Peak United States

How do we know if we’re in decline? What are signs of slippage? Do mirrors help? What about comparisons to other people and places?

What psychological barriers prevent us from acknowledging our decline?

Why, despite being very well educated and very comfortable with numbers, do I not understand our tax system well enough to prepare my family’s taxes? Why do I have to pay an expert to prepare them?

Why are there 1,000+ deductions? Why is Congress so susceptible to accounting firms’ lobbyists? And realtors’ lobbyists? Why hasn’t there been meaningful tax reform since 1986? Why does our tax accounting system benefit members of Congress more than their constituents? Why do well-to-do, stock owning citizens, pay less in taxes than others? Why do most other developed countries have far more simple, fair, and efficient tax systems? Why aren’t more people agitating for answers to that question? Why have citizens allowed their representatives to defend the status quo for 30+ years?

Why, despite being very well educated and very comfortable with numbers, do I not understand my health insurance? Why am I told what my doctor visit, biopsies, surgical consultation, and minor surgeries all cost a few weeks afterwards? What if restaurants didn’t have menus, but instead, just told you what you owed after you ate? Why are there initial charges and secondary “what insurance allows” charges? Why does Kaiser-Permanente make me go to a “surgery consultation” when the surgeon said it was unnecessary, “but Seattle won’t let us do our own scheduling”? Why was I charged $206 for the unnecessary 20 minute “consultation”?

Why is Congress so beholden to medical insurance lobbyists? Why do many other developed countries have far more simple, comprehensive, and efficient health insurance systems? Why are so many citizens resigned to health insurance pricing and paperwork lunacy? Why do citizens continue to elect representatives who preserve the medical insurance status quo?

How does anyone of sound mind claim that the U.S. is “the greatest country on God’s green earth” when our tax and health insurance systems are fucked up way beyond our compromised legislative body’s ability to fix them?

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Election 2016-Father-Daughter Dialogue 2

Nice going bubs, you struck a chord with peeps. A couple of conservative friends wonder about my parenting, while one close liberal friend from North Carolina wrote, “You raised a wonderful daughter. You should be proud. I especially love that she uses the word ‘Motherfucker’.” I side with two-thirds of what my liberal friend wrote.* 

Instead of the questions I ended our first dialogue with, I wonder if you could respond to this. 

Ron: You said you watched parts of the recent OJ Simpson documentary. I had a similar reaction to Trump’s victory as I did Simpson’s acquittal. It was surprising, but I found the spontaneous celebration among African Americans in Los Angeles and around the country even more perplexing. How could they cheer a cold blooded murderer? Almost instantly, I realized I didn’t understand their thinking and the onus was on me to try to. More specifically, I was clueless about their deeply troubled relationship with the LA Police Department. Overtime I learned they weren’t celebrating Simpson, instead, they were celebrating the LAPD’s defeat. Finally, someone stuck it to their oppressor. Similarly, after the post-election shock abetted a bit, I realized I didn’t understand Trump voters thinking very much at all. How could the contest be so close that the electoral college eventually tipped his way? I went from “that’s completely incomprehensible” to “Man, I’m seriously out of touch.” But I think the onus is on me to try to understand it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I think about your adolescence and young adult life, it seems to me that you’ve been almost completely surrounded by peers very similar to yourself. In high school, most of your friends had similarly liberal parents, were in almost all of the same college prep classes, participated in the same extracurricular activities. Then you guys attended selective liberal arts colleges and continued to be surrounded by smart, mostly well-to-do, liberal peers. I suppose you’ve made some diverse friends at work and in the city, but all of us live segregated lives, not just racially, but politically, economically, socially. How many people do you personally know whose politics are markedly different than your own? How many friends? How many close friends who you interact with on a weekly basis? I feel fortunate to have some close friends who are my political opposites. Sometimes it’s exasperating, but I’ve learned to shift from thinking “How can you be so stupid?” to “Why do you think that way?” Then, the more I learn about how they grew up and their life journey more generally, I start to understand their politics sometimes even to the point where I think their politics are rational given their particular life experiences. Sometimes I even conclude that if my life had somehow paralleled theirs, I’d probably vote the same way as them.

Through specific friendships with a few particular conservatives, I’ve concluded that human decency eclipses partisan politics. I’ve had to acknowledge that many of my political opposites are exceptional parents, friends, people. They’re down to earth, kind, funny, committed to their families, hardworking, a huge net positive in their communities. Dan, who wrote a lengthy heartfelt reply to you is a great example of that. So my questions. Know any Trump voters? Any desire to?

AlisonI wonder if my first response prompted this question or if it came to you outside of that first post. I hope that my anger and frustration would not suggest, somehow, a reflexive lack of empathy for those on the other side of my political views. My entire frustration boils down to a lack of rigorous empathy for people living outside of one’s own experience and it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to deny that to anyone else. I’m not always successful in doing so, but it is a process I try to stay continuously and actively engaged in.

The long and the short of it is that no, not many of the people I am close to are Trump supporters. Yes, I would like to know more people who voted for him. Most realistically, I do and plan to continue to take time to read and listen and learn about people who are my political and cultural opposites. I understand that communities I am not a part of, who vote differently than me, are suffering, economically and culturally. 

