And The Medium Sized Fish Eats The Small Fish

I often get frustrated with the Michael Moore’s and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world because their ideological analyses slight endless economic, political, and cultural subtleties that require deeper thinking and more tentative conclusions.

Peter Whybrow, in his excellent book American Mania, explains Adam Smith’s work in ways few conservative free-market zealots probably understand. “Smith favored private ownership, with capital being locally rooted,” Whybrow writes. “He distrusted large institutions—be they government or corporate—as forces that foster greed, distorting and suppressing the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing.

As businesses merge and increase in size,” Whybrow contends, “and as manufacturing and services become geographically remote from each other, the behavioral contingencies essential to promoting social stability in a market-regulated society—close personal relationships, tightly knit communities, local capital investment, and so on—are quickly eroded.”

In other words, your less likely to exploit someone you know.

It’s in this context that I recently read Alpine Experience’s dead-tree newsletter that arrived old school in the mailbox. Alpine Experience is a local independent retailer that specializes in high quality outdoor gear of all sorts. If their website wasn’t so poorly designed I’d link to it. Here’s their slightly less bad Facebook page. I used to have an Alpine Experience t-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends shop at chain stores.” I shop at AE once a year when they have their annual sale. When their prices are marked down 30-40%, they almost seem normal.

I like their irreverent, personal newsletter, but I’m sure it’s probably more expensive to produce than they can afford. Inside this issue was an honest, interesting reflection on Olympia’s newish REI store’s impact on AE’s bottom line. The author, I think the store’s owner/manager, said the new REI is definitely impacting their bottom line. Admitted they’ve fallen behind projections and need to have a good winter. I really hope I’m wrong, but given REI’s economies of scale and vastly superior on-line presence, I anticipate AE going out of business.

REI is a large national chain, but its progressive business practices give it a positive, medium-sized, community-based essence. Like AE, it’s a groovy store. It has been voted one of the Top 100 businesses to work for the last 14 years in a row. Read more about its enlightened business practices here.

Recently I was cycling with an acquaintance, an independent architect who has fallen on hard times. He’s taken a job at REI to get by, working as a cashier 16 hours a week. We were discussing the AE-REI tug-of-war. He told me he needed glove liners shortly before getting the job and they were $20 bucks at AE and $7 at REI. Probably an exaggeration, but I suspect comparable products are often 30-50% more at AE. That would be a huge headwind to building a reliable customer base even in a good economy.

Back to Whybrow. REI is not a megacorporation that fosters greed, nor does it distort and suppress the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing. But it’s not as small nor as local as AE and it doesn’t share it’s long history.

What to make of this capitalist case study?

SAT Reading, Writing Scores Hit Low

Based on the newsfeed, last week was a downer.

A record high one of six people are living below the $22,000 family of four poverty level. Tampa right wing nutters cheered the thought of an uninsured patient dying. Recently hired Detroit auto workers are paid one-half of their fellow assembly-liners’ wages. The University of California will raise tuition 16% a year indefinitely. The Palin kids were (allegedly) stuck with burnt mac and cheese (formatting guide—italics—quotes, underlined—tongue in cheek sarcasm). And then the week ended with the rare Seahawks-Mariners double zero*.

In keeping with the spirit of the week, Stephanie Banchero of the WSJ wrote:

SAT scores for the high-school graduating class of 2011 fell in all three subject areas, and the average reading and writing scores were the lowest ever recorded.

The results. . . revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college.

The report on the SAT comes on the heels of results from the ACT college-entrance exam that suggested only 25% of high-school graduates who took that exam were ready for college. 

The average reading score dropped to 497 from 500 points in 2010, on a 200-to-800-point scale. That is the lowest score since 1972, when the College Board began calculating the average scores of individual graduating classes. The writing score dipped to 489, down from 491 last year. Writing scores have gone down almost every year since the exam was first given in 2006. 

College Board officials offer two take-aways from the data (as reported by Banchero):

1) The declining scores can be attributed, in part, to a larger and more diverse test-taking population. As more students aim for college and sit for the exam, scores decline. Ten years ago, 8% of test takers were Latino, compared with 15% in 2011. For black students, the percentage jumped to 13%, compared with 9% in 2001. A growing percentage of students also grew up speaking a language other than English, and more than one-fifth of this year’s test takers were poor enough to receive a waiver to take the exam for free.

2) Students who took a core curriculum, defined as four years of English and three or more of math, natural science and social science, did much better. Still, only 49% of them posted a score high enough to be considered college-ready, compared with 30% of students who didn’t take a core. College Board officials noted that the reading scores have been declining most dramatically for students who took less than a core curriculum.

Banchero wraps up her story with Kent Williamson’s hypothesis for why reading and writing scores are declining. Williamson, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, suspects declining scores are based upon a narrowing of how reading is taught. “In many schools, especially those most impoverished, reading programs are not about building cognitive abilities or a love of reading,” he said. “They are built around rote learning of language, and I think we are seeing the results of that.” 

Unscientific as it may be, Williamson’s postulate resonates with me. Too few students are engaged by their teachers’ methods and their required, too often scripted, course material.

I’ll take the baton from Williamson and offer another unscientific hypothesis. Declining scores are proof that opinion leaders’ and policy makers’ single-minded focus on global economic competition isn’t the least bit motivating to K-12 students. That focus has created a debilitating disconnect. I’ll elaborate sometime soon.

In the meantime, here’s hoping for a more upbeat news week.

* I like our chances for setting the rarely reported “same city on Sundays consecutive quarters and innings goose egg” record.