Mike Kueber's Blog

September 1, 2014

Sunday Book Review #146 – The American boomerang by Nick Adams

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:46 am
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If you are as old as me, you might remember a popular 1974 record titled The Americans. The song was spoken by a Canadian news anchor Byron MacGregor defending post-Vietnam America when it being disrespected throughout the world. The American boomerang is a modernized, book-length update to The Americans, with Canadian MacGregor replaced by Australian author Nick Adams.

According to Adams, America is the greatest country in the world because of its conservative values, and although those values are deteriorating in the face of a progressive assault, America has always possessed an internal, self-correcting mechanism that will get us back on the right track:

  • Tocqueville once observed that ‘the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Adams continually cites Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, and although Tocqueville’s observations about American values and character are almost two centuries old, Adams is confident that most of them still apply. Examples:

  • America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
  • The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers it can bribe the public with the public’s money.
  • Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of the few, but by the laxity of morals amongst us all.
  • There are people in Europe who, confounding together the different characteristics of the sexes, would make man and woman into being not only equal but alike. They would give to both the same functions, impose of both the same duties, and grant to both the same rights; they would mix them in all things – their occupations, their pleasures, their business. It may readily be conceived that by thus attempting to make one sex equal to the other, both are degraded, and from so preposterous a medley of the works of nature nothing could ever result but weak men and disorderly women.
  • A thousand special causes have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward.
  • Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.

So, what are the values that Adams thinks make America so exceptional?

  1. The Cowboy spirit. [No argument here.]
  2. Old Glory (patriotism)
  3. Faith (Judeo-Christian)
  4. God’s troops (He’s on our side)
  5. Liberty (government protects our right to life, liberty, and estate)
  6. Competitive culture (capitalists)
  7. Self-made men (and women)
  8. Constitutionally limited government (protection against dictatorship of the majority
  9. Tradition (conservative values)
  10. Armed (the Second Amendment)

I find it hard to disagree with the author’s point that these values are the basis for American exceptionalism, but I also understand that others in our country want different values going forward. In fact, Adams spends two chapters denigrating secular humanists (“An Almost Treasonous Culture War”) and Radical Islam.

Although the boomerang reference is cute from an Australian perspective, Adams does little to support his theory that America will return to its historical roots and character.  I suspect his ability is better at cheerleading for conservative causes than it is at seeing into the future.

But I hope he is right.

August 31, 2014

Aphorism of the Week #21 – Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:53 pm
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VIA is San Antonio’s bus agency, and it is trying to recover from the recent repudiation of its extravagant plan to revitalize the downtown by installing a six-mile streetcar route.  As part of its recovery, two VIA executives in today’s Express-News provided an essay on the agency’s importance to San Antonio.

One of the first paragraphs, however, caused me to stop reading the essay and instead marvel at the shiftiness of the writers:

  • “Between 2000 and 2010, San Antonio saw the highest percent of population increase of the 10 largest cities in the nation with a gain of almost 182,000 people, boosting the Alamo City from the ninth-most populated city to the seventh, and our community is expected to grow by over one million more people in the next 25 years.”

First, the authors refer to percentage of population increase, and then sneakily shift to absolute numbers because 182,000 is more impressive than our percentage increase. Of course, if the focus is on absolute numbers, then San Antonio wouldn’t be the city with the largest population increase in the past ten years.

Second, the authors refer to the city of San Antonio growing from 9th to 7th in population ranking, and then sneakily shifting to a “community” that is expected to grow by over one million people over the next 25 years.  Of course, the city isn’t expected to grow by one million people, but the San Antonio metro area is, and one million growth surely sounds better than a half million or so.

My immediate reaction to reading this paragraph was to recall the aphorism coined by Benjamin Disraeli (sometimes wrongly credited to Mark Twain – “There are three types of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

My next reaction was to provide the authors with some feedback before concluding with “kudos to the VIA president and SVP VIA for apparently mastering the art of using statistics to mislead instead of to inform.  But I would prefer public servants who would rather inform than manipulate.”

One of my friends talks often of the need for people to develop critical-thinking skills.  Otherwise, people will take advantage of you.  Thanks, VIA, for reinforcing that.

 

August 30, 2014

Should all kids go to college?

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 4:37 pm
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I was reading a book recently about whether all kids should go to college. According to the book, this question had become an issue in the latest presidential campaign, with Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan apparently taking the position that only the liberal elites thought everyone should go to college, while broad-minded Republicans understood that success could be achieved in life without a college degree.

