Mike Kueber's Blog

December 2, 2016

The three-legged stool

Filed under: Business,Education,Parenting,Self-improvement — Mike Kueber @ 2:17 pm

When I started work 35 years ago, there was a retirement concept called the three-legged stool. Essentially, it meant that a person could achieve retirement security by combining Social Security, a pension, and a 401k. That concept still applies today, except that most companies don’t provide a pension.

Employers back then similarly applied the concept of the three-legged stool to achieve company success. According to this thinking, a company would succeed if it took care of its customers, its employees, and its owners. That concept still applies today, except the components are called stakeholders.

Recently, I was thinking about giving some words of wisdom to my fourth son, who will graduate from college this spring and enter the work force. As I reflected on what to tell him about achieving career success, I realized that the concept of the three-legged stool was again appropriate.

Career success, in my opinion, depends on personal skills, hard work, and smarts. Depending on your job, any one of these three qualities might carry you, but success is much more likely if a person develop at least two and maybe even all three of the qualities.

So, even though kids often have successful pre-work lives based mostly on personal skills, having a successful career will probably require an adult to start focusing more on hard work and being smart – i.e., critical-thinking.

That’s what I’m going to tell Jimmy.

July 23, 2015

Larry Summers vindicated?

Filed under: Culture,Education,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:13 pm
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In 2005, at a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, Harvard president Larry Summers proffered three potential explanations for why women were underrepresented as professors in the highest science and engineering positions:

  1. High-powered job hypothesis (i.e., women were distracted by family obligations)
  2. Different availability of aptitude at the high end (test results showed that men tended to have both the highest and the lowest scores)
  3. Different socialization and patterns of discrimination in the search and placement

In his conclusion, Summers explicitly attempted to provoke further discussion by suggesting that different aptitude was the dominant cause, saying he would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.

But, instead of proving Summers wrong, the politically-correct police charged him with sexism and careless scholarship.  After a year-long trial in the media, Summers was forced to resign as president of Harvard.  And when his name was floated as a potential Secretary of the Treasury under President Obama, this brouhaha was used to sink his prospects.

I thought of Larry Summers today when I read an article in fivethirtyeight.com about six American boys winning the International Math Olympiad.  The article pointed out that boys have dominated not only the American team but also teams from other countries ever since we joined the competition in 1974.  Eighty-eight percent of the six-person American teams have been entirely boys, and the teams from other countries average 0.5 girls per six-person team.

Joe Klein once defined politically incorrect as a statement that is true, but not proper to be uttered in public.  The lynching of Larry Summers seems to be an excellent example of the politically-correct police on steroids.  Or, as Summers said, I would love to be proved wrong.

July 6, 2015

On Language

Filed under: Education,Facebook — Mike Kueber @ 9:29 pm
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Beginning in the 70s, Bill Safire was a political columnist for the NY Times who wrote a special Sunday column titled, “On Language.”  In the Sunday column, he discussed word etymology and usage.

Safire was a favorite of mine for 30 years (he died in 2009), and I thought of him today when I came across a couple of interesting terms:

  • High-quality pre-k.
  • Racist

The first term is invariably used whenever a political entity argues in favor of expanded pre-k, as San Antonio politicians did recently with Pre-K 4 SA.  Not surprisingly, no one wants to expand low-quality pre-k even though America seems to be flooded with it.  Indeed, when I tried to find the distinction between these two types of pre-k, I quickly learned the following poorly-kept secret from an article in the Washington Post:

  • Whenever policymakers talk about universal preschool — and that is happening more frequently these days — they always say that it must be “high quality,” but they never explain what that actually means.

The modifier is especially useful for policymakers to refute any of the numerous studies that show pre-k to be ineffective.  Ineffective pre-k is by definition “low-quality pre-k”; whereas, the progressive politician is asking voters to fund high-quality pre-k (to reduce inequality). How can an egalitarian say no to that?

