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Blame the Teachers

July 31, 2011 1 comment

Five months ago, Daily Kos published I Don’t Want to be a Teacher Any More, a diary entry by “thalli1” that received a lot of attention at the time. I managed to miss it, but was led to it it a few weeks ago thanks to a Facebook friend’s reference. If you missed it too, I recommend it as a primer on the consequences of choosing not to invest in public education. No “money quotes.” thalli1’s piece, though not long, is too densely detailed. You need to read it in full to get the proper effect.

Well, okay, I’ll quote a paragraph early on and two near the end, not because they are typical but because they focus on the issue of government cutbacks.

Things started to change in education in Oregon about ten or fifteen years ago with a number of tax measures that created huge budget cuts. I noticed programs such a band, art, and drug-abuse prevention being cut for lack of funds along with enrichment programs, swimming class, and all kinds of little things that we used to offer that could no longer be afforded. Class sizes began to grow, and my class size averages went from the low to high twenties and then eventually into the thirties.

[snip]

Maybe it’s the fact that I lost a third of my retirement when they reformed our Public Employee Retirement System a few years back and now I keep reading about how they want to slash it even more because of the greedy teacher unions and how this is the main reason for the budget problems in our state.

Maybe it’s that I haven’t gotten a real raise in a really really long time, or that we had to cut eight days again this year to solve our state’s budget problems. So I’m taking a big hit again, and nobody seems to notice or care.

As I read the piece, I felt a strangely detached sense of relief, knowing that my kids are long out of school and that my university teaching career is far closer to its end than its beginning. I comforted myself with the realization that my exposure to the effects of our underfunded K-12 educational system will be limited. An outrageously narrow response, but it was my initial one.

Once I got past my focus on myself, my thoughts led me back to our president (this was weeks ago, before the debt ceiling crisis had reached its current climax) and my complete bafflement at his eagerness to cut spending in the name of compromise.

States have cut spending drastically, thanks to declining revenue, the unthinkability of increasing taxes, and the requirement of balanced budgets. (At least that’s the story here in Washington State.) State budget cuts have contributed significantly to continuing high unemployment, the resulting shortfall in demand, and an approaching second-dip recession. The race to cut the federal budget notwithstanding, federal support to states is the only way to soften the blow, as happened in the 2009 stimulus. I can’t help but believe that some federal support along this line is a must in order to deal with this country’s economic crisis. The debt is not the most urgent issue. Unemployment and lack of demand are. A return to a healthier economy and the resulting increase in tax revenues will be the biggest contribution to reducing the deficit.

I know. I’m not an economist. But many economists have said as much. I’m feeling on safe ground here. Yet, there’s Obama, smarter than the rest of us, busily appeasing the far right, who are perfectly happy to let the economy’s stall continue, or to allow the economy to collapse altogether, so they can blame him.

As for public education, it offers the one talking point on which everyone agrees: a healthy educational system is essential for the country’s future economic vitality. I suppose there’s a second point of agreement too, that first-rate public education is a prerequisite to the great American myth of equal opportunity for all. But government isn’t willing to put its money where its mouth is on this.

It’s all the fault of those darn teachers. They lack the necessary skills, they get paid too much, they don’t work hard enough, their benefits are unthinkably generous. If we freeze salaries, cut benefits, increase class size, and judge job performance thoughtlessly on student scores in standardized tests, we’ll attract better ones. And decrease government spending.

Makes sense to me.

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Categories: Education, Politics

This is What We Do

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

The video above is the Chrysler ad from the Super Bowl half a year ago. I used it in a post at the time. The blog title is from the ad’s final line, in which Eminem points at the camera and says, “This is Motor City [pause] and this is what we do.”

Why the rerun? Because it’s such an astonishingly good ad, and because I was just reading about it in James B. Stewart’s Saturday business column in today’s NYT. Stewart’s theme is Chrysler’s turnaround under Fiat ownership since the federal bailout.

