Friday, October 26, 2012


Jerry Brown, the governor of California, in an interview this week with the Financial Times, said that his plan to tax the highest income earners in California in an effort to boost education funding is the moral thing to do.  

The tax increase, which is on next month's ballot as Proposition 30, will effectively raise taxes by 3% on the top 1% of income earners in the state.  The proposition will temporarily increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 per year, with additional increases for those earning more than $500,000 per year, and even greater increase for those making more than $1million per year.  Support for the proposition has waned in recent weeks, and Brown is making the circuit warning Californians that if we fail to pass the proposition, schools will have to be closed for up to an extra three weeks per year.

Brown, in his interview, said that "the richest 1 percent" of California have a "moral obligation" to pay more in taxes in order to keep schools open.  He went on to quote from the Bible saying, "Luke 12:48 says: 'For those of whom much has been given, much is required.'"  Finally, he excoriated opponents of Proposition 30, calling them "finance guys."

I'm not sure that all the opponents are "finance guys"; I'm an opponent, and I don't think I'm a finance guy.

Unless by "finance guy" he means someone who makes decisions based on the financial reality of a situation.  In which case, maybe I am a finance guy.

To be clear: I'm not among what Brown calls the "richest 1 percent" (a classification, incidentally, that's a little dishonest in that the tax has nothing to do with wealth; it's based on income).  I'm not going to be faced with any additional tax based on my income here, so I'm not simply trying to protect myself.  Furthermore, my children are enrolled in public school, so it's not simply a case of "I don't care; it doesn't affect me."

I'm insulted, though, that Governor Brown has framed this through the lens of morality--as if those who vote no on Proposition 30 are in some way immoral.  Because that view, while perhaps expedient given Brown's need to fund schools now (and certainly convenient in that it ignores some other, painful realities associated with public education) is dishonest in its narrowness.

In 1920 the cost to educate a student in a US public school (excluding buildings and construction and a few other capital costs) was about $540 (in inflation adjusted numbers--that means this is the cost in today's dollars).  According to the California Department of Education, the cost to educate a student in California (in a public school), again excluding building and construction, as well as food services and community services, in 2010-11 was $8,323.

$8,323, not including meals and the actual buildings themselves!  That means that in 90 years the cost to educate a student went up by over 1,500% (again, remember that all numbers are in today's dollars).  It costs us over 15 times as much to educate a student today as it did in 1920.

What have we gained by continuing to increase our investment in public schools?  Here are some statistics that should give us some perspective:

  • In the period between 1955 and 1983, nationally, math scores based upon the national norm Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) administered by the Educational Testing Service actually declined!  
  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long-Term Trends tests, since the last 1960's, there has been no change in math scores amongst high-school 17-year olds.  The same test shows a sharp decline in science scores beginning in the 1970's; the scores have still not risen to 1960's levels!  

Of course, I think that, at this point, I'm arguing against a phantom opponent.  There's almost nobody out there arguing that public education is fundamentally just fine; even the public educators and unions seem to agree (for the most part) that dramatic improvement is needed in public education.

But the argument seems to always center around money.  As evidenced by Governor Brown's proposal.  His comments seem to imply that if high income earners would simply relent and pay more in taxes, education would get better.  But it seems to me that we have a very long history of trying that very thing.  I think that a 15-fold increase in public education funding (after adjusting for inflation) over 90 years should give us enough history to know whether or not more money makes for better education.  And we're all in agreement that it doesn't seem to work.

So I would argue that our Governor's "morality" argument is either ill-informed (maybe he just doesn't have the data) or a desperate and dishonest attempt to convince California's voting population into voting blindly, without doing any research.

I tend to be eternally optimistic about our voting population; I believe that they are, on the whole, smarter and more inclined to think deeply than the average politician (like Brown) would seem to believe.  It's clear to me that Governor Brown hopes that by playing to a sense of "moral outrage" over our high-income fellow citizens not kicking in more money to bail out public education, he can get us to vote blindly without examining the data--data which tells a story that is in stark contradiction to what Governor Brown would have us believe.

So ask yourself this: is this really a case of "moral obligation"?  Do the high-income earners in California really have a "moral obligation" to kick in even greater amounts of money to fund a system that has been overwhelmingly overfunded over the last century--and which has proven to be increasingly less effective has the investment has risen?

