Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

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Partisan Politics By The Numbers

One of the pleasures of being a sports fan has always been the statistics that seem to explain what is happening on the field—and what is likely to happen next. Therefore, we are bombarded with batting averages, free throw percentages, and yards per run—along with a host of ever more arcane permutations of athletic performance—that confer the illusion that we understand the action. Perhaps our illusion of actual knowledge is the reason we are so stunned by the ground ball skipping through Bill Buckner’s legs or, to use a more recent example, the “Minnesota Miracle” last second pass that sent the Vikings on to the NFC Championship game. No matter how hard you squint at the statistics, there is simply no way to predict a bolt of lightning.

However, at least the statistics in sports bear some passing relation to a clear and readily understandable reality. One of the most salient attributes of the numbers endlessly disgorged by both public and private entities to explain our world is that they routinely obfuscate rather than illuminate. Based on some quirky tick upwards or downwards of measurements that have been cooked up via methods few truly comprehend, we are expected to make informed judgements regarding the present or draw reasoned conclusions about what is likely to happen in the future. We presume understandings about the job market, housing, the overall economy, healthcare, the environment, education, politics, public opinion, and many other matters too innumerable to count. And we sail confidently ahead—often right off a cliff.

Perhaps this is why it is amazing that numbers that are both obvious and concerning engender so little interest—or are waved away as somehow not worthy of our interest. The federal deficit. The shrinking number of active workers supporting an exploding number of retirees. The number of people living in our nation who lack legal status to be here. The reading, writing, and math skills (or lack thereof) of American children and adolescents compared to students from other nations. The size and costs of our prison population. The number of American soldiers, sailors, pilots, and marines killed and wounded defending our nation in an increasingly dangerous world. All these statistics and many others are typically totaled up at the bottom of a long yet completely understandable column, which makes them less able to be skewed or distorted by ideological biases—and therefore far less interesting to partisans on either side of any issue.

I’ve been mulling over numbers as I consider President Trump’s proposal for a massive military parade in Washington later this year, which will probably be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The number of rants and raves this idea has already produced is remarkable, and the liberal/conservative divergence of opinion is fairly apparent.

Some who are opposed argue a military parade smacks of the kind of grandstanding typical of tin-pot dictatorships and does not befit a great democracy. Some are outraged by the transportation and personnel costs inherent in such an endeavor. Some are even worried that all that heavy, armored equipment is going to tear up the roads in Washington—oh, pity the poor pavement!

I am going to vote for the idea, and my support is based on the numbers for just a few of our more notable wars throughout history, which I present in round figures after looking over several public and private databases.

American Deaths:
Revolutionary War:       25,000
World War I:                 116,500
World War II:                405,400
Korean War:                    54,200
Vietnam War:                 58,200
War on Terror:                  6,900

These numbers do not account for those wounded in ways both visible and invisible. These totals cannot capture the cumulative loss and despair of so many families and friends left behind. We have no way to measure the cost in sheer human potential caused by each of these deaths.

There will, of course, be those who might belittle these sacrifices. Perhaps they will point out that far more Americans have died from cancer, car accidents, and a basic lack of sanitation over the course of our nation’s history. Churlish commentators are welcome to make such foolish comparisons and advocate for a procession of oncologists, traffic engineers, and sewage plant managers instead of our armed forces. We do, after all, live in a nation where we are free to express our opinions—which is exactly the point I want everyone to remember.

We are free because others died for our country—I cannot put it plainer than that. A few hours of parading and several hours more of traffic jams seem a small enough price to pay in order to honor the loved and lost throughout our nation’s history.

You are, of course, free to disagree with my support for a military parade. That is your right—bought with the blood and pain and horror endured by so many who have died defending our nation. However, I encourage you to consider the numbers—and think about the lives those numbers actually represent—while remembering all those whose names you do not know but who have helped guarantee the freedoms that you enjoy today.

This is one of those times that the numbers do not lie—and are immune from partisan interpretations. It’s time to say thank you and leave the arguments aside for just one day.

A World Turned Upside Down?

