Bottom Up, People. Bottom Up.

 Civilizer

Everybody take a minute to read this New York Times Op-Ed from David Brooks.  Here is the gist:

“Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years…America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment…In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” [James] Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years…I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.”

Sorry, I know that was a long gist.  But it’s a very important gist, and you should read the whole article because it elucidates what I consider to be one of the most egregious cases of “they’re totally missing the point” in American politics and society:  on a large, socially significant scale, you can’t make a kid into a winner when he or she has been raised (if you can even call it that) to be a loser.

This guy will not come up with the next breakthrough in anything.

Take affirmative action at American colleges and universities.  You know why I don’t like affirmative action?  It’s got nothing to do with me being white and feeling resentful that a black or Hispanic person took a spot that “belonged” to a fellow Caucasian.  I don’t like affirmative action because it operates under the entirely misguided premise that you can “fix” the inequality in the educational or post-collegiate world by making sure that more people of color get to go to college.
That inequality doesn’t simply exist because of a lack of collegiate access.  The inequality springs from everything that happened (or, more accurately, didn’t happen) in the 18 years leading up to matriculation.  When I got to college, it became clear during the first week that it was really a lack of preparation, not access.  Before I even went to school, I had parents who read to me, and had me read to them.  I went to a Jesuit prep school.  My mom and dad, and my friends’ moms and dads, emphasized academic achievement, and gave me the crucial “I know you think most of this is boring, but if you don’t get through it, you’ll find the world a difficult place” talk.  In college, it was obvious, and obvious fast, who grew up in a similar environment and who didn’t.  And those who didn’t – black, white, or that one kid who I think was albino – all made me realize the same thing:  being intellectually neglected for your entire life is a hole that you will not dig out of simply because somebody gave you a free shot at college.

No parent paying a lick of attention buys their daughter one of these

So it is with everything else. People who haven’t been properly nurtured, who haven’t been taught the value of the brain and the value of talent, are multiplying. Evidence of lackadaisical child-rearing abounds. The U.S. high school graduation rate fell from 71.2% to 68.8% between 1990 and 2005. The childhood obesity problem continues to get worse. MGA Entertainment has sold over a billion dollars worth of Bratz.  And what you get is what Brooks calls a “skills gap.” 

When a shrinking number of households raise their kids to be a success in life, that means there a fewer skilled and educated workers twenty years later.  And because there are fewer, those few can demand much higher salaries than the kids whose parents didn’t do their jobs.  The result?

The ratio of the wage income of the top 1% of earners to that of the bottom 90% more than doubles, like it did between 1979 and 2006, increasing from a ratio of 9.4 to 1 to 19.9 to 1.

I don’t mean to use this as an end-around the argument that the country needs more education funding, better schools, and that the country needs to break the back of the teachers’ unions(which are just one of the many reasons I will never, ever, become a Demmycrat).  Better families, after all, would find it hard to produce good students if they had to send little Timmy off to an asbestos and mold-ridden school with a faulty thermostat in the winter and textbooks that described America as a country “locked in a battle against the forces of Soviet communism.”  But nevertheless, the country needs to wake up to the fact that it doesn’t matter how much money they throw into buying new books and computers, or affirmative action.  If the kids go home to parents that don’t care, to XBox 360, to Burger King for dinner, to houses with no books, then the government’s efforts will be wasted on 9 out of 10 kids – and that’s billions of taxpayer dollars that we could be using to develop awesome new bombs and tanks.

The skills gap truly encapsulates the argument that government can spend all it wants and establish the Department of [Insert Pressing Social Problem Here], but there is no force greater than individual American taking responsibility for his or her own life.

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The Chinese Example: Forget Warming, And Cut Emissions Anyway

 Civilizer

Global warming continues to be this year’s hot complaint.  The greening of America has seeped into retailers, advertiser, and consumers, and all thanks to the rallying cry “Stop Global Warming.”  Al Gore made an alarmist film rife with errors and got a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar for it, because he was trying to “Stop Global Warming.”  You can buy everything from an environmentally friendly light bulb to environmentally friendly floors for your house, so you can help “Stop Global Warming.”  Well I never thought I’d say this, but:

To hell with global warming.  Take a look.

A smog-o-rific satellite image of China

That picture up there is a photograph of China taken from space.  See all that dark gray stuff?  That would be all the stuff that China’s factories belch into the atmosphere.  And it’s a perfect example of why we do have to cut emissions, develop cleaner energy, and more prudent land management strategies, and why global warming has to take a back seat.  The example of China illustrates the situation perfectly.

China, of course, is hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.  “Hosting” is kind of a funny word, as they seem like the kind of host who welcomes you into their home and then dispatches their German Shepherd to watch you like a hawk and take a bite out of your thigh if you touch the candlesticks.  But in any case, it’s their big event on the world stage.  And they had so badly fouled their air that they had to shut everything down in and around Beijing well ahead of the start of the Games to try and get things athlete-ready.  The air is so bad, the great Haile Gebrselassie has refused to compete in Beijing.  But underneath that nauseating claim are some pretty shocking facts:  Air pollution kills approximately 656,000 Chinese people a year, and water pollution another 95,600.  More people die of pollution-related causes in China than die of cancer in the United States each year, or heart disease.

