Monthly Archives: April 2005

Me and Noah, down by the schoolyard

Noah Singman (nsingman) and I (and several others, as well) are bouncing back and forth on education funding in a comment thread on , which you can see in its entirety here. I wanted to drag a particular part of this discussion back to the top of the board, though, because I don’t want it to get buried. For those just joining us, Noah is a Libertarian – and one whose intelligence I respect a great deal, by the way – and what has asserted itself is the idea of government funding of ed vs. a pure free market approach. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’d encourage you to read what he has to say for himself – I don’t want to be guilty of mischaracterizing or setting up a straw man here, because the question deserves serious attention, not rhetorical posturing. Even to the extent that I disagree with Noah’s stance, it’s important that we talk about it because there are those in Washington, I think, who are interested in moving us toward something like what our Libertarian friends support.

Anyway, Noah says, essentially: “I don’t support [state funding of education] politically, because I don’t believe that education should be provided by the government. However, unlike federal funding, state funding of education is clearly constitutionally valid.”

So this means that in principle you’d oppose local funding as well, then. Which is the pure Lib line, and you’d argue that ed ought to be a for-profit competitive business like anything else.

Fair enough. But it also leads me around to a question that some of my other Lib-leaning buddies have never parsed to my satisfaction. There’s a real glorification of the business world implicit in all this that I buy a whole lot less than I did before I actually worked in a few big businesses.

To wit, the dynamics of that pure-biz environment are inherently geared toward providing as little as possible – you will never provide X for $Y if you can get away with providing X-1 for Y$. The motivation, driven by the basic principles of economics, is always toward selling less for more. Maximize the ratio of revenue to cost, etc. (I’m going to do this without resorting to the Enron argument, by the way, even though I worked at US West before it was bought by Qwest, and corporate bad behavior watchers here might note that Q was the company that gave us Joe Nacchio.)

You might respond that competition solves this (and here please correct me if I misstate your position – I’m drawing on debates I’ve had with other Libertarians in the past, and might miss a nuance or two).

I’d say no, it doesn’t, because in this kind of environment you eventually work your way to a state of market equilibrium where ed product becomes commodified. All the cost that can be driven out, given the technology, market dynamics and best practices of the moment, has been, and you now have a few large providers (this market will inherently favor large companies because they’ll be best positioned to minimize HR costs and to capitalize on economies of scale in procurement – in many ways this would be similar to the retail bookstore sector) offering essentially the same service at the same price. So your ed choices (unless you’re wealthy) are going to be between Wal*Mart Elementary and K*Mart Elementary. McDonald’s and BK. Bud and Coors. Lowest common denominator.

You can easily reply that we already have plenty of crappy lowest common denominator education in America, and not only will I agree with you, I’ll give you the addresses of some schools you can visit that will prove your point in spades.

However, arguing that we can get crap a lot cheaper than we are now (no, this isn’t what Noah would say, this is me briefly engaging in rhetorical posturing) doesn’t solve my problem, which is that we need an outstanding educational system, not a cheap and efficient one. And the ed systems that are kicking our asses on all measures around the globe look more like centralized government systems than they do free market systems, unless you’re aware of a nation that I haven’t seen yet.

I’m a pretty strict constructionist myself on most Constitutional issues, and have plenty of faith in the power of business to solve problems. But in a lot of cases I find that my deep-seated philosophical notions run headlong into real-world dynamics that the philosophies don’t account for. I console myself that no theory of economics or governance ever concocted works in the real world quite like it works on paper, so I’m always open to the idea that I might have to consider practical measures that I’m philosophically uncomfortable with. No matter how many different directions I come at the education issue from (and here I should note that since I have a BA, an MA, a PhD, and have taught at six colleges and universities, so I’ve had ample opportunity to think about various problems and their equally various possible solutions), I just can’t see how going the free market route makes anything better. When I think about what I know about the worlds of education and business, all I see is a trainwreck.

My best guess about a fully privatized US educational system is so dire that even the concept of “more government involvement” doesn’t scare me in comparison.

Another victory in the War on Education

Well, it’s official.

Government’s Change in Calculating Need Will Deny Pell Grants to 81,000 Students, GAO Report Confirms

The U.S. Education Department’s new way of determining a student’s need for financial aid will disqualify 81,000 students from receiving Pell Grants, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last week, a conclusion that confirmed earlier predictions by many higher-education lobbyists.

(Full GAO Report here.)

I have observed in the past that we just keep seeing a string of actions that incrementally erode education in this country, whether it’s a persistent chipping away at ed budgets and financial support, as here, or teach-to-test methodologies that have the same long-term effects on the intellectual health of the culture as dumping students’ brains into a blender and setting it puree. There are other problems, as well, and commenters on some of my past posts have rightly noted that while the current culprits are Republican, there have been plenty of times in the past 20-30 years where Dem education leaders could have used a good butt-kicking, as well.

