Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Center Right or Center Left?

Like many Americans, I don't consider myself ideological, and in survey after survey, I often end up right where I'd expect - moderate. That's why I'm a "recovering Republican" and a "disappointed Democrat." I'm part of the trend in Colorado, especially in the sixth district, of unaffiliated, independent voters. Colorado (and I), in that regards, are about as purple as can be. Though while the GOP likes to declare emphatically that America is a conservative country - or center right - to be more specific - and while some polls show the country moving slightly to the right, there is an ambiguity to that desire for ideological dominance. As EJ Dionne points out:

It’s important to note that there is a debate over what these ideological labels actually mean to voters. And polls that give respondents the chance of calling themselves “progressive” produce a substantially larger number on the left end of the spectrum, since many who won’t pick the “liberal” label do call themselves “progressive.” A study earlier this year by the Center for American Progress found that when progressive and libertarian were offered as additional options, the country was split almost exactly in half between left and right.

That discrepancy is key to the debate - and one that will never truly be addressed by what George H.W. Bush calls "the cables." [???] The reality is that whatever the parties want to say about the leanings of the country, the voters are choosing Democrats lately because the GOP just seems to have nothing to offer. This is more well articulated by David Brooks, but I get the gist of it.

Realistically, voters seek out what is real and valid in their lives. They support what works and they abandon what doesn't. That's pretty much the way it should be.

Most Prosperous And Free Countries Socialist?

For those who value their freedom of expression as much as health, wealth, and prosperity, then Finland is the place to be, with an index ranking the Nordic nation the best in the world.
The 2009 Legatum Prosperity Index, published on Tuesday and compiled by the Legatum Institute, an independent policy, advocacy and advisory organization, ranked 104 countries which are home to 90 percent of the world's population.

The index is based on a definition of prosperity that combines economic growth with the level of personal freedoms and democracy in a country as well as measures of happiness and quality of life. With the exception of Switzerland, which came in at number 2, Nordic countries dominated the top 5 slots, with Sweden in third place followed by Denmark and Norway.

Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity really ought to check this out. Of course, I remember an interview on the O'Reilly Factor years ago where Bill was discussing life with the Swedish Minister of Tourism. O'Reilly said, "OK, give me one good reason why I should move to Sweden."

The Swede responded, "Well, hopefully you won't."


Friday, October 23, 2009

College in Three Years - or Less?

According to Lamar Alexandar's piece in the latest edition of Newsweek:

Hartwick college, a small liberal-arts school in upstate New York, makes this offer to well-prepared students: earn your undergraduate degree in three years (six semesters) instead of four, and save about $43,000—the amount of one year's tuition and fees. A number of innovative colleges are making the same offer to students anxious about saving time and money. The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. And that's both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world.

Finally, the word is spreading. With the average time for a bachelor's degree taking an astounding and baffling six year and seven months, a little shorter for some programs from on-line universities, it is time for a change. The acceptance of AP and IB scores for advance progress in degrees and the expansion of dual-credit, or concurrent enrollment, classes are imperatives. And schools who shun giving the credit where credit is due should be shunned and avoided at all costs.

Now, if we can get K-12 down to K-10, and the blending of 11/12 - 16, we will be getting somewhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who Are We?

According to this report, The Secret Service is facing "unprecedented" threats to the President's life. They may have to relinquish all other duties with the Department of Treasury so they can devote full resources to keeping our President alive?

Sadly, it's shocking to even acknowledge that President Obama's message of hope of change and a better America could be considered as a factor in this sort of scary, disturbing, despicable news. That this could somehow be his fault - that he has somehow asked for it - is a reprehensible idea.

What has happened to this country when a man's message of hope and change can be considered to be responsible for this sort of insanity? If that's the case - and the news seems to imply it is - then the thing that happens if some nut takes action is that America will have lost her soul. We will have met the enemy, and the enemy will be us. What have we become when a leader's attempts to reform a damaged system can be met with such vitriolic contempt, forecasting catastrophic change to America? What a terrible gut check to even consider that the Secret Service's fears are even possible in this day and age. If President Obama responds to this news by coming to a realization and changing his course, then we will have seen the victory of truly homegrown terrorism.

I don't listen to much of the "noise" these days as the anti-Obama atmosphere has reached such a toxic level that it has departed from rational discourse. And, it simply feeds on itself. It feeds on this absurd notion that America - as a nation and an idea - is at risk. The fact that every action and every word and every initiative seems to draw hysterical responses about the need to "take our country back" is completely baffling, and truly, truly sad. The sort of discourse that scares people into believing their way of life is threatened and they have no choice but rash actions is terrifying.

