Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rethinking Patriotism for Millennials: Beyond Answering a Truly Dumb Ass Question

I check Twitter as part of my morning routine, and as it often does, Pew's "Daily Number" caught my eye. Today was especially relevant for me because (a) I'm a sucker for generational studies and (b) my generation was the topic of discussion.
 Here's the gist of their findings:
Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).
I take no conceptual issue with this work. It's well done, as is most all of what Pew does. My issue is with the framing, in particular the title: A generational gap in American patriotism.

My patriotism does not depend on answering in the affirmative to a question so asinine as, "Is America the greatest country on earth?" Unfortunately, I suspect it does rest on that answer for a lot of Americans, which likely explains the gap in reported rates of patriotism.

First of all, the greatest country question is pretty loaded. I'd wager that most Americans who say the United States is the greatest country probably reason as follows: "I live here, I like it, and therefore it is the best." Nevermind that most Americans have never even been to another country (only 36% of us hold valid passports), which severely limits even anecdotal comparisons.

I consider myself to be patriotic in that I am devoted to my country -- which is the dictionary definition of the term -- but I would say based on odds alone (the United States is just one of 196 countries) that we're not number one.

But then again, it depends on the criteria we're using to rank nations.

If we're talking economic prowess, military might, or (sadly) incarceration rate, the United States tops the list. But what about the country with the happiest population? Switzerland is currently numero uno, though in years past it has often been Denmark. What about price and quality of health care? That goes to France. How about education? Finland is the winner there.

I think you get my point as to why determining which nation is truly the greatest is a complicated matter.

It might help to think of it in terms of those best-rock-album-of-all-time conversations you've had with friends over a few beers. My answer is typically The Beatles' "Revolver." But there are dozens of other candidates; perhaps the other I most often hear is the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." And just because I didn't put "Exile" atop my list doesn't mean I don't think it's a damn good record, just maybe not the best.

In much the same way, not believing that America is the greatest country on earth, period, end of discussion, doesn't mean I'm unpatriotic or that I dislike America. I'm devoted to what I consider to be the founding and most critical principles of the United States: you are free to determine your own destiny, to make a better life for yourself and your family, to live with few constraints on your day-to-day activities, and -- most importantly -- to question the established way of doing things in the hopes of producing something better.

I worry about America. We've got problems. We rank 37th in health care, 17th in education, 14th in happiness, and 1st in incarceration rates. We have serious issues concerning wealth inequality and an eroding middle class further threatened by holes in our safety net programs and unemployment that hovers around 8%. We also have difficulties facing long-term problems, climate change and the never-ending accrual of debt chief among them. And every one of these problems is further complicated by our currently polarized political system.

Still, despite all these issues and our apparent lack of patriotism, Millennials are the lease likely generation to ring America's death knell. Quite the opposite: Millennials are the most optimistic generation about the state of our nation and our ability to improve both individually and collectively. I would argue that a hopeful outlook for America's future is a better measure of patriotism than a response to a truly dumb ass question.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A war on coal?

Today at Georgetown University, President Obama is expected to issue his most sweeping address on climate change to date, calling for America  to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The New York Times quoted Obama environmental advisor Daniel Schrag, who advocates transitioning off of coal:
The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants. Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they’re having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.
I thought it might be interesting to explore that political hesitancy, so I examined a National Mining Association list of the top coal producing states (my home state of Kentucky is 3rd) and measured political leanings at the federal level.

First, a quick breakdown of this list. The top 5 coal producing states are Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Those 5 states account for 71.8% of coal mined in the United States; Wyoming alone yields 40%.

Up for grabs in those 5 states are 10 Senate seats and 61 congressional seats. Currently, Republicans are the majority representatives in these states, holding 7 Senate seats and and 42 congressional seats, leaving Democrats the remaining 3 Senate spots and 19 spots in the House.

In terms of presidential elections, these states are fairly entrenched with one party or the other. Pennsylvania has historically gone to the Democrats; George Bush was the last Republican to carry the state, doing so in 1988.

The remaining states are Republican territory. Clinton was the last Democrat to claim West Virginia and Kentucky, carrying both states in 1992 and 1996. Jimmy Carter carried Texas in 1976, and going all the way back to 1964, LBJ was the last Democrat to win Wyoming.

In terms of swaying elections, Pennsylvania (21) and Texas (34) are the only states in the top 5 with significant numbers of electoral votes.

