Archive for February, 2012
Yes, I know. There’s been no Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 1.
But it exists, actually–or part of it still does. It’s sitting in the drafts folder of this blog.
I spent a great deal of time this morning writing it, a long piece about Rick Santorum and amnioscentesis and Dutch euthanasia and whatnot–and then the computer and the program ate it.
I’m very careful about saving while I’m writing blog posts, but in this case it managed to not-save things it had said it saved.
I just couldn’t face recreating the second half of it, so I didn’t.
And that was too bad. It was one of my better posts, I think. It also managed to throw a pall over what had, until that point, been a pretty good day.
Of course, later, while I was out at the grocery store, we had snow squalls, and that made it a really annoying day, but that’s something else again.
So let me leave a couple of notes that have nothing to do with that post.
First, if you’re thinking of getting the new Penn Jillette book, God, No!, don’t bother.
I don’t know what I expected this book to be, but it isn’t what I thought it would be. Mostly, it’s just Penn Jillette doing his schtick. And that’s all right, if you like it–which I usually do, when I see Penn and Teller perform on Letterman or SNL or their Showtime series Bullshit.
Page after page of Penn’s schtick, however, doesn’t go down so well, especially since the book seems to have no real organizing principle beyond “this is stuff that Penn thinks and stuff that has happened to me.”
There is the bit about reciting each of the ten commandments and then putting down Penn’s suggestion instead, but that’s a bit bland at best and totally cliched at worst.
And, hard as it is to admit it, the man managed to exceed my capacity for Anglo Saxon.
I’m from the Northeast. We swear like troopers up here, and I can do it in more than one language.
But this just got to be overwhelming.
And then there was the amount of sheer, gratuitous vulgarity–coarseness? I don’t know what to call it. The constant bathroom jokes, vomit jokes and various references to various sexual acts, coupled with eclectic uses of gross slang terms for various parts of the female anatomy.
What I found myself thinking, on around chapter 4, was: this is just unbelievably ugly.
And it is.
And it’s too bad.
Penn’s taken on libertarianism is closer to my own than most other people’s. Someday, I hope he’ll write a book I can give to my sister in law that she won’t throw in the trash after page 3. There are some things I have trouble explaining to her.
Beyond that, I am watching a local case where a woman was elected the Town Clerk of one of the neighboring towns to me, and then didn’t bother to show up to her job for three years.
She’s suing to get her pay for all that time, because, she says, whether she showed up or not had nothing to do with her right to the job and the salary.
That was established by the election.
Sometimes, people astonish even me.
I’ve been thinking about my last post, and I’m going to try to be clearer.
Part of the reason for that is that I have finished the book I have been asked to blurb–NOT a St. Martin’s book, by the way–and I am completely flummoxed.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many good ideas for a series progression go completely to waste, and there isn’t anything like a mystery, either. A body shows up, then everybody thinks of other things for a while, then the police do some detecting that is not related in the story, then the perpetrators are caught and they’re nobody we’ve ever heard of before in the book, then a bunch of personal stuff happens, and then it’s over.
Anybody who’s ever read this blog for any period of times knows that I’m hardly a stickler for adhering to the convetions of the genre, but this was ridiculous. A mystery should have a mystery in it, and although it doesn’t always have to be fair play, SOME gesture in the direction of putting the reader in the picture is definitely required.
For the perpetrator to show up three quarters of the way through the book, having not only never been mentioned before but not even suggested before, is not pushing the genre’s envelope, it’s just annoying.
Which brings me back, of course, to the topic of yesterday.
I like well rounded characters, of course I do, but if I’m honest with myself, I also like many who are not all that well rounded.
I can read Agatha Christie (Poirot and Marple) endlessly, and I truly love all things Perry Mason.
But after reading thing I just did, all I can conclude is that what I may actually need in a book is shape.
Genre is a standardized shape for a novel–a sort of prearranged skeleton to hang the particulars on.
In this case, the writer didn’t even bother to take advantage of the prearranged skeleton. She just sort of drifted around, throwing in plot elements here and there without rhyme or reason.
The elements themselves might have been interesting if they’d felt as if they were part of a larger hole, but the more the book went on, the more I felt as if I was lost in space.
And the mystery coming to an abrupt end without anything at all to indicate what the clues were or how they were being worked out was just–astonishing.
But not in a good way.
It’s important to remember, though, that this book is being published. It will go out and try to find readers. Some editor at this publishing house must have thought that this was a good idea, and a better idea than dozens of other mystery submission that she (editors are often she) turned down.
That is, I think, not an entirely minor issue.
There are thousands of people out there, working very hard to become writers. There are thousands working very hard just to break into the field of genre mystery.
Every once in a while I go to writer’s conferences or speak at schools and libraries and give advice on how to do that–but looking at this thing, I’m not sure my advice has ever made any sense.
If this is what is chosen for publication, what exactly are the standards that would be writers should be trying to meet? Were the other books this editor was offered really so awful that this was the best of the bunch? And if it was, why publish at all?
Maybe we’ve reached the point where the genre has become deader than a doornail.
I wax wroth on and off about the state of cutesy cozies, but even the cutesy cozies I’ve read have had shape, and a mystery that actually gets solved on the page.
I keep hoping to find out that the writer is this editor’s sister or college roommate or…something.
And I keep thinking of a good friend of mine from college who couldn’t get her mystery accepted by a NY house and settled for a small regional publisher instead–and whose books are a million times better than this thing.
There has to be something going on here that I just don’t get.
So, this is supposed to be a day off.