People calmly and publicly talking of "watering the tree of liberty" is a image I never thought I'd live with. Some people are outraged, some news reports it, and then nothing. The fact that we don't vehemently denounce such terror, the fact that we don't run from such craziness, is beyond my comprehension. That sort of environment contributes to a rising hysteria that could become the proverbial straw, and I am deeply saddened by that realization.

The Secret Service is facing "unprecedented" threats to the President's life. They may have to relinquish all other duties with the Department of Treasury so they can devote full resources to keeping our President alive?

Where are we? What have we become?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Johnny Hates Sports

Years ago when I was living in Chicago in the late 1990s, the big news at the start of the school year was that Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton's son - who was an All-American soccer player as a junior - had surprised the sports community by going out for football his senior year at Barrington high school. He not only went out, but won the job of starting quarterback, no doubt due to his excellent athletic ability. Yet, the question remained as to why he quit soccer, a sport he'd played all his life and would assuredly have been playing in college, and even professionally. The reality, which he revealed in a press conference, was that he was "burned out." In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he literally said he come to "hate soccer."  The rise of club soccer had led to such an overload in time committment, that he came to hate the sport he loved. This is a phenomenon well documented in the book Why Johnny Hates Sport by Fred Engh.

While I didn't know this phenomenon all too well when I first read Engh's book, I was somewhat familiar with the intense competition and the growing force of club sports in youth culture.  Now, after working in coaching in high schools and raising two kids who are reaching the competitive levels, I am on board with Engh's criticism and concerns.  As an advocate for restraint and common sense in youth athletics, Engh documents the anxiety kids are facing as they are asked to choose a sport and specialize by as early as sixth grade.  As club sports expand all seasons into year round, a thirteen--year-old is threatened with losing his spot on one team because another sport has a tournament out of state during the tryouts for the first sport and .... ugh!  It just gets that crazy.  And Engh argues for a return to the good-natured fun of youth sports that focuses on the fundamental skills of the game, as well as the equally important aspects of teamwork, good sportsmanship, discipline, and fair play.  Engh's book is filled with anecdotes and insights about the foundations of youth sports and the problems of "Coaches Gone Wild."  In addition to this book, Engh is also affiliated with the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), where he serves as president and spokesman.

Additionally, the issue has a new voice in Denver-area high school student Scott Martin who recently published a piece of commentary in the Denver Post, where he revealed "Why I Can't Stand Youth Sports Anymore." It is an honest and sincere plea for some sanity in the world of youth sports, and a very well written argument at that. Scott begins by sharing the tragic stories of high school students who were "practiced to death," and then offers detailed commentary on the culture that has led to such situations. He also comments about his own struggles with the culture and laments the fact that parents at pee-wee sports competitions have to be urged, "Relax, it's just a game."

I must admit, I don't hold out hope for change in this arena, as the sound of youth coaches screaming at children makes me cringe every time I hear it. The stories of long weekends and short summers traveling around with club teams make it even worse. Certainly, any one has the opportunity to opt out of these "optional activities." But that doesn't make it any easier, especially for kids who just want to play for their school. Perhaps with future leaders like Scott, generations down the road will figure out the madness and stop killing "the love of the game."

Perhaps, hope can be found in the direction coaching takes, as coaches would seem to be the best hope for a change in the culture, as noted in this New York Times profile.  If more schools and athletic organizations would commit to the goals of the Positive Coaching Alliance, the focus and direction of our sports-obsessed youth could be redirected in a way that wouldn't lead to contempt and regret over that activity which once inspired joy and passion.  The Positive Coaching Alliance is an organization of coaches and leaders in youth sports who recognize the imperative of a positive and uplifting message on the athletic fields.

Sports are a wonderful part of our lives and culture.  The lessons learned on the athletic field as members of a team can be integral parts of character education, and we should take steps to guarantee that benefit.  There should never be a reason Why Johnny Hates Sports.

Picnic Time Sports Chair

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Praise for Mike Rowe and "Work"

Gail Pennington, columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is the latest to discover the important commentary coming from the mouth of Mike Rowe, star of the Discovery Channel's shows World's Dirtiest Jobs and Most Dangerous Catch. Pennington's recent column gives voice to Rowe again and his message that "America has declared war on work," and this attitude is detrimental to our future.

Rowe asks an important question: "Doesn't it seem strange we can have a shortage of skilled labor, a crumbling infrastructure, and rising unemployment? How did we get into this fix?"

How indeed.

It is particularly troubling that we continue to ignore the needs of our economy and assume that all Americans need a college degree or that America should lead the world in college degrees. Interestingly, according to the Department of Labor, the average four-year college graduate in this country makes $45000/yr while the average plumber/electrician makes $49800. Of course, we shouldn't forget that only 29% of Americans have a bachelor anyway, and many of them are over-educated for what they do.