And how about this, for all you dismal scientists out there:  on a combined basis, air and water pollution cost China 5.8% of its GDP – around $100 billion annually.  And oh yeah – all that smog probably exacerbates global warming. 

Now, I’m not saying that global warming is a liberal con job, or that it doesn’t exist.  The evidence that global warming is happening is pretty hard to refute, and I’ve no doubt that humanity has a hand in it.  But remember, this planet has been going through climactic shifts and cycles since time out of mind.  And also remember that while human activity has a tremendous impact on the planet, our capacity to affect the climate is dwarfed by our capacity to affect conditions on the ground and our own quality of life. 

China is a microcosm of the wider world.  Their most pressing problem isn’t global warming, and it isn’t their most solvable problem, either.  The same goes for the rest of us.  Keep in mind that China shut down the country for several months and their air is still a mess – you think if you buy some different lightbulbs and drive a Prius that you can reverse something like global warming?  Really?  You think if a few enlightened people in pockets of the world straighten up and fly right, it will reverse centuries of industrialized by-product, and the millions of cars on the road?

But let’s look at what would happen in China, and in fact the entire world, if we developed clean, alternative fuels instead of burned oil, gas, and coal – less cancer, cleaner water, healthier watersheds and ecosystems, stable animal populations, and budgets that aren’t as stressed by the health care and/or clean-up costs that come with all that stuff.  But if we push that stuff aside and just keep talking about global warming, then what happens when the skeptics break through?  What happens when they plant enough doubt in enough people’s minds about this whole global warming thing?  After all, no lay people really understand the science behind it – here’s a fun game: find some passionate global warming guy or girl on a college campus and ask them to explain carbon-feedback loops.  See?  They mostly just know what Al Gore put in a movie, and we all know he’s full of shit most of the time.  Wasn’t his wife that crazy chick who tried to ban W.A.S.P.? (Truth be told I wish she’d succeeded there)

Gas prices drop, these stupid things will come right back

I’ll tell you what will happen – people will decide they don’t have to worry anymore.  They’ll buy regular old bulbs again, they’ll stop buying hybrid cars, they won’t worry about recycling that much.  Global warming has at least served one purpose.  It’s woken people up to the fact that we can’t continue to live the way we do without serious consequences to the long-term viability of the planet.

But it’s time to shift the focus.  China isn’t shutting its factories down because of global warming.  They’re doing it because the world is coming to visit this summer, and the Chinese government understands that no one wants to live or compete in the smog, the algae blooms, and the runoff.

So why should the rest of us put up with it anywhere else?

Unacceptable

 Civilizer

I repeat myself:  why, when a people are apocalyptically stricken by any number of scourges (genocide, natural disaster, starvation), does the world see fit to sit on its hands and allow the government which makes aid almost impossible to continue to govern?  They are killing their own people, either directly through violent repression or indirectly through the incompetent or criminal diversion of aid.  At some point, the right of humans to live in a nation with a bare minimum of humanitarian conditions  must supercede the so-called “sovereign right” of a government to hold power in a country.

Yeah, Maybe We All Overreacted Juuuuust A Touch

 Civilizer

It’s been a popular lament amongst the nation’s columnists and talking heads that these past 7 and a half years have been a long strange trip – we suffer a catastrophic terrorist attack in two major cities on the same day, manage to blow all of the international goodwill engendered by that terrorist attack, the Vice President basically sets up a shadow government and does all kinds of shit with everything from intelligence agencies to land use laws, the nation’s first MBA president and his party’s Congress spend so recklessly that our military and budget are stretched too thin, the dollar plummeted in value, and then a bunch of greedy Wharton bastards on Wall Street did something weird with mortgages and in so doing launched a bowling ball from a sling right into the economy’s balls, leaving it on its knees and gasping pathetically.

And I can’t say I entirely disagree, but there was one thing, one incident that scared me when it happened and never really stopped scaring me, and I had to actively force myself to just not think about it anymore.  Because you can fix an economy.  You can fix Iraq (right?).  You can reconstitute the military.  Cheney has to leave so you can, uh…fix all that stuff that he did (right??).  But when you find that your country is mobilized not by a faltering economy, not by the war in Iraq, not by a Vice President committing what are probably impeachable offenses, but a half-second clip of boob during the Super Bowl halftime show, man, how the hell can you reasonably expect all that stuff will get done?

 

 

 

Did your kids see this?  Sorry, they’re gay terrorists now.

 

 

 

I can’t really think of anything else that made the entire country just look stupid.  People like to act like Iraq was this catastrophic blunder, but let’s not forget that for all the talk of Cheney and his orcs “stovepiping” intelligence and Rumsfeld’s idiotic “modern army” occupation plan, Saddam Hussein had a track record of exactly the stuff we used as a justification for war.  It’s not like we framed Nelson Mandela. 

