Category Archives: Politics

The Irony of So-Called-Gaffes

When Eric Fehrnstrom said in explaining the “reset button” theory of the campaign season–“Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”–he was put through the wood shredder as having uttered a “gaffe.” The latest comes from Obama

The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone.

The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government. Oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, Governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in. (emphasis mine)

These are two instances where the tigers pounced and the ads come a pouring, the echo chambers shaking with reverb. But in a rational world both would simply be taken as points of debate.

In the first case, the speaker uses a perfectly fine metaphor. Reasonable people know that the “enemy” will become the “latest savior” once the winner is determined. “Oh, all those nasty things I said about Romney, they were just part of the game. You know how it goes. When I said he was a liar and a fraud, I meant he was just being colorful and creative with his toys.” In the second case, the speaker might have been asked to define what he meant by “private sector.” “Oh that, I meant all those people making money hand over fist, even as the middle class struggles and the unemployed or underemployed go about their business. You know, where a company can lose $3 billion and not even break a sweat. Or Industry lobbies can dump millions into a perfectly reasonable campaign to kill a bill. They’ll obviously doing fine enough for that sort of thing.”

I’m pretty sure the insurance lobby or J.P. M could’ve found other uses of those millions or billions. If their group members are defined as being part of the private sector, then we would have to conclude that they’re doing “pretty well” or, at least, “fine enough.”

Now would you just pass me my cards, please.

More on Belief and the Language of Politics

This is really an epistemology post, but the question of birth keeps coming up, pushed not just by originators but by the people who love them. Mitt Romney is caught on film saying, in response to a question about the sayings of Donald Trump:

“You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Romney said. “But I need to get to 50.1 percent or more and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

We should break this language down, as a poet would. Number one, we could build an entire college course on this sort of hamming as an example of linguistic parsing. Romney here puts the question of relationship as a question of belief, which is a word I’ve come to dislike immensely. The question of Obama’s birth is not a question of belief but one of available records and standards of counting. For example, I just learned today that the number of Civil War dead was mostly undercounted. The question of how many people died is not subject to belief but to the technologies of arithmetic, even though we will never know the precise number. It’s based on available knowledge. And, of course, the technologies of knowledge change over time. Genesis would have been written much differently if the writers had had computer chips.

I have a running joke with history colleagues, people with Ph.Ds, about their own origins. (Note that the degree gives them little armament.) It turns out they themselves only know where they were born based on documents and on what their parents attest to, much like the President. I wrote a whole novel about this joke. I, for example, was born in El Paso, Texas at, well, at the moment, I can’t remember. And the hospital itself doesn’t even exist on any current map because they went out of business. But I do know I was born. It costs money to grab the certificate, which is required for things like travel. Good thing I’m not traveling.

Romney, a smart guy, knows the difference between belief in something and knowing that something is either valid or observably testable. To suggest that those who dispute the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth is simply a matter of belief is irrational and willfully cynical. It’s like a dispute between scholars about how many people died in the Civil War. One scholar says 100 people, another says 700,000. This is not a dispute of beliefs. Worse, if the former scholar says: “Well, I need the grant money, and those who will give it to me believe in a false arithmetic so I have to make shit up, so there.”

No. The eyes are glassy, quod Orwell (paraphrase).

On Cynicism, Politics, and the Bizarre

This is facing up to be one of the most cyclical and bizarre presidential campaigns in history. Well, maybe not. I didn’t live one hundred years ago, so I can’t say I was there. Follow:

One of the feeds I read in the morning go-round is ThinkProgress. The folks at ThinkProgress report on the other side’s sayings as if they’re serious. Romney says that Obama has been on a spending spree. Romney knows full well that this is a falsehood. Romney says Obama doesn’t know anything about how capital moves. Okay. ThinkProgress reports it as a political outrage for the left because this, apparently, sells. One the right, Red State goes on the offensive, illuminating the audience on economical fictions. They know the political winds, too.

The Romney website is packed with generalizations about most everything. It’s about as empty as an unwritten novel. The Chrome web browser gives this message if you drill on load

Click Don’t load in the alert to prevent possible security issues. As a result, parts of the page may not display. You might want to notify the website owner that their site isn’t properly secured.

