Lessening the Language

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A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




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The Mediocre Inherit the Earth

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I hated public school. It was hell for learners who were faster or slower than the norm. Even 40 years ago, it catered to the mediocre. The curriculum lumbered along like a brontosaurus, every subject belabored until Joe and Jane Average achieved mastery.

In sixth grade, we had a kid in our class named Sidney. He was at the opposite end of the learning curve from me. I was always bored, he perpetually perplexed. I was “weird” because I was brainy (the term “nerd” had not yet become common), and poor Sidney was mercilessly picked on because people thought he was stupid. They would shout at him as if he were hearing-impaired, mock the way he spoke, trip him up when he walked by, and just generally make his life miserable.

Even at the age of 11, I couldn’t figure out why a child deserved to be bullied because of something he couldn’t help. Had Sidney chosen his learning disability? Supposing I was weird already, so I might as well make the most of it, I befriended him. I was one of only a handful of kids, that whole year, who treated him like a human being.

I got through elementary school by believing that adulthood would be different — that in the grownup world of work, people would be nice to each other. This basically held true for the first 19 years of my working life, when I juggled duties at a small insurance agency. Then I moved into the big corporate arena, and found myself right back in sixth grade.

Big corporations don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees.

The all-American myth is that the business world rewards smarts and initiative. We’re told (or at least, we used to be) that even the Sidneys among us could get ahead if they worked hard, that the mediocre were constantly challenged to improve themselves, and that the brainy would lead them all. In reality, things are quite different.

Big corporations, many of which got where they are by lobbying the government to drive their competitors out of business, don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees. Backbiting, conniving, bum-kissing, and total conformity are the tooth and claw needed to survive in this jungle. Truth has no currency; all that matters is what the bosses want to hear.

Employment in a large corporation is serfdom. It has little, if anything, to do with free enterprise. Everyone is terrified of originality and initiative. In every interview, a job applicant is asked the same inane questions. The right answers are not the truth, but what the interviewers want to hear.

“Do you have initiative?” Of course you do. “Are you a team player?” You’d better be. You certainly need to know where you see yourself in five years — in the hive, productively droning away.

Public schools prize conformity. They turn out good little drones. Young people graduate from them knowing nothing but how to be useful to the system — how to fit in. By the time they reach adulthood, any glimmer of originality has been bored or bullied out of them. Thus are they ready for the only function they are fit to perform: serving their corporate lords.

Sidney once walked several blocks from the store to my house balancing a watermelon on his head. He wanted to reward me for my friendship by bringing me something nice. Loyalty tends to be rewarded. But in corporate America, it is a commodity no longer prized. Instead of earning our trust, the new feudal order prefers to motivate us with fear.

I sometimes wonder what became of Sidney. Did he end up in the mailroom or the warehouse of some large company? He was capable of learning, if anyone had the patience to teach him. Apparently no one at our school did. Possibly he works in some charity-funded enterprise, but more likely he’s being taken care of by the government.

Big corporations are taken care of by the government; it follows that they want everybody around their fiefdoms to be taken care of in the same way. That is one reason, perhaps, why so many of their executives pay money to modern-liberal and “progressive” causes. Through taxation, inflation, the expensive misdirection of Medicare and Medicaid, and the exorbitant cost of socialized medicine, the state has gradually chiseled away at the edifice of protection that employers large and small used to afford their workers. As we are discouraged at every turn from taking care of ourselves, soon there will be nobody left to care for us but government. Which, I suspect, is exactly the plan.




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Hoosiers Show the Way

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A nice piece recently published in the venerable Economist reports some good news out of the state of Indiana. The Hoosier state, under the enlightened leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, has enacted a series of school reforms — reforms that are paying off handsomely for the children of the state.

The reforms crafted by Daniels and his superintendent of schools are interesting, among other reasons, because they are so wide-ranging. They include:

  • creating a voucher program for poor students;
  • encouraging and empowering more charter schools;
  • enhancing the autonomy of school principals to fire the obvious deadwood and respond to parents’ legitimate pressures;
  • requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate data on actual student performance.