There is a possibly apocryphal story that, upon surrendering to the American revolutionaries at the Battle of Yorktown, General Cornwallis instructed the British Army band to play “The World Turned Upside Down”. The situation must certainly have seemed so to the British, smugly certain of victory against the colonists, whom they deemed to be mere rabble—the “Deplorables” of their day. These farmers, laborers, and small business owners certainly must have seemed to be no match for the power and glory of the Empire at the very peak of its influence.

The world has now turned upside for a great many people who were convinced the sun would never set on the D.C. empire of ever-expanding government and regulation fueled by ever-increasing tax hikes and federal bureaucracy. Watching the sea of exceedingly sour Democratic faces during President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who still cannot seem to reconcile themselves to the new reality. This perhaps helps to explain the policies and positions now shrilly advocated by the Democratic minority that seem so at odds with both their party’s historical norms and current rhetoric.

I grew up with a Democratic Party aligned to the interests of blue collar workers. This stance obviously translated into policies that put cash into the pockets of the hard-working middle class that created so much of our nation’s prosperity through both their labor and personal spending. Although I realize the Democrats many years ago morphed into the party of Silicon Valley and Wall Street—it is no mere coincidence that Nancy Pelosi is from San Francisco and Charles Schumer is from New York—I believe their implacable opposition to the business and personal tax cuts recently enacted by the Republican Congress is spectacularly suicidal. Staking out an unyielding position against a bill that is already driving capital investments by businesses, prompting many corporations to hand out immediate cash bonuses to their employees, and reducing the federal tax bite for the vast majority of workers seems difficult to understand except as a short-sighted defense of overpaid D.C. bureaucrats instead of our tax-weary citizenry. For someone old enough to remember the Democratic Party as it used to be, this seems an upside down reality.

By the same token, it is probable that several shelves of books will someday be written to explain the Democratic somersault on the subject of illegal immigration. Democrats have somehow quickly moved from President Obama’s early vows to crack down on illegals to a current advocacy—if not outright endorsement—of sneaking into the United States and staying here. This stunning change in perspective among Democratic lawmakers is, in addition, today conjoined with a reflexive support for unabated migration from nations known to support terrorism. One has to wonder how Democrats plan to win back voters who don’t live in. . . San Francisco or New York. Watching so much of the nation’s electoral map turn Republican red two Novembers ago should have been sufficient to convince all but the most ideologically blinded to reconsider extremist immigration policies that helped put their party out of power—but it seems that upside down is the position still preferred by many Democratic loyalists.

By the same token the Democratic Party’s loud defenses of both the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, both of whom recently seem to be executing their investigative duties in manners that should raise the eyebrows of all but the most extreme partisans, also appear quite odd when put in historical context. I am old enough to remember when liberal Democrats (Is there any other kind today?) deeply distrusted the FBI and its motivations. Moreover, one need only glance back at the Clinton presidency to discern a very different attitude toward special investigations with elastic and expansive mandates.

The dead end search for Russian collusion in the 2016 election now seems to have mutated into an endless fishing expedition—accompanied by far too many self-serving and inflammatory leaks to the press—that serves to provide the unending appearance of wrongdoing in the absence of actual evidence. One need only to flashback to Kenneth Starr and his dim-witted defense of democracy, which eventually took the form of prosecuting the President of the United States for Oval Office nookie, to wonder what has snapped inside Mr. Mueller’s Democratic cheerleaders, who seem to have completely forgotten the damage done by odd investigative zealotry just a couple of decades in the past. Reality again lands bottom side up.

There is, however, one ongoing investigation in Washington that has real potential to be a political—and perhaps Constitutional—bombshell. Someday soon the Inspector General for the Department of Justice will be releasing a report regarding the FBI investigation of the Hillary Clinton email scandal—and the inexplicable assertion by former FBI Director James Comey that no federal laws were violated by either Secretary Clinton or her associates. If the Inspector General’s report were to show that the highest law enforcement officials in our nation were in fact tailoring their investigations and prosecutorial recommendations to help throw a U.S. Presidential election to one candidate over another, that would be a crisis of monumental proportions that would compel swift action to restore the integrity of our federal government.

Failing this were it to be necessary, our faith and trust in the guarantees embodied in the Constitution would be turned upside down, inside out, and shaken to the core. We cannot allow this to occur.