Although not recommended, you can choose to override the alert for the page by clicking Load anyway. Chrome will refresh the page and load its content, including any insecure content. The URL in the address bar will show to indicate that the page is not fully secure.

The website’s info on Education (I know, I’ve studied years of this language) and the Economy (same) are an “inside” joke. Do you know what I mean by “inside joke”?

The birther issue is a classic case of our current problem. People are perfectly aware that this is a none issue, but they know it’ll work as a political wedge, just something to generate print space. Anybody selling the “Obama citizenship” issue knows exactly what they’re doing. That’s the sad part: that new media can be “wedged” or “forked” as intrinsic artifice.

Pretty simple stuff if you work in the world of political strategy: use Twitter to spread the word about what we know is BS and pretend we believe it. But if you work on the farm or in a salon, it’s worse than hair wringing.

I think people want as close as they can get to generosity and authenticity as they can get in their reps, whatever the party offiliation. But don’t look for it in politics. You’ll find it in poetry and fiction. Poets have nothing to lose.

My disclaimer is that I’m an Obama supporter. I’m one of his small supporters. But I’m a sad supporter, and I don’t agree with him all the time. But if he came to my house and said, “Hey, Steve, would you help with this?” I’d do it. If Romney came, I’d offer him a glass of water and a bit of advice. Go do what you’re good at: making money. Just because you made loads of money doesn’t mean you’re qualified. IMHO!

But then I remember: he knows this. It’s not about being qualified. If it were, the friends I have who’d love a job would have it.

I could certainly be more articulate about this. But, at the moment, reader, I’m just too POD.

On Learning and Connecticut’s SB40

If Connecticut’s governor signs the S.B. 40 legislation, I fear we’ll be taking steps out of semi-lit and into even darker rooms. It’s hard to say whether a piece of legislation is a backward step, as the course that legislation is meant to adjust may not have been progressive in the first place. The latest public writing about this comes from Jaggar, Bailey, and Hughes in the Hartford Courant. The author’s state their claim in the third paragraph

Overall, we applaud Connecticut’s efforts to rethink its system of remedial education. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of community college students take at least one remedial class, and only around a quarter of these go on to complete a credential. It is essential that states focus on developing policies that will help colleges achieve better results. Given the paucity of knowledge about what works for remedial students, however, Connecticut’s bill is too inflexible.

There’s a subtle charge in this paragraph: that the promoters of the law are either misreading the evidence about “remedial” education or they’ve gone a tad bit too far in the intent

To allow all students open access to entry level courses in a college level program and prohibit public institutions of higher education from forcing any student to enroll in a remedial course.

Section 1.c of the act reads thusly

(c) Not later than the start of the fall semester of 2014 and for each semester thereafter, if a public institution of higher education determines, by use of multiple commonly accepted measures of skill level, that a student is below the skill level required for success in college level work, the public institution of higher education shall offer such student the opportunity to participate in an intensive college readiness program before the start of the next semester. Such student shall complete such intensive college readiness program prior to receiving embedded remedial support, as provided in subsection (b) of this section. The Board of Regents for Higher Education, in consultation with Connecticut’s P-20 Council and the faculty advisory committee to the Board of Regents for Higher Education, shall develop options for an intensive college readiness program.

Section 1.b goes like this

(b) Not later than the start of the fall semester of 2014 and for each semester thereafter, if a public institution of higher education determines, by use of multiple commonly accepted measures of skill level, that a student is likely to succeed in college level work with supplemental support, the public institution of higher education shall offer such student remedial support that is embedded with the corresponding entry level course in a college level program. Such embedded support shall be offered during the same semester as and in conjunction with the entry level course for purposes of providing the student with supplemental support in the entry level course.

