Bill Keller, on shouting down the economists with the life-saving answers

November 30, 2011

Economists know how to fix the U.S. economy.  But according to Bill Keller at the New York Times, they’re being shouted down.

So for the past several weeks my airplane and bedside reading has consisted of sexy documents like “A Roadmap for America’s Future” and “The Way Forward” and “The Moment of Truth” and “Restoring America’s Future” and “Living Within Our Means and Investing in the Future.” I’ve also reached out to a few economists respected for the integrity of their science and their patience with economic illiterates.

The first thing I gleaned from this little tutorial will probably not surprise you: There really is a textbook way to fix our current mess. Short-term stimulus works to help an economy recover from a recession. Some kinds of stimulus pay off more quickly than others. Once the economic heart is pumping again, we need to get our deficits under control. The way to do that is a balance of spending cuts, increased tax revenues and entitlement reforms. There is room to argue about the proportions and the timing, and small differences can produce large consequences, but the basic formula is not only common sense, it is mainstream economic science, tested many times in the real world.

So what’s the problem? Why is our system so fundamentally stuck? Partly it’s a colossal, bipartisan lack of the political courage required to tell people what they sort of know but don’t want to hear. Partly it’s a Republican Party that, for its own cynical reasons, wants no deal with this president. Partly it’s moneyed, focused lobbies that swarm in defense of specific advantages written into the law; there is no comparable lobby for compromise, let alone sacrifice.

Is reasoned discourse such that much a lost art in America today?  Keller extends his point to cover several areas of discussion — President Obama’s birthplace, global warming and what to do about it, vaccines, etc.  He could as easily have added whether Rachel Carson murdered more people than Mao Zedong, cures for our education woes, and the designated hitter rule.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man has value; but in the land of the knee-walking turkeys the one-eyed man is just one more roost to crap on.

What is a rational person to do?

Birthday of Twain and Churchill: Happy Whiskey and Cigar Day!

November 30, 2011

Mark Twain, afloat

November 30 is the birthday of Mark Twain (1835), and Winston Churchill (1874).

Twain had a comment on the Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education:

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.

– Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

The Nobel literature committees were slow; Twain did not win a Nobel in Literature; he died in 1910. Churchill did win, in 1953.

Both men were aficionados of good whiskey and good cigars. Both men suffered from depression in old age.

Both men made a living writing, early in their careers as newspaper correspondents. One waged wars of a kind the other campaigned against. Both were sustained by their hope for the human race, against overwhelming evidence that such hope was sadly misplaced.


Both endured fantastic failures that would have killed other people, andboth rebounded.

Each possessed a great facility with words, and wit, and frequently said or wrote things that people like to remember and repeat again.

Both of them rank near the top of the list of people to whom almost any quote will be attributed if the quote is witty and the speaker can’t remember, or doesn’t know, who actually said it.

Both men are worth study. And wouldn’t you really love to have had them over to dinner?

Twain, on prisons versus education:

Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.” – Speech, November 23, 1900

Churchill on the evil men and nations do:

“No One Would Do Such Things”

“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

—1923, recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany after the Agadir Crisis of 1911, in The World Crisis,vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 48-49.

Image of Twain aboard ship – origin unknown. Image of Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine.

More on Mark Twain

More on Winston Churchill

Orson Welles, with Dick Cavett, on Churchill, his wit, humor and grace (tip of the old scrub brush to the Churchill Centre):

Yeah, mostly this is an encore post from past years.

Note to Kansas Gov. Brownback: Stop stalking teen-aged girls

November 28, 2011

No time at the moment to tell my story on this topic (the punchline of the thing that got me in trouble starts, ” . . . or next to Christopher Columbus, the greatest New Dealer of all time . . .”).

This has creeped me out for a couple of days, and it’s just getting more bizarre.

Gov. Sam Brownback and his staff were monitoring social internet activity and found a Tweet they didn’t like from a teen aged girl meeting with Brownback at that moment.

So, with no sense of irony of the Orwellian nature of what they were doing, Brownback and his staff complained to the school of the girl about what she wrote — which, while stupidly offensive, was nothing major.

Plus, the Governor’s office asked the school to discipline the girl.  Alas, the principal complied with the request.  (When do teachers and administrators stand up for their students?  Why not this time?)

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said her office had forwarded a copy of Sullivan’s tweet to organizers of the school-sponsored event “so that they were aware what their students were saying in regards to the governor’s appearance.

Read more:

Did the governor’s staff keep copies of all the Tweets they monitored?  Did they suggest accolades for the kids who gushed over Brownback’s  . . . positions on the issues?

Wholly apart from the obvious free speech issues, which could well be decided against the girl since various courts have ruled students park most of their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door (not religion, though), I was a little creeped out at someone professing to be an adult monitoring the teen’s Tweets for her friends.

What other teen aged girls is he monitoring?  What part of Kansas law gives him that authority?  Which borderline of “child abuse” or “stalking” did he really intend to walk?

Sam Brownback, stop stalking Kansas teenagers.  It’s ugly, and creepy, and it reveals you to be small . . . and creepy.

(Yes, I know — it technically doesn’t fall under the Kansas stalking law.  But Kansas stalking law didn’t anticipate cyber stalking, either.  A version of the Kansas statute, below the fold.)

Fortunately, adults are involved, and there is adult action and counseling.  Unfortunately, it’s the teen, Emma Sullivan, and her slightly older sister, who act like sober, wise adults (after the Tweet).  Brownback needs to start acting his age, and position.

Ms. Sullivan refuses to apologize as ordered.  More to come, surely.