I wasn’t aware that this question had become an issue in the presidential campaign, but it has always been important to me. When I was parenting four young boys, I recall frequently pontificating that, although I wasn’t planning to push my sons toward college, I would be mightily disappointed if any of them didn’t want a college education.

Many years later – mission mostly accomplished. As with most kids of the upper-middle class, my kids graduated from high school and just assumed that they would go to college. Three of them have already graduated (two of them have graduate degrees, too) and the fourth is in his third year.

But how does this jibe with Paul Ryan’s suggestion that it is elitist to expect all kids to go to college?

As with most thought-provoking questions, my first reaction is to conduct some internet research. When I googled, “Should all kids go to college,” I was referred to an article by Dana Goldstein in The Nation titled, “Should all kids go to college?”

According to the 2011 article, the question is commonly phrased as follows:

  • Do poor and working-class kids have the same need for a liberal arts education as their middle-class and affluent peers? Or does the reality of inequality in America—the sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia within a single generation—call for a more practical approach to educating the poor, with a focus on technical skills that prepare a child for the world of work?

I think that framing the question this way, much like Paul Ryan did, forces a person to take a practical perspective. By contrast, my pontificating is more of an aspirational perspective – i.e., all parents should try to raise kids who want an education beyond high school, even if the kids don’t eventually plan to have a job that requires a college degree.

College is not the same thing as a trade school that is supposed to prepare you to get a job and make a lot of money. College should jumpstart you on a satisfying and fulfilling lifelong journey, and that is something we want for all of our kids.

An open letter to Nate Silver on ranking NFL coaches

Filed under: Sports — Mike Kueber @ 4:23 pm
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Dear Nate,

You might have noticed that ESPN has issued a list of the NFL’s best coaches, headed by the Patriot’s Bill Belichick and the Seahawk’s Pete Carroll. The list prompted Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on First Take to get into an argument over whether the Cowboy’s Jason Garrett was overrated at #30.

I was wondering if you could take this listing out of the realm of subjective and into the arena of the objective, much like they already do with tennis players and golfers. Of course, unlike tennis players and golfers, football coaches couldn’t be rated exclusively on their Ws and Ls. You would have to include consideration of the talent they had to work with, the unlucky injuries that occurred on their teams, and perhaps even their ability to develop skilled players over time.

I suspect you might be able to think of some other criteria that reflects on a person’s ability to coach successfully.

I would love to see your list.

Sincerely,

Mike Kueber

August 28, 2014

Bad luck and life skills

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 6:48 pm
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Earlier this week, I went to my second funeral in two weeks. You might think that funerals get more common as a person ages, but these weren’t funerals for contemporaries. Rather, they were for kids.

The first funeral was for a 15-year-old boy who died when he hit his head on the bottom of my apartment pool. What horrible bad luck! Although diving is prohibited in our pool, people do it all the time, and I have never known anyone to hit their head on the bottom. But even more bad luck is the fact that no one noticed him on the bottom of the pool for several minutes. The incident reminds me of the young Irish boy Sean dying in Lonesome Dove because a fluky incident with some water moccasins. Gus McCrae’s words of wisdom – “He was an unlucky young sprout,” and later, “Life is short. Shorter for some than for others.”

The second funeral was for a 28-year-old young man who was one of my son Tommy’s best friends since high school. Tommy told me that the kid took his own life, and during the memorial service, there were a couple of mentions of depression. Following the service, Tommy told me the young man was having some financial problems since realizing that he couldn’t make a living in music. Plus, there was a problematic girlfriend.

I was not surprised to learn that there were financial and relationship issues behind this depression. In fact, more than two years ago, I wrote the following to a friend who is on the Texas Board of Education:

  • I suspect that there already are classes to help kids make intelligent financial decisions.  If there aren’t, there should be.  I would be surprised, however, if there are classes to help kids in making relationship decisions, and I can’t think of anything that would improve their lives and help them avoid mistakes more than a class on developing and maintaining good relationships and avoiding or ending toxic onesOne of the goals of a high school education should be to prepare our kids for a productive and satisfying life. And making good decisions, especially concerning money and personal relationships could serve as a cornerstone.”

Reminds me of the folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”  RIP, Brandon.

