Dear International Friends

About 25% of the people who visit the Humble Blog are foreigners. Among others, this morning, a few Nigerians have stopped by. These words are for them. I imagine they would acknowledge Nigeria, like every country in the world, has serious challenges to overcome, but they would never characterize their country the way the President of the United States characterized some developing countries yesterday.

When caught saying hateful, racist, abhorrent things, the President acts in an extremely predictable way, and today is no different. Like a second grader at recess, he denies saying what others heard and in many cases recorded. As if by denying his words, he has the power to erase them.

The President does not speak for the vast majority of Americans who know Haitians, Salvadorans, Nigerians, and other Africans strengthen the U.S. Also, most Americans are far more aware than the President that Haitians, Salvadorans, Nigerians, and other Africans come from beautiful places with rich cultures that have proven amazingly resilient in the face of U.S. imperialism. They also know that we are an immigrant nation, that the vast majority of us came from other places, and that our economic success is, in large part, the result of hardworking, law-abiding immigrants from every corner of the globe.

The President has never read Chinua Achebe, Toussaint Louverture, or Manlio Argueta, because he doesn’t read.

We will turn him out in three years or less. And then we will go to work repairing the damage he’s done to the environment, the rich/poor divide, and the prestige of the office. And we will work to repair all of our international alliances, working doubly hard  to reconcile with the proud people of the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa.

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A New Philanthropy

My university’s decision to sell its public radio station (KPLU) to Seattle’s (KUOW), has upset lots of KPLU listeners both on and off campus. You can read the PLU president’s rationale here and decide for yourself how persuasive it is.

The sale is being reported as $8m, but it’s really $7m since $1m is $100k worth of radio advertising for ten consecutive years. At a recent faculty meeting the president said young adult radio listening is down 41% which prompted me to ask him why then the $1m in advertising.

Tacoma’s newspaper puts the sale in a larger context:

What’s happening to KPLU’s news team has been happening across the United States for the last decade. Battered by the Great Recession and the migration of audiences to the Internet, America’s traditional news operations . . . have collectively been forced to shed many thousands of professional journalism jobs.

That would merely be tough luck for those companies if new digital media were picking up the slack. Many traditional media companies . . . have successfully migrated to the Internet themselves. But online news rarely attracts the kind of advertising revenue that the old media once enjoyed.

It’s not just lost advertising revenue, it’s Craigslist and other on-line publications which have siphoned off classified revenue, another critical stream.

The Tacoma paper predicts what will happen next:

Shrunken newsrooms and fewer reporters and news editors. With fewer reporters, there’s less news. Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s remarkable how much less scandal there is in government and the corporate world now that fewer journalists are on the lookout for it.

The Web creates an illusion of abundant news. There is in fact an abundance of commentary about the news; political websites and blogs are saturated with punditry and ideological spin. There’s also a lot of news that’s been recycled, aggregated, tweeted, repurposed and attached to ads on the Web. But there’s less real bedrock information out there than it appears.

The Good Wife and I went a little cray cray last weekend and went to two movies. One of those, Spotlight, is the story of the Boston Globe’s 2000-2002 reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

Even though the story happened only 14-15 years ago, it felt like much longer. Almost like entering a time capsule. It’s a last gasp salvo against the march of the internet, an engaging case study of important investigative reporting. Unbelievably, the editors kept slowing down the journalists, telling them to take more time, meaning using more resources.

Since power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a vibrant democracy depends in large part on a free and tenacious press that repeatedly asks challenging questions of people in power. Legions of journalists are sounding a warning, saying few media entities have the financial wherewithal to do original, excellent investigative reporting.

But I’m unaware of journalists thinking creatively about alternative revenue streams. So I will offer an idea. What if super wealthy philanthropists gave less to the (normally) already super wealthy universities they attended, and instead, made seven and eight figure gifts to our once great newspapers, or their newer online competitors, to create endowments for them, just like colleges and universities have, so that they can count on the revenue those endowments would generate.

And what about endowing journalists more specifically, like an endowed chair at a college or university? The Daniel Pearl Chair of Southeast Asian Reporting. The David Carr Chair of Media Studies. Seems to me this idea might appeal to super wealthy lefties and right wing nutters since the resulting investigative light would shine on scoundrels of every conceivable ideological bent.

Postscript/Administrivia:

• Thanks to Adele for filling in for me last week.

• I just don’t get the Kobe worship (Rest in Peace moms). He’s shooting 31%! If he cared about the Laker’s future half as much as he does himself, he’d retire right now.

• Happy to report that I ran the Seattle Half Marathon Sunday without either calf rebelling. My time suggests what I’ve suspected, I’m getting older. My brother informs me my time was five minutes slower than his personal record. Forgets to mention Grease was the top grossing movie when he ran that race.

 

 

 

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

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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Dare to Disagree

Interesting few days at Wimbledon, the US Supreme Court, and the humble blog. It all started when I criticized “Mr. Money Mustache” in his comment section for ripping into one of his readers. As I explained in the previous post, MMM is a wildly successful blogger who writes about personal finance and early retirement.

He provides excellent details on how he’s managed to retire early and offers no-nonsense advice on how to replicate his success. Understandably, his legion of readers dig him for the tangible help he’s provided them. He typically responds to every tenth or twentieth reader comment, and because nearly every one is in essence an “amen to that” I thought he’d return serve following my critique. But he didn’t. That is, until his next post, in which he not only referred to my criticism, but linked to my previous post titled “What Engineers Get Wrong”.