However, I am not going to argue for or encourage kids to pursue career and technical education in this country if we continue to not only declare war on work, but also continue to devalue work by continually padding the corporate bottom line by decreasing wages and benefits. Europe and Asia can effectively increase education while maintaining skilled labor because they support their workers.

Hopefully, Americans will actually get a clue about what makes America "work."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Actual Conservative Health Care Reform

Knowing that something happening is going to be better than nothing happening, I'll settle for some version of the Baucus health reform plan, though I'm not completely in favor of it. I'll side with heart surgeon and former senator Bill Frist on that. Ultimately, something as logical as the Healthy Americans Act isn't going to happen, and many provisions in the legislation - like preventing the insurance companies from dropping my family when they get sick - are good ideas. Beyond that, it's a good idea to provide a marketplace where Cigna or Kaiser or United have to offer a plan at a price - as opposed to charging me and my employer five times as much as they do for the same plan to a company across the street.

However, there are other ideas. And they don't have to come from the Democrats. I truly wish the GOP would actually start listening to the smart conservatives in their party and actually use some of the intelligent - not ideological - Republicans and conservatives to present an actual plan for health care reform. Not an idea or a theory or a ideology or a tweak. But an actual plan.

The simplest solution would be for the government to issue a health-care credit card to every family along with the insurance voucher. The credit card would allow the family to charge any medical expenses below the deductible limit, or 15 percent of adjusted gross income. (With its information on card holders, the government is in a good position to be repaid or garnish wages if necessary.) No one would be required to use such a credit card. Individuals could pay cash at the time of care, could use a personal credit card or could arrange credit directly from the provider. But the government-issued credit card would be a back-up to reassure patients and providers that they would always be able to pay.

The combination of the 15 percent of income cap on out-of-pocket health spending and the credit card would solve the three basic problems of America's health-care system. Today's 45 million uninsured would all have coverage. The risk of bankruptcy triggered by large medical bills would be eliminated. And the structure of insurance would no longer be the source of rising health-care costs. All of this would happen without involving the government in the delivery or rationing of health care. It would not increase the national debt or require a rise in tax rates. Now isn't that a better way?

That is market reform that would work, and it would actually accomplish the goal of many conservatives which is to encourage people to understand what their health care actually costs because they are paying for it - not $5 premiums for a high quality plan picked up by the wealthier companies and people in the country.

It's a thought. Any Republicans out there smart enough to run with this?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brooks Gets Conservatism Right

There are few people in political commentary who get it as right, and say it as well, as David Brooks of the New York Times. Though he is often chastised by the neo-conservative-right-wing-noise machine who have called him a closet liberal or "conservative-light," Brooks, instead, represents that calm, rational, and rather engaging voice of conservatism that I regularly call for. He is, in many ways, the last hope we have after the loss of William Buckley and William Safire, though many, including Brooks, would argue he doesn't have quite their monolithic voice in the conservative crowd. Regardless, he is always a pleasure to read, and his insight is well represented in his piece today, introducing two views of the future, represented by Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume.

I’ve introduced you to my friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume because they represent the choices we face on issue after issue. This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.

The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)

The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.

So let’s have the debate. But before we do, let’s understand that Mr. Bentham is going to win. The lobbyists love Bentham’s intricacies and his stacks of spending proposals, which they need in order to advance their agendas. If you want to pass anything through Congress, Bentham’s your man.

Brooks is just so damn smart that his allusions are often lost on many. But he is drawing from classic enlightenment history with astute nods to Jeremy Bentham and David Hume. It is these historical allusions that make his commentary so rich, but it is also what leads neo-conservatives to criticize him. For the reality is Limbaugh and Hannity and Beck and O'Reilly don't really understand Brooks or his allusions, and by association don't really understand conservatism.

David Brooks calls himself a Burkean conservative, and it is a definition and a pragmatic ideology I support. Sadly, most in the Republican Party don't really - and here's the irony because they use this charge so much - don't really understand their history. They don't understand the nature of their ideology and how to apply it to a changing world. Instead they rely on soundbites that simply become a rant about "low taxes" and "limited government." Yet, they don't understand how to take those ideas and actually "govern." Brooks, to his credit, tries to explain how the GOP needs to move beyond the "government is the enemy" idea of the Buckley and Reagan eras. For, while Reagan was absolutely right about marginal tax rates when they were 80%, his argument doesn't apply when they are 36%. Neo-conservatives don't get that, and they have never been able to reconcile their ideas with the social conservatives and the Religious Right. It makes for a mess of a message and a mess of a party.

One man who knows this - though sadly forgot it for about six months when his party needed him most - is John McCain. McCain had built an entire - and rather impressive - career on similar Burkean philosophy. This was effectively profiled in The Atlantic. Sadly, I think, few conservatives read that, and the noise machine couldn't understand it, so they dissed that type of thinking.