The term racist was used on Facebook to describe Donald Trump for retweeting the following comment:

  • “Jeb Bush has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

When I suggested to my Facebook friend (a grad of Notre Dame law school) that there was nothing racist about the tweet, he responded:

  • “come on mike…you’re way too smart to stoop to something like that…first of all, trump is referring to a mexican-american, and secondly, he assumes she is illegal…how much more racist can his assertion be?”

I responded as follows:

  • “First of all, Richard, Donald Trump didn’t say anything. He merely retweeted, without comment, what someone else said, kind of like you did in posting this article from Deadstate. And if we are going to infer what Donald Trump was implying, I suggest that he is implying the well-documented fact that Mexican-Americans are generally much more in favor on granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants.  And surely, no one has suggested that Jeb’s wife is illegal.”

I didn’t, however, object to the term racist being used to discuss alleged bigotry against Mexicans. I withheld my objection after reading several online discussions on whether the term racism is appropriate when referring to ethnicities or nationalities.  Although most commenters believe that Hispanics or Mexicans are not racial terms, and therefore believe bigotry is more technically precise and accurate, there were a couple who suggested the meaning of “race” had expanded to include ethnicity or nationality.

I am confident that Bill Safire would not approve of this expansion.  He loved precision in words and felt that flabby usage predicted flabby thinking.  I agree.

March 27, 2015

The First Amendment and the expulsion of two SAE fraternity brothers at OU

Filed under: Education,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 9:06 pm
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Shortly after the SAE fraternity and two of its members were expelled from OU, I heard some chatter suggesting that these actions violated America’s constitutional right to free speech. But the chatter was quickly shut down by the conventional wisdom that you have the right to say something, and other people have the right to shun you for what you say.

Despite my law degree, I accepted this conventional wisdom despite a gnawing feeling that it was too simplistic. Today, however, I stumbled across a two-week-old article in the NY Times that reports legal experts – conservative and liberal – are in agreement that OU’s actions violated the First Amendment. The crux of the matter is that OU is a public institution and as such it is not allowed to punish free speech unless “the students’ chant constituted a direct threat, leading a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, or if it seemed likely to provoke an immediate violent response.” This limitation would not apply to a business or even a private college.

Not surprisingly, the students of OU seem to approve the sanctions, but of course the First Amendment is not intended to protect popular causes. Rather, its purpose is to protect unpopular speech from popular mobs.

October 30, 2014

Go Public – marketing government services

Filed under: Education,Medical — Mike Kueber @ 12:33 am
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Last month, there was an article in the Express-News describing a multi-district program – Go Public – to better market the public schools in San Antonio.  My initial reaction was that our financially strapped schools should be spending money on teaching students, not on marketing. Indeed, the article even reported that a school board trustee was similarly minded:

  • Until last month, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD was one of the few traditional districts with students in Bexar County that hadn’t joined Go Public. Its board voted 4-3 to participate after a lengthy debate that included Trustee George Ricks asking how the district was going to benefit from its $15,000 contribution and questioning its appropriateness as a public expenditure. “Are we trying to steal students away from private schools?” he asked.

But another board member had a different opinion:

  • The district should promote itself, board member Gary Inmon argued. “If you don’t get the positive word out, the negative word sticks, which really does hurt the entire system,” he said.

Although marketing seems wasteful to us Pollyannaish idealists, the practical person must accept that marketing is needed for government programs to compete successfully against private options. E.g., the post office, military employment.

I think there is a difference, though, when I see marketing of welfare programs, like food stamps. Yes, the SNAP program should be readily accessible and the use of food stamps should not be demeaning, but I don’t think government should be spending money encouraging people to avail themselves of welfare benefits they are entitled to. As JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

How does this apply to the marketing of Healthcare.gov?  ObamaCare seems to be a hybrid.  Much of it is designed to improve the health-insurance industry for everyone, but as a practical matter, most of the coverage for those previously uninsured is merely an expansion of welfare – Medicaid.  I don’t think the voters want to see a lot of ObamaCare marketing.