Waiting For The Wonderful Future That Never Arrives

I recently read that the CEO of Uber is confident that we will have flying cars within the next 10 years. As predictions about the future go, this one is likely no more daffy than so many other previous guesses about future technologies that never actually came to fruition. However, it points to themes common to so many of these wild prognostications: an overconfidence in both technology and our ability to control it to our advantage—combined with a belief that new inventions will inevitably usher in a brighter and happier future

When it comes to technological advancements, the law of unintended consequences is typically in full force. Small changes often have surprisingly large effects, and groundbreaking innovations—brilliantly yet myopically devised—create turmoil that alters the very fabric of our lives for both good and ill.

In our lifetimes, the most obvious disruptor has been inexpensive, pervasive, powerful, and convenient computerization. Now our personal and professional lives are both enhanced and circumscribed by omnipresent technology that simultaneously puts the world at our fingertips, destroys semi-skilled employment opportunities, improves our daily productivity, erases boundaries between our work and personal lives, provides opportunities for innovation that were previously impossible, and spies on every aspect of our existences—a decidedly mixed bag of blessings and curses.

The specific impacts upon a variety of economic sectors has likewise been profoundly confounding. To look at but a single example, the advent of technologically-driven medical practice has completely changed both our expectations and our outcomes regarding our healthcare.

Illnesses and diseases that were once invariably fatal are now manageable chronic conditions— or in some instances a total cure can be attained. Joint and organ replacements are now routine surgeries, and even the worst injuries can now many times be treated with some degree of success. Computer modeling now allows drug therapies to be developed with lightning speed, and non-invasive imaging technology allows doctors to see problems that once would have required risky exploratory surgeries or blind guesswork to treat. However, we have also learned that miracles can be incredibly—if not prohibitively—expensive, advances in treatment can cause a cascade of other medical problems to occur, and endlessly extending the human lifespan may, in fact, be somewhat inhumane in actual practice.

Looking at a hypothetical situation that mirrors the reality for many today, we are now compelled to ask whether it is better to allow a patient to die simply and comfortably at the age of 89 or use powerful drugs and multiple difficult surgeries to extend that person’s lifespan to a painful and disoriented 90 years that is characterized by depression, dysfunction, and disillusionment. Looking just a bit further down the road, rapid improvements in gene therapy—soon to result in the actual modification of our genetic material—is going to open many doors through which we are not even vaguely prepared to walk, and the many moral and ethical questions that lie ahead are likely going to challenge our very notions of what it means to be human.

Taking everything into consideration, is it unreasonable to worry about these flying cars? Setting aside the obvious possibility that the necessary technology will simply never materialize (I still remember my 7th grade Science teacher cheerfully explaining that my generation would be spending our golden years playing shuffleboard on a moon base), one has to wonder whether unleashing these airborne vehicles upon our world would be nothing but an invitation to crash into trees and power lines, land abruptly right on top of homes and pedestrians, and discover new and terrifying consequences of operator or mechanical failure.

I am by no means a Luddite, but an airborne pizza delivery fills me with dread more than wonderment. Presuming that our well-documented inability to use technology wisely and well will remain constant, I can easily imagine a time when we will begin ask whether our energies should be expended elsewhere. Repairing our roads might be more helpful than scheming to fly right over them, and I would rather that poorly managed states and cities—desperate to attract investment and jobs—not be suckered into handing out massive tax breaks and incentives for the honor of creating a future few will want. The “next big thing” might, in fact, be something as quotidian as learning your neighbors’ names, reading a good book, planting a garden, riding a bicycle, or filling the spiritual void so many feel today. I strongly suspect that the awe long inspired by sheer gadgetry has just about run its course in our modern world, so we will increasingly focus on the less technological—yet highly significant joys—that give form and meaning to life. Spending time with a loved one is, for example, far more interesting and meaningful than endlessly updating a Facebook page.

Whatever our collective technological future may be, what is wrought or fabricated will be either a tool or a toy—nothing more and nothing less. Our ability to fly will always be limited by the law of gravity, so we must eventually make our peace with the time we spend walking upon the earth. The eternal promise of a wonderful, shiny future always will land somewhere short of utopia because it overlooks the basic fact that the daily duties we owe to ourselves and others will always occupy the vast majority of our time and energy—which is just as it should be.