In what surely ranks as one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the annals of American business history, this week Chrysler reported adjusted net income of $181 million and a 30 percent rise in revenue, to $13.7 billion, even in a still-soft global car market. Its June sales jumped 30 percent from the previous year, its 15th consecutive month of increases. Its market share has grown to 10.6 percent, from under 6 percent. Chrysler repaid its outstanding government loans in May, six years ahead of schedule, and last week Fiat paid $500 million for the Treasury’s remaining 6 percent stake in the company. The American government has recouped $11.2 billion of its $12.5 billion investment in Chrysler, and would probably have made a profit had it held the debt to maturity. Meanwhile, Chrysler employs 56,000 people and has added 9,000 jobs since the bailout.

Not bad.

Stewart focuses in his column on the experiences of a Chrysler dealer in suburban Philadelphia, David Kelleher. This leads to a moving scene, the context being the decision to revamp the awful Chrysler Sebring, and to rename it the Chrysler 200.

[Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio] Marchionne made the bold but controversial decision, criticized by some Republicans in Congress, to spend $2 million for a commercial in January’s Super Bowl.

The day of the game, Mr. Kelleher was attending a dealer convention in St. Louis, where dealers were clamoring for a glimpse of the ad. Chrysler leadership finally agreed on condition of confidentiality. A few hours before kickoff, the dealers watched as a camera panned through the industrial ruins of Detroit to the ominous pulse of “Lose Yourself” by the rapper and native son, Eminem.

“What does this city know about luxury?” a narrator asked. “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you: More than most.” The images shifted to a statue of the boxer, Joe Louis, Diego Rivera’s lush Detroit Industry mural, mansions from Detroit’s heyday. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel,” the narrator continued. “Add hard work and conviction and the know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story.” Images flashed by celebrating Detroit and its people, with barely a glimpse of the new 200. Finally Eminem emerged from behind the wheel and walked into the beautifully renovated Fox Theater to the uplifting strains of a gospel choir onstage. At the end, letters appeared over the dark screen: “The Chrysler 200 has arrived. Imported from Detroit.”

“I was stunned,” Mr. Kelleher recalled. “I looked around. The room was silent. Some people were crying. Then the applause started and just rolled through the auditorium and kept on going. We felt a rebirth.” Mr. Kelleher immediately e-mailed his chief salesman. “Get on the computer right now and order 40 200s.”

Watch the ad yourself. See if you don’t cry too.

Categories: Automobiles, Video

Friend of Muslim Americans

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain apologized for comments he made two weeks earlier in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in which he described the construction of a mosque there “an infringement and abuse of our freedom of religion. … This is another way to sneak Shariah law into our laws, and I absolutely object to that.”

Cain explained in his apology that

While I stand by my opposition to the interference of Shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

When I read this, I thought it one of the more stunning examples I’ve seen of a non-apology apology. I described it to Joel, noting the part that particularly bugged me. He confirmed my suspicion that there may be little point dwelling on the doings of nut jobs. But the apology is still on my mind, so I’ll dwell nonetheless.

Here’s the thing. I’ve become accustomed to the standard celebrity apology addressed to “those I may have offended,” the kind that hints that if you’re offended, maybe it’s your problem. You know — nothing was done wrong here, at least not by me. Maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive. But here’s your apology anyway.

Cain’s apology is in that family. There he is speaking of statements that “might have caused offense to Muslim Americans.” It’s his next phrase, though, that stunned me: “and their friends.”

Cain is apologizing to friends of Muslim Americans? This is so maddeningly bizarre. What qualifies one to be a friend of Muslim Americans? What must one do? Or look like? What if I’m offended simply because what Cain said is, by any objective measure, offensive? Cain even suggests why this might be the case in his next sentence, in which he admits to betraying his “commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it.” That’s what offends me. That’s why I would welcome an apology.

Can only declared Muslim Americans and their friends receive this apology? Can’t I just be a US citizen, one who believes in the constitution and the rights it guarantees?

Well, so be it. I will join the Friends of Muslim Americans. How do I sign up?