Naturally, the rentseeking teachers unions hotly oppose these reforms (as they oppose almost all reforms, of any kind). Their position is: how dare these miserable, ungrateful, unwashed parents of kids in failing public schools insist on their right to send their kids elsewhere — or gain the right to see pertinent facts about the performance of the public schools?

The piteous cry is, “What is this country coming to?”

Of course, the deepest of the Indiana reforms is the establishment of a voucher program — which may well become the biggest in the country. Despite the unions’ vicious (and also morally vile) jihad against school reform in general and school choice in particular, there are now 32 voucher programs spread over 16 states. These programs educate only a small portion (210,000 students in total) of all America’s K-12 students, but they represent a growing threat to the dysfunctional status quo.

The anti-voucher forces trot out the usual lies: vouchers drain resources from public schools; they violate the separation of church and state. The replies are obvious. For every student who leaves a public school to attend a private one, yes, the district loses money, but it also saves the money it would have spent on that selfsame student. Apparently, unionized teachers can’t do simple arithmetic. Big surprise.

Further, the Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers given directly to parents (who can decide to use them at religious, or atheist, private schools) do not violate the separation of church and state — no more than Pell Grants and the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which have always been usable at religious colleges. Apparently, unionized teachers don’t know history, either.

In fact, the voucher amount is usually much smaller, per student, than what is spent by public school districts. The Economist draws the obvious conclusion: vouchers save taxpayers’ money.

But I regard that as the least important advantage of vouchers. The most important, the crucial, advantage is that voucher programs (and other forms of school choice) rescue kids from stultified lives of needless underachievement.




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OMG! The Free Market Works!

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An unintentionally hilarious piece recently appeared in the Pravda of contemporary progressive liberalism, The New York Times.

This lachrymose report laments the fact that major public school districts around the country are losing customers — oops! students — and the result is layoffs. Of teacher union members, no less! Quelle horreur!

Between 2005 and 2010, Broward County (FL), Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus (OH), Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and Tucson have all lost students, some massively.

The article tells some tragic tales. LA let go of 8,500 teachers in the face of an enrollment drop of 56,000 students. Mesa Unified District lost 7,155 students and had to close four middle schools and lay off librarians — the ultimate evil.

The cutbacks are threatening offerings in art, foreign languages, and music.

But to what do the authors of this mournful article attribute this decline? They mention declining birthrates, unemployed parents moving elsewhere to find work, and illegal immigration crackdowns. But they also mention — tentatively and skeptically — the movement of students from regular district schools (essentially run by the teacher unions) to charter schools (run more or less autonomously, i.e., not under the unions’ thumb).

In Columbus, enrollment in charter schools rose by 9,000 students while enrollment in the public school district dropped by 6,150. One honest parent explained, “The classes were too big, the kids were unruly and didn’t pay attention to the teachers.” So she sent her dyslexic daughter to a nearby charter school, where — GASP! — “one of the teachers stayed after school every Friday to help her.”

In an institution where pleasing the customer is actually important, it’s no surprise that her daughter received the help she needed.

Nationwide, while the number of kids in regular public schools dropped by 5%, the number in charter schools rose by 60%.

Naturally, the public school system special interest groups — greedy unions, self-righteous teachers, callous administrators, and so on — are hysterical. For example, one Jeffrey Mirel, an “education historian” at the University of Michigan, bleated that public schools are in danger of becoming “the schools nobody wants.”

Wrong! Public schools have been for some timethe schools that nobody wants. Before the 1960s, teachers unions either didn't exist or — where they did — didn't exert the control they assumed in the 1970s. Teachers unions run schools for the benefit of their members only. So the problems started accelerating.But what’s happening right now is that some few lucky kids are being given the choice to get out — and they’re taking it.




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What Not to Do About Bullying

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The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary Bully, an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed Bully the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock Hunger Games off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.

Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. Bully is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don't think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.

The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, "Didn't they realize they were being filmed?" I applaud the filmmakers' ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex's school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, "A kid slammed my head into a nail!" The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, "I'll bet you didn't like that, did you?" Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, "He's such an unhappy child." In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it's his fault. "Why don't you just get along?" she coos after the bully leaves. "He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends." The boy, nervous and confused, responds, "The cops told us to stay apart." This principal hasn't a clue. Not a clue.