It’s not a day off, of course. Come lunchtime, I’m going to have to buckle down and correct yet another huge pile of papers, and I’ve already worked on the new Gregor this morning and e-mailed a dozen people who do not seem to be able to understand the words “don’t post links to docx files.”
In the meantime, I’ve got this strange little country-rock song called “Drink in My Hand” running through my head, and I haven’t had a drink since the Obama election. That’s when I drink–a double shot of Drambuie on ice for the Presidential elections. I think of it as medicinal.
Anyway, this morning I have the kind of question that does not tend to generate a lot of comments, but I can always hope.
What is it about characters that makes it possible for you to connect with them?
And I’m aware of the fact that I’m not likely to get the answers I really need, because I don’t know how to ask this in the way that would elicit–whatever.
Look, I am reading, at the moment, a book that was send to me in hope of getting a blurb. In some ways, it’s nice enough. The premise is pretty good, if a little fey. The setting is pretty good. There’s a sort of lack of cohesion to the plot, as if the writer isn’t actually sure of how the genre works–but hey, it’s a first book.
My problem is that, to me, the main character especially seems completely flat. That’s because an enormous amount of the writing here is tell and not show, and the tell is, for me, neither terrible plausible nor particularly individualistic.
But this isn’t the first book I’ve seen like this in the last five or six years, and some of them have sold at least reasonably well. And I’ve had people come right up and tell me that they love the characters from Series X, which I haven’t been able to read at all because the characters never came alive on the page to me, because it was all tell and not show.
For these reasons, I figure there is something going on here that I do not understand.
Yes, I do get the thing about “story,” even though it isn’t my thing–but in the cases I’m talking about, I wouldn’t have said the story was that good, either.
The story could have been better in this case if the plot had been tighter and more focussed, but that not so tight and not so focussed thing is characteristic of the minor entries in the cozy subgenre.
So, seriously, what are people seeing here that I am not?
If you’ve got a book or a series where you especially like the characters, tell me what it is, and why you like them.
That way, I can go and take a shot at the books, if I haven’t read them, and maybe I’ll get a clue.
Because a clue would be really nice at this stage.
This is not going to be a significant post.
I have been having one of those miserable weeks that come to an end with a bang, and I think I’m going to go quietly crazy.
It started, of course, with the damned car, and then it progressed.
My older son had his iPhone stolen on the bus yesterday
That would have been miserable under any circumstances, but in some ways it was less miserable than you’d think, and in others it was more.
It was less miserable than it might have been because the phone was insured and we got the number locked down before any damage had shown up on the account–Matt will have a new phone on Tuesday, and all he’ll be in for is the deductible, which is reasonable.
It was more miserable than usual because I had had my email account hacked a couple of days before, and I’d been finding it impossible to change the password.
By yesterday, I was getting furious reports from the Terms of Service people at AOL demanding to know what was going on, and then finally the account was locked down.
And still, no matter what I did, I could not seem to find a way to change the damned password.
And then it hit me–I couldn’t, because I’m not the registered account holder any more. The LAST time this happened I had the flu, and I sent Matt onto the account to change the password and reconfigure it as his own.
That was the easiest and fastest way to get it done.
Now he’s in Philadelphia, without a phone, and without access to a computer until after the long week-end.
(His laptop tanked and he’s got a gazillion techie engineer friends who are fixing it for him.)
He can’t call terms of service for me because he doesn’t have a phone.
The only way he can communicate over the long week-end is to send e-mails from his 3DS, since he does have free wireless where he is, and that works with that.
I don’t know what to say. I thought this was going to be another case of having set up “security controls” that work only to keep me out of my own account, because I can’t remember exactly how I phrased something ten years ago and whether there were uppercase letters in it.
That tends to happen to me at school, where they demand that I change my password every 45 days. With school, I ‘ve taken to simply writing each password in my grade book as soon as I change it, because if I DON’T, I won’t remember what it is the next time I need it, and I’ll end up getting locked out right when I have to put in midterm grades.
It seems to me that there really ought to be some way to construct a system that would make it possible for people to remember their own password information without letting in the people who want to run spam.
Because, at the moment, THOSE people can get my passwords, but I can’t.
I’m going to go finish this tea and go to school.
But just a few.
Yesterday, I managed to get myself hit by a car, more or less–not run over, just hit, and it was doing about 4 miles an hour in a parking lot, but I’m a bit bruised up and achy.
I can type, but I’m not thinking too well.
But, a couple of things on the present topic:
1) John says I want to go back to the frontier West, but all I really want is to go back to, say, 1975 or 1980.
Most American public schools operated on the scheme I outlined here until about then, and the real attempts by state boards of education and the Federal Government to control local decisions didn’t hit until the 1990s.
The US Department of Education didn’t even exist before the Carter administration.
And, even now, lots of towns throughout the country operate in the way I’d like, or more that way than otherwise.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the state mandated that everybody who got a high school diploma in CT had to have passed a year of American history and a year of civics, plus a year of “practical science” (home ec for girls, shop for boys).
Beyond that, towns did what the wanted, with the schools run by elected school boards.
And that’s still mostly the way it is–CT does not mandate textbooks at the state level, for instance, and elected school boards still run the local schools.
There has, however, been a lot of bracket creep–the CT state board of education now mandates a lot of other stuff (particular kinds of math in elementary and middle schools, for instance, and the endless “awareness weeks” for one thing or another, anti-bullying, DARE, whatever).
But I could have lived with most of that if it hadn’t been for the one real change in the balance of power–the state now mandates how teacher’s contracts may be negotiated.
That takes significant power over the conduct of education away from local school boards, and I’d like to see it stop.
