Character part 1


A quick update….

First of all, the recent upswing in activity is incredibly heartening.  I’ve put many thousands of hours of research and careful thought into the ideas that I’ll be sharing in this blog, and to have even one person show appreciation for what I have to say means a great deal.

I’m preparing a series of entries, perhaps the most important I’ll write for quite some time, on what I believe to be the defining issue of our time.  These matters are so weighty that I’ve found it necessary to put off writing about them until I felt more confident of what I wanted to say, thus the delay since the last entry.  I hope to have the first entry up soon.  Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy, and especially that you post and discuss any time you want to share!

Building up or tearing down.

In the last week, several great discussions on education found their way to me without my looking for them.  The first one was a Bloomburg roundtable on education called “Making Teaching a Profession.”  Its well worth a listen if you have the opportunity, particularly the first half or so, but what struck me about it is that it illustrates a real flaw in the way we handle problems politically.  When we began to realize how far our educational system was falling behind, we responded, essentially, by punishing teachers.  We do this because we believe the problem is our schools allowing bad teachers to stay in their jobs.  The No Child Left Behind is pretty indicative of how we’ve handled matters; we create a set of standards and a strict curriculum, meant to catch and eliminate the bad teachers and force the mediocre ones to conform to a script we’ve written for them.  In other words, we handled the problem by forming a policy based on the fact that we were angry at what we saw as the teacher’s failure.  I hope it doesn’t surprise us particularly that this policy has been a resounding failure.  Let’s suppose for a moment that it did exactly what it was meant to do.  Let’s say that it removed the worst 10 percent of teachers entirely.  Perhaps not a terrible goal, but what then?  I firmly believe, and so will anyone who has had decent teachers, that no universal curriculum could be a fraction as good or educational as the chosen teaching methods of the great ones.  If we really think that forcing all teachers to follow an exact program is the way to handle our children, then we should simply have all lessons recorded, and play it over loudspeakers.  Nonsense!  All these programs do is shackle the rest of the teachers that remain, and insult and therefore drive off the very best teachers.  And worse, we make it a less and less desirable profession to enter.  We tell teachers, you will be a slave to a program, work long hours, be poorly paid, and be vilified for the failure of a system you did not create.  Quite a recruiting poster.
Other nations have managed matters with far greater wisdom, and not surprisingly have been more successful for it. We may talk about their methods at a later date, and other possible solutions to our problems there, but the real issue here is the pattern revealed.  We looked at our schools, found them wanting, and said, by imposing more rules, by punishing the weak performers, we will fix what we have.  Those other nations said, what we want, what we need is an education system of such and such a kind.  What course can we take to reach that goal?  And because they did that, they got what they worked for.  And its a pattern across fields.  We look at the shameful state of health care in this country and we focus on standards in hospitals and reforming insurance, but pay no more than lip service to affecting diet and life style, which are without a doubt what make us so unhealthy.  We can devise perfect hospitals and a flawless insurance program, and we will still burn away our wealth and our children’s lives if we fail to fix the underlying problems.  The CDC says this generation is set to be the first in American history to die younger than their parents.  Who thought that we would solve that by changing premiums and enlarging emergency rooms?  We are 5 percent of the world population, and a quarter of all prisoners are American citizens in American prisons (which means we jail our citizens at 5 times the global average rate.)  We build more prisons, make stricter laws.  What have we done to fix the underlying problems there, which make us both more prone to crime and more likely to put everyone, but especially the poor and minorities, in jail?  We cannot afford terrible schools, terrible health, and millions of our citizens in prison and millions more out of the work force because no one hires a felon.  We can’t afford to not rebuild our infrastructure, or not build better energy systems.  What we seem to have forgotten is, when you want something you don’t have, build it, don’t break the thing you have trying to turn it into what you want.  There are things that can be solved that way, of course, but all the great accomplishments of history come from constructive, not destructive, problem solving.  This isn’t a problem of partisanship, or a problem of bad technique.  Its very simply a failure of imagination.  By thinking small here, we’re not saving money or being frugal.  We’re just failing to solve the problems.  We can’t just keep on putting new layers of paint on the rotten wood.  We’ve got to think bigger, figure out what we want, and design that, instead of trying to miraculously make the old things better by doing things that will inevitably make them worse.  We can, and I believe we will, but its going to require a degree of vision we don’t see in politics.  We’ve got to demand more than petty squabbling, because our problems aren’t petty anymore.  Our job here is simple, and honestly, fairly easy.  When someone spouts the party line, says the thing you’re used to hearing, and voting for, for that matter, if there’s not a new plan, not an original solution, don’t vote for them.  Period.  We don’t have to chose between people who share our values and people who can solve our problems, we can have both, but we can only have it if we refuse to put up with anything less.