Silicon chips can help to manufacture many clever and helpful products, but it is the quality of the time we spend among our fellow carbon-based life forms that provides the purpose and pleasure in all of our lives. This will never, ever change.

Would Emergency Micro-Grants Help More Community College Students Succeed?

“Persistence” is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many students enter classes in the fall and—often before even the full academic year has passed—are gone from campus. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students—especially the many who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college—to complete their classes and secure a degree. There are a variety of ways to massage and tweak the data on degree attainment, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low twenties. Obviously, everyone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this.

A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching, or even wake up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students who lack confidence or independent life skills need exactly this because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class, and take careful notes—might not be so for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models.

It is also, of course, often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing, and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation’s community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates.

There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared, motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control.

I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Upon her return, even though she has tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.

I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and lives beyond the range where public transportation is possible. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors, he knows what he is missing in class, and by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.

I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly job in retail to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. Unfortunately, she falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem regarding her budget—so she takes on additional shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. As a result, she loses time to study and to fully recover from her illness, which has the inevitable negative impact on her wellbeing, classwork, and grades.

The three examples I have sketched from my experiences with my own community college students have a common theme: a minor financial setback becomes an academic catastrophe.

In all of these cases and many others like them, the amount of money necessary to keep these students in their classes and on track to graduate was shockingly modest—perhaps a couple of hundred dollars could have saved their semesters and helped them to succeed in school. The question I have when I see adequately prepared and motivated students fall by the wayside due to a financial glitch that is relatively minor and utterly beyond their control is this: Should community colleges “invest” a bit of money in these students today to help them to graduate tomorrow?

Compared to the staff, facility, travel, and advertising expenses associated with continuing to recruit new students to replace those who are lost—but might have been saved at the cost of a few hundred dollars at a critical juncture in their educational lives—there might be a very good dollars and cents argument to be made here. Moreover, the availability of this sort of emergency grant—some portion of which could be tailored to assist students who fit a particularly high-risk profile—could also draw more students into reaching out for other help offered by the college rather than just disappearing. If $200 for a new starter motor for a car today is going to help a student walk across the stage and collect an Associate degree a few years in the future, I cannot but believe this is a worthy—and worthwhile—expense.

I well understand the reasons community colleges will be wary of setting up programs to make emergency micro-grants. Community college trustees and state administrators would be understandably fearful of the negative publicity and investigations that would certainly result from this type of initiative were it to be poorly managed. No one wants to open the newspaper and read about sneaky students with sob stories scamming their local community college for weed money.

However, appropriate guidelines and management controls could certainly be developed by community colleges that would greatly minimize—although admittedly not eliminate entirely—the possibilities for abuse and misuse of the funds set aside for this purpose. Any such program should certainly start small and scale up as experience working with students provides the feedback necessary to fine-tune the process of disbursing funds, but it must not fall into bureaucratic deadlock if it is to be truly helpful to students facing a short-term financial crisis.

Although no reasonable person is going to suggest simply handing out cash from a shoebox in the Dean’s office, a program of this type will be effective if—and only if—funds can be provided within a business day. The more time that passes between the articulation of the financial emergency and its resolution, the fewer students who actually will be helped.

Is this idea worth a shot? That would be up to an individual community college to decide. However, it might be worth asking what is currently being spent on all programs at that college connected to student recruitment and retention, gather those figures, do some rough calculations, and ask whether a $250 grant that has, for the sake of argument, a 50/50 chance of keeping a student in school is a bargain when balanced against all the other expenses on the other side of the ledger.

I offer this idea for consideration because I believe we need to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to find solutions that will better serve our students—including those who are motivated but lack, for a variety of reasons, the economic safety net other students might possess. Given the well-documented crisis of non-completion at our nation’s community colleges, perhaps it is time for some innovative initiatives that are based upon the real world challenges that so many of our economically vulnerable students actually face. If we do not stretch beyond the tried and true (but perhaps not entirely effective) solutions of the past, we risk losing more and more students of modest means—but big dreams—who are trying to use community college as a stepping stone to a better life.

A version of this article was also published on Education Post (educationpost.org) entitled “Too Many Students Drop Out of Community Colleges. Here’s How We Fix It.” on January 19, 2018.