As for the federal government–it can’t actually mandate anything.
What it can do is to make federal education funds contingent on local districts’ accepting sets of conditions, like NCLB.
A school district, or a state, that turns the money down can do what it pleases no matter how the Dept of Education feels.
I’m not suggesting anything strange, outrageous or old fashioned. I just want schools in the US to be run the way they have tradtionally been run until very recently.
That having been said, I came across a story today from Hoke County, North Carolina, that illustrates perfectly why programs are always programs and bad for you.
You can go here for an overview of this thing:
It’s not a site I know, but there are dozens reporting this story and googling it will get you one you like better if you don’t like this one.
Here’s what happened: a little girl attending a federally funded preschool program brought a brown bag lunch to school consisting of a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, some apple juice and a small bag of potato chips.
A nutrition inspector charged with enforcing nutritional guidelines from the Department of Child Development and Early Education at the HHS department inspected this lunch, declared it to be nutritionally inadequate and took it away and insisted that the child eat the officially provided lunch instead, which consisted of—chicken nuggets.
The kid apparently didn’t like the nuggets and ate only three.
Then the school billed the girl’s mother for the lunch she didn’t eat.
Now, the articles I have seen have all concentrated on the fact that the girl’s brown bag lunch was actually nutritionally better than the one the school gave her.
But to me, that’s hardly the point.
The point is–what is ANY government worker doing telling a mother what kind of lunch she can send her child in to school with? why is ANY government worker even allowed to look at it and check?
And, of course, there’s an answer to that.
It’s a program, and like all programs, it has conditions–specifically, the condition that you must accept “oversight” of whatever it is the program wants overseen.
You must accept, that is, that ‘experts” know more than you do about how to raise and feed your child, and that they have the right to correct you (and even penalize you) if you don’t follow their directions.
You are required to understand that YOU, of course, are too ignorant and uneducated to know what’s good for yourself or your family.
Programs are wrong BECAUSE THEY’RE PROGRAMS.
They’re wrong because they change the relationship of the people to the government from self-governing citizens to clients, patients and dependents who need to be told what to do and how to do it.
And in the end, ALL programs teach is the learned helplessness and passivity that are required to go on getting the “benefits.”
Preschool is good for your child?
But you only get to get it for her if you learn to be as dysfunctional as possible and follow along like a pouting little child.
I’ve been thinking.
CathyF gave a sketchy indication of how she would change things, and I will have to admit that I’ve got a problem right off the back.
She would end the practice of funding schools with local property taxes, and I definitely would not.
The local control of schools is very important to me–and I do mean local control.
I don’t even like state boards of education.
I think what goes on in local schools should be controlled and directed by local communities–parents, not experts or outside bureaucrats, should determine the curriculum, textbooks, teaching and administrative personnel and their duties.
The end of local funding would mean that every school in the country would run like one of the big city systems, where decisions are made by “experts” at the top and “parental involvement” means coming to cheer what the “experts” have decided they want to do.
And it would end the diversity of schools, which would, I think be a big mistake. I think we have far less to fear from a few towns who would install intelligent design in biology classes than we do from centralized control of schools.
But the issue is, in fact, much bigger than that. So let me get to it.
1) Cathy F says we have lots of studies showing good things coming from HeadStart. Like Roberts, most of the studies I’ve seen have shown academic achievement to be a wash between HS and non-HS kids after only a few years–but that’s not the same thing as not dropping out or not getting pregnant.
And I have nothing against HS. Even if it doesn’t do anything to increase levels of academic ability and performance over time, preschool is a lot of fun for kids, it gets them out of the house and introduces them to a wider world–in other words, if we want to provide preschool as part of our school system, why not?
2) I did some googling of my own, trying to find studies that show that “we know” what it takes to make kids high achievers.
And what I found was what I expected to find–the studies I was being recommended were all studies of high SES kids with high levels of academic achievement.
The studies would then look into their family backgrounds and environment and go: here are the things these families are doing that low SES families are not. That must be what gets these kids to be high achievers.
But–and this is a great big but–there are two things enormously wrong with this.
The first is that the people doing these studies always abstract some, but not all, the differential factors between the two environments.
They’ll talk about good nutrition or parents talking to children, but not about
having both biological parents in the home or the relative IQ levels of each set of parents.
And yet, if you set out to do a study on those two factors alone, you’d find yourself able to explain most of the differential without ever bothering to get into the other issues.
And, the real kicker–getting a low SES parent to talk to her child when she isn’t inclined to do that, to feed herself and her child food she does not like, to go to museums when they bore the hell out of her, and to have books around the house when she hates to read–
Getting her to do all that will not replicate the environment of the high SES child, or even the low SES child with a different kind of parent.
What the parent says when he talks to his child matters, and it matters more than the just talking as the child gets older.
To get the kick you want here would require you to change the parent in ways that are both profound and intrusive–and maybe not even possible.
I would say that they are especially not possible in the context of a “program,” which will–necessarily, by the very fact that it IS a program–inevitably teach one thing primarily: passivity and dependence.
And no, I do not think it is possible to avoid this.
But there’s more.
One of the thing that does make a little sense here is the idea that it would help a low-achieving low-SES child to have his school environment be Wilton’s, rather than Bridgeport’s.
This is not because Wilton hires better teachers or has more money for music programs and lab sciences.
This is because the kid would be surrounded by other kids whose priorities are very different from the ones in his own neighborhood. Kids who start prepping for Harvard in kindergarten, who read all the time, who know lots of stuff about the Surpreme Court and current affairs and classic literature. Kids who do math for fun.