When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. "Is it an ongoing problem in our school?" she asks rhetorically. "No it is not," she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, "Buses are notorious for abuse," and offers, "I can put him on another bus" — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), "When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn't take anyone home until everyone settled down." Isn't that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, "I've ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold." Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!

The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, "I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now." But when Ja'Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, "At least it's attention. I don't mind it that much." His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn't speak up sooner, he responds, "Because you didn't do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head."

Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

While Bully is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can't get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider Bully must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.

What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex's head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn't hearing Alex's principal say, "Boys will be boys." It was the sight of Alex's own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she's embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He's surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex


Editor's Note: Review of "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.



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Poisoning the Well

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Young people are getting an education on the free enterprise system that prejudices them against it.

Their educators tend to see its ethos as one of “dog eat dog.” They believe that fierce competition is its only feature, and that this competition must always be destructive. They believe that some will win and others lose, and that the winners must completely obliterate the losers.

Kids learn that lying in business is sharp and shrewd. That successful businesspeople use every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. That, given the nature of the system, they absolutely must do this to succeed. Dishonesty may be considered wrong everywhere else in the world, but in the workplace it is a skill necessary for survival.

Of course this is the detritus of Marxist philosophy. Even at its mildest, it is not what people who esteem the free enterprise system, who support it as the one most conducive to freedom and prosperity, believe. But youngsters who aspire to succeed in business tend to believe these things, because they’re what’s being taught. They carry such notions into the business world, and this accounts for the abysmal lack of ethics we see in all too many of them.

People who notice this bad behavior are often told that “that’s business,” and believe it. Thus they are vulnerable to the rhetoric of “progressive” political hucksters who preach warmed-over Marxist ideas such as the redistribution of wealth and the supposed necessity of government intervention in the marketplace. And thus does the vicious cycle perpetuate itself.

But among those who care about free enterprise, there is a sense of what, for lack of a better word, I might call sportsmanship. While at one level a business competitor may be a rival, in the larger scheme he is actually a partner. You might defeat him today, he might defeat you tomorrow, but next week you might succeed together. As for customers, they are not suckers to be bamboozled; they are every company’s greatest resource. A continuously profitable business doesn’t try to fool them once, then go in search for other suckers; it establishes a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with them.

The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided.

An understanding of these principles is almost totally absent in the minds of many young folks in the corporate world. And this has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. It has much to do with why tycoons pay expensive lobbyists to get legislation passed forcing competitors out of business. It’s why big corporations gobble up struggling small fry and — with the help of bought and paid-for elected officials — strangle other entrepreneurs in regulations that keep them from building better companies. It’s how so many of them can thrive on taxpayer-funded subsidies, then congratulate themselves on their commercial genius. Such tricks are then described, by anti-free enterprise professors, as capitalism in action.       

What the young are not being told is that there is a beauty, balance, and wisdom to the free enterprise system. That it can thrive only in an atmosphere of trust, based on individual integrity and mutual respect. That it is up to each of us to keep that trust. It’s true, we all compete, but only so we can become our best. And if personal dishonesty becomes too widespread, it will undermine and erode our ability to trust one another.

The well is being poisoned right at its source. William F. Buckley raised an alarm about the fouling of this spring in his first bestseller, God and Man at Yale, more than 50 years ago. His warning is as timely now as ever. We are paying small fortunes to educate our sons and daughters, and they are being taught to distrust the very waters in which they must swim. They are being taught that the only way to clean them up is to pay self-designated geniuses to regulate the flow.  What will happen is that the pool will dry up.

I spent my early college years at public institutions, and I remember being taught that the system in which I had to survive was evil. Then I transferred to a small, private college, and for the first time I heard that the economic system developed in my country had become a blessing to the whole world. For the first time, from professors not beholden to socialist dogma, I was exposed to a gospel of hope. It was many years before I was able to sort through the confusion of those conflicting doctrines and find my way to the truth. Kids today are confused, too, but they are as salvageable as I was.

They won’t hear the truth from the GOP-led Right. That crowd preaches free enterprise, yet feeds into the corruption and calls the bitter sweet — at least until the Democrats are in charge. The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided. Most of our would-be leaders learned from the same kind professors who now teach our kids, so they are no less befuddled.