October 23, 2014

“Yes Means Yes” – social engineering in its purest form

Filed under: Culture,Education,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 2:36 am
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The state of California last month enacted a controversial law, SB 967,  called “Yes Means Yes.” The law attempts to deal with the growing problem of sexual assault on the state’s college campuses. According to a survey, one in five college women will be sexually assaulted during their time as students. Of course, sexual assault is already illegal, but the lawmakers apparently concluded that (a) often sexual assault results from a misunderstanding between the sexes regarding whether there is mutual consent to have sex and (b) this misunderstanding needs to be clarified. Which is social engineering in its purest form.

Several years ago, I blogged about social engineering and relied on the following Wikipedia description:

  • An attempt to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale. Usually the term refers to government action, but it can apply as well to private groups. Social engineering is not inherently negative, but because of its usage in the political arena, it has come to have a negative connotation. Technically, all government laws – such as prohibitions against murder, DUI, theft, and littering – are social engineering. Governments also engage routinely in social engineering through incentives and disincentives built into economic policy and tax policy. Conservatives and libertarians often claim that their opponents (the liberals) are engaged in social engineering, and that makes sense because liberals prefer a muscular government while conservatives and libertarians prefer a muscular private society. But even liberals complain of social engineering when it comes to prayer in school, abstinence-only sex education, and the English-only movement.

The social behavior the “Yes Means Yes” law is attempting to influence is that most men believe they are permitted to pursue a female sexually until she says, “no.” “No means no” fits that standard. By contrast, some females believe that a man should not initiate sex with a woman unless she gives “affirmative consent.” Yes means yes.

The key language in the new law reads as follows:

  • (1) An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
  • (2) A policy that,in the evaluation of complaints in any disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse to alleged lack of affirmative consent that the accused believed that the complainant consented to the sexual activity under either of the following circumstances:
    • (A) The accused’s belief in affirmative consent arose from the intoxication or recklessness of the accused.
    • (B) The accused did not take reasonable steps, in the circumstances known to the accused at the time, to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.
  • (3) A policy that the standard used in determining whether the elements of the complaint against the accused have been demonstrated is the preponderance of the evidence.
  • (4) A policy that,in the evaluation of complaints in the disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse that the accused believed that the complainant affirmatively consented to the sexual activity if the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the complainant was unable to consent to the sexual activity under any of the following circumstances:
    • (A) The complainant was asleep or unconscious.
    • (B) The complainant was incapacitated due to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication, so that the complainant could not understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual activity.
    • (C) The complainant was unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.

According to an article in the NY Times, there are major concerns about potential ambiguity in the affirmative consent – “But most male students expressed some nervousness about accidentally running afoul of consent rules, especially because drinking usually precedes a casual hookup…. Affirmative-consent policies try to address this by recognizing body language as a form of consent.”  But I was unable to find any discussion of the sort of body language that would be recognized as consent.

A fascinating column by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine titled, “California’s Radical College-Sex-Law Experiment,” points out additional concerns about the law:

  • It surely is possible to imagine that sex that comports with these new guidelines is sexy, or even more sexy than the kind most people have now. Yet one might find these ideas about reimagining sex attractive, as I do, while still having deep reservations about codifying them into law. The fact that we need to change cultural attitudes about sex itself underscores the fact that cultural attitudes about sex lie well outside the contours established by the state of California. What percentage of the last decade worth of Hollywood sex scenes, if acted out between college students in California, would technically constitute rape? A majority? Ninety percent?
  • Deprogramming and reorienting societal ideas about sex is an evolutionary process. California isn’t merely attempting to set out to nudge the culture in this direction. It is reclassifying all sex that falls outside those still-novel ideas as rape. A law premised on this sort of sweeping, wholesale change is likely to fail.

I agree with Chait’s criticism of the law, but I am not confident that the law will fail. Because the law is limited to college students, and because its penalties are limited to administrative sanctions by the college (up to expulsion), most people are insulated from its effects. Sort of like preventing adults under the age of 21 from drinking. Divide and conquer.