As a result, on Monday and Tuesday, I had a month’s worth of page views. An unintended part of my fifteen minutes of fame. Most of the mass of visitors just quietly poked around, some engineers however, took the time to rip into me for my criticism of them. If the thought of me being ripped into brings even a small smile to your face go back and read their comments. Or at least Allison’s who it doesn’t seem likes me very much. All I have to say to Allison is I’m much more charming in person. Ask my mom.

I’ve dared to disagree with MMM before and felt some of his readers’ wrath, so now I know what to expect. It’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s almost like he’s a cult leader whose followers refuse to question him. He’s even charismatic, but unlike most cult leaders, he’s not selling his personality or whacked out made up ideas, the vast majority of his content makes excellent sense. What I now realize is hIs readers so appreciate his writing that they don’t take kindly to anyone disagreeing with him. Which of course threatens to make his readers’ comment section a sleep inducing echo chamber.

But then again, you might argue the internet writ large, just like the media more generally, is an echo chamber. The sad truth is civic discourse, in which reasonable people disagree about topics that matter, is a lost art. One reason for that is no one likes to be criticized. We’re all defensive, to varying degrees. So much so we struggle to process contending viewpoints.

For example, MMM wrote that I “criticized his blog’s approach,” but my criticism was of a specific aspect of his thinking. The truth of the matter is I’m down with 90% of what he writes and if we had the chance, I have no doubt we’d enjoy cycling together, drinking a craft beer afterwards, and talking personal finance. I’m not lifting weights with him though.

Especially initially, I struggled to process all the engineers’ criticisms of me too. I’d zero in on one particular sentence that I believed to be especially wrongheaded and slight everything else. Just as my criticism was somewhat muddled in MMM’s head, their messages were muddled in mine.

The youngest daughter got a kick out of these events. “You’ve gone viral!” After she read Allison’s lengthy criticism of my last post, she asked, “So did what she write change your thinking?” That’s the all important question. After the first reading, I would have had to answer no, not at all, because I read it defensively. But thinking aloud, I said to youngest daughter, “It would be awfully hypocritical of me to blow her off when my whole point is to promote critical inquiry.”

Then I considered the criticisms more carefully and realized they had one thing in common—that I had unfairly overgeneralized about one group of professionals. Even though it was a literary device of sorts, I understand why it was upsetting. Because they showed the courage of their convictions and took the time to disagree with me, my thinking was challenged and deepened, and hopefully, that of new and old readers’ as well.

And as a result, my little slice of the internet, for at least a brief moment in time, was anything but an echo chamber.

Home Schooling Is Hip. . .and Selfish

Two recently recommended bloggers with ginormous audiences have written they are going to start home schooling their kids (Penelope Trunk) or wish they had the time to home school their kids (James Altucher).

If public schooling was a stock, everyone would be selling. I get it. Schools adapt to change far too slowly. Most are painfully out of date. Far too often, learning isn’t engaging or relevant enough. But the homeschoolers fail to realize that there has never been a Golden Age of riveting, transformative learning.

T&A (Trunk and Altucher) are the new home schoolers. The traditional home schoolers are religious stalwarts who can’t stomach subjecting their children to multiculturalism, gay rights, evolution, environmental ethics, and the sort.

The new home schoolers believe public schooling will make their largely secular children less curious, less distinctive, less intelligent, less likely to succeed in our 21st Century economy.

The problem though is home schooling is separatism on steriods. A vibrant democracy depends upon children learning to get along with other children different than them.

But who besides Penelope Trunk is more motivated to provide her children an excellent education than Penelope Trunk? I manage my own money because I learned very early on that the guy I paid to do it didn’t care if my assets grew nearly as much as me. No financial planner is as motivated as me. Is there an Adam Smith homeschooling parallel, that if each family pursues it’s best interests, society more generally will benefit in the end?

I suppose, but what percentage of children have a college educated parent or two that have the time and inclination to educate them better than the teachers at their local public school? An infinitesimal one. I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?

There’s zero evidence of social consciousness in T’s and A’s anti-public schooling screeds. They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.

If people mindlessly congratulate Penelope Trunk and James Altucher for in essence thinking exclusively about their own children’s well-being, and the new home schooling movement grows, the achievement gap will widen, further weakening social relations, our economy, and our democracy.

Doesn’t Compute

In an email I recently received, my father-in-law asked me what I thought of Tiger’s performance. I’m guessing his use of the word “performance” as opposed to “statement” means he wasn’t buying what Tiger was selling.

I thought Tiger was sincere, but who knows, talk is cheap, and as he acknowledged, only time will tell. The question of whether he was sincere is not the most interesting one, nor is the question of what he does or doesn’t owe the public, nor the related one of why didn’t he allow questions.

For me there’s one interesting, actually troubling aspect of the whole Tiger melodrama, and one interesting aspect of his performance or statement.

The disconcerting aspect is the opportunity costs of our fascination with celebrities. In your circle of friends, what’s the ratio of “Tiger talk” to “education, foreign policy, health care, or economic talk”? We are a People magazine people and the quality of our democracy suffers as a result.

The interesting aspect of his statement was how pained he appeared to be, how unhappy I’m guessing he is, and his paragraph on Buddhism. We are a materialistic people. Here’s a guy that’s close to being the first billionaire athlete living a complete life of luxury and he’s unhappy. How can someone who’s the best in their field, on the way to being the best ever, with hundreds of millions of dollars, private jets, yachts, houses, Escalades, be unhappy?

Doesn’t compute.

Lots of people think if they had El Tigre money and fame they’d be much more happy than they are. To me, the Tiger story, like a lot of Old Testament ones, is a powerful reminder that money and fame are no substitute for a sense of self; a selfless spirituality; honoring your ancestors; a sense that your wife, children, and close friends respect you; a sense that you’re at least as good a person as athlete.