And, you know, that kind of thing will in fact have an impact.
It’s just really hard to create the right conditions. And they could not be created wholesale for all the children in an inner city or poor rural system.
It’s the numbers that are going to kill you here.
Take a system like one of the ones in the tight suburbs of Gold Coast Connecticut, where the local high school has maybe 1000 kids.
If you take in one low-achieving, low-SES kid, he’ll get swallowed up by the school culture and either sink hard or learn to swim.
Any child you take after that runs the risk of creating a situation where the low-SES kids huddle together, eat lunch together, are friends only with each other and do their damnedest to defend themselves against the school’s alien environment.
And that will be the case until the mass of low SES kids reaches the critical point, at which time they will be able to change and determine the culture of the school for themselves, and what you’ll have is a low-SES culture school with some rich kids in it.
If the rich kids’ parents haven’t long since pulled them out and put them in private schools.
I say long since because the point would have come, much before the critical mass stage, where the school’s curriculum and teaching program would have been changed to fit the low-SES kids who would have become a mandated priority.
And the high-level academics would have been watered down enough to make sure they didn’t look as if they were discriminating against the low-SES kids.
To the extent that it’s possible to change any of this, what’s needed is not a program, but a rejection of programs–a return (were we ever there?) to treating citizens as citizens and not as clients or patients.
The only way anybody can learn to take responsibility for themselves, their families, and the world around them is by doing it.
And yes, to the extent that anything changes, it will take generations to get done–but rushing in to try to “fix” THIS generation not only does not work, it backfires.
Of course, a good start might be to insist on the integrity and validity of academic standards to begin with–to insist that they are not marginal, that they are not arbitrary, that they are not “wrong” if not everybody can meet them–
But I’m not expecting that any time soon.
Cathy F says that not all liberals think alike, and I agree with her–not all conservatives think alike, either, and neither do all libertarians.
She posts a link to an article by Nicholas Kristof to illustrate that and wonders why I didn’t reference it–and there’s the rub.
I didn’t reference it because I didn’t think there was any fundamental difference between the two articles.
Kristof may admit that there are dysfunctional behaviors among the white underclass while Krugman tries to dismiss the idea–but in the end, it’s all about–income inequality!
Income inequality is causing all this! It’s not the programs–it’s income inequality!
We’ve gotten with income inequality this year the way we got with climate change a few years ago.
It doesn’t matter what happens, anywhere–even things that it would take a stretch of the imagination and Harry Potter’s wand to connect to the “explanation” du jour–there it is, yet more evidence that what’s really wrong is what we’ve been saying is wrong.
Kristof’s would have been a different article if he’d said, “I’ve looked at it long and hard and I’ve determined that the very programs I’ve been advocating are causing the increase in dysfunctional behaviors.”
But no, we’re bakc to “income inequality”–even though we can demonstrate that there were periods in this country’s history when income was far less equal than it is now, and yet these dysfunctions were literally light years less prevalent.
I’ve got a rule of thumb for judging what people really want in public policy–no matter what they say, what they really want is what they will not give up.
In that way, I think the Mitt Romney wing of the Republican Party is, indeed, concerned not with lower taxes overall or the fate of the middle class, but keeping taxes low on the richest Americans–because that’s what they won’t give up.
Faced with a tax plan like Santorum’s, which would, in fact, drastically lower taxes on the middle class, make the tax code transparent and make it adhere to a single standard, but in the process raise taxes at the top–oops, don’t want that. Lower taxes on the top is what they will not give up.
For most of the liberals I read, social programs are what they will not give up–not help for the poor and the needy, not a safety net, not support for the middle class, but the programs themselves.
And by the programs themselves, I mean the army of social workers, case workers, therapists and bureaucrats “helping” by futilely trying to modify human behavior.
We know how to run a program that will get money to people who need it without encouraging passivity and fecklessness. We call that program Social Security, and it consists of beneficiaries getting a check in the mail every month and nobody even bothering to ask them what they do with it.
If we decide to increase spending on social security, we do it by sending bigger checks, not by expanding the bureaucracy or erecting a system that encourages people to be passive in general and to define themselves as patients or helpless in particular.
But the point of the social programs is not really “income inequality,” it’s precisely the employment of that vast bureaucracy.
That’s what they won’t give up.
But the other thing they won’t give up is the isolation thing, so let’s get to that.
In the US, antidiscrimination law is written and administered in such a way that if your school/workplace/program has a higher percentage of members of one race (white or Asian) than another (black or Latino), that fact in itself is evidence of “systemic discrimination.”
The assumption–never really spelled out, but always there–is that there can be no possible reason for such a gap except racial discrimination (or gender discrimination, in the case of math and science courses, programs, and occupations).
In the real world, however, there are often lots of other reasons why there might be such a disparity, including some nobody will talk about publicly (but everybody admits privately).
Even disregarding any possible genetic differences in ability, there are the simple and undeniable facts on the ground: races and ethnic groups do not have equivalent home environments, family backgrounds, and that kind of thing.
A kid whose mother teaches him to sing the alphabet song and count to 100 before he ever enters preschool, who lives in a house full of books and reading, who sits down at the dinner table every night and listens to discussions about science and politics and current affairs, and whose family takes its vacations by touring the nation’s capital or spending a week in Rome is going to have an edge up on a kid whose single mother sticks him in front of the television set for ten hours a day, who eats watching the tube, who sees neither books nor newspapers in the house, and who shows up at preschool without a clue as to what a letter is.
And that advantage is only going to increase over time.
Is this fair?
