Is War On The Horizon?

Hindsight is, as the saying goes, 20/20.  We find it amazing that the cataclysmic world events of the past were a surprise to anyone because, of course, what was about to happen was obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.

This said, I have lately begun to wonder whether we are wandering into a catastrophic period of international warfare.

The worldwide immigration/refugee crisis is generally treated as a stand-alone issue, and we sometimes fail to remember that tens of millions of people around the globe are now afoot in order to escape the armed violence that has forced them to flee. Europe is dealing with theaftershocks of warfare in Syria and Libya that has shattered the entire region and is still each minute killing and maiming many. The United States is seeing refugees fleeing the breakdown of civic order in Central and South America.  Africa is dealing with never ending civil wars in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, and The Philippines has been fighting insurgents and drug gangs for many years.  In China and Myanmar, religious and ethnic minorities are dealing with horrific persecution because their beliefs and cultures are seen as a threat by their own governments.

And let us not forget the saber rattling and economic jousting now taking place between the U.S. and three long term and implacable competitors/enemies: China, Russia, and North Korea.  The potential for conflict with each on its own is enough to cause a sleepless night or two.

To blame Donald Trump for the rise in world tensions is like blaming your umbrella for a rainy daythe cause and effect is flipped the wrong way.  These regional and international problems existed long before he came on the scene, and it may not be all that bad that he has, as is his habit, blithely torn off the scabs of so many festering wounds.  The veneer of calm that hid so many major issues from public view while we obliviously argued about mindless marginalia was probably not to our benefit.  Ignoring Chinese industrial espionage or North Korean nuclear weapons tests did nothing to enhance Americas long term security, but we apparently felt a lot better about ourselves when Michelle Obama was mom dancing with Jimmy Fallon on late night television, our children routinely received a shiny trophy for the dull distinction of being the least uneducated child in their school, and Facebook was still that sweet and innocent place where we posted photos of our dog wearing a Santa hat.

The anxiety that the sudden realization we occupy a dangerous and disturbing world has induced is remarkable, and the rapid policy shifts around the world as powerful nations have mobilized to defend their borders and national interests have given many a case of the heebie-jeebies.  This is understandable.  Ignorance can be bliss, and being forced to now deal with the reality that cut-throat competition is sometimes necessary to win a fight is both frightening and astonishing to those who thought every problem on our planet could be solved with a harmony circle.  The coarsening of our national and international political dialogue is both unfortunate and necessary. A winner-take-all world is by definition going to be just a tad short on pretty please and thank you.

Although old school bullets, bombs, and bayonets still inflict much of the daily misery of war, the amazing hi-tech weaponry available now makes armed conflict much more likely because a first strike can be decisiveand nuclear weapons need not be involved.  Sinking an enemy aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic rail gun, disabling a regional power grid with a graphite bomb, or shutting down a nations entire communications network with a satellite attack can end a battle before it begins, and the hardware and techniques of mass destruction that are still unknown to the general public are likely more devious and devastating than we can possibly imagine.

Nations occasionally fight wars to defend great principles, but most conflict is motivated by money, self-defenseor the defense of money. Right now most major nations are jostling for position in a world of rapid economic change, scarcities of vital resources, population pressures, and fears of being overwhelmed by aggressors who see benefit for themselves in the weaknesses of others.  America, Russia, and China are each seeking regional domination, market access to drive economic expansion at the expense of one anotherand are all hanging the threat of military action over the course many supposedly civil discussions.

The trade wars of history have typically led to the shooting wars that allowed nations to dominate.  The rise of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and up to the First World War was, for example, built upon a trading empire backed by cannon fire.  The American Centurywas created by industrial might that produced both Buick sedans and B-52 bombers in abundance.  The ancient kingdoms of China garnered unimaginable wealth and power at the point of a sword and maintained their riches through terror and torture.  To presume the world has magically outgrown brute force as an instrument of state policy is the most delusional and dangerous sort of wishful thinking.

I am not a war monger, and I hope that an all-out shooting war involving two or more of the worlds great or near-great powers is further away than it seems at the moment.  However, it could be the case that greed and stupidity will once again be more in evidence than reason and common purpose.  If this occursfor not the first time in the bloody span of human historywe will see the fabric and function of our daily lives undergo a stark and fundamental shift that will continue long after the peace treaties are signed.  Nations at war rarely emerge unscathed or unchanged.

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America’s “Mommy And Daddy” Problem

Roughly thirty years ago the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo neatly summed up the maddening truth of politics in America today: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The disappointment the electorate so often feels after an election when the soaring rhetoric of campaigning crashes into real world limitations is today as a common as the birds in the trees.