Call me a "finance guy" if you must, but in my admittedly simplistic way of looking at things, there's a point in time at which you begin to throw good money after bad, and a wise person makes the decision, at that point, to stop throwing money at things, and instead try to actually fix what's broken.

The moral failure, in this case, is the shameful waste that has led us to continue to pour money into a failing system, and nobody has had the courage to stand up and cry out for a change to the system itself.

My vote is NO on Proposition 30--not because I'm immoral, but because I believe it's immoral to perpetuate our legacy of wastefulness and mediocrity.  My vote is for one of my elected representatives to simply speak the truth.

Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, "What's Really behind the SAT-Score Decline," Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56

Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17;ds/fd/ec/currentexpense.asp

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dream

What is the American Dream?

I know we toss the term around quite a bit, as if we all know what each other is talking about, but what is it?  Can you verbalize what it really means?

I used to think it had something to do with home-ownership, a somewhat common, albeit narrow, view of our common Dream.  Various researchers over the years have surveyed Americans in an attempt to provide a common definition of the American Dream, and have come up with various concepts, ranging from dreams of abundance to the dream of home-ownership (that I once shared).  Incidentally, this latter dream is come by honestly; in 1774, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Britain's representative in the colony at the time, wrote somewhat sarcastically that Americans were uniquely infatuated with the idea of land-ownership, and even went so far as to say that even if an American had attained Paradise, he would move on if he heard of a better place farther West.

But I've come to realize that land ownership is merely one manifestation of the achievement of our Dream.  It's not the Dream itself; it's a representation of, in one small way, having achieved the Dream.  The Dream is really something more fundamental than merely a quest to own land (a noble quest, incidentally, and rooted in our Constitution; in nations where there exists a more rigid and structured social order, it's often nearly impossible--and sometimes even illegal--for "average" citizens to own land; land ownership is reserved for nobility).

The other day, on my way into the office, I stopped at the gas station, and as I waited at the counter to pay for my fuel, I overheard the owner, a kind middle-aged man with a vague accent, talking with his daughter about her college experience.  I asked her where she went to school (Berkeley--she just graduated) and what she studied (Economics) and if she was done (no; she's going back to Berkeley for an MBA).  I was impressed--and told her as much, to the obvious delight of her proud father.

Her father made a comment about his college experience, so I asked him where he'd studied; Berkeley as well.  Somehow, my quick fuel stop turned into a 15 minute chat, and I learned much about this man who, until that morning, was merely the guy who ran my favorite gas station.

He'd emigrated, with his family, to the U.S. as a teenager, and worked hard (at the perpetual urging of his parents) to go to college.  He landed at Berkeley, graduated, married, and some years later owned (among other things, I suspect) a gas station, convenience store, and a small chain-restaurant franchise--and had an obviously intelligent daughter also studying business at Berkeley.

But somewhere in the middle of the conversation, my new friend showed me exactly what the American Dream means to someone born and raised in a place where such a Dream is not allowed.

"So many people I meet," he told me, "are just looking for the government to help them with this or with that--to give them a job or food or money.  That's not why I came to America.  I came here because I wanted a chance to make something of myself and my family."

I realized that most people who immigrated to our great country did not come with the goal of tapping into our great unemployment programs, or our medicare system, or our social security plans.  In fact, my friend, the gas station owner, was very clear: he'd be insulted if you tried to offer to "help" him through one of these government programs.

For him, the American Dream was about him, and what he could achieve.  It was merely him finding a place where, by definition, he started on equal ground with everyone else; he asked for nothing more than that, and wouldn't accept anything more than that if offered.

It's, perhaps, a subtle distinction, but I don't think our friend, the gas station owner, wants a nation that "compensates" for the things he wasn't born with, or the opportunities he "missed' because he wasn't born into the right family.  In fact, for him, it's a matter of personal pride that he has achieved what he has achieved without any programs to compensate for his relative disadvantage.  All he asked for--and what we gave him--was the same opportunity as anyone else.

I almost cried--literally--as, near the end of our conversation he, with a fierce look on his face, told me, "You know what?  This country is the greatest place on Earth.  This is the land of opportunity; it gave me the opportunity to do everything I've ever dreamed of, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.  I love America."

