Mike Kueber's Blog

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.

August 10, 2013

Sunday Book Review #104 – What Went Wrong? by George Tyler and Giving Kids a Fair Chance by James Heckman

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Education — Mike Kueber @ 12:52 pm
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What Went Wrong is subtitled, “How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class… and What Other Countries Got Right.”  According to author George Tyler, America has been going to hell in a hand basket ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, with only a momentary respite while Bill Clinton was in office.  If that viewpoint suggests that Tyler is partisan, that would be correct – i.e., he has worked in government for Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, and President Clinton.

According to Tyler, the other countries that have got it right are Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  These countries, at least according to the metrics that Tyler presents, have outperformed America since 1980.  The metrics that Tyler relies on are focused on the economic success of the middle class, something he calls family prosperity.  Although the American economy as a whole has outperformed these other economies, most of the progress in America has inured to the benefit of the 1%, which is where Tyler believes it will stay because the trickle-down concept is imaginary.

Tyler is convinced that Ronald Reagan, with his program of Reaganomics, is fully responsible for America’s dire situation.  He also places a lot of blame on two of my economic heroes – Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand – for providing intellectual cover for Reagan to implement Reaganomics, which Tyler describes as follows:

  • A culture of selfishness instead of a culture of responsibility
  • Government is invariably dangerous
  • Regulatory capture instead of wariness of corporate influence
  • Shareholder capitalism instead of stakeholder capitalism
  • Weak corporate governance instead of co-determination
  • Tax-cut cultists
  • Deficits don’t matter
  • Illusory prosperity instead of genuine wealth creation
  • Rising income disparity
  • Reducing opportunity
  • Economic mythmaking

One of Tyler’s big criticisms of the American economy and its shareholder capitalism is its excessive focus on short-term results, which contrasts with the long-term focus of stakeholder capitalism.  He also complains that the objective of any economy has to be, not the amount of wealth that it creates, but rather the amount of wealth that is widely dispersed to everyone throughout the economy.  I agree heartily with both of those positions, and Tyler does us a service in emphasizing them.  And his proposals, such as better corporate governance, resistance to regulatory capture, and improved fiscal responsibility, can move America in a better direction.

But, despite his protestations of ambivalence about the European welfare state, I get the sense that Tyler would be quite comfortable with that, and that causes me to be skeptical of broadly adopting his thesis.

After reading the voluminous, dystopian What Went Wrong (467 scholarly pages), I shifted to something more manageable and upbeat.  Giving Kids a Fair Chance by James Heckman is a short, optimistic book (only 132 small pages, with many of the pages blank).  The book has three sections:

  1. Giving Kids a Fair Chance.  Like Tyler in the What Went Wrong book, Heckman provides his analysis of the growing inequality in America, and suffice to say he doesn’t blame it on greedy corporations.  Rather he blames it on bad parenting.  To solve the problem of bad parenting, Heckman suggests that there needs to be early-childhood intervention by public and private entities.
  2. Forum.  Ten experts provide their opinion of Heckman’s diagnosis and prescription.
  3. Aiding the Life Cycle.  Heckman responds to the critics.

The lead sentence in this book is, “The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.”  From there, Heckman goes on to show how the quality of parenting affects the future success of children.  Parents with income and education generally produce children with better cognitive and social skills that often translate into a successful life.  (Heckman is careful to point out, however, that there is a correlation between income/education and good parenting, but not necessarily a causal relationship.)  And the final building block for Heckman is his studied conclusion that early intervention (pre-K) with children who are not receiving good parenting is much more effective and efficient than later efforts.

Most of the experts agreed with Heckman’s diagnosis and prescription, but quibbled over its narrow scope.  Some argued that there is a lot more “rotten in Denmark” than bad parenting or that the fix has to go beyond intervening with the parents.  Others, such as Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame, argued that Heckman cherry-picked favorable small studies regarding pre-K interventions and ignored larger unfavorable studies (e.g., the infamous Head Start study of 2012).

Heckman responded to the critics by baldly asserting that Murray misrepresented the studies and that unsuccessful interventions did not disprove alternative successful interventions.  He also chided some for being cultural relativists who were not really interested in solving the problem.

Because socio-economic mobility has become stunted in America, and because I accept Heckman’s thesis that the parenting gap is a principal cause of the absence of mobility, I think Heckman’s public-policy recommendations for early intervention by public and private groups makes a lot of sense.

Incidentally, Heckman also points out that cognitive skills are generally formed by age 11 while social skills are malleable until the mid-20s, and this fact needs to affect the type of intervention attempted).








June 19, 2012

Aphorism of the week #14 – throwing good money after bad

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 9:24 pm
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Today’s edition of the San Antonio Express-News headlined an article about a proposed increase in the city’s sale tax.  As I was reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about the aphorism, “throwing good money after bad.” 

According to the E-N article, the sales tax in San Antonio is 8 1/8%, and the state will, upon the request of a city’s voters, collect an additional 1/8% sales tax for city projects.  San Antonio is preparing to ask its voters to request the additional tax, which will be used to provide pre-k schooling to 4,000 four-year-old children in San Antonio.

A blue-ribbon task force studied a variety of educational initiatives for over a year and ultimately chose the pre-k program over programs that aimed to reduce the number of dropouts or increase college enrollment, and that makes sense to me.  “A stitch in time saves nine.” 

The article indicates that San Antonio has 20,000 four-year olds, and 16,000 are already eligible for a pre-k program.  Furthermore, 12,000 of those kids (75% of the eligibles) are already enrolled in federal government’s Head Start or a similar state-funded program.  Thus, San Antonio’s new initiative will have an objective of providing pre-k schooling to the other 4,000 eligibles (25%).

My problem with the proposed initiative is that there is no solid evidence that pre-k schooling works; instead the cheerleading article says the following – “high-quality prekindergarten programs have been shown to effect (sic) everything from high school completion rates to the likelihood that participants will develop a smoking habit.”  What does a high-quality pre-k program have to with San Antonio?  If our early-education efforts that are applied to 75% of the eligible kids are failing, why should we spend $29 million a year extending those efforts to the remaining 25%? 

I recently blogged about the difference between fair and objective reporting.  The Express-News article’s author Josh Baugh apparently doesn’t bother with either.  Fair reporting means to give both sides the opportunity to make their case, and apparently Baugh felt the anti-tax case could be fully articulated in less than half of a sentence – “Derided by some as taxpayer-funded baby-sitting….”  By contrast, Baugh supported the pro-tax case with multiple experts and reports. 

Objective reporting means using neutral language and not conveying your personal feelings.  While using “derided” in connection with the anti-tax case, Baugh uses the following words and phrases in his pro-tax case – blue-ribbon, strengthen the city’s workforce, centers of excellence, dramatic, significant change, significant economic impact.

Baugh used a similar technique in reporting on the task force’s decision to ratify Mayor Castro’s mandate that the money should go to a single program – “… with one caveat from Castro: a focus on a single initiative rather than attempting to spread the money to programs in a patchwork fashion.”  The decision to go with a single initiative was apparently such a no-brainer that any discussion of any alternatives was unnecessary.  After all, who would prefer a patchwork when we can simply double down on something that is already not working?