However, the desire of politicians to not disappoint one’s ardent supporters has led to a significant economic problem over the past several decades—government borrowing and spending on a scale never before seen in our nation’s history to pay for unaffordable promises. Our skyrocketing national debt has been the signal disaster of our country’s recent existence, and this irresponsible march toward insolvency has placed an unconscionable burden upon future generations of taxpayers.

The unfortunate refusal of our recent crop of over-promising politicians to recognize the difference between poetry and prose has now led to a most unfortunate side effect: Many voters now firmly believe that money is a limitless resource that allows government to provide for all their wants and needs—unless politicians are “heartless” and want them to needlessly suffer.

Therefore, the debates about policies are no longer about determining priorities and balancing them against available resources. We instead are asked to choose between the wonderful plans of “compassionate” visionaries who want to provide unending benefits and the “cruel” politicians who actually mastered sixth grade arithmetic. The parade of programs and services many voters expect to be provided at no cost—now with the added burden a basic income for all—is a worrisome sign that many truly consider government to be the indulgent parent they never actually had.

That price tags attached to many of these proposals—universal health care, free college education, job guarantees—run into the tens of trillions of dollars. The mythology pushed by those leaders making the promises—that all of this can be funded by taxing “the rich”—makes the costs seem not only manageable but also an opportunity to wreak vengeance upon those who live lives of comparative ease. Not realizing that the affluent pay the lion’s share of the taxes already, many voters are encouraged to labor under the impression that comfort is just a painless tax increase—for somebody else—away.

Why are so many voters oblivious to basic fiscal reality, and what (if anything) can be done about it?

I sometimes wonder whether the desire of so many voters for a parental style of government that provides every need and want—while also imposing all sorts of equally parental restrictions on thought and behavior—is an outcome of the breakdown of family stability and traditional institutions in America over the past several decades. Having been denied any sense of security in their youths, perhaps many are susceptible to the notion that government can be the mommy and daddy of their dreams— by ensuring that every day is Christmas.

Moreover, aside from providing for all material wants, government can also—according to many who should know better—somehow be empowered to provide emotional security as well by shielding those who find the complexities and ambiguities of adult life overwhelming from all thoughts and viewpoints that they might find distressing. Seen for what it is—terror disguised as virtue—this widespread and worrisome support for all types of speech codes and censorship in our schools, at the workplace, and on the internet becomes eminently understandable. Frantic for the type of parental protectiveness they never had as children, a great many young (and not so young) adults are desperate to be infantilized so that the mommies and daddies of Big Government can save them from the inconvenience of disagreements.

In addition to being a disaster for a democracy that can thrive only when ideas and viewpoints can be freely and openly exchanged, this absurd overprotectiveness is not conducive to developing any adult abilities to engage in reasoned discussion. It should not be a surprise that we are saddled with many young adults who can do little but wail about their hurt feelings before crumpling into a weeping heap. The ability to deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises of a harsh world is severely lacking for many as they attempt to begin lives away from parental supervision, which results in a deficiency of adult efficacy, a crushing lack of self-confidence, and lives that are often defined by ongoing crises and crashes.

We want our lives to be poetry, but in reality they are dominated by the prosaic. Pay your bills. Do your laundry. Change the oil on your car. Meet your deadlines. Stay organized. Plan for problems. Wash the dishes. Floss. Successful adults figure this out rather quickly, and their expectations are tempered by a connection to real life responsibilities and an understanding of the consequences of failure.

Rather than promising people a life filled with freebies and do-overs provided by a mythical pot of tax money extracted from the wealthy, our governmental leaders should instead emphasize personal responsibility and the plain fact that adult life is many times an exercise in pain and perseverance—with no guarantees of success. We would all be a lot better off with less high-flown rhetoric and more tough-minded reality. Rather that campaigning in poetry, our politicians should engage in adult prose with voters about the world as it is—not as we might wish it to be. It might be a shock to many, but it also might be exactly what many need to hear and understand.

What A Year It Has Been—And Will Be

Having taken a week off from my blog to enjoy Christmas and family time, I have now been encouraged to share my thoughts at the end of a tumultuous year both here in America and around the world.  Therefore, I have taken a little time to review my commentaries from the past year in order to see if there might be a theme or a focus I can build upon.  Thankfully I found exactly what I was looking for right back at the start of this year in my January 14 post entitled Change Can Be Painful.

People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.
As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americansmany of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacyeventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayerswho are now stuck with the tabwas loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

This phenomenon has not been limited to the U.S. of A.  One need only look around the world to see the leaders of the globalist status quo teetering and falling due to populist insurgencies in their own countries.  France, England, Italy, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Brazil, and many other nations are dealing with wholesale rejections of their traditional elite leadership.  Alarm bells are ringing in government offices around the globe as something approaching a physical revulsion for the insiders who have long ruled with impunity sends so many officials scrambling to understand the anger that has spread like a virus.  Many nations now have their own Donald Trump-ish disrupters gleefully goring the powerful and holding them up to ridicule on socialmedia, which elected officials and appointed bureaucrats are naturally now desperate to control and censor under the guise of suppressing hate speech.  Just how far all these protests around the globe will go is still an open question, but it is easy to see that business as usual is no longer an option.