But there is hope. Brooks makes that clear. But you have to read it and you have to "get" it for that hope to have any chance.

Yes, we can. [sic]

Monday, October 5, 2009

Zakaria on Iran's Non-Threat

There are few people in the news industry I respect more to speak about the Middle East than Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. And, generally, his views and perspective are pretty well received by people from both political parties. Thus, I hope his recent piece for Newsweek, "Containing a Nuclear Iran," is read and discussed, rationally and intelligently, by the powers that be. Some interesting points:

At the same time, we must stop exaggerating the Iranian threat. By hyping it, we only provide Iran with "free power," in Leslie Gelb's apt phrase. This is an insecure Third World country with a GDP that is one 40th the size of America's, a dysfunctional economy, a divided political class, and a government facing mass unrest at home. It has alienated most of its neighboring states and cuts a sorry figure on the world stage, with an international embarrassment for a president. Its forays in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza have had mixed results, with the locals often growing weary of the Iranian thugs who try to control them.

The country does not yet have even one nuclear weapon, and if and when it gets one—something that is far from certain—the world will not end. The Middle East has been home to nuclear weapons for decades. If Israel's estimated -arsenal of 200 warheads, including a "second-strike capacity," has not prompted Egypt to develop its own nukes, it's not clear that one Iranian bomb would do so. (Recall that Egypt has fought and lost three wars against Israel, so it should be far more concerned about an Israeli bomb than an Iranian one.) More crucially, Israel's massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon. Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide.

We should not fear to negotiate with these rulers.

Clearly, there will be many screeching voices from the right wing noise machine who oppose this "appeasement" and will liken it to Chamberlain and Hitler. But those voices have no real credibility in the foreign policy world, and they earn money by hyping fears and criticizing everything. By contrast, I have heard and seen support for Zakaria's view by people such as Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, and Charles Krauthammer. In fact, as far back as the Bush administration, Krauthammer offered the rational conclusion that if Iran wants the bomb, they will get it. But they can and will be persuaded not to use it. For, they don't want to become a parking lot, as much as some like to paint them a national of suicidal maniacs. That's no more true than it is in Pakistan or Korea.

Thus, perhaps, as Iran slowly moves out from under its theocratic control - hints of which were revealed in the last election - the world will control its more unsavory elements without making it worse.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Problems of "Info-tainment"

Though I used to watch a fair amount of "talk television" in the realm of of Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, I now avoid the white noise of talk television because I discern, beyond the ranting, that the goal is not to inform, but simply spark suspicion and even anger, for the simple purpose of ratings and revenue. However, that does not mean I an uninformed. I read more news than ever before. But I avoid the idiot box more and more. For, nothing new or insightful is offered on these shows. They simply "comment" on the news, and generally it's more inflammatory than anything else.

Lately the focus on Glenn Beck has challenged the "edginess" of these shows, arguing Beck does his job in a far more insidious manner than the others, or than he used to in his original show and first two books, which I read and actually enjoyed. That criticism is the focus of a piece of print commentary (generally more rational and not built on soundbites) that came from Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News. While Dreher is more critical of Beck than some others - and while he in my opinion goes on a bit of a tangent - there is much to consider about the increasingly dangerous world of (mainly) Fox News commentary.

From ridiculous charges of FEMA concentration camps to charges of Manchurian candidates to shameless accusations of subversive muslim congressman to a million people at the tea party in D.C. cited by a "university" that Beck "couldn't remember the name of to a "deep seated hatred of white people that one was a minute before Beck said "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people" to Vancouver losing billion dollars on an Olympics they hadn't held yet, Beck has fallen so far off the road of rational thought, that his anti-government fearmongering has actually become dangerous. And I would argue that I used to listen to Beck and agreed with much of his points. I've read all his books, and until his last one, had little criticism. However, his current arc is what leads Dreher to wonder where the William Buckleys of the conservative party are.

Well, they might be in South Carolina. At least that might be inferred from the recent statements - and consistent rational pragmatic conservatism - of Senator Lindsay Graham. From his evenhanded and just criticism (but ultimate vote for) Justice Sotomayor to his denouncement of craziness and cynicism in the conservative media, Graham is one of the few Republicans left that I could - and would - vote for on a national level. He might just be stepping up, in a Buckley-esque way to defeat the madness and extremism that has taken the microphone of his party.

This hope is, incidentally, supported in the New York Times today by one conservative voice I can trust and support, David Brooks. Brooks reminds us that, for the most part, the crazy voices of the conservative media aren't all that influential, as they'd like us to believe. While 15 million or so viewers and listeners will follow these guys each day, that doesn't turn into a reliable voting bloc for their far right, neo-conservative agenda. Instead, pragmatism still rules at the voting booth.

Or at least I'd like to hope.