The New York Times on white privilege and whether we are all racists

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wondered if everyone was a little bit racist. Prompted by the Ferguson incident, Kristof started his column, titled “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?,” by admitting that we really don’t what happened in Ferguson, but he went on to assert that we do know the following:

  • But here’s what evidence does strongly suggest: Young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society — including African-Americans themselves. Research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.

If Kristof’s train of thinking confuses you, join the club. Although he begins by asserting “widespread racism and stereotyping,” he quickly walks that back to “unconscious attitudes.” And then, when he describes the various studies that provide evidence of the unconscious attitudes, he fails to explain why these unconscious attitudes exist, such as there are a plethora of psychological studies showing that people are inherently suspicious of people different from them.

Kristof seems to think that if everyone tries to be more sensitive to the issue, it can be willed away. He concludes his column as follows:

  • Yet an uncomfortable starting point is to understand that racial stereotyping remains ubiquitous, and that the challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.

The problem with Kristof’s prescription is that it ignores the scientific fact and common-sense understanding that people behave based on their life experience. It is also a fact that young black males, especially those who present themselves like gangsters, are more likely to commit crimes and violence that almost any other distinguishable group. What sentient human being would not consider that fact?

When Kristof advises people to behave in a politically correct fashion, he reminds me of the Marx Brothers’ line – “Who are you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?”

p.s.,

Shortly after Kristof’s column, the Times published a similarly-themed column by Charles Blow titled, “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege.”  In the column, Blow takes O’Reilly to task for arguing that the problem in the black community is internal (black behavior), not external (white privilege). O’Reilly’s argument:

  • Last night on ‘The Factor,’ Megyn Kelly and I debated the concept of white privilege whereby some believe that if you are Caucasian you have inherent advantages in America. ‘Talking Points’ does not, does not believe in white privilege. However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.

O’Reilly also pointed out that Asian-Americans have achieved success despite their obstacles, which included a different language, but he also noted that the black experience was unique:

  • One caveat, the Asian-American experience historically has not been nearly as tough as the African-American experience. Slavery is unique and it has harmed black Americans to a degree that is still being felt today, but in order to succeed in our competitive society, every American has to overcome the obstacles they face.”

Blow explained away the Asians as “model immigrants” based on immigration policy, which he said resulted in high-achieving people being selected for immigration. [What an novel idea!]

Then for a solution, O’Reilly makes two points, according to Blow:

  1. In arguing that it isn’t, O’Reilly goes on to raise the seemingly obligatory “respectability” point, saying: “American children must learn not only academics but also civil behavior, right from wrong, as well as how to speak properly and how to act respectfully in public.”
  2. Then he falls back on the crux of his argument: “Instead of preaching a cultural revolution, the leadership provides excuses for failure. The race hustlers blame white privilege, an unfair society, a terrible country. So the message is, it’s not your fault if you abandon your children, if you become a substance abuser, if you are a criminal. No, it’s not your fault; it’s society’s fault. That is the big lie that is keeping some African-Americans from reaching their full potential. Until personal responsibility and a cultural change takes place, millions of African-Americans will struggle.”

Blow then turns the table on O’Reilly and seems to compare him to Al Sharpton:

  • No, Mr. O’Reilly, it is statements like this one that make you the race hustler. The underlying logic is that blacks are possessed of some form of racial pathology or self-destructive racial impulses, that personal responsibility and systemic inequity are separate issues and not intersecting ones. This is the false dichotomy that chokes to death any real accountability and honesty. Systemic anti-black bias doesn’t dictate personal behavior, but it can certainly influence and inform it. And personal behavior can reinforce people’s belief that their biases are justified. So goes the cycle. But at the root of it, we can’t expect equality of outcome while acknowledging inequality of environments. Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.

Finally, something we can agree on. There is a cycle between anti-black bias and the black personal behavior. O’Reilly’s solution is for cultural change in the black community while Blow seems content to merely vent against O’Reilly. At least Kristof has a plan, albeit a Pollyannaish one for non-blacks to will away their unconscious bias.

Driving is not a right; it’s a privilege?

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:46 am
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Ever since I was a kid, I have heard the refrain, “Driving is not a right; it’s a privilege.” I read it today in an op-ed piece in the SA Express-News supporting a ban on talking on a cell phone while driving.  I responded to the author, conservative District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, by asking him who is it that grants me this privilege to drive – the City Council?  the state of Texas?

Gallagher is reportedly a conservative, and most thoughtful conservatives don’t think they are empowered by the government. Rather, thoughtful conservatives believe that people are born free and they freely empower the government to place reasonable restrictions on that freedom.