It's been a long time since I've heard anyone so passionately in love with our country.  And you know, as I listened to him talk about his fierce loyalty to America, it occurred to me that I've met numerous people who interpreted the American Dream as meaning they "deserved" certain things--like a certain level of income, or guaranteed income at retirement, or paid-for healthcare, or income regardless whether they were working.  And none of those who I've known who've seen these things, these programs, as central to the American Dream--none of them have ever told me how much they love America; I've never heard a single one of them tell me passionately how great our country is.

There's a frightening trend in Washington today, and it's not just a Republican or just a Democrat thing.  Virtually every politician running for office somehow weaves into their platform a theme that outlines what they are going to do for us.  It's as if, in order for a politician to get elected, they have to demonstrate that they can give us more, get more for us, expand programs to include more people.

And as a supporting theme, our would-be representatives tell us how they are going to eliminate the unfairness that's keeping us from receiving those things that they want to do for us.  They're going to rectify the fact that wealthy people don't "pay their fair share" in taxes.  Or, as President Obama proposed recently, they are going to pass laws allowing job applicants who aren't hired to sue their would-be employers for discrimination if they believe they weren't hired because they've been unemployed for an extended period.

But there's something wrong with this--and it's not simply whether you believe the wealthy should be taxed more or less, or whether job-seekers should be allowed to sue for discrimination if they aren't hired.  It's our increasing tendency, as Americans (or at least, as a group of politicians who purport to represent Americans) to point to others as the reason we, individually or collectively, haven't achieved prosperity.  It's our collective tendency to depend on our representatives in Washington to "do more" for us to enable us to achieve prosperity.

But that's not our Dream.  Our dream is more noble than that; it's about opportunity unencumbered by the weight of social ceilings or by legal barriers constructed for the purpose of excluding some to the benefit of others.

It is, as historian James Truslow Adams wrote:

"a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class."

Why do we, as a nation, insist of cultivating a dependent citizenry?  A nation as great as ours should have, by now, weaned ourselves of our dependency on our government for our income, food, healthcare, transportation and retirement.  Yet it seems as though we've done the opposite; it's as though our representatives in Washington count it a mark of distinction that we have increasingly created a dependent class through our ever-expanding suite of social welfare programs.  A nation as great as ours should birth noble people, driven to achieve personal success despite all obstacles, and as a gift from no one.  Our increasing reliance on our government to provide for us is not a mark of distinction.  It is not great--and gives no one cause to fall in love with our country.

There is little noble in receiving a grant to prosperity; and prosperity granted yields no satisfaction for the recipient.  My Dream, the true American Dream, I think, is of an America that offers me nothing but an opportunity.  I ask for no guarantees and no backup plans.  I simply ask for a right to pursue prosperity, and for the right to call that prosperity mine--and only mine--if I achieve it.

What is your Dream?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Finish Line

I forgot to tell you my time: 28:10.

My First 5K!

Ran the Frank Landy 5k Fun Run this morning in Chicago. I'm here for a conference and couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll through the Windy City on a fine Spring Saturday morning.

Actually it was kinda miserable. About 50 degrees, but with a light--very cold--wind, and as you can see in the picture, a heavy drizzle that turned into a light rain at the end of the race.

I had a blast! It was truly a lot of fun! Spent some time with a friend, and beat my best time ever for this distance by over 3 minutes! To be fair, this is the first organized run I've ever done, and there's something about it that pushes you to run just a little faster than you otherwise would.

Next goal: a 10k.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zombie Watch

The Boston Police Department is on it!  Thought this was funny...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alexis Had to Build a Mission...

She decided to build San Juan Capistrano.
 This is what she ended up with...
 I think it looks pretty incredible!

Monday, February 7, 2011

I'm Back!

I made a random visit to last week to see whether the status of the domain name had changed (my constant readers will recall that the truly despicable people at acquired my domain name a few years ago under less than admirable circumstances).

I was overjoyed to find that the domain had expired, and was up for grabs!  So I bought it--again!  And as quick as that, is back in business! 

I am happier than you can imagine.  Yeah; I'll have to build my readership up again--but I'm not worried about that!  There have to be a few truly strange folks out there who, for some unknown reason, enjoy hearing my admittedly strange perspective on things; you'll find me, I'm sure!

So, read on!