It’s tough understand with also including Section 1.d

(d) Not later than the start of the fall semester of 2014 and for each semester thereafter, no public institution of higher education shall offer any remedial support, including remedial courses, that is not embedded with the corresponding entry level course, as required pursuant to subsection (b) of this section, or offered as part of an intensive college readiness program, except such institution may offer a student a maximum of one semester of remedial support that is not embedded, provided (1) such support is intended to advance such student toward earning a degree, and (2) the program of remedial support is approved by the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

If the above appears easy to understand, then please send me something on a get-well card.

It would seem to me easier to simply ask colleges to review the effectiveness of their systems and to do some innovation, where they see the need. Colleges by their nature have, after all, a vested interest in their students’ success. The above three section parts are very difficult to parse in regards to “why this is a solution.” At the college, my colleagues have strained themselves crazy over the years trying to figure out how to make access smoother and prep student to accomplish their goals. They are not disregarding under preparedness. Indeed, they understand under preparedness very well. And they don’t want to trick students into forking over their’s or the taxpayers’ money just to line their own or their institutions’ pockets, which are always empty but for the little puffs of lint. These are some of the hardest working people I know.

The problem is that students are enrolling in college underprepared for the work, and so, what is a college to do? More students who are underprepared are enrolling in college, and, so, what is a college to do? This is why a quarter of students in the above mentioned group either drop out or otherwise don’t complete. Because they are underprepared. A larger issue has to do with the requirement of universal higher ed, but that’s a different story.

It’s certainly not unreasonable to ask colleges and universities to evaluate their entrance requirements. Do the tests measure what they’re meant to measure? Are freshman courses too difficult or too strict in their standards? We could ask hundreds of questions. A significant issue about which to wonder has to do with the legitimate concerns of people working in academic and professional disciplines.

The reader may ask, why are so many students underprepared? And for the umpteenth time the response will be the same: testing obsession, grade inflation, curriculum mismatch, the simple arithmetic of bodies, the need to reform cores as cooperative communities, the tectonics of technological ecology, and, most significantly, struggling communities of people. How about a year or a few years off to grow up a little for college bound students? My metaphor has always been “Aristotle in the 9th grade.” Maybe someone else has a better name. But I hope the general point is clear. I’d bet that if general knowledge tests were de-emphasized, then students who actually want to go to college would be a little better prepared or less tired when they get there.

But, then again, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to learn any of the stuff my teachers wanted me to know. I wanted to read my own books, play in the band, and goof off.

Ultimately, I would argue that the legislature in this regard is ignoring the reality of the totality of education in the state and is looking for an easy out, an easy target that will play act as a solution.

Do We Ask the Right Questions? A Brief Review of Education in Connectciut

This article in The Connecticut Mirror by Jaqueline Rabe Thomas covers some of the flurry of legislation pertaining to Higher Ed in Connecticut. I must say that SB40 and other bills came at us fast and many faculty and staff at my college were deeply involved, to the degree that access was provided to legislators and the legislative process, in the discussion.

Some issues bear comment. The writer, for example, provides this quote. The context is Senator Beth Bye’s opinion on “remediation” as an element in a causal chain:

“As we slow them down, they are less likely to graduate,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Here Bye’s logic appears to be tracing this course: (cause) students are placed into “remedial” courses (note that at the college we call these “developmental” courses, as we don’t see ourselves applying a “fix” or remedy) (effect) therefore, they are less likely to graduate. The effect of a student’s likeliness is the “course.”

The problem with this logic is that very little evidence exists to support it. It may be true, indeed, but we really don’t know if it is true. For example, most teachers in college know students who have been placed into developmental courses. I’ve advised students about their placement into developmental courses, and their reactions are negative. They want to take credit bearing courses. Everyone does. But in this sense, the logic changes: cause: resentment :: effect: dropout. In another case, a student may come into a developmental course and flub the thing because they can never get over their anger, resentment, or apathy at being there in the first place. This kind of analysis, of course, might call for research on the complexity of attitude on success in any endeavor, which we, indeed, know a lot about. The real problem with Bye’s logic is that it is correlative not causal. I have had students who were living out of their cars in my courses and we able to pull it out. I’ve had students who were successful in dev courses and who did just fine. I’ve had students who tested into and flubbed.