Although some might argue that this is a distinction without a difference because in either event, government has the power to prohibit cell phone usage while driving. But I think it is important for government officials to have the right mindset when they consider imposing limitations on the freedom of people.

The mindset should be that people are generally free to do what they want, but government may place a limit on that freedom if it is hurting other people. Clearly, cell-phone usage puts other people at risk, and I think that risk outweighs the damage to people’s freedom to drive and talk on their phone.  This is not much different than imposing a speed limit.

 

Saturday Night at the Movies #125 – Pride and Prejudice

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 12:41 am
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Last Tuesday night, I came home from my regular Happy Hour around 10 pm, and stopped by the apartment mailbox to pick up my mail. One of the items I picked up was Netflix movie Pride and Prejudice (2005). Before going to bed, I slipped the movie in my DVR to get a taste, and despite my propensity for crashing around 11 pm, this movie was so good that I went stayed with it right to the end.

I love romances, and this movie based Jane Austen’s book includes four unique romances that aren’t immediately obvious, but ultimately are wonderfully satisfying. Donald Sutherland plays the father of five single young women in late 18th century England, and the lead couple is played by Keira Knightley (afflicted with prejudice) and Matthew Macfadyen (afflicted with pride). Macfadyen reminds me of the TV star of The Americans, Matthew Rhys – i.e., someone whose initial impression is not impressive or favorable, but who grows on you. The Rotten Tomato critics loved the movie at 85% and the audience was even more favorable at 90%. I agree and give it four out of four stars. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I am planning to get the two-set DVD for the 1995 BBC TV miniseries that is supposed to be just as good.  We’ll see about that.

 

Sunday Book Review #145 – How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free

Filed under: Book reviews,Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 12:34 am
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How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free is subtitled, “Retirement wisdom that you won’t get from any financial advisor.” As I am halfway through my 6th year of retirement, I thought this book would be full of information or insights that might help me toward a more satisfying retirement. Sadly, it did not, but perhaps that is because my retirement is already at a good place.

A big part of Zelinski’s presentation is directed at people whose identity is tied up in their job or profession, and I agree that many, if not most, people have a hard time post-retirement with losing that identity. Fortunately, I didn’t have any trouble leaving behind the persona of an insurance lawyer; plus, I can still occasionally achieve some additional gravitas by saying I am a retired insurance attorney. For those retirees with an identity deficiency, Zelinski provides numerous ideas for developing new identities.

From a financial perspective, Zelinski’s advice is also something I already knew – i.e., the advice by so-called retirement experts that retirees need 80%-105% of their pre-retirement income is moronic.

Following a general discussion of retirement philosophy, Zelinski turns specific concerns:

  1. Chapter 4 – Health and taking care of yourself
  2. Chapter 5 – Education and continual learning
  3. Chapter 6 – Relationships and friends
  4. Chapter 7 – Travel
  5. Chapter 8 – Relocation

As I was reading those chapters, I detected a strong overlap with the four buckets from Matthew Kelly’s book, The Rhythm of Life – i.e., body, brain, relations, and spirit.    Zelinki’s book comes at it from a different, more specific perspective – that of a retiree – but from some reason it doesn’t have the same intensity as Kelly’s book.

August 26, 2014

Paul Ryan and the Ice Bucket Challenge

Filed under: Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:45 pm
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Facebook is plastered with posts making fun of Paul Ryan for taking the Ice Bucket Challenge despite previously trying to eliminate federal funding of ALS research. Because Ryan and Romney are two of my favorite politicians, I decided to investigate whether the posters had a point. Not surprisingly, the facts expose the posts are inaccurate and misleading:

  • Inaccurate.  Ryan did not vote to eliminate funding of ALS research. Rather he voted to reduce federal funding for the National Institutes of Health, which resulted in federal funding for ALS research being reduced from $44 million to $39 million.
  • Misleading.  It is not hypocritical for a conservative politicians to decline spending taxpayer money on charitable/altruistic activities while privately spending their personal money on those activities. To the contrary, that is entirely consistent with their personal and political philosophy. Liberal politicians, on the other hand, are noted for their quick willingness to spend taxpayer money on good causes, but exceptionally reluctant to devote their personal assets to those causes.

The happy ending? Thanks to Paul Ryan and other participants, over $30 million has been raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge, more than enough to offset any reductions in federal spending.

p.s., as of August 28, the Challenge has raised almost $100 million.

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