Categories: Politics, Religion

Porterhouse for Me

July 27, 2011 1 comment

Prime porterhouse steak with creamed spinach and hash browns at Palm

[Evan Sung for The New York Times]

Sam Sifton’s restaurant review in today’s NYT features classic New York steakhouses Palm and Palm Too. I never ate at them, or at their brethren that have sprung up across the country (not Seattle). Since childhood, my model for the New York steakhouse has been Peter Luger. But I have to say, when I reached the photo above from the review’s accompanying slide show, I was ready to head straight to Palm, leaving let Peter Luger for another day.

Sifton suggests that this would yield a happy outcome:

It is better to do as was always customary at Palm in the past, and ignore the menu entirely. Most want steak — the prime porterhouse if it’s available is generally the most crusty without and tender within … . So do not read about anything. Just ask for the steak after some Gigis and a crab. You may certainly ask for mashed potatoes or broccoli or fries. These will come with a shrug and perhaps some sucked teeth. The waiter knows you want creamed spinach and hash browns.

And then have a drink while you wait for the food to arrive, and catch up with your tablemates about work or family gossip or the affairs of the day. Do not order wine — the selection is not very good. Cut into your buttery meat, your buttery potatoes, your creamy greens. These are prepared with real skill and care, and taste it. Meanwhile, look at that sawdust on the floor and the twinkle in everyone’s eyes.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Change We Can Believe In, XX

July 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Moving to the Right

I’ve been struggling all summer with how to write about Obama. I started a post in this series with the subheading “I’m Smarter than You Are.” This was one weekend when Obama slapped down his critics “on the left” in his weekly radio address. Of course, moronic accusations of his socialist tendencies aside, his continuing move rightward expands the ranks of the left daily. Then, a week ago, I tried to pick up the thread, changing the subheading to “Dismantling the New Deal.” I had written a paragraph or two when I tried to pause, save, and switch from laptop to desktop. Along the way, I lost what I wrote, except for some links.

So, here goes again. Just so I get something posted on this subject, I’ll content myself with references to the work of others. Also, let me explain that as fed up as I am with Obama, my disgust with the antics of the Republican leadership is far deeper. But what is there to say about idiots, liars, and charlatans? They are a scary bunch. They have no interest in fiscal prudence, except as a political talking point to promote their interests in the 2012 election. And what are their interests anyway? Some, the genuine crazies, in the name of freedom, mostly want to make sure most people are anything but. The others are just hypocrites.

Anyway, on to Obama, our enigma-in-chief. What is he fighting for? I don’t have a clue. What vision does he have for life in the US? I once thought I knew, but now I know I don’t. He’s ready to reduce Medicare and Social Security to show his own fiscal prudence, but with interest rates and inflation low, unemployment high, states slashing budgets, is this really the time to win the deficit battle? We all know how the deficit got so big, even if the Republicans pretend they don’t. We cut taxes and started two wars. Now Obama has added a few more wars, renewed the national security state, instructed the NSA to have a computer at Fort Meade recording my keystrokes as I produce them (okay, maybe not; but then again, maybe), and wants to take additional steps that will make the lives of ordinary Americans worse. All with a touch of paternalism and arrogance, the underlying sense I get being that he really does think he’s smarter than the rest of us and knows what’s good for us.

Thanks for nothing. Or worse. Next time you run for office, maybe you can explain that the hope and change you’re after are what Nixon gave us.

Perhaps I’m expressing emotions without analysis. Sorry.

As long as I’m taking this route, let me quote from a post four days ago of the blogger digby. With regard to negotiations at the time between Obama and the Congressional “gang of six,” she commented that the proposed compromise

has become the new “middle ground” and it includes devastating cuts to Social Security, the worst of which will fall upon women in their most geriatric years and disabled people who depend upon SSI, more cuts to Medicare and a likely devastating body blow to Medicaid, which also will hit the elderly far worse than anyone realizes. (Learn how to change adult diapers, kids, because that’s what you’re going to spend your 40s and 50s doing.)

Further down in her post, she adds:

Until the last few months I have always argued that a Democratic president was always going to be preferable to a Republican because of the Supreme Court — and the partisan necessity to protect the “entitlements” from the GOP’s ongoing assaults. I would have assumed that any Democrat would issue a veto threat on this Gang of Six monstrosity rather than praise it. I would have also assumed that all Democratic voters and liberal commentators would be aghast that the Democratic Party would even contemplate such a plan when so many people are suffering and there’s no end in sight. Times have certainly changed.