Most college teachers know students who have been misplaced into developmental. They also know students who, if allowed into college-level courses, would more than likely be bewildered by the content because they are underprepared, some severely so. We’ve had students who were prepared but who did not function successfully because they simply did not care to do so. The complexities of preparation and maturity are not treated in Senator Bye’s statement.

Next, Thomas writes and includes this:

Bye and many other legislators have referred to these remedial courses as the colleges’ Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years, twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.

“That status quo is not working. There is a fundamental problem… It needs to change,” said Mike Meotti, a top official at the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education, whose colleges enroll 15,000 new students a year.

There are all kinds of oddities in the first and second paragraphs. The metaphor doesn’t work but is a success at applying fallacy as appeal. Of course, Meotti’s is what I call “trigger statement.” Things that people say in passing without evidentiary requirement. The numbers reference by the Board of Regents is misleading. Perhaps 50 percent completed in 5 years. Maybe small numbers of students who did not take developmental courses earned their degrees in 4 years, too. Look at Complete College America’s front page graph. It complicated things, doesn’t it?

My readers should consider a basic idea. Let’s illustrate with a simple arithmetic question.

Let’s say 100 students enter college and 10 percent of those students graduate within four years. That means that 90 students failed to complete within 4 years. Let’s also assume that 5% of the graduates worked hard and that 5% had a pretty easy time of it. Continue: 70% percent of the second cadre (the 90 who didn’t complete) didn’t work hard or had personal problems or whatever other circumstances prevented graduation.

The basic question is this: does this represent a problem? Or, does this hypothetical illustrate human reality in a social construct?

In my 20 years teaching in higher education I’ve wrestled with my own basic questions. One of them is this: can all students in a writing course do well enough to meet passing requirements? “In” is a significant word here, as the students “in” a course got there via any number of methods: they met a prerequisite. They did okay on SATs or Accuplacer. Every semester and every course I teach provides a laboratory and a caseload of anecdotal evidence. And the question changes when asked of 100 level and 200 level courses.

Consider my recent Creative Writing: Fiction course, which started in the teens and ended with low single digits. Many students did not complete the source. (It is important to distinguish “did not” versus “could not.”) The prerequisite for the course is any literature offering, which presupposes a year of straight writing courses, successful achievement in all. This means that the students should have been prepared for the course. But there are a few givens, which some of my readers will grasp. Writing fiction, number 1, is not easy. Story writing concepts are not easy to grasp and demonstrate. The underlying pedagogy is not easy to keep up with. The formal demands of the pedagogy put lots of intellectual pressures on students. And, finally, students need to do lots of work to show that they know how to develop a character, write dialogue, and establish a coherent narrative. This is true of most college courses. Since I have taken creative writing courses and chemistry courses, I have a good sense of comparative difficulty. Guess what: you can’t compare them. I studied harder for creative writing than I did for chemistry. Hours out of the day devoted to writing. A few moments to Chemistry, as, at the time, I was disinterested.

So, my basic question comes back: is being unsuccessful in the course an example of a problem, let alone requiring legislation? What pass rate constitutes a successful benchmark in any college course? What if the answer were 100%? If I pass everyone, someone will cry foul. But why?

I would be reluctant to establish a benchmark. Rather, we look to our anecdotes for “stories.” How many students “should” typically do well enough in any number of courses? Every teacher has an answer to this question: the answer is: those that pass. There is no benchmark.

But there are average benchmarks for those students who pass as scored divisibles. Typically, the majority of students in a course with a pass rate fall at the top of a bell curve. Very few students perform with excellent achievement, but they do well enough. Most people expect a range of performance and a range of achievement explanations. And most people know that as students approach a professional standard, the numbers change dramatically with expectation. In my graduate program, for example, a C would have been considered a failing score in any course. This assumes an “ecology” of economies of scale across professions requiring graduate degrees.

The point of the above is that the issue of college success, college entrance, and learning in institutions is a complicated affair. The Connecticut legislature can do what it wishes to accomplish what it choses. But in my estimation, it’s judgement of the question of college entrance is at best a red herring.