At first glance, it seems the Democrats have relatively little to lose politically by pursuing a more aggressive environmental agenda, especially in comparison to the global importance and significance of taking meaningful action on climate change.

However, a "war on coal" won't put Texas in play for Democrats, but it might cause Pennsylvania to lean red.

And then there's Ohio. There's always Ohio, which is the 10th largest coal producer, mining 2.6% of U.S. coal. Ohio and its 20 electoral votes are already fickle, and an aggressive stance against coal may turn yet another blue state red.

But for all the talk of these swing states, putting the 41 electoral votes from Ohio and Pennsylvania in play wouldn't have changed much in the past two elections. Obama would still have won in 2008 and 2012 without carrying either state, though he won both in both elections. However, without Ohio, George W. Bush would have lost in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Would a stance against coal affect presidential outcomes? Maybe. If Florida stays blue, probably not. But if Florida goes red along with either Ohio or Pennsylvania, probably so.

But the better question is: Why do we care so damn much? We put more emphasis on winning the ability to govern than actually governing. What is the point of having power if you can't exercise it to push your agenda? 

As much as I dislike many Republican policies, that party has a better track record when it comes to actually enacting its agenda. The Democrats need to step up and stand for something. The Affordable Care Act was a weak and compromised bill, and Obama dropped the ball on repealing the Bush tax cuts, eventually leading to this sequester mess. 

Climate change is arguably the most important challenge humanity will face in the 21st century, and if the Democrats fold again, we'll have a "do-nothing" party to go along with our "know-nothing" party.

Friday, May 31, 2013

What the hell is education anyway?

I found out recently that my university plans to integrate massive open online courses (MOOCs) into the curriculum in the coming years, which has created a bit of a stir among the faculty. Part of the fear is that the quality of learning in such a large and often asynchronous environment does not compare to the traditional classroom. A larger fear, I believe, is that easier access on the part of students combined with increased reach for the most gifted instructors threatens job security.

As a future professor, I share both of these fears. But amidst the uncertainty and my desire to claim that MOOCs have no place in higher education, I found myself trying to figure out what the hell education is anyway.

A continuous (and perhaps inevitable) push and pull between the idealistic and the realistic aspects of education are a recurring theme in my mind. In an idealistic world, education is important for its own sake. Moreover, in a nation of the self-governed, a more intelligent citizenry is key for a functioning civil society (whatever that looks like).

Realistically, some people are just plain stupid. We can't all be Harvard graduates, and if we were, the McDonald's cashier down the street would understand why I gave him $10.41 for a $6.41 order. I firmly believe that college isn't the best investment for everyone, but culturally we accept that truism.

Education -- or at least the certification a diploma brings -- has become a point of differentiation. Simply put, there is value in education.

But how is this value quantified? I have always found the language I hear around universities interesting. For example, students are "getting" a degree and graduates already "have" one. Despite being more accurate, I less often hear of people "pursuing" a degree or "working toward" something in their given fields of study. Education has become more valuable as a possession than as a process, but all the idealistic merit is in the latter.

Graduates possess only a diploma, which may or may not reflect how educated they are. We have subjectively and arbitrarily decided that four years of classes certifies graduates to work "better" jobs. I'm not necessarily opposed to such a system because it does require work to earn a degree, university systems provide some means to evaluate skill, and liberal arts educations typically brings some level of enlightenment to students -- even if by happenstance. But to conflate such a system with education often amounts to little more than a bait and switch necessarily perpetrated to keep university lights on nationwide.

So are MOOCs a form of higher education? In the idealistic, process understanding of education: maybe. In the realistic, commodified sense: depends on the university ROI.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The appeal of austerity...and why it doesn't work

Photo by Pen Waggener
Reducing the debt is undoubtedly important. Roughly 6% of the federal budget is allocated each year to pay interest on our national debt. As deficits and debt increase, so too do our interest payments, which in turn limits resource allocations to other important areas (education, which is about 3% of the federal budget, comes to mind).

Austerity is an intuitively pleasing policy agenda because it relies on the simple mathematics of input and output. My issue with austerity isn't the end goal of debt and deficit reduction, it's that austerity is based on false assumptions and, most importantly, it doesn't work.

A recent study by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin entitled "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff" essentially calls bullshit on the austerity endeavor.

