy as a result.

When was the last time someone asked you for more than some sugar or a few eggs? For genuine help? That’s a litmus test of sorts on where you fall on the “perceived busyness” continuum.

Social scientific research repeatedly points to close personal friendships and a strong sense of community as key ingredients to fulfilling lives. Extreme work habits often conspire against those things. But let’s dig a little deeper into why my lack of busyness upsets my friend so much.

With a nice suburban house to maintain; three cars; two teenagers with college on the horizon; and insufficient retirement savings; he’d say he can’t afford to slow down. In fact, he needs to work a little bit harder each year since his company keeps raising his team’s sales targets. Except when he complains incessantly about his job, I don’t begrudge him his choices or his lifestyle, I know they’re deeply personal, but what I resent is his unwillingness to show me the same respect. His choice is the only choice. Something is wrong with anyone who chooses differently.

Slowing down has taught me that time is the greatest luxury of all. Working part-time gives me ample opportunity to think about these types of things. One insight I’ve come to is that when I was newly married at 26 years old; living in a small, one bedroom apartment; riding my mountain bike to work; I was just as happy as I am now with our much larger home and garage filled with cars. Why? We were healthy, the apartment was clean, it had lots of natural light, and we had friends—who weren’t overwhelmed yet—in neighboring apartments who we depended upon and socialized with on occasion.

My friend is like many people today who think their lives will be better if they just buy a larger house, a fancier car, a lighter road bike*. So they work longer, borrow more, willfully take on more and more stress and look askance at anyone who deviates from those norms.

* that was just to see if you were paying attention, a lighter road bike will make your life better, especially if you find yourself pedaling uphill

Calling Bullshit on the “Ban Bossy” Campaign

Here’s their website and starting point.

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

Sheryl Sandberg and company report that “Between elementary and high school, girls’ self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.” I need Sheryl or Beyonce or Jane Lynch to explain to me how they measure self-esteem. Until I understand their methodology, I’m calling bullshit on their statistic and their campaign.

I’m committed to gender equality, but fired up about the “Ban Bossy” campaign because the young women I teach are flat out running circles around their male classmates. I’ve written about it before. Others have documented the same thing. Sixty percent of bachelors degrees go to women. Not only are there more female college students than male, they also tend to be more purposeful in their studies, they’re studying abroad at greater rates, and they’re enrolling in graduate schools in greater numbers.

In many of my classes, the gap is glaring. In a class of 30 students, 17 or 18 will be female and 12 or 13 male. Typically, six of the top eight students who are most engaged, most hard working, and most successful, are female. Class after class, semester after semester, year after year. There are purposeful, hard working, outstanding male students; they’re just outnumbered by their female counterparts. Despite young women’s alleged lack of self esteem, some universities are relaxing admission criteria for men.

Arne Duncan no doubt enjoyed making the vid with Beyonce and company. His line, “We have to convince them that it’s okay to be ambitious”. Arne, put down the basketball and spend some time on a college campus. Then you’ll understand why we have to convince young men it’s okay to be as ambitious as young women.

Ultimately, I don’t believe Sheryl Sandberg. If she proves me wrong, self esteem isn’t as integral to academic achievement as commonly thought.

Apart from the higher education realities the campaign strangely ignores, there’s something perverse about “if only girls were treated more like boys” thinking. In the last decade or so, “leadership” has been redefined to include “soft skills” like questioning, listening, and team building. Many boys struggle with those things because, to put it most simply, they’re bossy. It makes no sense to emulate a flawed male ideal. Instead parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, anyone that works with children should be cultivating 21st Century leadership skills. That just happen to be gender neutral.

I should start a campaign to ban thinking about gender attributes as a zero-sum game. Ban “boys versus girls thinking” or something like that. A movement to help all young people fulfill their potential for the betterment of society. I should gather some of my celeb friends to make a YouTube vid. And leverage social media. And call in some favors with my friends in the national media.

If only I had more ambition.

* some of the above is adapted from the previous post I linked to, this self plagiarizing is also known as Rick Reillying one’s self

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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You Don’t Need a Financial Planner, You Need Financial Teachers

The things I don’t know how to do dwarf the things I do. It’s sad really. Altogether, my incompetence is pretty staggering. I can’t speak any foreign languages. I can’t play any instruments or sing. I can’t listen patiently. I’m hopeless when it comes to plumbing, electrical work, bicycle and car repair. I don’t know how to sew and I can’t do my own taxes. I don’t know how to garden, bake bread, make beer, or fix the ice maker in our fridge. I can’t keep pocket gophers from tunneling all over our backyard. I don’t know how to backstroke underwater and html baffles me. I could go on and on, but you get the drift.

Despite this pathetic reality, I went against type recently and taught myself two things, how to create excel documents and how to prepare a Starbucks-like green tea latte. Life is especially good now that I don’t have to spend my weekends adding numbers or pay $4 for my daily kickstarter of choice.

Few people know how to manage money well so they turn to financial planners for help. Gail MarksJarvis ask whether there’s any value in financial advisors who get it wrong.* She points out that:

. . . the recently released 2008 Federal Reserve transcripts showed that even economists of the world’s most powerful economy didn’t have a clue. Even as Lehman Brothers collapsed, they expected the economy to grow, not go into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That, she adds, should. . .

pierce an illusion many individuals embrace as they pour trillions of dollars into the hands of financial advisers they think can read the future and thereby deliver riches and safety.

Individuals, she says, entrusted about $13 trillion to advisers, ranging from financial planners to brokers and insurance salespeople, through the end of 2012.

Ed Gjertsen II, president of the Financial Planning Association admits, “We do not have a crystal ball. We make guesses.”

Gjersten laments:

Clients demand: Give me a hot tip so I can spend whatever I want. But the truth is, the individuals have more control over the outcome based on what they spend than the adviser has with investments.

MarksJarvis adds:

Even economists are more fallible than people might believe. The transcripts of the Federal Reserve in 2008 showed it relying on faulty models that didn’t take into account unique circumstances of the banking crisis. Based on little knowledge, they give very firm opinions.

In my early 30′s I taught myself how to manage money when it became apparent that the financial planner I hired didn’t really give a damn about my family’s future. Over time, I realized that he recommended investments that paid him generous commissions. Investments that not only took time and money to undue, but ones that performed worse than bond and stock index funds.

There are two types of financial planners—commission based and fee based. Fee based planners who charge by the hour are far better than commission based ones who are prone to recommend investments that enrich them more than their clients. What people really need are skilled financial teachers who can help people learn to manage their money themselves because of the lesson I learned the hard way two decades ago, no one cares about you or your family’s future nearly as much as you. But where are the financial teachers?

13 trillion dollars! Much of that spent on investment strategies that underperform market averages. What a travesty.

If the world’s most incompetent person learned to manage money, odds are you can too. Start with The Elements of Investing by Burton Malkiel. But don’t succumb to the widely held view that technical knowledge is the key to personal financial success. The key is defining “success” yourself and developing a complimentary mix of technical knowledge; self discipline; and dare I say, spiritual depth; to create the future you want for your loved ones and you.

* Thanks to the best ex-mill hunky for this reference.