Concept Problems
Consider this bit in Thomas’s article:

Before the vote in the House late Friday, Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she plans to support the bill because, “Remedial coursework is too much a barrier to earning a degree.”

And this barrier disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, reports Complete College, a national nonprofit organization funded by the Gates Foundation and others. Seventy-two percent of black freshman are sent to remediation compared with 56 percent of white students, the organization reports. Graduation rates are similarly uneven.

Here is where I would call Thomas to task in not contextualizing or parsing these numbers. These numbers are uneven across the board, as exposed in Connecticut’s achievement gap, hence this amounts to conflation. CT Mirror has reported on this:

In West Hartford, test scores are rising. But the difference in the percentages of low-income students and their more affluent peers who achieve proficiency has been stuck at around 20 percent despite years of reforms. Although Connecticut is typically praised for its schools, disparities in the performance of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds–which are often referred to as the “achievement gap”–reveal that, in truth, the state has significant inequities in its educational system.

Maybe Rep. Mushinsky is correct to claim that “Remedial coursework is too much of a barrier to earning a degree.” Again, the problem is that this statement amounts to belief not factually based analysis. It also introduces a balance problem for legislators. We could, for example, list the five most significant barriers to “earning a degree” and then go about addressing them. What solution, for example, would work well enough so that students taking entrance exams would all pass and be admitted with smiles into college-level courses? This is a vexing issue, to be fair to the advancers of SB 40. But, it invokes an old-time paradox: if everyone is excellent then everyone is mediocre.

Teachers will not determine who can and cannot learn. They should not make judgements about this. Indeed, an underlying principle in learning is that all humans can do it. My understanding of cognition amounts to this conclusion: the brain is made for learning. But learning in school is a manufactured context. Mass education in institutions is a relatively new idea in human history. But mass learning in an socio-ecological sense is not. Everyone, for example, learns how to eat, with some exceptions, say in the case of brain injury. Every culture provides for contextual learning. What’s even newer now is a concept of mass higher education.

I would argue that mass education, K-12, higher ed, has presented an economical quandary for most industrialized nations, a set of problems we have yet to solve. In the United States, we have yet to totally commit to it. To educate a public takes an enormous amount of resources, but our country refuses to scale it to reasonable proportions, just as it refuses to scale other resources, like law enforcement and public transit, preferring to meet a standard of “just barely get it to work” and then “listen to the complaints.” And much of the arguments about “developmental education” are about money. Thomas provides some information about this in her article:

The 100,000-student college system has had its state funding cut by nearly $30 million this year.

But Bye isn’t buying that argument.

“There are community colleges in the state who are making money on these courses. They need to figure something else out,” she said, noting that she suspects the pushback is because significantly less faculty will be needed. “What we’ve done with this bill is we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We had to say to them, ‘Look we’re the parents here. No more of this.'”

One of the issues we’ll be talking about at the college is how to spread our recourses around to meet Connecticut’s legislative mandate. We’re also scratching our heads wondering how diminishing developmental courses will save money, as the numbers of students to be served will not diminish and will likely rise, given the intent of the legislation: to reduce barriers to access and to increase the numbers of degrees conferred. The last I checked 100% subtracted by zero equals 100%. Minus, of course, $30 million.

Let me finish with my own riddle. What has three wheels, four doors and an engine? Hint: it’s not a bicycle.

Another question: thousands of people will be graduating from college this and in the next several years. What are they going to do?

On Language, Precision, and Ethics

In language it’s important to be accurate. One of the words we’ll be hearing a lot in the future is the word theory. It will be used like this:

I hear your mom was asking about evolution. It’s a theory that’s out there and it’s got some gaps in it. In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our programs.

This is Rick Perry in response to a question about how the old the Earth is. The word “theory” will often be added after the phrase “just a.” In this sense “just” is meant as a replacement for adverbs like “merely” or “simply.” This is not a precise way of talking about the theory of something as a theory being “simply” something tends to minimize the significance of the logic or predictive nature of a theory.