But, I can understand and empathize with an experience or point of view and still disagree with it, sometimes vehemently, sometimes morally. Empathy is not the same thing as forgiveness. The former does not predispose the latter. I want to understand more about what led those who voted for Trump to do so, with my mind open and prepped for the changes that should occur when new information is received. But I also cannot accept that anyone deserves less in life than anyone else and I do believe that voting for Trump imperiled that human truth. He is openly racist, openly misogynistic, openly hateful. I understand that most people do not intend to cause harm with their actions, but the reality of our present situation means that people who have been the subjects of his disparagement are going to fall into harm. Legislatively, culturally, and personally. I don’t disparage the humanity of anyone who voted for him but I do disagree with the decision to vote for him, vehemently and morally.

For a moment, I’d like to step away from your specific question, and address the larger context that it lives in. The question of “How can we better empathize and understand Trump voters?” is an important question, but one that I see taking over the post-election narrative, and I want to push back against that. We need more understanding, full stop. From the left of the right, and from the right of the left. Over half of the country voted for the candidate that did not win. That is a somewhat damning state of affairs for the Republican party and the right should be asking themselves to better understand the lives and struggles of the minorities that overwhelmingly voted against their agenda. In addition, to switch back to the left side of the isle, the fact that the main question being asked is about understanding Trump supporters, and not, “What do we need to do now to help protect the vulnerable?” further serves to erase the marginalized from the national narrative. I am not saying that individual instances of asking this question do this – of course this question needs to asked, and between two white, privileged people like you and I it is especially appropriate – but that as a trend, it does.

Ron: Seems like you jump pretty quickly from “understand and empathize with an experience or point of view” and “still disagree with it, sometimes vehemently, sometimes morally.” Maybe it’s too much to ask the most disappointed Clintonistas to take the time to truly inquire into their political opponents’ worldviews. I get that you want to step away from the question in order to “help protect the vulnerable”. And I get that for the sake of my graduate student from Jordan, I need to do whatever I can to make sure DACA is implemented, but I can’t help but wonder whether, at some point, “protecting the vulnerable” becomes paternalistic. I write that, knowing full well in this Day and Age of Hyper-Partisanship, it may cost me the liberal base of the Democratic Party if I decide to run in 2020. More seriously, let me try to pose this gut feeling as a question designed to extend the discussion.

Granted, children living in poverty and victims of sexual abuse, and we could go on and on, need adult advocates like you and me to fight for enlightened public policies that protect them. But what about the Detroit autoworker who lost her job as a result of economic globalization or her autoworker son who makes one-third of what she did ten years ago? Is there a difference between “empowering the vulnerable” and “protecting them”? Where should the agency for more enlightened policy come from? Within historically marginalized communities themselves or sympathetic allies like yourself? Why?

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

The U.S. Electoral College Map Explained

Take a gander.

Since you always aced your social studies courses you already know the President needs 270 electoral votes out of the 538 up for grabs. The winner can lose darn near forty small states, win the most heavily populated ten plus, and be the first to tag the bible on January 20, 2013.

Show the above map to grade schoolers and ask who is likely to win. They’ll say the Red Team.

Even though you understand how the Electoral College works, you probably don’t know why some states tip blue and others red. That’s what I’m here for.

It all starts with cool ocean breezes in the Pacific, upper Atlantic, and Great Lakes region. Those cool breezes translate into more moderate temperatures especially on the West Coast and in the upper Northeast. In contrast, the great, red, middle swath of the country is mired in hot and humid summers and killer cold winters almost all the time. Ocean and Great Lake breezes and cool temps contribute to blood flow, heightened brain activity, and altogether clearer thinking. Sadly, over time, people living in the great, red, middle swath of the country develop cognitive deficits as a result of oppressive heat and humidity and dramatic temperature swings. The technical term for this is Climatic Induced Cognitive Deficit Disorder or CICDD.

Also, until the last presidential election, very few people knew that on clear days you can actually see Russia from the West Coast of the U.S. That proximity to Russia—coupled with shared suffering during earthquakes, mud slides, and forest fires—explains the more collectivist mindset of Left Coasters.

Then there’s dietary considerations. Reds don’t just like their heat, humidity, and bugs, they like breaded and fried meat casserole-based potlucks more specifically. All washed down with whole milk. Blues prefer roasted vegetables, fresh fruit, and wine. That explains the dramatic physical health divide, which like the climatological differences, translates into a mental health chasm. Eat well, be well, think well.

Then there’s preferred outdoor activities. This time of year Blues hike among trees and meditate silently upon their changing colors all while looking forward to snow shoeing and cross country skiing. Reds hike among trees too, in search of large defenseless animals to shoot and kill. Then they drag them home, bread them, and fry them. All while looking forward to firing up their snowmobiles and making lots of noise and pollution. Blue outdoor activities lead to enlightenment. Red to blight and lunacy.

Then there’s different artistic sensibilities. Blues prefer classical music, independent and foreign films, modern dance, national public radio, and The New Yorker. Reds, country and heavy metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger films, reality television, Fox News, and The Washington Times. Heightened enlightenment and even greater lunacy.

Class dismissed.