No, of course not. But curing “income inequality” will not fix it, because the issue isn’t money, it’s the commitment of the family and the culture of the family.
And fair or not, the simple fact is that by the time you get to junior high, there are going to be vast and not ethnically neutral differences in the ways in which students are capable of handling academic work.
Now, the sensible thing would be do address the actual problem. I don’t know if it could be addressed in a single generation.
To address the actual problem, however, would be to admit out front that your analysis has been wrong, and that your programs aren’t the right ones.
In fact, we not only won’t address it, but any time anybody tries to address it, we’ll scream and yell and have a fit about how any person who tries to address it is a racist bastard, because that’s the only reason why anybody would say that such discrepancies are the result of anything but systemic racism and income inequality.
So we won’t do that.
So far so good, but then we hit another problem–once our school or program or occupation has been hit with the disparate income proof of its discriminatory nature, the ONLY solution acceptable to the powers that be will be increasing the percentage of minorities in that school, program or occupation.
If your program requires that students be able to handle calculus, a foreign language to a high reading standard, a reading in English level high enough to handle Dostoyevski and Shakespeare, and two lab sciences–well, you’ve got two choices.
You can either keep the standards where they are, admit a group of kids who could not have been admitted otherwise because they weren’t academically ready for the program, and let the chips fall where they may–except that, if a higher percentage of protected minorities flunk out than whites and Asians, the disparate impact people will be back.
Or you can dumb down the standards to make sure you can admit AND pass all the right numbers.
Or you can do what’s called “race norming,” which is grading students only against other students of their own race or ethnicity, so that the curve works out better.
And no, I’m not making that last one up.
But people in the educated upper middle class don’t want to do any of these things. They especially do not want the academic level of the studies their children take in elementary and high school to be lowered, because they are intent on getting those children not into college, but into Harvard.
They are therefore left with two possibilities–if we’re talking about schools, now–to get the high-level academic courses they want for their children:
a) go private, where competitive admissions standards are coupled with tokenism to make sure that the number of possibly underperforming minorities is small enough that they can be dealt with on a case by case basis. It’s a LOT easier to prove that Susan doesn’t have the background than that 85% of everybody in a category doesn’t.
b) live in an area where zoning laws raise house prices and discourage “affordable housing” of all kinds, thereby limiting the number of possibly underperforming minorities within the district, leading to the same situation as in private schools.
Anybody who has been paying attention here will notice something–that the underlying assumption here is that underperforming minorities are congentially incapable of doing first tier academic work. That is, that underperforming minorities are not victims of racial discrimination, but that they’re just largely stupid.
And having been around academia for a long time, I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the people I work with think this.
JD posted that it’s too bad that we ruined our educational system–but we haven’t, exactly.
Public schools in places like Winnetka, Westport, West Hartford, Beverly Hills, and like that are among the best in the world. They’re better, in many cases, than our top-end private schools. Your kid will get a better education all around at the public high school in Wilton, Connecticut, than he would at Exeter, or Eton.
But Wilton, Connecticut is one of those places. The zoning laws are written so strictly that it’s virtually impossible to build apartments at all, and what apartments you can build are going to be very, very expensive to rent. There are restrictions on building or operating businesses of all kinds, no manufacturing, virtually no fast food restaurants, no big box stores.
If you’re the kind of person Wilton doesn’t want, you can’t afford to live there anyway and there’s nowhere for you to work without a very long (and, in these days of $4 gas, expensive) commute.
So you’re safe. Wilton can go on offering Latin and ancient Greek, AP courses out the wazoo and a full theater program, and nobody will hit you with disparate impact.
I think that the people having fits about the Murray book these days–yes, including Kristof and Krugman–are far more worried about someb0dy blowing the whistle on the self-isolation of the educated upper middle class than they are about income inequality, or even the exposure of “social programs” as dysfunctional in themselves.
So, while I’ve been sick, the whole world seems to have exploded over Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which I think I brought up here a few weeks ago.
And by now I’ve read it, and I find myself in the same sort of bemused state I often get when Murray publishes a book.
There is the obvious–liberal critics of Murray’s ideas do pretty much the same knee-jerk caterwauling as they always do, and on the way they miss much of the point.
The caterwauling was pretty well illustrated by Paul Krugman in today’s NYT–Here’s Murray talking about morals, and what’s really wrong is income inequality!
“Income inequality” seems to be the fashionable phrase of the moment, so that, in and of itself is no surprise. Krugman goes forth and “proves” his point by saying that since good jobs with good pay and benefits have dried up for men with high school educations or less, that’s all we need to explain the rise in criminality, idleness, responsibility and a host of other things among the white working poor.
The problem is that this won’t work if we look at the situation historically. Before WWII, poverty in the US was close to 50%, more than double what it is today. Jobs that would have fit Krugman’s definition of “good” were few and far between. And “income inequality” was at least as wide as it is now, if not wider.
But out of wedlock births were in the single digits, men who fathered families they did not then support were few and far between, and most people left the doors of their houses unlocked and walked the streets at night even in the poorest neighborhoods.
Obviously, “income inequality” by itself is not enough to explain what’s going on.
For what it’s worth, I think that this kind of response–Krugman’s kind of response–to Murray’s book is similar to the same people’s responses to other of his books: mostly an attempt to throw up a lot of debris so that nobody gets around to talking about the real issue.
In this book, there are actually two such issues.
One is the increasing inability of anybody with any sense to go on insisting that public policy does not have unwanted side effects.
A few years ago, I was participating on an Internet forum and we had a discussion about whether unemployment benefits encourage some people to remain unemployed.