But even Scott Keyes doesn’t use the term correctly in referring to Young Earth Creationism in reference to Perry and whether or not he “subscribes to this theory . . .” because YEC isn’t really a theory in a scientific sense as the only evidence for it comes from assertions of dusty texts and guesses by people who claim inerrancy in the Bible and charge that Evolutionary science has gaps, which is actually part of what a theory should have. There are still loads of gaps in physics. Even with gaps, if a theory provides for prediction and testing, things are looking pretty good. It’s not good practice to claim that your theory is better just because another one has gaps or you don’t like dating methods.

Does Rick Perry know how old the earth is? This doesn’t really matter. Perry could have said that current science puts the age of the earth at this date ( four billion years or so). He might also have said that Biblical chronology asserts another date (say 7,000 years). It would even be better for Perry to assert a belief and say that he holds to the 7,000 year date and can’t stand the former. At least then the child could have asked Perry to argue why he goes with the 7,000 year date.

What he does assert to the questioner as a fact is that in Texas “we teach both creationism and evolution in our programs.” I would assume that this would mean a few weeks of religious education even for people who don’t hold to the authority of the bible or who are Buddhists and then several years of study of science. I have no problem with the teaching of theology in schools, as long as that theology is unrestrictive. I do have a problem when a politician misrepresents ideas to a child. This is unethical. Scientific theories are not just “out there.”

Is the Republican Party Dead: My Answer is Yes.

I caught this article in The Nation by Sarah Posner through email. (The phone tells me that The Nation still doesn’t know how to differentiate small from big screen). It seems to me that the analysis here is a in part a waste of time. We talk in studies of reasoned debate that rational audiences are the preferred target. But to take this item from Michelle Bachman as rational is, to me, beyond belief.

At a town hall meeting held in the parking lot of a sports bar in the Des Moines suburb of Indianola on Friday, Michele Bachmann asked a small circle of supporters and onlookers, “Why is it that government always wins? Why is it the taxpayer always loses?” Comparing the fiscal condition of the federal government to a family in bankruptcy, and blaming that on “government theft,” Bachmann positioned herself as a warrior against a rapacious behemoth. “Why should we bankrupt ourselves, why should we bankrupt our kids…to keep this thing going?” she asked. “It is a money-eating machine in Washington, DC, and I say it’s time to dismantle the machine.”

Here, Bachman uses a whole bunch of mixed metaphors and incoherent comparisons. The government is a family that steals from itself. This family is a “behemoth” and a “money-eating” “machine.” This language makes absolutely no sense and represents the kind of language that should be ignored by any thinking person.

It’s been my view for many years that the Republican Party is basically dead, which is a shame, and that the word “conservative” has been appropriated as a term simply meant to counterpoint “liberal.” This is why I refer to people like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist as “so-called” conservatives. This article in The American Conservative by David Livingston represents a sort of push back but ultimately gives up on defining what conservatism might mean by ending with Reagan, another so-called conservative and certainly not a Republican and reduces Hume to a caricature.

And “gold standard, out of control spending” Rick Perry, a George W lookalike, is no more relevant.

A political part should have coherent representatives. There are none for the Republican Party.


Why Abilify is a Good Metaphor for Our Current Congress and President

You’re probably familiar with Abilify commercials if you watch television. The ad campaign features an animated character who claims that Abilify makes her “feel better.” Of course, an animated character can’t feel anything, use a “real” drug, such as aripiprazole, or improve because of its use. Nevertheless, drug companies, I assume, think it’s fine to pay millions for this.

Furthermore, animated characters can’t really be depressed, therefore the assertion of the advertisement is beyond bizarre and should be judged false advertisement. Most prescription commercials fall into this category, as the people in them claiming to have benefitted from the drugs are actors, actors who are on multiple other drug commercials, but not actually “on” the medication. For an actor, who doesn’t suffer from chronic pain, to play the role of someone who benefitted from the use of a drug as a means of validating the benefits of drugs, is pure falsehood.

This is a good metaphor for debt ceiling analytics. The real problem was avoided for purposes of carnival, and our president and congress people floated an animated character, who, in the end “cannot feel better.”

