Rubio, Veterans’ Day, and Default Hawkishness

They will not raise the minimum wage, but Marco Rubio and three-quarters of the Republican’s on stage last night, are playing on the American public’s fears in the hope that we spend a whole lot more money on a larger, stronger military*. “People are being beheaded, Christians are being crucified.” Repeat that enough and no one will ask where. Each candidate is more appalled than the next that President Obama has failed to invade some countries and kick some ass. How dare he refuse to send more young men and women into wars that only have political solutions.

They all suffer from a collective amnesia that is extremely dangerous unless you like repeating mistakes of the past. They refuse to honestly assess how the last few wars have gone. How much money was spent, how many people’s lives were irrevocably changed for the worse, how many were killed, how the initial problems worsened.

The Republicans would have Rand Paul and the rest of us believe it’s un-American to question whether military might is always right. I will ask questions, resist knee-jerk hawkishness, and support this President’s more conservative and disciplined alternative to mindless militarism. All in the the hope that we have fewer vets to celebrate on future Veteran’s Days.

* all while lowering our taxes

Obama and Duncan Finally Make Amends

Props to any politician that admits to a mistake.

On Saturday, President Obama and the Department of Education released a Testing Action Plan, calling on states to cut back on “unnecessary testing” that consumes “too much instructional time” and creates “undue stress for educators and students.

The administration used the moment to acknowledge its own role in the proliferation of burdensome standardized tests. In fact, the Education Department’s plan uses the word “burden” eight times and says, “we have not provided clear enough assistance for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment.”

What prompted the reversal? Glad you asked:

The administration was trying to get ahead of a just-released survey by the Council of Great City Schools that detailed a laundry list of formative, benchmark, diagnostic, and practice tests required at the state and district level. According to the survey, the average student will take 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation, spending as much as 25 hours a year testing.

This is all so inspiring, I’m going to hold a presser to apologize for a mistake of mine. As soon as I can think of one.

Understanding Trumpism

Think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the context of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell’s analysis of modern China in this recent essay. Some excerpts:

This confidence in the strength of the China model—and the supposed weakness of its Western competitors—has reshaped the way Beijing relates to the world. Its new confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas.

Couldn’t one say about the U.S., “Its longstanding confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in it disputes in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”

Obama has been far more restrained than his predecessors when it comes to conventional warfare, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to his unprecedented, unyielding, aggressive use of drones.

Schell adds:

One clear message of this turbulent week is how interconnected everything actually has become in our 21st-century world. Financial markets, trade flows, pandemics and climate change all ineluctably tie us together.

This irrefutable insight is lost on Trump’s followers mired in 20th century notions of politics as a zero-sum game that we’re predestined to win as the world’s sole economic, political, and military superpower. Trumpism rests upon notions of American Exceptionalism mixed with nostalgia for the past when the relative economic, political, and military strength of the U.S. was undeniably greater than it is today; as well as competition between nations at the expense of cooperation; and scapegoating the newest citizens for pernicious public policy challenges that preceded their arrival.

Schell again:

Of late, China has been acting in an ever more unilateral way, perhaps at last enjoying the prerogatives of its long-sought wealth and power. Mao imagined a China rooted in the idea of “self-reliance,” zili gengsheng. The most encouraging news out of this week would be for Mr. Xi and his comrades to recognize that China can no longer be such an island—that China cannot succeed in isolation, much less by antagonizing most of its neighbors and the U.S.

As large, dynamic and successful as China has become, it still exists in a global context—and remains vulnerable to myriad forces beyond the party’s control. It must take the chip off its shoulder, recognize that it is already a great power and begin to put its people, its Pacific neighbors and the U.S. at ease. Any truly great nation must learn that the art of compromise lies at the heart of diplomacy, that it is almost always better to negotiate before resorting to war and that compromise is neither a sign of weakness nor surrender.

If the alarms over the past few months presage such a revelation in Beijing, it would not only enhance China’s stability but its soft power and historic quest for global respect. Given Mr. Xi’s track record, one dare not be too optimistic.

Is any U.S. intellectual in position to lecture China’s leadership about soft power and global respect? “Make America great again,” trumpets Trumpism, meaning less compromising, less diplomacy, more unilateralism.

Trumpism thrives on the insecurities of a people who feel their world dominance slipping. Ahistorical to the core, it has no patience for the complexities of public policy, environmental degradation, or globalization. It assumes people aren’t smart enough for the complexities of 21st century life. It advocates sloganeerism, brashness, and business principles as panaceas for problems real and imagined. It asks no questions, listens only for openings to speak, and never admits fault.

Eventually, enough people will see it for what it is, and reject it.

How to Live—Patrick, Jess, Alyssa

• Patrick and Jess married in August, 2012. Eight months later they were watching people finish the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded next to them. Both lost left legs. Patrick, “We’ll figure this out.” Jess, “As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were.” A touching story about love and resilience nicely told by Eric Moscowitz. For anyone wanting inspiration on how to live. And listen to Patrick speaking last week. “Sewing the threads of community.”

• Last week, Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the last eight years, gave her first interview. Hagiographic, but lots of excellent insights, especially on the importance of selflessness, teamwork, and kindness. A must watch for my daughters.



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.


Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

African-American PerspectiveS on Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments

Once, while I was teaching at a Southern college, African-American student leaders attended a faculty meeting to explain some of their frustrations with us, including some faculty’s expectations that individual black students speak on behalf of African-Americans more generally. Ten years later, in the coffee obsessed upper left-hand corner of the country, a student of mine pressed a classmate to explain the black perspective on the topic at hand. I intervened and explained why “She doesn’t have to answer that.” After class she thanked me for the time out.

Following the release of Do the Right Thing, I remember watching an interviewer pressing Spike Lee to explain the meaning of contrasting MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes at the film’s conclusion. He sidestepped the question, saying that film is art, and therefore open to different interpretations. I could tell he resented the question, probably thinking most filmmakers wouldn’t have been asked it.

Three refreshingly different African-American opinion leaders’ reactions to Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin serve as an excellent reminder that there’s more diversity within ethnic groups as there is between them. Seems like a simple point, but it’s often lost on people. Consider each.

1) Tavis Smiley, Sunday on Meet the Press, after previously tweeting, “Obama’s speech was weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.”

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But … he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.

2) Charles Ogletree, National Public Radio:

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I’ve ever heard him make in the 25 years I’ve known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal . . .

3) Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post:

The designation ‘first black (fill in the blank)’ always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s. . . is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Near the end of his comments, Obama encouraged people to think about whether they are “wringing as much bias out” of themselves as possible. Borrowing from King, he suggested asking, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

One element of “content of character” thinking is acknowledging, if not embracing, intellectual diversity within ethnic groups.