This turned into an enormous shouting match, where one side insisted that nobody would ever do that and that those of us who thought they would were actually just using code speak for race and calling black people lazy and irresponsible.
At the same time that discussion was going on, however, there was another going on. That second discussion had to do with a gentleman from, I think, Australia, who was explaining how he worked long enough to build up X amount of employment insurance, then got himself laid off so that he could live off that for a while. Then, when that ran out, he went back to work and…
In other words, he was doing exactly what we said people would be tempted to do.
I have had people on this forum tell me that even liberals who support a vastly expanded welfare state understand the free rider problem and want to do something about it, but I don’t think they do.
Understand it, I mean.
For one thing, calling it “the free rider problem” makes the entire issue unnecessarily remote.
The actual formulation is this: you get more of what you pay for and less of what you tax.
I’ve pointed out here several times that the significant attribute of my most remedial kids and their families is not stupidity (lots of them are bright enough), or even lack of moral fiber–it’s passivitiy, and that passivity is learned.
The simple fact of the matter is that at certain levels of this society, passivity pays better than anything else does.
Taking responsibility for the world around you gets you very little in most poor rural and inner city neighborhoods, and it will positively annoy the hell out of your social worker, who holds the keys to things like food stamps, welfare payments, and disability pensions.
You’ll do much better–in the short run–by shrugging your shoulders and saying you just can’t do anything about anything, by appearing as dysfunctional as possible in as many different ways, by redefining yourself as “disabled” in some vague and fuzzy way.
I’ve called this, before, the process of turning citizens into patients–of medicalizing all behavior so that it becomes not only not the person’s own responsiblity, but requires “treatment” and “support” in many different ways.
It is under no circumstances the case that this phenomenon is restricted to some out of sight underclass. Get your kid “diagnosed” as “learning disabled,” and he gets all kinds of things–Ritalin (which will make ANYBODY’S brain work better–legal dosing!), extra time to take exams and standardized tests, special help and tutoring from the local school.
Wham! We’ve got an epidemic of ADHD in high-income suburbs where parents desperately search for any advantage to help their kids get into elite colleges.
There are, of course, two problems with this.
Looking at my remedial kids, the most obvious one is that what seems to work well in the short run doesn’t work well in the long, and doesn’t even work all that well in the short.
Wander out to the neighborhoods where my kids live and you see garbage on the front porches, broken windows not even boarded up, old pieces of furniture cluttering up the yards. Wander into one of their houses or trailers or apartments, and you’ll find garbage on the living room floor, broken light bulbs nobody has bothered to change in months, dishes piled in the sink for weeks at a time.
It’s possible to argue that this is just a matter of poor people getting fewer services than richer people do–in a better apartment building, that bulb would get fixed much more quickly.
But this doesn’t quite cut it. Other people–even other poor people–typically respond to seeing something wrong by trying to alleviate or fix it. And they tend to become exasperated by neighbors who insist on railing at officialdom for things that can be taken care of in a few seconds on the ground.
In fact, I think most people find it natural to assume that they should take responsibility not only for their immediate selves or the life of their families, but for all kinds of other things. The food pantries in the towns around me aren’t operated by the government. They were founded and continue to be run by local organizations. That’s true as well of many of the libraries around here, which are not public libraries but “free library associations” that were founded by local groups and continue to be run by such groups.
A neighborhood where people take personal responsibility for themselves and the world around them is a better place to live than a neighborhood where people don’t.
And you don’t have to be rich, and neither do your neighbors, to behave that way.
If I was going to have a nervous breakdown about any of these things, it wouldn’t be “income inequality” or “moral hazard” in social programs, it would be the way learned passivity is being expanded throughout the classes.
Welcome to the “anti-bullying” campaigns–if you take responsibility for your situation and fight back, we will punish you just as severely as we punish the person who attacked you. Your only “correct” response is to sit patiently and wait for officialdom to solve the problem. If officialdom doesn’t, you’re just screwed.
Yes, I know. The anti-bullying thing has become my latest bete noir.
But there’s another issue here, and I think it’s the more important one, the one that really gets to people like Krugman–the increasing isolation of the upper middle class from everybody and everything around it.
And the important thing about that is this: it’s almost a sure bet that Krugman is part of that self-isolating upper middle class, that he lives in an area well cushioned against any intrusion into it by the other classes, that he has his kids (if he has them) either in private schools or in the kind of upscale-suburb public schools that outprivate the privates.
What’s more, if “income inequality” were to end tomorrow, it would not bring an end to that self-isolation–because the self-isolation is the point.
Strident denunciations of “income inequality” are not meant to help the poor–the issue is largely bogus–but to provide cover for people who have no intention of living among their fellow citizens any time soon.
And there are reasons for that, but we’ll have to leave it for another day.
It seems to be time for me to go somewhere and do something.
And it won’t, either, although this morning I’m in better shape than I was a few days ago.
I have been thinking, over the last few days, about Michael’s article, the one from the NYT about how the Chinese are outpacing us, and also the slide show that he posted to go with it.
For those of you who think I’ve been too fuzzy already lately, this is probably going to be worse, but here goes:
Most of the analysis and policy suggestion in the slide show seemed to me to be largely post hoc fallacies, causation/correlation mistakes and wishful thinking.
“Income inequality” is the big fad these days, so of course “income inequality” must be the cause of our woes.
But I think it’s possible that it’s the other way around–that we have rising income inequality because different segments of our population are diverging as to their work and other habits.
Immigrants who come here seem to have no trouble at all finding work. We’re told they “do the jobs Americans won’t do.” Then we’re told that Americans can’t do those jobs, because they pay so little that nobody could live while doing them.