There’s certainly no shortage of things to worry about these days.  I, for one, was pretty worried before the crash came along, and since then, many of the problems that were hidden or distant have rushed into the open and on to center stage.  Some are terrifying, and its hard to think how we can address them, but many of the most serious are quite simple and easy to solve, if we’d each just put in a little effort.  The poster child for this is the state of our political discourse.  The language has grown so toxic that its basically impossible for people who disagree to communicate at all.  This is desperately serious, because, so long as this remains a democracy, we will be incapable of solving pretty much any problem until we solve this one.  But its not like this is an impossible goal.  We all just need to be more interested in unity and solving our problems than in saying and hearing things that give us a pleasant feeling of self-righteousness and anger.

There are a few phrases that seem innocent, but essentially exist to exacerbate this situation, and which never fail to catch my eye.  When a politician, or any public figure, shows up anywhere, whether its Farmington, IA, or the Globocorp boardroom, and says “This is the heart of America” it sets my teeth on edge.  They want their audience to think “This politician thinks, quite rightly, that we’re the center of America.  We’re absolutely vital.  We’re the real thing.  Everything else couldn’t possibly survive without us.  We exemplify what it is to be American, and no one else lives up.  The good politicians are those who prefer us, and who fight for our interests, and protect us from those other, greedy, un-American places who want to take advantage of us with their unfair advantages and their dirty tricks.”  In other words, its a game of one-downmanship, where each politician fights to make a group think they’re the only good group, and that only he can protect him from all those other people, and that the other groups aren’t just wrong about things, or don’t just have other interests, but are actively enemies of his constituency.  I know it sounds like a pretty innocent phrase, but its one of a whole arsenal employed by our leaders.  And irks me particularly, and I’ll explain why.  Each part of a body, each individual cell, exists to serve the whole organism, and exists because every other cell does the same.  If a heart cell, or the heart as a whole, which is you’ll remember what the politician calls whatever group, if that heart decides, “You know, we’re vital.  The rest of the body can’t survive without us.  I don’t see why they should get all those resources, why we should have to be kept in such a small area.  All the other cells should be like us, because we’re the right ones, we’re upright, we’re righteous.  We should get what we need, and take over whatever we want.”  If the heart did this, the body it was in wouldn’t survive, and neither would the heart.  If it did this, we would call it Cancer.  The simple fact is, much of what we say and do in the political sphere is cancerous, and it is killing us.  We’ve got to start remembering that we are part of the whole, and that we each of us must serve that whole if it, and we, are to survive.

An introduction

I’d like to start this blog ambitiously.  This entry will be a long one, but by way of introduction, I’m going to be looking at a big issue. I want to try to answer a question I’ve overheard a lot since the downturn started; “how did we get into this mess?”  Odds are, you’ve both said and heard it a dozen times.  And I want to try answering it by applying a simple truth; that people do what they get rewarded for.  Now a lot of the explanations for the catastrophe that has been the last few years involve that truth.  Some say we got here because politicians were not rewarded either for having integrity or wisdom, but instead could get elected by telling us stupid lies we wanted to hear, and could line their pockets and insure re-election by playing to special interests.   Others, mostly politicians, it seems, tell us it’s those people who either failed to read their mortgages, or who knew they couldn’t pay their bills, but signed them anyway.  They were rewarded with the chance to own a house for about the same per month as if they were renting.  Others lay the blame on corporations, or unions, or regulations, or globalization.  All, to some extent, share the blame, but it seems to me that when you have this many problems, you should be looking for which disease caused them all, not choosing the worst of the symptoms.

Probably the most popular of all the pinatas are the bankers.  I’d like to take a look at them for a moment, not because I think its all their fault, but because there’s a hint there.  Now we’ve all heard them demonized, how they preyed on the weak and made a pact with the devil, and how they should have known better, since they were the experts.  I’m actually annoyed at them for a variety of reasons, (somewhat unusual ones, but that’s a matter for another time.)  But before we condemn them entirely, I’d like you to consider a proposition.,  Lets say you have ten million to invest, and its 1999.  I come to you and say, I have this friend who wants to buy a house.  He doesn’t have much of a down payment, and he tends to switch jobs a lot, so he may have trouble making the payments.  Can you loan him the money?  Now normally, you’d say “no way, that sounds horrible.”  But consider this; since WWII, house prices have gone up very consistently for half a century, and they’re going up particularly fast now.  So, if you make him the loan, and he can make the payments, you make a good bit of cash on the interest payments.  But if he can’t keep up the payments, say a year from now, you get the house.  And in that era, the house could conservatively have gone up by 10 to 20% in price.  It might very well have doubled.  Which means, you had somebody making payments for a year so you could hold that house while it went up hugely in value.  If it was 100 K when it started, it is now worth anywhere from 110k to 200k, plus his small down payment and his monthly payments.  That means that even if he doesn’t keep up the payments, you’ve made a good 20% on your investment, a very very healthy return.  This remains true till the moment of the crash; every year till then, it was a good business decision.  And honestly, its hard even to attack it on moral grounds, because you’re giving someone a chance to own a house who might otherwise have never gotten a loan.  You may make a little more money off that, but that’s the price of risk.  They might get a lower credit score, but they would have to pay rent if they hadn’t gotten the loan, so they may not have  lost a dime.  By the way, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have seen all this coming.  A half century of growth is no excuse to believe that a crash could never happen again.  I can’t really offer much proof of this, except the back up of a few friends and family, but I said two years before the crash that trouble was coming, and six months before it happened, I told everyone who would listen (very few) to get out of the real estate market, because it would happen within a year.  I find it quite disturbing to be so much in the minority there.  On the other hand, one cannot forget, that if one of the banks had stopped doing this kind of lending, they would have fallen so far behind their competitors they wouldn’t have been able to survive.