[snip]

It’s true that the GOP is batshit nuts. Nobody is going to argue that the prospect of Michele Bachman[n] and her freakshow followers with more power than they already have is terrifying. But the Democratic party isn’t exactly behaving like solid, serious leaders either, no matter how many times they use the words “balanced approach.” They are fiddling while Rome burns and the Tea Party is just dancing around the fire throwing gas on the flames.

I close with recent cartoons of Ted Rall

and Tom Tomorrow:

Categories: Economics, Politics

The Gang Arrives in Paris

July 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Cavendish in green (at last), Evans in yellow (at last)

[From the Guardian]

The Tour came to Paris today, marking the end of summer for some of us. A bit of a downer. But before the mourning, there was a race to watch.

It figured to be a day for the sprinters, and so it was. The peloton arrived in Paris with Team BMC and their man in yellow, Cadel Evans, in the lead. Then as they began their eight laps around the Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde, and the Louvre, ceremony ended and the day’s racing began. Early in the third lap, near the Arc de Triomphe, there would be the day’s intermediate sprint. Mark Cavendish was in green as overall points leader, but Jose Rojas had a chance to pass him if Rojas could earn enough points at this intermediate point and the finish. It was clear that Cavendish and Team HTC meant business when they ushered him toward the front of the peloton as the intermediate line neared. He sprinted through in first, with Rojas two positions back.

It was now time for the inevitable breakaway. Six men went, opening up a gap of 30 or 35 seconds. They still had a gap near 30 seconds when the peloton crossed the finish line (about 200 meters west of the Place de la Concorde on the Champs Elysées heading toward the Arc de Triomphe) with two laps or just over 12k to go. A lap later, a gap remained, maybe on the order of 15 seconds. It was difficult to imagine the teams of the star sprinters not closing that gap down, but would they do so in time to set up leadouts for their men?

Down they went toward the Arc. Back they came toward the Place de la Concorde. Finally, as the breakaway fragmented, the peloton picked some of them up. Into Place de la Concorde, past the Obélisque, east along the Seine with the turn under the Louvre approaching. One breakaway rider remained, a member of HTC. Would HTC hold up the leadout for Cavendish to let him go for the stage win?

No. Just before the turn north and ride down through the tunnel, he slowed up to let the peloton by. At that point, with 1.3k left, HTC was in control. Up out of the tunnel they came, left they went, westward on the Rue de Rivoli. Tony Martin, having switched hats from yesterday’s time trial star to humble support rider, led the way, with Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish behind. No other team seemed to be as well organized or mounting a serious challenge. Under the 1k banner they went, off dropped Martin, into Place de la Concorde they rode one last time, off went Goss, and then as they turned onto the Champs Elysées for the final straightaway, still no one seemed to be challenging as leadout expert Renshaw led Cavendish.

Suddenly, Cavendish made his famous move. Edvald Boasson Hagen tried to chase him down. No way. Cavendish won his fifth stage of the tour. Boasson Hagen, winner of two stages this year, was in second. Close behind came Cavendish’s two other principal sprint challengers, each the winner of one stage this year, André Greipel in third and Tyler Farrar in fourth. Everyone else zipped by, Team BMC surrounded Cadel Evans and congratulated him, Cavendish hugged Renshaw, and the Tour was done, except for the award ceremony.

Cavendish’s stage win wrapped up his campaign for the green jersey. It also represented his third consecutive stage win in Paris and twentieth stage win over the last four Tours. And he’s only 26. How many more years can he stay at this level? There’s such a fine line between domination and racking up lots of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finishes. Just ask Tyler Farrar. How many stage wins would he have if Cavendish weren’t on the scene? Will he improve to the point where the two trade stage wins? Keep in mind that Farrar edged Cavendish last September on the final stage of the Vuelta, the ride into Madrid (although Cavendish rode the last 3k with mechanical problems). And Greipel outsprinted Cavendish once in this Tour, due perhaps to Renshaw’s absence at the finish as leadout, as a result of which Cavendish had to make his move too early.