Although it is our natural tendency to see only that which is right in front of us, we must take a moment to realize that the election of Donald Trump was but a part of a larger worldwide political movement that has, in essence, been a revolt of the beleaguered and neglected masses against their own governments and the entrenched policies that are designed to favor the few at the expense of the many.  

Although government has, from the dawn of civilization, functioned as a tool of the rich and/or connected, the stench of corruption and back room deal making that empties the pockets of workers to pay for the summer houses of the elite has grown so grotesquely pronounced since the Great Recession that the bread and circuses of social welfare policies are now insufficient to the task of keeping the peasantry from wielding their pitchforks.  The Yellow Vestprotests in The City of Lights and the howls of outrage over the billions of dollars in tax breaks showered upon Amazon by New York in exchange for the privilege of King Bezos building a headquarters in The Big Apple both share a common parentage: The stunning awakening of the common folk mated with the oblivious and obsequious largesse of government toward the wealthy.  The average New Yorker may have to count their pennies to buy a slice of pizza at lunchtime, but they will at least be able to rest easy knowing that Jeff Bezos will have a private helipad paid for by their tax dollars.  Hooray!

The revolt of the downtrodden in America, which found its most public expression in the election of Donald Trump, has thrown the comfortable and insular establishment into a rage that is daily printed on the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos, by the way) and nightly broadcasts on the talkfests of CNN and MSNBC that remind us that Donald Trump is a monster and Putin puppet while his supporters are knuckle-dragging cretins and bigots.  

That existential wail that you heard over the past year was Democrats realizing that many voters detest the rickety and stupendously expensive edifice of bureaucratic inertia and lunacy they have spent 70 years constructing and justifying. The Great Society and its many, many governmental offspring have not eliminated any of the social and economic ills they claimed to be able to cure, but the response of Progressives, who now seem to be curdling into diehard Socialists as we speak, has been something akin to the bleating sheep in George Orwells famed dystopian fable, Animal Farm: Big government good. Bigger government better!”  

Instead of trimming their sails and reassessing their basic premises, the new crop of Democrats set to storm the House of Representatives in just a few days seems determined to propose new spending programs that will run into the tens of trillions of dollars.   Most of their plans will, of course, die in the Senate or under President Trumps veto pen, but we will have yet another opportunity to ignore fiscal reality in pursuit of that which can never be attained: Utopia.  The hopes of statist Democrats were rekindled by 2018 midterms, which resulted in gains in the House of Representatives mostly due to the super-bluing of California and New York, but the harsh fact is that their powers are still mostly limited to sanctimonious raging and endless investigating.  

Now that the narrative of nefarious Russian collusion has degenerated into a discovery of hush money paid to a Playboy model and a porn star in exchange for some pre-Presidential nookie, Democrats will need to keep their base energized by huffing and puffing over clearly tangential nonsense and hinting at imminent impeachment in every fundraising appeal.  Frankly, I am much more concerned about Russian and Chinese plans to deploy hypersonic nuclear weapons next year, which will greatly enhance the possibility of extinguishing all life on our planet; however, I realize that missile defense policy is depressingly dull compared to the chirpy prattling of Stormy Daniels about the shape and size of President Trumps penis.  

Perhaps I need to realign my interests to better conform to the priorities of those who truly control public opinion in America nowlate night comedians and cable news clowns.  Only in this way will I be able to resist the urge to repeatedly slam my head into the top of my desk as I flip through the destructive sneering and snark that passes for news in our major media today.

 

 

 

Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

Is Technology The New Creativity?

I am of two minds about living in America today.  Setting aside any discussion of politicswhich I am glad to do for the momentI find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring.  However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today.  Although we clearly have our problemsevery age doesI can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now.  Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.

A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of sixSharknadomovies have been made.  I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.

There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity.  One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a sure thing, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as welland, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do.  By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decisionone derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successesthat for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time.  Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.

Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration.  Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known brandthat can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety.  This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries.  We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memoriesand so the illusion survives.

We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of contentany contentto fill in the spaces between infomercials.  Cheap and disposable entertainmentcontrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptionsrules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed.  No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.

However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our livesand which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.  

I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues.  Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and exploratorysurgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray.  Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them.  Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the six oclock newson a black and white television.  K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules.  Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.

It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power.  Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash.  However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers  Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.  

There is, of course, always an audience of elite tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever didthe art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults.  Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.

Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one directionforwardand this is precisely what humanity demands.  There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the pastclassic cars being one obvious examplein order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.  

However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain.  Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.

Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now.  We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads.  I have to admit, it works for me.