We Should Stop Plowing Snow and Other Tales

Tom Foley has an article in today’s Hartford Courant that tries to cover the difference between a “current services budget” and a “current year budget.” Unfortunately, the author’s strived-for clarity never really develops and the logical premises for the argument are clouded by characterizations which the author never examines for their accuracy. He writes:

The current services budget is a concept that turns boring government accounting into “Alice in Wonderland” where bureaucrats, politicians and advocates for government spending can pitch their causes and confuse their constituents to suit their purposes.

I’m always amazed at how politicians ridicule themselves in their own expressions. Tom Foley, if memory serves, ran for Governor. He, therefore, is a politician. Secondly, he characterizes current politicians as “advocates for government spending,” a brute force tag that’s never actually supported in his article. If, for example, a politician advocates for modern plumbing in a public school is this person looking out for interests of children or are they a government spending advocate?

But now to the meat of the matter. Foley writes:

The current services budget is a projection of future revenues and spending that assumes tax policy and state services remain as they are in the current year. So, in planning for expenses for the next budget, it factors in anticipated wage and benefit increases for the same number of state workers and inflationary increases in the cost of things the government buys. It is heavily manipulated. The estimated current services budget for the general fund for the fiscal year ending in June 2012 is $1.75 billion higher than this year’s spending, an increase of 9.8 percent. This is ridiculous.

There are lots of accuracy questions here. First off, I’m not claiming that Foley is incorrect in the numbers. But the terms “heavily manipulated” and “ridiculous” are opinions. The reader would have to conclude a budget that anticipated reductions and saw lots of spending reductions would not be “ridiculous” and “would not be manipulated.” This language amounts to codes “politicians” use to “manipulate” an audience. Foley continues:

Using the current services budget degrades the clarity and quality of debate on the budget. It enables bureaucrats to pad budgets and move the goal line in the hope of achieving ever higher funding. It enables politicians to obscure bad news and fabricate good news. It enables advocates of government spending to demagogue anyone who questions the ever-increasing funding for their causes. It confuses the concerned citizen who is trying to understand what is going on.

Here, Foley continues to “characterize” rather than argue from premises. Budget’s are “padded,” they play football, they’re “fabricated,” and politicians are “demagogues,” and simply push “causes.” It may be that new plumbing at the schools, sound proofing, and winter snow clearing are causes and that politicians are indeed “demagogues” but Foley would have been more effective if he’d used evidence or even specific examples of “padding” and “demagoguery.” Honest disagreement can be had on these items.

I can consider my own house budget in comparison to the budget the state has to put together, as can other people, and those who don’t have work are in much much worse situation. Next year, for example, I will see major loss of purchase power for several reasons. The first is a personal hit to my paycheck, as I will not be seeing a raise and my paycheck has already been reduced. I will not, however, be victorious when I ask the local oil company to please see to a reduction in the price of home heating oil and so on. Oil will rise in cost no matter my “opinion.” Those improvements I looked forward to will not see fruition, either, which would have helped to reduce the cost of oil for me; note that the oil company is just as concerned as I am, as the driver of the truck will see his own pay cut also. In the mean time, I’ll call the local grocer and ask them if they could please reduce the price of milk and butter commensurate with my own diminishing return. Economically, it is difficult to tighten the belt in such a way that reducing outlay elsewhere will make up for the cost of rising prices across sectors as most people have few options for boosting revenue. I could, of course, cut out every unnecessary purchase or obligation. But this is where I connect to the macroeconomic world: demand across the economy would go down, making problems worse. The dudes at the wine shop are trying to make a living too and they’re supply chain reaches into Europe and South America.

One element Foley doesn’t cover, and this is rare in debates about “government spending,” is the vision of government’s role by people across the board (as a rich person, his worries are less when it comes to rising prices). Should it be the municipality’s responsibility to plow the streets? Or is it the individual’s role? At the turn of the century Hartford decided that it was its role to manage water supply to the population not private businesses (to the chagrin of business but to the profit of people who would not have had the means to pay for a company to lay pipe in their neighborhood). Partly, this had to do with ethical responsibilities and with efficiency. We could have honest debate about snow removal. I could simply pay for a plow company to do my section of the street (this, of course, would require government to dictate what my portion of the street actually is). Would this amount to higher costs or to lower? I would need help with that calculation. At this point in the day, all I have to call on is Plato’s Republic.