In the meantime, immigrants are living while doing them.
And they’re not all living in hovels and nearly starving to death, either.
What’s more, if my area is any indication, a fair number of them manage to work their way up a considerable way over the years.
There are arguments to be made, of course, that nobody should be required to take the kinds of jobs under the kinds of conditions that immigrants do–but I also think that if you won’t take such a job (or jobs), the fact that your income isn’t very equal shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Then take the question of the dearth of people qualified to take lower-level engineering jobs.
Surely, yes, we could improve public education to make sure that more people are offered the basic training for those jobs–but that doesn’t mean that such an improvement would lead to more students taking the necessary courses or doing the necessary work.
And if you don’t think there is enormous resistance among American high school students to taking advanced courses in math and science, you’re delusional–and by “advanced” I mean “pre Algebra.”
We could, of course, reconfigure high school graduation requirements so that nobody could graduate without taking at least a year of lab science and math up through, say, Algebra 1–but if we did, we’d see our high school graduation rates go down in a way that would cause a political explosion.
Hell, we can’t even require our high school graduates to be able to read and write competently in English. One of the places the US has lost jobs to in the last 15 years is Ireland, where companies find they can hire people to write letters and not have to worry that the letters will be illiterate and unreadable.
In the meantime, the people at the other end are working their butts off even in high school–taking AP courses, doing six kinds of volunteering and extracurriculat activities, coming in early to do extra courses in things like Attic Greek and CGI programming.
If these two student populations diverge in life so that there’s lots of “income inequality” between them, I’m not surprised, and I don’t think there would be any justice is changing the outcome by fiat.
And then there is the reality of the fact that at least some talent is genetically based, and all the income redistribution in the world won’t change that.
So I’ll return to my original question–given the facts in the original Times article, what could possibly be done about it?
And how do you know that those things would do anything to alleviate the situation (how do you know you’re not just confusing correlation with causation)?
And is any of it politically feasible.
About a week ago, some people on FB put up a little thing that went “in what other profession…” and went on to say that teaching is the only profession where the trained people are not considered to have as good an idea of how the field should be run as nonexperts, etc.
But schools of education are, universally, the academically weakest on any college campus where they exist, and on those campuses they admit the students with the weakest academic backgrounds. Those backgrounds are often so weak that the student would not have qualified to enter any other division of the same university.
The content of education courses is notoriously pedestrian, repetitive and just plain wrong, consisting at least as much of instilling proper attitudes (don’t listen to the psychologists! of course cognitive ability isn’t inborn! bullies bully because they’ve been bullied themselves! letting kids fight back against bullies just leads to more bullying!) as in imparting actual knowledge.
Bright students who look into education usually drop out after a semester or two, unwilling to put up with the mindnumbing stupidity of the program.
So, we can certainly provide more money for K-12 public education, but what do we do with the “professionals” who have been trained this way, and who have been largely sorted for their LACK of intellectual ability?
Here’s what we could do to fix the situation as it sits, that might really help:
1) provide a SINGLE educational standard for graduation from high school that includes mathematics through Algebra 1 and a rigorous introduction to standard English grammar, usage, reading and writing.
Let the chips fall where they may–if there is “disparate impact” between various ethnic populations, then so be it. Respond by providing remedial work to bring them up to speed, NOT by watering down the standard so that more of them “graduate” with an empty piece of paper.
2) End illegal education at the same time we tighten up what counts as a “disability” in order to get government benefits.
If there are jobs Americans won’t do, then maybe they shouldn’t be done. If there are jobs and Americans won’t do them, then that’s a choice they’re fully welcome to make.
3) Make education cheaper by: reducing the number of jobs that require a “college” degree; opening more alternative paths to credentials outside the school/college nexus; and removing the “schools privelege” by requiring all students to pass independent tests, written and administered by institutions OUTSIDE schools and colleges, demonstrating their skills at everything from English composition to Algebra to auto mechanics.
No more “he graduated from high school, so he must know it.”
I’m obviously in no mood.
I’m going to go teach.
So, to start off with, let me apologize for how sparsely the posts have been lately. With a book deadline and the term just starting up, they would probably have been sparse-ish under anyway, but for the last eight days I’ve been down with The Cold To End All Colds.
And, yes, for those of you who know that I will avoid doctors and medical care until I’m actually dying, I did finally go and have it checked out.
I figured that, although it’s not usual for a student to give me penumonia this early in a term, it also isn’t impossible. And, let’s face it, pneumonia is the easy part. They give you antibiotics. Forty eight hours later, you feel fine.
But no, it’s just a really bad cold, and it isn’t gone yet. So I’m sitting here doing that weird shaking thing that says that the fever is about to come back in half an hour or so.
But I’ve also had some things on my mind, and I get a little crazy if I don’t write, so I thought I’d give this a shot.
To understand what comes next, however, I have to set the stage just a little bit.
A few nights ago–Tuesday night, I think–I came back home from teaching not only feeling ill but in a state of high piss off.
The students in one of my courses this term are required to read a short article or part of a book every week and to come and in take a quiz on the contents.
This is, to use a cliche, not rocket science. They need to be able to state the thesis of the piece and to list three of the main points supporting it. They also need to define one or two vocabulary words taken from the text.
Since the focus of the course is “critical reading,” I figured being able to read at all was not an unreasonable requirement.
I looked through the quizzes before I came home and found out that, once again, at least half of them had responded to the vocab requirement by looking up the words on their phones as they sat in class doing the quiz.