Competition can be healthy. It can make us grow. But it can also be sick and deranged, goading us to tear each other apart, which is what happens when people compete for money and economic privilege that are taken from others and given to them. Thus Solyndra enjoys half a billion dollars provided at the expense of taxpayers who are losing their own jobs and homes. But there are still examples out there of beneficial competition in action, of good people working to keep our country great. I suspect, however, that Washington DC is the last place we’re going to find them.

If we can be made to believe the bad press about free enterprise — whether it comes from academia, from Hollywood, from the news media, or simply from our friends—we will act according to such notions. We’ll lie, cheat, and try to rig the game, and no one will have any cause to trust us. This was how the well got poisoned to begin with. The economic system that made America great needs better public relations. But we can’t merely entrust the job to any self-styled expert. We must, each and every one of us, take it up ourselves.

We must stop subsidizing schools that sow destruction. There are good schools, and responsible professors, who still teach the principles that can save us. There are still candidates, and voters, who care passionately about liberty. This is no time for passivity or despair. It is time to speak up, and to practice what we preach with greater fidelity than ever before. Our kids are watching every move we make to see how closely it corresponds with our words.

In the break room at one of my many corporate jobs, there was a poster promoting carpooling. It showed a throng of cars packed into a traffic jam. In each was a single driver, and from every driver’s head came a thought-balloon saying, “I can’t make a difference.” Although this was government-funded “green” propaganda, and the phrase has, unfortunately, become a cliché, it carried a grain of truth.

Each of us can make a difference, because although we are individuals, we are not alone. But we are individuals, and we are each responsible for ourselves. The great cleanup of the well can only begin with us.




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Stop the Slander of Inner-City Parents

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A few years ago I wrote an article for this journal urging school choice. Afterward, I received a number of arguments against it — bad arguments. One of these was what I termed the “incompetent parent argument,” which is the one you often hear from the defenders of the present public school system (that is, from greedy rentseekers who benefit from the system, because they are employed by it). The argument is this: school choice will fail because inner-city parents are too ignorant and indifferent to make wise choices about their kids’ education.

This claim is usually proffered sotto voce, since inner-city parents are often members of ethnic minorities. The argument can be accused of having a racist cast, yet the people who offer it are typically politically correct progressive liberals who love accusing the rest of us of racial insensitivity.

But to return to the argument itself. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal exhibits the ultimate refutation of this rubbish. It reports the dramatic swelling of a “crime wave” of inner-city parents who lie about their home address on school applications. Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) recently had to grant clemency to a poor black mother who had dared — dared!! — to use her father’s home address to get her two daughters into a decent school.

For this act of vicious criminality, she was charged with grand theft. After being incarcerated for nine days, she was convicted on two felony counts. If they had remained on her record they would have ruined her chances of getting a teacher’s certificate and becoming a teacher herself.

The lady is not alone. Not hardly. In several states, desperate parents — you know, the inferior inner-city parents who are genetically incapable of the same love for their children that tenured white teachers can feel — have been arrested for trying to do what she did, and are facing jail time or other punishment. School districts around the country are hiring detectives to follow children and see whether they really live where they say they do. Some districts are even using “address-verification” programs to halt the abominable crime of finding a decent education for your kids. One of these programs, VerifyResidence.com, uses “covert video technology” to find the pernicious perps.

Minority parents must care a lot about choosing good schools for their kids, if so many are risking prison for the chance to do so. And of course, these people are hardly criminals. As the article suggests, we can view them as practicing a form of nonviolent protest to achieve their civil rights, in the honorable tradition of Martin Luther King.

A couple of months ago, more evidence that parents are not indifferent but are in fact committed to finding good schools came to light. It was an internal teachers’ union PowerPoint presentation boasting about how the union (the notorious American Federation of Teachers) thwarted parents’ groups in Connecticut from passing a “parent-trigger law” that would have forced a change in administration of any failing school if the majority of the district’s parents voted for the change. If the parents had been as indifferent as rumored, would the union have gone to such Machiavellian means to screw them?