Final note:
In addition to the two opposing views on the electoral system, the Courant would have done a service to readers, the very kind of service Foley aspires to (“clarity of information”), if it had provided space for an opposing view on the budget.

Ironies of the Education Crisis: Stop Selling Hope

Angry Bear guest poster RJS has a sobering list of news on education budget crises responses across the nation. It’s very much worth reader attention. The writer notes the irony:

while there are those in congress who pretend to be worried about leaving debt for the next generation, they are leaving the next generation without the tools to compete in an increasingly challenging future…

There’s another side to the problem of any disrupted school year or block of school time. College admissions seasons are dependent on graduating classes from high schools. In other words, graduating classes set the tone for the two and four year schools, as freshman classes are a block, excluding transfers, that form an institutional narrative. Not all freshman will actually make it through to graduation at least in four years and six is a more typical average. Off the top of my head it’s probably less than a quarter of students who will finish a degree in four years and that’s probably a conservative number.

The problem, however, has to do with that representative student who enters grade school, then moves on to high school without having a mastery of the fundamentals (whatever this may mean. I have a good idea of what it means in my own experience, who started off as a good speller, then fell off that wagon in and about the fifth grade when I took it upon myself to stand on my chair during class and fell from the good graces of the school gods). That student and his or her class will go to college carrying non-mastery with them. A few bad years of grade school, for whatever reason, let’s say it’s cuts to music (and this student has talent for music) will carry through to freshman experience. I see this every day in my own teaching. And I see how difficult it is for students to develop a skill without prior reinforcement. Certain cognitive experiences cut across disciplines. (One item I won’t cover in this post is the relentless push for student to go to college in the first place, which is, I think, a problem as state learning standards don’t map well to the college expectation.)

This translates to generational damage that can’t really be repaired. It’s my own estimation that a “schooling/learning generation” is about seven to ten years: a senior in high school doesn’t have a lot in common with a fifth grader, in other words. Worse, a student can never have their fifth grade opportunities back. Once they’re gone they’re gone. Put in other terms, if a senior in high school doesn’t read Plato’s Republic, their experience of that text as a senior is gone “forever” once they graduate.

Cuts to school programming now will always prove a deficit for higher education in the future. People who don’t teach might suspect that classrooms filled with students who are just trying catch up is a more difficult teaching job. Good college teaching is about encouraging students to learn independently of guidance; if students have difficulty learning independently, they will certainly not be of much assistance to the team, to the boss, or to company, or to the lab, or to the non-profit. Opportunities for learning at school cannot be made up. If a class size goes from 20 to 40 for next year’s kids this effectively degrades learning opportunity and prohibits the effectiveness of teachers, whose decisions have already been hamstrung by testing culture. I’ve pretty much come to the decision that those things students learn in high school don’t prepare them for college work.

One mistake RJS makes in his conclusion is this question of the “challenging future,” which is a problem of logic. Let’s articulate a thesis: is any future more challenging than the futures of the past if people are given an honest opportunity to prepare for their daily lives (think Benjamin Franklin here)? Americans in 1860 certainly faced a challenging future, just as those Europeans who turned 1 in 1899 and would soon go to war.

We have years to guide us. I can’t say that any future will be more challenging than the next. I can stress to the people I know that if we take away opportunities now, those opportunities are gone and will never come back. This is what Lancaster as “Moonlight” Graham meant when he said that once it’s gone it’s gone, but at least he had other possibilities. We seem to be forgetting this in our endless memory loss.

I’ve been arguing that we have a learning crisis in the United States. This crisis has nothing to do with math scores. The crisis can be articulated in ironic terms: we want an educated population but we want it on a shoestring. If the counterargument to my claim is that we really really don’t have the money for competent public education, then my answer is this: stop selling hope and definitely stop selling practicality.