But I would be shocked “Yes Means Yes” becomes the law of the land for non-students.

October 16, 2014

The role of personal responsibility in America’s unequal distribution of wealth

In response a Facebook friend endorsing Bernie Sander’s attack on the Walton wealth (Walmart) and the resulting poverty at the bottom, I suggested as follows:

  • And the bottom 25% of American families have a negative net worth. I agree that something has to be done to keep all wealth from going to the top 10% (an annual wealth tax to supplement or replace the estate tax), but the bottom 25% need to be more personally responsible.

Not surprisingly, my response generated some emotional stories about personal hard luck, to which I responded:

  • Some of life is a crapshoot; some of it is bad decisions. I’m all for creating more opportunity for those who are so motivated, but for 75 million Americans to save nothing sounds like a lot of bad decisions.

Surprisingly, one commenter seemed to think I should propose a solution, as though personal responsibility was not one:

  • Mike, for you to make the statement, “…but the bottom 25% need to be more personally responsible”, baffles me! What kind of propositions, that those 25%, do you suppose would work? Enlighten me please!

When I didn’t immediately respond to the request (I had gone to the gym), my Facebook host jumped in:

  • I think he baled (sic) once we got by his stereotypes and anecdotal examples and asked for empirical evidence to support his generalizations.

And one of his partners-in-crime seconded the motion:

  • They usually do!

When I returned from the gym, I reentered the fray:

  • Excuse me, Terry, I didn’t bail and I’m not the one who gave anecdotal examples of victims who have not been able to save any money. My point is that 75 million people have been living beyond their means. The savings rate in America at one point dropped to zero, and I believe many people in tough times stubbornly refused to reduce their standard of living and instead chose to maintain their standard of living by going into debt. I believe the majority of that 25% could have saved something if they had the willpower to defer gratification and control their impulses. Re: empirical evidence – I don’t know what would confirm or refute that.

After a few more comments, my Facebook friend tried to put a wrap on this discussion:

  • You truly do need to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. I have seen many a middle class principled conservative change their tune when they suffer sudden job loss or catastrophic illness. You act as if austerity and poverty are choices. Any social study will tell you that geographical location and parental status are the true determinants of what a person’s economic status. For example, the starting point for Mitt Romney’s children economically is a lot smoother and shorter than that of a child born to a black single mother in Detroit. Poverty is a very complex issue that is deep rooted and not conducive to stereotypes and generalizations. It’s funny that conservatives try to blame social ills on those who have the least and are defenseless against. Marie Antoinette failed to realize that until it got to the boiling point. Even companies are now realizing the economic perils of wage stagnation and wealth inequality, which is not because of a lack of labor but by corporate exploitation. I know that you won’t but I suggest that you read The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky. It will both shock but educate you on the morass that is poverty.

I tried to put a wrap on it, too:

  • OK, I accepted your challenge by putting a hold on the Abramsky book in my branch of the SA library. Based on some of the comments to your posting, it appears your use of the word anecdotal escaped understanding by some people. Obviously, there are thousands of “anecdotal” situations where a person couldn’t qualify for health insurance and then had a medical catastrophe that bankrupted them. But there are thousands of other situations where a person choses a big car payment instead of buying health insurance or refuses to downsize from their 3000-sq.ft. house after losing their job. Bottom line – (1) structural problems should be addressed by raising taxes on the wealthy and affluent, but don’t demonize them just because they are economically successful in the system that our democracy has established, and (2) personal responsibility (i.e., looking to improve yourself instead of blaming others for your problem) needs to be encouraged and perhaps the Abramsky book will provide some suggestions because the current war on poverty since LBJ has been an abysmal failure.

Although I disagree with most of the comments, I do look forward to reading the Abramsky book. It is a bit glib on my part to argue in favor of personal responsibility without thinking through the means to achieve that. Government austerity alone will perhaps not suffice. Indeed, increased taxes on wealth and affluence and increased spending on opportunity (pre-K and college) might increase morale and lead to more personal responsibility.