In 2010, Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff published a set of studies that found when the public debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90%, economic growth comes to a grinding halt. Herndon and company found a number of issues with Reinhart and Rogoff's study worth mentioning. If your pressed for time or need a laugh, here's Colbert's take on it:

First, there are a number of gaps in data from the countries studied, largely stemming for varying start points for data collection. These gaps led to the selective exclusion of 14 data points at which varying countries experienced over 90% in the debt/GDP ration.

Second, an Excel coding error meant that Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark were completely excluded from analysis. Go ahead and read that sentence again.

Finally, the data was weighted equally by country rather than by combining the country and year, an odd choice that Reinhart and Rogoff did not explain. According to Herndon and his colleagues, "equal weighting of country averages entirely ignores the number of years that a country experienced a high level of public debt relative to GDP."

All of these errors lead to bogus results which Herdon, Ash, and Pollin refute:
Our most basic fi nding is that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as RR claims. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically di fferent than when public debt/GDP ratios are lower.
So a 28-year-old graduate student made respected economists look damn silly, which would be funny except for the fact that so much damage has already been done by Reinhart and Rogoff's work. Again, according to Herndon, Ash, and Pollin:
Reinhart's and Rogoff 's website lists 76 high-profil le features, including The Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, National Public Radio, and MSNBC, as well as many international publications and broadcasts. Furthermore, RR 2010a is the only evidence cited in the "Paul Ryan Budget" on the consequences of high public debt for economic growth. 
The only evidence for the leading economic mind behind Republican fiscal policy, Paul Ryan (and God knows how that happened), turns out to be fundamentally flawed. But the page one story of the Ryan Budget won't be undone by this page 16 retraction.

Moreover, austerity already has taken its toll, and for all the U.S. deficit hawk warnings that "we're headed down a path to Europe," those same European countries have arguably been more eager to adopt austerity policies than the United States -- and it's been disastrous. Even Ireland, the poster child for austerity economics, is having its doubts after budget cuts have wreaked economic havoc.

The problem we have isn't simply one of input and output, its understanding the difference between expenditures and investments. And since austerity minded policies tend to correlate with Republican leanings as do strength of religious beliefs, I'll illustrate my point with the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and was eventually imprisoned in Egypt. There, he interpreted a dream of the Pharaoh and correctly predicted that seven years of bountiful harvests would be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised the Pharaoh to store up grain during the years of plenty to prepare for years of famine, which he did, and all was well in Egypt.

The moral of the story: shortsightedness is idiocy. We are idiots. We spent all our resources during times of plenty and landed ourselves in this proverbial famine. The solution is a Keynesian one: spend money from the public sector when the private sector is unwilling, which in turn spurs the economy.

This solution means taking on more debt, which is unfortunate, but it's the right thing to do. If we fail to make the necessary investments now, we'll be paying for those poor choices long into the future, much like we're paying for past failures now. What we need isn't a shortsighted solution, but rather one that accounts for inevitable cycles of boom and bust that capitalist societies experience.

The only hard thing about enacting such a policy is recognizing our historically poor decision making patterns and realizing that a something-for-nothing culture is not sustainable in the long term.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What is a terrorist?

Photo by Wally Gobetz
Most of us have been following the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt and arrest involving the Tsarnaev brothers.

Before Boston police or the FBI even had any suspects, the news coverage almost immediately described the bombers as "terrorists" or referred to the incident as an act of "terrorism." I thought that labeling was interesting not only because it felt so natural, but -- as a colleague of mine also pointed out -- because the coverage disturbingly lacked any context surrounding these highly connotative terms.

So, as I often do, I began with denotative definitions. First, terrorist:
"a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism"
Tautology. Great. So terrorism then:
"the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes"
When I see the Tsarnaev brothers, I don't see terrorists, only men who have committed an incredible atrocity and should be punished for it. They aren't members of any group, they don't appear to have deep political motives, and their actions don't seem to be exceptionally well planned.

To that end, I was glad to hear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would not be tried as an enemy combatant, but rather in the civilian court system. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen who committed crimes in the United States and was arrested in the United States. He is a criminal, not a combatant, and choosing to put him on trial as such sets an important example and precedent for the future.

This precedent is paramount because we live in the midst of the "War on Terror," itself a misnomer. Wars are implicitly winnable, but our current approach of fighting semi-systematic violence with systematic violence will never end. Wars end when one side grows tired of fighting, lacks the ability to continue fighting, or are all dead. The U.S. military is incapable of victory with such terms. Terror will never be defeated, only managed.