Again, the bankers are merely a symptom, not the disease. They do reveal something quite useful though; that half century of nearly uninterrupted growth.  Over fifty years; long enough for the people who lived through the depression’ grand children’s children to be born.  For Americans, and for much of the world, it has in many ways been a very good stretch.  Year on year, life has improved in many or most ways.  Cold war or hot peace, right wing leadership or left, nothing has stopped that growth.  At most a few small stumbles in all those years.  And here we come back to that simple truth.  If it is true that people do what they are rewarded for, ask yourself, what has been the reward to Americans for paying attention?  So long as you weren’t part of a mistreated minority, or a law doesn’t hurt you, what do you care who wins an election, what their economic policies are, etc.  Next year, on average, you’ll find yourself better off, regardless of who wins an election.  In that stretch, we’ve gone from phones and cars being rarities to space travel and the Internet in our pocket.  When things continuously improve, especially at such a dizzying rate, there simply is no incentive for careful political thought.  Obviously there are some important exceptions, and I’m not downplaying them in the least; the Civil Rights Movement was surely one of the high points of American democracy, and Vietnam was one of the more difficult political/generational struggles.  But these weren’t economic questions, or even exactly policy questions.  The first was simply a matter of demanding what had long been promised, and the second was…. well, complicated, but still, it certainly wasn’t a primarily economic question.  At any rate, those exceptions aside, the only real payoff has been the feeling of having “your guy win.”  It seems to me, though, that the day when we can afford to be complacent may finally be over.  All our various symptoms speak to that.  Our banking system is a bloated, diseased mess, our political system is a bad joke, our tax system a disgrace.  The gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and yet, not only is the union dead, but at least one in ten Americans is unemployed, and we continue to import nearly all goods and export mainly jobs.  We’re in three wars, under an ocean of debt, and no closer to solving the energy crisis.  Very nearly everything that could go wrong, is…

And yet, for the first time in my life, I don’t despair of the American people.  All my life, I have met people who couldn’t care less about politics, or history, or economics.  They could barely tell you who the president was, let alone who their congressmen were.  As to what legislation is being debated, forget it.  If they knew more than one bill a year, it was a miracle.  They have no interest in any union (thought they’re furious they haven’t gotten that raise,) and as to what banks and corporations are doing, well, what does that have to do with them?  Let Regulators and the Ultra-Rich sort all that out.  Don’t get me wrong, they were deeply “political.”  They knew that the other party, and anyone who supports them, is not only wrong, but evil, and even worse, un-American.  We went straight from half the country hating Clinton to half the country hating Bush, interrupted only briefly by 9/11.  And each side will tell you that their reasons for hating the elected president of the United States is righteous, but that the other side only hated their guy because they knew he was right, and he didn’t let them stomp all over the decent, hard-working Americans in their party.  And in the midst of all of this partisan nonsense, less than half of us vote.  We’ve all had conversations with thousands of folks like that, from both parties.  Up to now, you could list all the problems that were coming down the pipe toward us, all the ones I’ve listed and more, and they’d tell you, straight faced, that first of all, most of that is the other side’s fault, and if they’d just let the good honest folks on their side go about their business, they’d take care of all that.  More to the point, they could tell you, and quite rightly, that it’s never mattered who they voted for, nothing has changed.  Actually, any time not two or more years before the crash, they’d probably call you un-American for suggesting that we have problems, or, even worse, that we’re not doing anything to handle them.  In that state, you can hardly expect anything to change; how could it?

But again, for the first time, I begin to have hope.  Why?  Again, because of that simple little truth.  For the first time in living memory, we will be rewarded for paying attention.  And the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.  If we fail, not only will America become a third rate power, but the risk of global war and far greater global economic crisis becomes rather terrifying.  The power vacuum the death of a superpower leaves has always lead to war, or wars, in every era in history, and with the environmental, demographic, and resource catastrophes we all face, the odds of a World War, or even nuclear conflict, becomes exponentially greater.  If we succeed, America gets back on the path of growth, with all the vast rewards that implies.  We now have the opportunity to choose our fate.  All we have to do is become citizens of our nation, not consumers of it.  The only question is, can we become what we need to be in time?  That question is for America to answer, not me.  As for me, that’s what this blog is about; paying attention, thinking and discussing.  I’m not saying I have any answers at all, but I certainly have plenty of questions.  Won’t you come and ask them with me?  After all, we’re finally gonna get paid for it.