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Financial Responsibility

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The recent recession, which some call the Great Recession, has been around for years, yet it simply refuses to go away. I believe that American business is strong enough that not even Obama’s socialist agenda can permanently destroy our prosperity. But even if a Republican is elected in 2012 and this recession ends, what is to prevent another one?

The question of what causes recessions is perhaps the single most important and most highly political question that the science of economics seeks to answer. The Keynesians and socialists have one answer, the Austrians have quite another. Perhaps the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates has caused or exacerbated the recession. However, I think that from an empirical, factual standpoint the linchpin of the Great Recession was the American public's financial irresponsibility, as manifested in the collapse of the real estate bubble. Many thousands of Americans irrationally believed that home prices could only go up, and they incurred real estate mortgage indebtedness far in excess of what a financially responsible person would incur. When real estate prices collapsed, very many mortgages went into default, which led to foreclosure sales, which further reduced home values, which triggered a downward spiral. It is probably true that government efforts to encourage low-income home ownership and government home mortgage guarantees contributed to inflating the real estate bubble. But the disaster would not have been so widespread if more home buyers had been committed to living within their means or had been more risk-averse.

This is the most dangerous matter, and also the easiest to correct. If the American public, especially the lower middle class, learned to understand the concept of “financial responsibility” then this syndrome would never happen again.

What precisely is financial responsibility? I think that the main point that people should understand is that money does not grow on trees, and there is no such thing as a free lunch or easy money, and that money is not magical and cannot be created by waving a magic wand. The great Randian contribution to economic theory is the idea that in a free market people trade value for value, and to “make money” is to create value. (Yes, Ayn Rand did not invent this idea, but she perfected it.) In order to make money you have to do work to produce the value; in other words, you need to make the money that you trade with others when you buy things from them. If you don’t produce value, then you have nothing to trade.

This not only means that people earn and deserve their salary by working at their job; it also means that people do not deserve to consume more value than what the other traders in the free market are willing to purchase in exchange for money. From each as he chooses, to each as he is chosen, to quote a Robert Nozick saying that captures this concept.

Financial responsibility is the understanding that you cannot spend more money than the amount you earned because of the work you did, unless someone gives you charity or you steal wealth from others, and that you cannot consume a value that has not been produced by someone. To use Rand’s old-fashioned phrasing, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, or as I would prefer to say, you can’t eat your cake before you bake it. Understand this, and you will probably not spend money that you don’t have or use borrowed money to buy stuff when you can’t repay your loans. If you want to buy something, then you will be more likely to do the work necessary to earn the money before trying to get what you want.

This understanding that money is finite and must be created before it can be spent is the essence of financial responsibility. Implicit in the concept, however, is the notion that charity and theft are exceptions, and the general rule is that you, and only you, must do what is necessary to make your own money and control your individual financial destiny.

But if you understand this principle then you will be very careful about economic risk, because you will understand that you will be required to assume responsibility if you make a mistake.  You will be on the hook for your losses and no government will bail you out. Financial responsibility means being held responsible, which means that you are held accountable and you will accept the rewards and punishments that result from your economic choices. Thus, you will not assume risks in excess of the amount of sweat or skill you are willing to put in to compensate for your mistakes. A person who is financially responsible would not assume a gigantic mortgage on real estate he had an annual income in the lower-middle class range, because he would understand that the debt would actually need to be repaid.

If the public were financially responsible, it would not put up with a government that steals money from others or borrows excessively and spends money that it does not have.

It seems to me that the solution to the problem is for high schools or colleges to incorporate personal finance management training into their liberal arts educations. Simply teaching people how to write up a personal budget that matches income and expenditures, sort of like a balance sheet, would go far toward creating the practical skills of financial responsibility. Some high schools have such classes, but they are treated like trivial afterthoughts compared to the more important subjects. Also, merely teaching students how to spend money is not enough; the financial responsibility class would somehow have to simulate earning income in proportion to productivity, possibly by tying fake money to GPA or class performance, to give students a feel for the fact that you cannot spend what you have not earned. The ideal personal finance class would teach career ambition, how to budget to spend within your means, and the crucial importance of saving money and not borrowing beyond your ability to repay.