It's also important to point out that all acts of violence are meant to intimidate or coerce, but terrorism has a distinct meaning in the public mind as a specialized form of violence. It's systematic, theocratically and religiously motivated, and carried out by Arab Muslims.

That is not was terrorism is, but that is what terrorism means, and to evoke that so readily and without context can have dangerous consequences for a nervous, frightened, angry, and trigger-happy people already living in a seemingly constant state of violence and war. My message to the news media is simple: in future, exercise more cautious word choice, because language has more power than we often realize.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gun control a non-issue issue?

I'm not sure it's even worth my time to articulate a position on gun control itself, but I'm gonna. More importantly, however, the debate raises other questions that merit closer inspection.

The Pew Research Center had several interesting findings concerning the public's general attitudes toward gun policies, rights, and control. As you can see from the above chart, background checks, better tracking of sales, bans on semi-automatics and high capacity magazines, and restrictions on the mentally ill (whatever that means) are popular measures of control.

Not surprisingly, Obama's gun control policy largely adheres to prevailing public opinion.

I suppose I'm in favor of these measures, but I'm a realist and there are few points about these proposed laws I'd like to make:

  1. Gun owners won't be affected in a meaningful way.
  2. Mass shootings won't stop.
  3. Shut up about the 2nd Amendment.

To the first point, I say "meaningful" because we'll get to keep our guns and enjoy the rights they afford us. So maybe you can't deer hunt with an AR-15 and a 20-round magazine, but you can still deer hunt with other powerful weapons not originally manufacture to efficiently kill human beings. As far as home defense, the same applies. Truthfully, a 12-gauge shotgun is probably your best bet there anyway.

To the second point, mass shootings will still happen. People will still die. The only benefit is that assailants would be less efficient at killing under the proposed controls, so theoretically the death tolls would go down. We wouldn't have done anything to change the underlying causes of such violent behaviors, only the tools available by which such behaviors could be carried out. That's the exchange we'd be making and it's important to understand that.

And finally, because these atrocities will likely continue, most of what I here about the argument involves whether these proposed laws would infringe on Constitutional rights. 

But what exactly are those rights?

So let's talk about the Constitution. I do not believe that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to individual gun ownership, and understanding the history behind the Constitution's ratification is important to my conclusion. 

The major point of contention during the Constitution Convention was the role of the federal government. The federalists favored a dominant federal government while anti-federalist wished to see more power rested with the states. Because the Constitution originally outlined what the federal government could do, not what it was forbidden to do, the anti-federalist successfully pushed for a Bill of Rights intended to protect the states and their citizens from a powerful federal government.

The second of these first 10 amendments reads as follows:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
In the late 18th century, the United States did not field a strong standing army. It was either weak or nonexistent, making the role of state militias important not only for state but federal defense.

It seems clear to me that this provision applied to our protection against foreign invaders and from federal tyranny by state organized military forces, not to the protection of individuals' recreational gun ownership.

But I don't think the framers' intent means a damn thing. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The earth belongs to the living, not the dead."

The Constitution is a beautiful founding document with amazing guiding principles, but's it's a living document and we aren't bound to it. If we were we wouldn't have changed it 27 times. Simply because a handful of revered, rich, middle-aged, white, and -- most noticeably -- dead said so over two centuries ago doesn't make it true. That is our grand national naturalistic fallacy and it's time we get over it.

If we truly believe that disobeying the document in this current age is more prudent than following it, then disobey we should. Constitutional disobedience, after all, is our true founding principle.

But obey or not, it is critically important to realize that our Constitutional rights are not, nor have they ever been, absolute. In 1798, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which essentially outlawed critiques of the government -- this just seven years after a Constitutional guarantee or free speech.

To this day many of our Constitutional rights are highly regulated and often ignored. The Patriot Act, signed into law by G. W. Bush and reauthorized under Obama includes blatant violations of 4th and 6th Amendment rights protecting against warrantless searches and guaranteeing public trials -- damn good amendments.

But nobody seems to give a shit about those violations, which are infinitely more important to our daily securities than any gun. It's ironic that, while we've largely been able to protect the right to bear the very arms meant to defend ourselves from government oppression, we've managed quietly to sign away our most important freedoms with one hand, all without moving our trigger finger.