But the way we absolutely went out of our minds when Janet Jackson’s breast popped out, the rest of the world must have looked at us like “What are they, a bunch of 10 year-olds?  Puritanical 10-year olds?”  Usually I’m the first guy to throw a star-spangled middle finger at the international community, but when they’re mocking us with good reason, man, that’s embarrassing.  And that whole Super Bowl fiasco gave them plenty of good reason.

That’s why I feel all warm inside about the ruling that came down yesterday from the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed the indecency penalty levied against CBS by the Federal Communications Commission.  Don’t get me wrong – if I had kids, I’m sure I wouldn’t be thrilled about trying to watch a game with them where men beat the living hell out of each other and get paid salaries that exceed those of teachers, firemen, and most doctors and have the purity of the moment ruined when Janet Jackson’s boob goes rogue.  But I was pretty pissed when the country failed to act even a little adult about it, and the media acted like it was a newsworthy event on the order of the Kennedy assassination, and then the FCC treated CBS like they ran a 30-minute NAMBLA infomercial instead of a Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake duet.

So thank you, Third Circuit Court of Appeals, for restoring just a little of my faith in our public institutions.  And especially for using some of my favorite scolding words, “arbitrary and capricious,” when doing so.

Pardon My Drool

 King Civilizer

Death Magnetic album cover’s out! 

Get it?!  It’s magnetic filings, pulling together in the shape of a coffin, which is where you go after death!  Metal!

A Mexican Submarine? Geez, That Punchline Writes Itself

 Civilizer

Hey kids, thinking about turning down that college scholarship to pursue a lucrative career in the cross-border drug trade?  Well here’s a pretty good reason to reconsider:  if you follow through on that narco-trafficking idea, there’s a chance a Mexican drug lord unaccustomed to hearing the word “No” will insist that you climb aboard a second or probably third-hand “makeshift” submarine to smuggle cocaine up the Pacific coast of Mexico and the United States.  And the words “makeshift” and “submarine” are two words that do not belong together under any circumstances.

What Are Surrogates For, Again?

 Civilizer

“Surrogates.”  Anybody remember when these people became indispensable to the election cycle?  Anybody?  I seem to recall a time when a candidate was running for office, and he or she was all you really heard from.  Maybe there was a spokesman, the coffee-swilling guy wearing an iffy suit who acted as campaign manager, but that was it.  Other politicians would toss in some criticism or some platitudes from the sidelines, but election coverage was basically an anchor saying “And here is Governor Clinton giving a speech on health care,” and they’d play a clip (that one probably laden with STD-related information), and there might be some analysis.  That would be it – anchor, clip, talking head.  Now, when I turn on MSNBC, CNN, whatever, it’s like I’m watching “Where Are They Now, Politics Edition.”  Gee, I wonder what Geraldine Ferraro’s been up to…hey, there she is!  Wesley Clark, wonder if he’s still really into sweaters…hey, he’s on TV talking about Obama!  “Reverend” Jesse Jackson, last time I heard from him he was fathering babies out of wedlock…well shit, there’s Jesse!  (And I guess he’s really into projecting, because why else would a serial philanderer want to cut an as-far-as-we-know faithful family man’s balls off?)

Can anybody out there in the political arena explain to me the benefit of surrogates?  I’m assuming they are to act as proxies, getting in front of a camera and spouting a candidate’s message when the candidate himself or herself can’t be there because they’re in front of a different camera.  All right – then tell me if this concept sounds like a good idea:  take a person who is somehow engaged in politics, peripherally (an academic, business person, etc) or directly (another elected official or a former elected official), give them some talking points, and put them on live TV.  Keep in mind this person doesn’t work for the candidate, probably doesn’t entirely agree with the candidate, has been involved in national politics for several years which means they probably have a rather large ego, and is probably, at least in part, acting as a surrogate to raise his or her own profile, even if it’s at the expense of the candidate.  Certainly, nothing can go wrong there!

The only time you hear about a surrogate is when they biff it, go off script, and say something that embarrasses the candidate.  Otherwise, they’re wasted air.  Jesse Jackson wasn’t getting much attention as an Obama surrogate until he casually remarked that he’d like to castrate the guy he is supporting.  Wesley Clark was bopping along just fine until he said that John McCain’s POW experience isn’t necessarily presidential experience.  No one remembered Phil Gramm even existed until he piped up with this “mental recession/nation of whiners” clunker.  Samantha Power wrote a critically acclaimed book about a sorta-important topic (genocide), and no one paid a lick of attention to her until she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” 

Does having a bunch of surrogates line up behind you really mean anything?  If you’re on the fence about a candidate, does Geraldine Ferraro casting her lot with Clinton make up your mind?  These aren’t people who can persuade by force of personality – if they were, they’d be running themselves (or in Ferraro’s case, they wouldn’t get creamed in the general).  They’re people who might have a few things to say about a given issue, but not a one among them is really going to pull votes.  Probably the only surefire surrogate from that respect would be Jesus, and that guy had a bad habit of speaking his mind when falling in line would have made his life a lot easier.  Good at staying on message, though.