One would expect the poor to appreciate the crucial importance of saving money. But it is precisely the low-income families that are most vulnerable to financial irresponsibility. The poor face a dark temptation to borrow beyond their ability to repay and not worry about repayment until it is too late, so that for a short time they can live a more affluent lifestyle before their debts catch up with them. The temptation to take shortcuts to one’s desires is deeply seductive even to rational, honest people. But people with no money to spare can least afford to make mistakes. Good finance classes in high school would help poor families budget properly, save for retirement, and avoid predatory lenders. This would help the poor much more than all the modern-liberal nonsense of entitlement spending, welfare, food stamps, etc.

Middle- and upper-income people could also benefit. A study cited on Yahoo claims that the average New Yorker is $200,000 in debt and the average Californian is $300,000 in debt. The American economic system encourages credit card debt, home mortgage debt, and student loan debt. I personally have struggled with handling my finances, which were recently made worse by roughly $90,000 in law school student loans that I needed to incur; and I wish that there had been a serious class in this subject that I could have taken, particularly in college where young people are supposed to learn how to live like adults.

If such classes were commonly available, the average American would actually be exposed to the concept of financial responsibility, and the odds of another recession happening would be greatly reduced. If it were customary for every American student to take a class in financial responsibility, it would be more likely for voters to vote for financially responsible fiscal policy. And if American politicians had taken such classes, they might have better training in the art of living within a budget and be more appreciative of a balanced budget and the dangers of excessive debt.

Of course, if the public were financially responsible, it would not put up with a government that steals money from others or borrows excessively and spends money that it does not have. So the leftists who control most colleges and the teachers' unions who control the high schools would fight to keep people from understanding the truth about financial responsibility and how to prevent another recession.  But while government is the primary source of economic problems, even in a libertarian anarchy they would still exist, if the majority of individuals were financially irresponsible.

Financial responsibility is the understanding that you cannot spend more money than the amount you earned because of the work you did, unless someone gives you charity or you steal wealth from others, and that you cannot consume a value that has not been produced by someone. To use Rand




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All-American Johnny and the Educators

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The debate over Johnny and the American educators goes on. Who’s more to blame for the problems in our public schools? The star maverick educator Michelle Rhee said the other night on a talk show she could see students getting paid for a good performance. The conservative education professionals simply say that “Johnny,” meaning most of the public school students, has to do better, to make our schools better. Parents say that educators will have to teach him better to make our schools better. Educators are beating up Johnny in the press to make their accusation strong. He needs to get real (which is as strong as their language gets). Ordinary lay folk know things aren’t right in America’s public schools. Some powerful politicians are demanding our schools be the best in the world.

We don’t need to be in an international contest. We have a lot to do here at home. “High schools are the downfall of American school reform,” said Jack Jennings, President of the D.C. Center on Education Policy. This disclosure pointed the finger. Educators knew the problem was this deep. They kept the scandal this buried. The public high schools in America number 27,000, and they have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day. Administrators don’t know what to do about the high schools.

Powerful politicians are also making us accept over 100,000-plus foreign students from Latin America and Asia in our schools, who depress the test scores. They have trouble with the tests in English, and sometimes with discipline. Johnny is in a classroom of noisy students from many cultures and can’t get serious about paying attention when the teacher is busy keeping order in the class. Johnny doesn’t get rigorous tutoring at home and study discipline. He doesn’t score well on tests, which is not totally his fault.

Our high schools can’t do better when they’re like this, forced to be politically correct. Is this why Johnny doesn’t like being taught with “them”? Donal O’Shea, Dean of Faculty, Mount Holyoke College, and author of The Poincare Conjecture (referring to the formidable topological theorem the western world has been trying to prove for 100 years) dropped another bomb on American education in his March 2007 Forbes essay, saying that in 1985, of the million students who received bachelor’s degrees that year, only 16,000 majored in math or statistics. More disturbing, of the 1.4 million who received bachelor’s degrees in 2004, only 13,300 majored in math or statistics. More and more of our high schools are letting their students graduate with little or no science and math and serious humanities education. Graduates who go to college anyway mostly are woefully weak.

