Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Renewed focus on infrastructure

President Obama alluded to advancing U.S. infrastructure in his State of the Union address, a change that I find refreshing.

Liberal as I may be, I don't think the federal government can sustainably create jobs. At best it offers a Band-Aid that can't protect a wound forever. It can, however, protect a wound long enough to heal and return to normal.

That's what investments in infrastructure can do for the American economy. Building better roads, rail lines, airports and communication systems offers short-term job opportunities to help workers weather the unemployment storm.

Once these systems are in place, they create new opportunities for the growth of private business and the creation of sustainable, long-term employment. Such growth is good not just for business and for workers, but for the country as a whole. We need to adjust in order to ride the coming wave of globalism...that of be swept away by it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A new study reports a dramatic decline in study time among college students.

According to authors Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, college students in 1961 devoted 40 hours a week to study, as opposed to just 27 hours in 2004. And yes, this applies to everyone: "the declines occurred at 4-year colleges of every type, size, degree structure, and level of selectivity."

The article is written for an economics article, so the authors take a "garbage in, garbage out" approach. The concern is that, provided investment in study yields positive results -- which it likely does -- declines in study time will result in a batch of graduates that are unprepared for a competitive job market and uneducated, despite the degrees.

Babcock and Marks provided several reasons for this decline, but my favorite is the following:
Institutional standards may have evolved to meet an evolving market for college students.
In other words, colleges make more money if they admit more students, so they lower their standards to increase the customer pool. What's strange about this whole thing is that the key to a university's success is the devaluing of its own product. Anyone smell another remake of The Producers?

I, for one, am not buying into this game. Earlier this week I actually had a student remind me that I "don't teach at Yale." So I should expect less of you as a student? I don't think so. Expect more from yourself...that or drop out.

But they can't quit. They're trapped. Soon McDonald's will require a college degree from its employees. Societally, in an effort to "leave no child behind," we've let every child down. A Bachelor's degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma. It is expected and valueless, at least for my generation. What pride is there in achieving what so many others achieve?

Our real problem is that too many people attend college. Yeah, I said it, and I'll say it again: too many people attend college.

Let me be clear: I'm not blaming the students. What choice do they have? Some have no interest in the careers a college degree ideally affords, but jobs that don't truly require higher education for some reason require a degree. Other individuals, to be perfectly honest, lack the temperament or intelligence to benefit from college. But again, to get a moderately decent job, a college degree is required.

In my eyes, this system creates two major problems. First, is forces individuals who have no interest in being in the university system to go to college. Second, it devalues the degree students eventually earn because it's not that damn difficult to get one. Does a Bachelor's degree really separate you from the pack anymore? I don't think least not like it once did.

I think a return to a trade-school focus is in order. Let's educate people to do what they really want to do. If a nine-to-five is your only end goal, then train for that. If your interested in something more thought-provoking and mentally challenging, then train for that.

But the incessant dumbing down of curriculum and the perpetually lowering bar are not effective ways to mine human capital or benefit students.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Group interaction and the Internet

Internet users are more likely to participate in voluntary groups and organizations according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Eighty percent of Internet users are active in groups, compared to 56% of non-Internet users and 75% of the public as a whole.

While there's a lot going on in this report, the following interests me the most:

It seems that Internet use positively correlates with the level of group activity. I am, however, skeptical.

I think there might be a third variable issue here. Does using the Internet facilitate greater group interaction? Probably. But would these same individuals be active in groups without Internet access? Is there something about them that sparks a need for activity that may also drive them to use the Web as a means to placate that need? I don't know. Good questions though.

What bothers me most about this study summary is that "groups" are never operationally defined. Based on the data, I assume the researchers are pointing to more formal groups with clearly defined agendas, but it's hard to tell.

Still, I think it's worth a look.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bowdlerizing Twain

The publishers of Twain's classic, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- arguably the quintessential American novel -- are releasing a revised edition, replacing all 219 uses of the word "nigger" with "slave."