That said, let’s have a quick gander at what the aforementioned GOP culprits have done this time. I guess this is part of the administration’s Leave No Rich Child Behind initiative. Here are another 81,000 kids – per year – who just got sucked deep into a debt hole they’ll be lucky to climb out of before their 50th birthday. College expenses are soaring, and you’re talking about a segment of students who don’t have enough money to afford a good college education without some help. So they turn to loans, because the alternative is trying to get ahead in life with a high school education. It can be done, but let’s be honest about the odds, shall we?

Speaking as a guy who’s still a few years away from paying off the loans I racked up in my doctoral progam (and whose wife is in a similar spot with undergrad loans), I can tell you that our whole system not only raises questions about national productivity (a nation that doesn’t assure the best education of its population is going to get waxed on all fronts by competitor nations that make sure its citizens are optimally prepared for all the challenges confronting its society), it raises questions about the simple economic health of the country. We don’t have a lot of spare cash left at the end of each paycheck, and I wonder what would happen if all of a sudden you were to convert America’s collective student debt load into pure disposable income. And for the moment I’ll save the obvious moral questions attending a system that only affords certain benefits to its privileged classes for another day.

I know it’s not a simple issue (but as an American, don’t I have a right to simplistic answers to incredibly complex questions?). However, the more I look at it the more I see a system that could have been designed as a drag on the economy. Plunging another 81K kids deeper into a well of debt does nothing except serve the interests of….who?

Hmmm. Let’s see, an action that significantly impedes the unfettered pursuit of greater knowledge, that would seem to benefit those who don’t want middle and upper working class kids getting too educated.

Hunh. It’s almost like they want us dumb, isn’t it?

The next few days in the John Bolton saga

Well, things are looking bleak for Bolton backers everywhere (pick your source here), and at this stage there is no smart money being wagered on his confirmation to the post of UN Ambassador. The Dems are actually acting like an opposition party, key GOP senators are getting noticeably twitchy, and even Colin Powell, the most faithful party-line purse pup Dubya could ever ask for, is now openly questioning whether Bolton might be the ideal choice to work at a place he openly loathes.

So here’s how you might expect things to play out over the next couple weeks.

  • At some point, Bolton will call a press conference to announce that he’s withdrawing his nomination. Some noble remarks will be made about sparing America and the president the untoward divisiveness his nomination seems to have mysteriously inspired.
  • Bush will accept his withdrawal with deep regret.
  • Here there’s an either/or: depending on Bush’s sense of which way the winds are blowing in his own party, we may be given to understand that this is all the fault of the Democrats, who really do hate America, or Bush may quietly send Scotty McLellan out to waffle about how unfortunate the whole mess is.
  • In neither case will any mention will be made of the fact that a growing number of Republicans agree with the aforementioned godless liberals.

Then will commence the search for Plan B – my guess is that we’ll be looking for a kinder, gentler UN-hating bully, but Bush may surprise me. Hell, maybe he’ll nominate Clinton, huh?

Tool of oppression – some heresy for you to ponder

Okay, a little thought exercise for everybody. It goes like this.

The 1st Amendment provides us all with a freedom to speak our minds that was, at the time of its composition, unheard of in human history. We Americans place a tremendous value on this ideology and (even when we misunderstand it, take it for granted, trample on it, etc.) see it as a foundational element of our freedom.

The value of the 1A rests on a deeper assumption about how one drives meaningful political change. To wit, free speech leads to representative government, because it allows us to voice our grievances, share our views, inform ourselves, and ally with others who share our perspectives. This freedom of the town hall or the village common, then, is central to true democracy because it takes as a given that speech equals democracy. That is, a bunch of free people talking to each other = change or justice or reform or whatever you want to plug into this blank.

Now, this is important. What the American ideology, as embedded in the Constitution, does is to undercut whatever violent revolutionary tendencies may exist in the population. Before, you had to take up arms because you weren’t allowed to speak freely, but now you don’t have to kill your leaders anymore because you have a representative system that lets you replace them as a course of law.

Here is where it gets sinister. What if I’m of a class that wants to rape, loot, pillage, oppress, etc., but I’d like to be able to do so without worrying about angry crowds and guillotines? What if I had a tool that would let me plunder to my heart’s content while simultaneously decompressing the predictable outrages of the governed?

Hmmm. If I could convince them that the way to fix things was to get together and talk about it ad infinitum, as opposed to grabbing their guns and rushing to the barricades, I’d be sitting in the high cotton. So what if we had this system of government that gave them all the freedoms to talk and print and vote and meet – and at the core of it was the belief that justice was attained by talking instead of doing? (If, once this is accomplished, I can then find a way to turn them against each other, the job gets almost too easy.)

Then, all I have to do is unhitch the engines of power from the electoral process and embed them in the wealth function, which I control. Of course, wealth lets me reproduce my messages with greater frequency, reach, and elegance – I can afford presses and the best educations and the smartest employees, all of which makes it a lot easier for me to shape the outcome of the electoral process.

Viewed from this incredibly cynical angle, you could thus argue that the 1st Amendment is the most clever, insidious, and utterly brilliant tool for tyranny in the history of the world, because of the way in which it seduces the public into complicity in its own oppression.