This was obvious both because of the way the definitions were worded and because, when I called on individual people to define the words in class out loud, they didn’t have a clue.
So I was in no mood to begin with, and then by the time class was nearly over I was also running a very high fever and feeling rather dizzy.
And I came home, and I checked e-mail, and one of the things I found was this completely off the wall rant by–I don’t really know who this person is.
This rant claimed that this person had read “a few pages” of Flowering Judas, he had gone to my web site to find out more about me, and been smacked in the face with a “letter” about why I didn’t vote Republican, in which I had ‘forced down [his] throat that I thought all Republicans were uneducated idiots.
He therefore refused to read any more of my book, refused to tell anybody anywhere that he had ever heard my name, and refused to say anything about me in the course he taught on mystery and detective fiction.
Now, I have a couple of things to say here, irrespective of the fact that this e-mail was really long and largely emotionally incoherent.
The first is that I find it hard to understand how anybody could be hit in the face with that essay when they first looked at my web page. You have to scroll down to see the essay list at all, and the Republican one is not the first.
What’s more, it’s surrounded by other essays that are distinctly not left wing–Why Intellectuals Love Marx, for instance, and Why I Am Not A Humanist.
In fact, I expect a number of people who read this blog would find it downright funny that anybody would consider me a leftist at all–God only knows, I get enough mail from other people who think I’m some kind of right wing ideologue.
But on top of that, the rant did not accurately reflect what was in the essay to begin with. And my guess is that the writer read the three sections but not the introduction.
I do want to go over what I said in that essay, and I probably will in a day or two, but I’d like to point out two things:
1) If this guy wants to exclude from his mystery and detective fiction course every writer he would think of as “left wing,” then he’s got a MUCH bigger problem than me.
Writers in this genre are virtually universally doctrinaire liberals–very doctrinaire. And although you’ll never find a book of mine where politically or religiously conservative characters are treated as universally stupid and igorant, I could point you to a good dozen mysteries published by mystery writers working right now where that is the case.
2) MY problem is twofold.
a) What people want is dogmatic adherence to their side, whatever that side is. If you criticize ONE point in their program–you obviously hate their program, you can’t stand them and you’re calling them stupid or evil or something.
And there isn’t anybody’s program out there I like 100%.
What’s more, if you LIKE one part of the opposition’s program, then you MUST support every single point of it.
For conservatives, it doesn’t matter how many times I oppose affirmative action, most social welfare spending as presently constituted, hate crimes laws and speech codes–nope, I criticize Republican policies but never Democratic ones.
The Democrats just call me a racist and a theocrat and get it over with.
b) I’m told that if I discuss my ideas in public, lots of readers are going to refuse to buy my books, because they don’t agree with the ideas, whether those ideas are in the books are not, because–
I think this is true. But I also think it is stupid.
All that being said, I’d like to note one thing, before going on with a discussion about smart people who think they should be able to run our lives. That’s coming soon.
First, I have never said that top tier universities could do no wrong. I have opposed speech codes on this blog. I have opposed the coercive “orientations.” I have opposed the political jihad of faculty selection.
I’ve said it all right here–obviously, I don’t think such schools can “do no wrong.”
But second–here’s the thing.
For better or worse, if you want to get a certain kind of education at all, you no longer have anyplace else to go.
Going to Yale or Vassar or Johns Hopkins won’t ensure that you get a full liberal education, but going to Southern Connecticut State will ensure that you won’t, because places like SCSU no longer offer the coursework that would enable you to pursue it.
For better or worse, we have turned all but the flagship campuses of some of our state universities into vast vocational training schools with nary a glance in the direction of a classical education.
If you think that doesn’t matter, think again.
It’s the reason why those schools are producing not only Obama administration liberals and liberal intellectuals like Cass Susstein, but also virtually all the conservative and liberal politicians and intellectuals as well–William F. Buckley (Yale), Thomas Sowell (Harvard), Charles Murray (Harvard), and I could go on for a year.
Hell, Mitt Romney went to Harvard, George W. Bush went to Yale, and Nancy Pelosi went to an obscure Catholic women’s college I’m willing to bet most of you have never heard of.
The point of that piece was not that Republicans are yahoos. It was that some Republican politicians and writers deliberately pander to a certain subset of voters whose primary motivation is NOT a reasoned conviction that people who went to elite colleges and universities are trying to run their lives or are mucking up the country with their policies.
And that it’s pandering, and not conviction, was on display in the whole Harriet Miers mess, where one Republican writer after another shrieked that you couldn’t put that woman on the Supreme Court, she hadn’t gone to a good law school! In other words, she was Southern Methodist U, not Harvard, Yale, or the public Ivies.
I got told today that I should think of what’s best for the country when I vote, and not if some things (that old Iowa add, for instance, about those awful NYT reading, brie eating snobs) remind me of the things of the way I got beat up in grade school.
So, let me try to be clear.
I think that the mentality that was being encouraged by that Iowa ad was far worse for the country, and far more dangerous, than anything Barack Obama could do even if he joined the CPUSA.
When you use things like “Ivy League” as pejoratives YOU may mean to employ short hand to indicate certain attitudes or policies, but I’ll absolutely guarantee you that the people that ad was aimed at do not.
And if you think I’m wrong–you really need to get out more.
Oh, and one more thing–if it’s okay for one side to vote based on resentments from their childhood, I don’t see why I should be denied the right to vote on mine.
But in the end, the issue is simple. An ad like that Iowa ad is a declaration that the Republicans don’t WANT me to vote for them.
People like me have been declared unwelcome in the party.
You’re not going to vote for people who look down on you and call you names?
I’m not either.