I disagree with many individuals who say that such a change won't meaningfully affect the story. One of the major themes is Huck's gradual realization of the full personhood of Jim, as a man deserving of respect. The word "nigger" robs Jim of that personhood, even more so than "slave." I fear such a change compromises the integrity of the work.

Beyond damage to the book, I believe this move to be damaging to us societally. I'm reminded of a classroom debate I had with an African American woman over Faulkner's frequent use of the word "nigger." She argued that word was offensive and should be removed; I argued just the opposite. Of course that word is offensive, but to remove it is to destroy the historical context of stories of the American South during the 19th and even 20th century.

I would also argue that such editing also does a disservice to generations of suffering African Americans. The word "slave" doesn't have the same biting sting that "nigger" does. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable because it brings to mind a long, dark chapter of American history. Erasing that chapter of pain and oppression and repressing the memories of centuries-long injustices is far more offensive than any word could ever be.

I leave you with this clip from "The Daily Show," which I believe sums this scenario up pretty well.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

Monday, January 10, 2011

Politicizing tragedy

We all knew it was only a matter of time before the Gabrielle Giffords shooting became a political matter. Depending on how this plays out, it could spell political disaster for either party...or neither party.

Not surprisingly, Sarah Palin is taking the brunt of the political heat. Democrats can ally her enough with Republicans to paint the GOP as fanatical, while Republicans are eager to throw her under the bus because she and the other Tea Partiers create political problems.

At the heart of the controversy concerning Giffords is a map depicting several congressional districts overlaid by crosshairs, Giffords' district being among them. The idea was to encourage voters to remove Democrats from Republican-voting districts because these Democrats had voted in favor of the health care bill. The argument from some on the left is that her violent imagery might easily spur violence.

Palin's speeches have at times had violent undertones as well, oftentimes referred to as lock-and-load rhetoric. In April 2010 she was quoted as saying, "Don't retreat. Reload. And that is not a call for violence."

Many individuals are quick to lay some blame on Plain for the Giffords tragedy. I am not among them. Loughner seems unhinged from what I can gather. The blame should rest with the crazy person who pulled the trigger, not the crazy person with her foot perpetually lodged in her mouth.

Still, I think Palin is guilty of an intentional fallacy here. She may not mean to "call for violence," but violence is occurring, and violently politicized rhetoric like hers is likely feeding the flames.

Also, her qualifier is a bit of a dodge. If I say, "I wish someone would shoot this guy. And that's not a call for violence," it kind of is. Clearly Palin's rhetoric is not so direct, but she calls for channeling anger into action, yet provides no all to action other than to "reload."

While Palin and others may not intend to spark violence, they certainly intend to inspire hatred. At some point, hatred often boils over into violence. I don't believe Palin owes anyone an apology, despite clamoring from the left. I do, however, believe she -- and other pundits as well -- should be more deliberate with her words, as they may not always be interpreted as intended.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Different year, same shit

Often I'm glad to see that some things never change; unfortunately, stupidity is among those things. House Republicans, led by incoming Speaker John Boehner, are pledging to cut $100 billion from domestic spending over the next year.

I understand the concern about spending money we don't have, and the all-to-common rhetoric of budget cuts doesn't piss me off nearly as much as the following, quoted from The New York Times:
House Republican leaders are so far not specifying which programs would bear the brunt of budget cutting, only what would escape it: spending for the military, domestic security and veterans.
I'd say it's also a fair bet that social security and medicare will go largely untouched as well, unless the GOP plans on committing political suicide. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Tea Partiers likely rode into office on a wave of older voters. Take away those voters' benefits and that same wave will carry them back out to sea.

If GOP members avoid cuts from the military, domestic security and veterans as they say they will -- and from medicare and social security as they likely will -- just over 50 percent of total federal spending will go untouched. While programs beyond these five areas are numerically greater, they are fiscally smaller.

Bottom line: this is just grandstanding. If Republicans were serious about reducing spending, they would address the real issues, and their deafening silence during the health care debate suggests they won't.