The public high schools in have on their rolls millions of students; and 7,000 drop out every day.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that Johnny should read more. Although no one of his stature should have to say that reading is serious, it's clear that Johnny has to do much more reading to improve his articulation and language crafts — the kind of reading that doesn't always register on standardized tests. Harvard educated actor Matt Damon recently told a reporter, “We’re tying teacher salaries to how well kids are performing on tests; that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order [thinking].” He may be right, not only about tests in English but also about tests in math-based subjects. President Obama and his advisers put education on their plate the first thing in 2008, recognizing that the high schools were shockingly unhealthy, especially in the math and science departments. His team selected STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — to do the job. The team promised high school students who go for these subjects that they would be richly rewarded upon graduation from college as a STEM major. They’ll enjoy the good life, a professional career, prestige, and security all their lives. The team was romantic. Yet mathematics is the most important subject — and not just for STEM subjects, but for all the other disciplines too. Mathematics is the yeast in all of them. No subject can grow, get strong, become precise without it. Every subject has to establish its foundation on sturdy logic to survive. Mathematics is logic in its supreme form.

Johnny doesn’t know this about math. He is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook, filled with them. The textbook is dully and poorly written. The author isn’t well-read, and doesn’t have to be. The book is written to sell to the state’s textbook adoption committee. Publishers fight hard to win the contract, which is quite big if the state is big and buys one math textbook to be used by all its high school algebra students. Johnny can’t comprehend this “adopted” textbook; the “whizzes” in class don’t read it either, but understand what the math formulas and the “mechanical writings” are saying. The mechanical math geeks are educators’ darlings. They test brilliantly and are “inventive” and become gadgeteers.

Johnny is taught math in school as a set of mechanical exercises, found in a “manual,” a textbook that is dully and poorly written.

Test-driven educators need to see students less than as machines, but more, particularly teens, as fragile souls always in need of constant anchoring. The horrors they can commit! Think of the 1999 Columbine High (Colorado) massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two male seniors (a front page story), and even the 2005 brouhaha at Monta Vista High (Culpertino, California) of Asian and white students over who’s best in math. Some whites at the school moved out of town. (Front page story, “The New White Flight”!) Teens easily crack under pressure. If only they were disciplined to channel their energy to better use, they would make high school a healthier world and also ensure that our pride and joy — the 18 of the 20 best universities in the world that are American — retain their strength. Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School said there are 750,000 foreign college students in American colleges. But then he said, “We have to do something about our secondary education.”

Remember that the 750,000 foreign students don’t have the cultural wherewithal to create brilliant American writing. That task belongs to Johnny, and he shouldn’t be thrown away. If he's not a math geek, Johnny still may learn how to contribute to American letters, which aren't brilliant enough.

The annual State Regents Exams for New York high school seniors reveal why educators should get real. The exams demand that to be college-ready each senior score at least 80 in math (last year many failed to solve the simplest of quadratic equations) and 75 in English Language Arts (two essays have to be written). The high school graduating rate for 2009 was 77%, but only 41% of the class was prepared for college. The two-year college was the only hope of many of the graduates not prepared for four-year college. Poor inner-city Johnny has it the worst — nothing, nobody to help him hope for a good score on the impossible tests; and no hope that the education system will take an interest in him.

Miracles do happen. A New York inner-city Johnny was picked to star in a Walmart ad that takes place in a school library. Johnny glows as he’s helped with his reading by a retired, lawyerly, grandfatherly looking gentleman smiling like one with the patience of Job. The ad runs twice nightly on the PBS “Tavis Smiley Show.” Thanks to Walmart for telling inner-city Johnny across America that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The ’hood does have rich soil worth cultivating. Will other big businesses come in and help other overwhelmed students? Remember that the great English novelist Charles Dickens was born dirt-poor.

By the way, no one at our 18 most hallowed universities proved the Poincare Conjecture. Last year, a reclusive Russian mathematician, Gregori Perelman, proved it but refused the Clay Institute’s $1,000,000 prize. This caliber of confident mathematician tends to be shy, and to have other baggage, such as being incomprehensible at points in his lectures. One can’t expect the high school geek math teacher to be less handicapped. He mumbles at the blackboard. So Johnny’s best shot is to do a lot of good reading with a dictionary to get verbal competence and confidence in writing. That would be quite an achievement — more of an achievement than a brilliant score on a math test.




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