I sincerely hope someone can demonstrate to me why I’m wrong.

Russian astrologist sues NASA

NASA has been taken to court in Russia over its plans to crack open a comet.

Marina Bai, a Russian astrologist, filed a lawsuit last month with the Presnensky district court in Moscow, demanding that the U.S. space agency call off its $311 million Deep Impact mission. As reported in, Bai is also asking for 8.7 billion rubles ($311 million) in compensation for moral damages.

“The actions of NASA infringe upon my system of spiritual and life values, in particular on the values of every element of creation, upon the unacceptability of barbarically interfering with the natural life of the universe, and the violation of the natural balance of the Universe,” Bai said in her claim. (Story.)

Well, good for Bai, and if this thing attains class-action status you can count me in, too. I’m feeling pretty aggrieved by the way in which NASA is interfering with my ability to resonate with the Cosmosystemic Mother Frequency.

You damned skippy….

[THX: Mike Pecaut at the Rocket Science Desk.]

The Roman Catholic Church – a prediction

I have a prediction regarding the future of the Church that I’m willing to offer up with some confidence. There has been a good bit of controversy about the issue of ordaining women as priests, and the College of Cardinals’ election of Pope B16 suggests we’re not going to see any rush to reform in this particular area.

However, I promise you that we’ll see significant movement on this issue once we get a female Pope.

Write it down – you heard it here first.

It was six years ago today

4.20.99: I was at my computer working on something – who knows what. I was a Sr. Employee Communications Manager at US West in Denver, so when Joe Lopez, sitting right next to me, says “hey, Sammy, there’s been a shooting at a high school in Littleton,” my stomach twisted. We had a major facility in Littleton, so we were automatically talking about USW families.

I told him to get everything he could on it, and headed down the hall. I had to interrupt a meeting to notify our VP. I recall her being annoyed with me, because I don’t think she immediately realized what the import was. Then I think I headed around the corner to let our media relations team know. That’s about the last detail I remember clearly from work that day, although I know more or less what we did as the story unfolded.

I visited Columbine High School and Clement Park twice in the week after the shooting and wrote about about what I saw. That piece remains one of the most humbling reminders of how limited we writers really are, because I know what I wrote and I know what a poor job it does of fully expressing what I felt, what I still feel.

For the record, Columbine still hurts. Even now, six years on, I can barely think about it without having to fight back tears….

Robot camel jockeys?

Dear lord.

Qatar to Use Robots As Camel Riders

Spurring the robots’ development has been vehement condemnation from human rights groups of the sport’s regular jockeys. Activists say there are about 40,000 boy jockeys, some as young as 4, who are either bought from their parents or kidnapped from their home countries and taken to the Gulf to ride. The boys live in bleak conditions and are underfed before races to keep their weight down.

In Qatar, ruling sheiks have responded to calls for banning the use of boy jockeys by embracing robots as the best solution.

I guess you can use this as an example of how technology can be employed to combat social injustice, huh?

[THX: Rocket Science Desk Chief Mike Pecaut.]

JP2 –> B16: Church lurches ahead into the 13th Century

German Doctrinal Overseer Ratzinger Elected Pope
Tue Apr 19, 2005 12:56 PM ET
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the strict defender of Catholic orthodoxy for the past 23 years, was elected Pope on Tuesday despite a widespread assumption he was too old and divisive to win election.
But he sounded very much the candidate before going into the conclave on Monday, defending orthodox Catholicism and warning the other 114 cardinal electors against following godless modern trends.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he declared at a pre-conclave Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Ratzinger’s stern leadership of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, delighted conservative Catholics but upset moderates and other Christians whose churches he described as deficient.

Some of us had hoped for a progressive, someone who could help shepherd the Church through a time turbulence and change toward a more enlightened relationship with the technological and social dynamics that shape the 21st Century world in which its 1.1 billion members live.

I guess not. Not only is Pope Benedict XVI a conservative, he’s the conservative, the pit bull who’s been charged for the last couple decades with enforcing theological doctrine – which is to say, whipping Cardinals who believe in an evolving tradition back into line with ancient, unchanging dogma.

This is unfortunate, unless there resides within the heart of the 78 year-old a late-blooming spark of reform-mindedness.


Aaron Butler of the Indiana Law Desk suggested I investigate Fafblog. Three entries down I hit this:

“As all bodhisattvas of the supply side understand, progressive income tax is an assault against entrepreneurship, taxing the wealthy at higher rates than the poor and therefore providing a disincentive to be rich. Indeed, we all remember the day Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, slouching in their tattered jeans and stained wife-beaters, announced their decision to quit their jobs and wallow in poverty rather than pay the terrible price of living in opulence. Even now America’s homeless shelters are filled to bursting with dispirited, out-of-work billionaires – a humanitarian tragedy that the Democrats choose to overlook in their slavish subservience to Big Poor.”

Ahem. Okay, these nuts are onto something. Or on something – not sure which.

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