In any case, if Cavendish can stay at this level, he has the possibility of moving into historic territory. He is tied for 6th in most career Tour stage wins at 20, with Lance Armstrong and André Darrigade in 4th at 22, André Leducq in 3rd at 25, then Bernard Hinault at 28 and Eddy Merckx at 34. Two more years at this level and Cavendish will move ahead of Hinault into 2nd. But each of these wins is bitterly battled for, and it’s as easy to imagine Cavendish having reached his peak now as it is to imagine him blasting past Merckx.

Richard Williams, the Guardian’s chief sports writer, has a short note on Cavendish in which he observes that

Cavendish is a fountain of emotions, keen to express his joy in his success but always giving equal weight to his gratitude towards the HTC‑Highroad team-mates who negotiate the position from which he produces the final burst of deadly acceleration.

The first word he spoke into a microphone after the victory – “Finally!” – reflected the frustrations of the previous two years, when he came close to capturing the maillot vert. “We’ve worked so hard for it,” he said. “Today we put the whole team on the front for the last five kilometres. It was a block headwind finish, so you’ve got to be tough.”

In fact at one point during the three-week race he had to be tougher than anyone knew. The later Alpine stages had been demanding, but worse were the Pyrénées in the second week. “The Alps are not so steep and the roads are better. I’m usually OK there. But the Pyrénées are hard. And I got sick in the first week. You can’t say anything at the time because your competitors will take advantage of it, but I had a really bad stomach, an intestinal problem. I was really, really low during the stages in the Massif Central and the Pyrénées, but as usual the team was incredible.”

Williams also had the most marvelous line about Cadel Evans. For years, the post-race interviews of him on Versus have felt tortured. He’s had such bad luck, near misses. He always sounds in mental pain as well as physical. Williams concisely reviews Evans’ path to victory, then notes that Evans “sometimes gives the misleading impression of being inarticulate in three languages.” Just so.

I should finish the quote from Williams, who goes on to write:

but on Saturday night in Grenoble, when he knew he had won, he paid tribute not only to his team but to his former coach, Aldo Sassi, who died of brain cancer last December, aged 51.

“He believed in me, often more than I did myself,” Evans said. “He said to me last year: ‘I’m sure you can win a grand tour and I hope it’s the Tour de France. And then you’ll be the most complete rider of your generation.'”

The most complete rider? I don’t know. But today is not the day to argue. He was surely the most complete rider of this Tour, and a most worthy champion.

Categories: Cycling

East River Esplanade

July 23, 2011 Leave a comment

[Maria Lokke, The New Yorker]

The New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger posted a note yesterday on the East River Waterfront Esplanade in lower Manhattan. Accompanying it are five enticing photos by Maria Lokke. You should take a look, for the photos if nothing more.

The esplanade is still under construction, but a two-block section was just completed, prompting Goldberger’s post. Contrasting it with the waterfront promenade at Battery Park City, along the Hudson, Goldberger explains:

The Battery Park City esplanade was about making you zone out as you look at the water, and forget you are in the city.

The East River Waterfront Esplanade is the opposite: it’s all about New York. It faces the intensely active East River, and it is tucked under and beside the elevated structure of the F.D.R. Drive. It couldn’t be bucolic if it tried. The architects were smart enough not to try, and to realize that they had to work with the reality of what was there, since the highway wasn’t going to go away. And the vista was always going to be of ferries and bridges and Brooklyn, not of a wide expanse of water leading to the Statue of Liberty.

As for what you see in the photo, the “seating is arranged in every which kind of way: pairs of benches facing each other, benches and individual seats facing the water, benches facing the city. There are chaises, like at the High Line, and several pairs of high seats, like bar stools, set at a height that allows you to see the river without having your gaze interrupted by any railings.”

I love the high seating. Perhaps we can try it out for ourselves in just a few weeks, when we attend the wedding of my cousin’s daughter just a block away.

Categories: Architecture