October 9, 2014

The new normal

Filed under: Culture,Education — Mike Kueber @ 11:01 pm
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A few days ago after yoga practice, I was talking to a friend about kids, and she told me that her son had autism. When I asked about his schooling, I’m not sure how I phrased the question, but I suspect I asked whether he went to classes with normal kids, and she responded that he had special classes.

Later in our conversation, I mentioned another yoga classmate who has four kids, two of them autistic. This classmate had posted on Facebook about going postal one day at a doctor’s office because a nurse/receptionist made some comment contrasting her two autistic kids against her two “normal” kids.

My yoga friend sympathized with my other classmate and said it drove her crazy when people used the term normal to contrast them with her kids. This statement caused my head to spin because I was thinking I had used that precise term at the beginning of our conversation, and I wondered why my friend hadn’t gone postal on me.

Although my head was spinning, I asked my friend how to appropriately describe her son. She responded that autistic might be OK, but she didn’t like any term that ended in “ic,” so maybe it would be better to say, “kid with autism.”

But that didn’t really help with identifying the other kids. Instead of delving into that, I veered into the topic of political correctness, and she quickly agreed that that was a problem, with too many thin-skinned, overly sensitive people.

Thankfully, the conversation drifted in a different direction, with no apparent damage done to our friendship. But I was still uncomfortable about how to deal with this issue in the future, so I decided to check the internet for an answer.

Lucky for me, a forum on Yahoo.com had a provocative, on-point question:

  •  Should autistic kids be in the same class as normal kids?

Not surprisingly, many parents of autistic kids took umbrage at the term “normal,” primarily because it implied that their kids where abnormal. In their minds, there was no such thing as a normal kid; all kids had their idiosyncrasies, so why should their kids be the only ones labeled? The devil’s advocate in me responded that all kids may have their idiosyncrasies and “special needs,” but the special needs of autistic kids often requires a separate classroom.

Finally, though, one parent provided me with a solution when she suggested that she didn’t want her autistic child “mainstreamed.” The dictionary defines this term as, “to place (as a disabled child) in regular school classes,” and although regular may be almost as objectionable as normal, the term “mainstream” avoids both connotations, and instead suggests “nonmainstream,” which is comparable to special needs.

I’m OK with that, and hope I remember that the next time I open my mouth.

September 26, 2014

Why poor kids struggle at elite colleges

Filed under: Culture,Education — Mike Kueber @ 5:58 pm
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The New York Times recently published a fascinating op-ed piece titled, “Why poor kids struggle at elite colleges.”  The column was authored by a NYC teacher, Vicki Madden, who 35 years ago immigrated to the City from “hardscrabble” Montana.

Madden’s main point is that, although kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are admitted to elite colleges in depressingly low numbers (5% are from the bottom quartile; 14% are from the bottom two quartiles), these kids can handle the academic challenges, but they have immense difficulty with leaving their way of life behind:

  • But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus…. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class…. To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from.

Madden then explains why she was able to navigate the distance from old world to new world:

  • Perhaps because I came from generations of people who had left their families behind and pushed west from Ireland, West Virginia and Montana, I suffered few pangs at the idea of setting out for a new land with better opportunities. I wanted the libraries, summer houses and good wine more than anything that I then valued about my own history…. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

All of this rings true to me, as I still remember the difficulty I had in moving from being a practical small-town farm kid to a big-city urban/intellectual guy.

You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

September 9, 2014

The purposes of college

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 11:48 pm
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A recent column by the NY Times’ David Brooks suggests that there are three principal purposes of college:

  1. Commercial (starting a career)
  2. Cognitive (learning how to think)
  3. Moral (building an integrated self through moral, emotional, and spiritual growth)

According to Brooks, elite colleges have mostly abandoned any attempt to guide their students toward a meaningful, moral life because they don’t think it is their place or they don’t think they know how. But Brooks is encouraged by an essay by William Deresiewicz that “offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.”

Hear, hear! My thoughts exactly.

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