Business and politics drift so slowly and amicably in Kansas that Brownback has time and thinks it worth the trouble to monitor Tweets from teenagers?  There’s a bigger judgment issue here than Emma’s little lapse of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Office not the place to get work done? Maybe school is not the place to learn

November 28, 2011

I do like the work of business and management gurus who tend to look at things oddly, and ask the odd, just-right questions.

Jason Fried’s work found that most people, when they “need to get work done,” don’t go to an office.

Listen to his TEDS Talk, and consider, dear teacher or education administrator:  What if schools are not the places to teach, or worse, not places to learn?

Now:  Who the heck is Jason Fried?

Economic history of the world in 4 minutes, from Hans Rosling at BBC

November 27, 2011

I would have sworn I had posted this earlier.  I can’t find it in any search right now.

So, here it is:

Hans Rosling does a program on BBC showing, among other things, great data displays.  In this one he shows how the development of trade and free enterprise economics lifted most of the world out of dismal, utter poverty, over the course of 200 years.

“200 countries, 200 years, in 4 minutes – the Joy of Statistics”

How can you use this in the class, world history teachers?  Economics teachers?  Does freedom mean you can get rich?  Or does getting rich mean you get freedom?  Can a nation achieve riches without freedom, or freedom without riches?

You need to know:

Uploaded by on Nov 26, 2010

More about this programme:
Hans Rosling’s famous lectures combine enormous quantities of public data with a sport’s commentator’s style to reveal the story of the world’s past, present and future development. Now he explores stats in a way he has never done before – using augmented reality animation. In this spectacular section of ‘The Joy of Stats’ he tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes. Plotting life expectancy against income for every country since 1810, Hans shows how the world we live in is radically different from the world most of us imagine.

Tip of the old scrub brush to The Tufted Titmouse.

“John Brown’s Body” becoming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Managing expectations of a nation during a civil war

November 27, 2011

Our textbooks and curriculum guides too often fail to make clear the links between the bloody conflicts in the Kansas Territory and the Civil War, between the conflicts engaged in by men like John Brown in Kansas, and later at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and the conflicts of the Civil War.

We might make the history more vivid and clear with the use of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an epic war song based closely on a folk tune favored by Union troops of the time, conscripted specifically because of that affinity by Howe to serve the greater action of repurposing the war from merely saving the Union to freeing people from bondage.  It’s a study in propaganda earlier than we usually think of it.

Prof. R. Blakeslee Gilpin’s essay explaining those links, and exposing the substantial and usually hidden role Julia Ward Howe’s husband played in Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, appears in the New York Times’s coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  As identified at the NYT website, Gilpin is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina, and the author of a book on the issue, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change.

Early lyric sheet for "Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, Library of Congress via New York Times

An early lyric sheet for "Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, Library of Congress via New York Times

Most of my students claim not to know the song, “John Brown’s Body,” and an astonishing number of the students say they don’t know “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  It’s a chance to bore them — or instruct them, if the planets and stars align — using a bit of music (a teacher should be able to find a copy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of the “The Battle Hymn” with little difficulty; it appears in the hymnals of most Protestant sects, so you can get a copy of the lyrics; you’ll have to do a search to find a good copy of  “John Brown’s Body,” though; I’ve not found one I like to use in class).

It might be a short lesson, an adjunct to a lesson, or a project for a student with some choir training.

Gilpin wrote:

Even if Howe’s song spoke to a different understanding of the war, her efforts to transform “John Brown’s Body” into a national patriotic text meant that, much like Brown’s afterlife, people would end up using and abusing “Battle Hymn” as they saw fit. What Howe observed in that Union camp outside of Washington in 1861 was just the beginning of a war of clashing agendas and endlessly obscured meanings. To be sure, those north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line knew that the developing war was being fought over slavery – its brutal realities, its political volatility and especially its uncertain future – but even in its opening months, commentary about the war was already cloaked in the bland language of preserving the Union or defending states’ rights. Assessing the war itself, Howe later wrote that “its cruel fangs fastened upon the very heart of Boston and took from us our best and bravest.”

For Howe and generations of Americans, the cruelty of war demanded a providential overseer. Despite her urge to celebrate noble-hearted men like Brown, “Battle Hymn” helped to take responsibility for the Civil War out of the brutal and clumsy hands of ordinary mortals. To be sure, Brown his death would help to make his nation holy and especially to make all men free, but his radical extremism was frightening to most Americans. Soon enough, the Civil War would be transformed by songs like Howe’s into a conflict of necessity and destiny – a providential trial by fire. That narrative, of a harrowing but essential national adolescence, would eventually be at the expense of those Brown had died for, and whose fate the war was being fought to settle.

More links and a couple of original documents can be found at the NYT site — I would encourage all U.S. history teachers to subscribe to the paper’s coverage of the sesquicentennial of the war.

“White House hates Christmas” hoax season opens

November 26, 2011

Christmas gets underway at the White House, with a special guest appearance by Bo, the dog:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

One long-standing American Christmas tradition is the Christmas hoax about the president.  Probably the most famous, if not the first, was H. L. Mencken’s column in December 1917, in which he claimed Millard Fillmore a failure as president, whose only achievement was putting the first bathtub in the Executive Mansion — all of it make up, whole cloth fiction.

Since the election of Barack Obama we’ve seen claims that Obama had banned Christmas trees, claims that Obama required only Marxist and communist ornaments, and other wild stories that only a fool, a victim of lobotomy, a Bill O’Reilly fan or Michelle Bachmann would believe after the second cup of coffee in the morning.

What will the hoax claims be this year?  ABC posted this raw footage of the delivery of the Christmas tree, but that alone will not inoculate us from a Yule-tide hoax.

What atrocious inventions will the Obama-haters send our way this year?  If it’s a claim that there’s no tree, you know better already.  You’ve seen the video.


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