Sunday, February 25, 2024

Stuck in the Middle

Country singer Scott McCreery sings about how he is “not all holy water and not all Jim Beam,” but he’s “somewhere in between.” That’s kinda like many people in the United States of America. And, interestingly, that “in between” perspective accurately describes the political views and affiliations of Americans, who are generally a moderate center-right bunch and more likely independent voters, unaffiliated with either major party. Unfortunately, the two-party system in our age of divisive politics has left no middle ground. It seems there is no in-between anymore.

I recently saw an editorial cartoon of a man holding two different boxes of Girl Scout cookies as he stands at a table, asking which are the Republican and which are the Democrat cookies. It’s satire, of course, but not actually far off from the feelings of too many Americans. It’s literally become that absurd. People have started to act as if the clothes they wear, the beer they drink, the entertainment they watch, and sadly even the neighborhoods where they live are either one party or another. Too many Americans believe there are just two sides to every issue, and one is always right and the other is always wrong.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I can recall numerous times when my dad would say, “I still haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for yet.” That might be surprising to anyone who knew my father after the late nineties, when it appeared he was a one-ideology-straight-party-ticket voter. Yet, he had been registered as both a Democrat and a Republican at different times in his life. I recall when I first heard the pejorative term RINO, which stands for “Republican in Name Only,” and it struck me as the most ridiculous idea.

The idea of party purity and straight-ticket voting is in many ways the opposite of freedom. The idea that voters and candidates don’t feel like they have the autonomy to decide issues and choose leaders based on their individual merits as opposed to preconceived alignment seems counterintuitive in a country and political system based on individual rights. Unfortunately, many independent, free-thinking voters feel “stuck in the middle” between two political parties which are neither truly liberal nor conservative and which don’t really seem to know or care what those terms actually mean.

In the 1960s and 70s, party unity on roll call votes in Congress averaged about 60%, with representatives voting the party line just under two-thirds of the time. Similar percentages could be found among voters aligning with just one party. However, by 2020 the roll call vote had reached highs of 95%. That’s simply not healthy for a democratic republic. Too many representatives are clearly not voting their conscience nor are they actually representing all their constituents. In “safe voting districts,” where the incumbents have 60% of the vote and never face a challenge, 40% of their constituents are effectively disenfranchised. That is terrible for America. It can lead to people feeling they must leave their communities and even states to go live where they have a voice and where they are with “people like them.”

As an educator, I believe it’s difficult to teach kids to simply think critically and develop their own opinions when they don’t see that modeled anywhere else. Teachers should teach students how to think, not what to think. Yet, everywhere else students are told what to think by leaders and role models who have narrow, inflexible ideas. While Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are firmly opposed to re-nominating Donald Trump, they can hardly urge a vote for Democrats after they’ve spent their careers demonizing the other party. Similarly, it’s difficult for leaders like Hakeem Jefferies or Chuck Shumer to concede opposition to Joe Biden or progressive politics when they’ve spent a career claiming Democrats are the only answer.

The new independent political organization called the No Labels Party is designed to unite moderate Democrats, Republicans, and middle-of-the-road independents, giving a voice and option to those who feel stuck in the middle. These voters are neither Fox News nor MSNBC, and they see the current political climate as “clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right.” Sadly, the nature of contemporary politics suggests third parties have no legitimate chance in a system designed to protect the major parties. This will continue to disenfranchise and alienate all those who are feeling somewhere in between.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

College Enrollment is Down – That’s Ok

Why would anyone want to go to college?

It’s a rather important question that would have seemed unnecessary to ask just five or ten years ago. However, college-for-all is not a good idea or policy – I’ve been writing about that for years. In fact, college has always been unnecessary for most people in the contemporary economy. In fact, it has largely been a waste of time and money for many students in the past thirty years as colleges expanded enrollment and states promoted college-prep as the only path. Many people have pursued degrees to end up working in fields that never required one.

Most estimates suggest a four-year bachelor’s degree is a necessary prerequisite for less than four in ten jobs in the American economy. In a recent column on declines in higher education enrollment, conservative Washington Post column George Will cited data that indicated “38 percent of recent college graduates, and one-third of all college graduates, hold jobs that do not require a college degree.” With unemployment at a fifty-year low, clear evidence of a strong and growing economy, people entering or currently in the workforce have plenty of options.

And, let’s face it. Employers and the business world at large have long used the college diploma as simply a screening system and gatekeeper for job applicants. While the degree process for many fields can specifically be connected to future employment, the bachelor degree is not like an apprenticeship program. Bachelor’s degrees are not specifically job training, nor were they ever intended to be. For many jobs, the employer has little interest in what the student learned in college. Instead, they simply want to know the person has the ability to earn the degree, to put in the time and meet the requirements. That says much more than the actual skills learned.

In a recent editorial for USA Today, Jim Gash, the president of Pepperdine University, discussed that idea. He began by sharing feedback the school received after posting a question on a billboard in Times Square about the purpose and reasoning for going to college. While some respondents noted the necessary credentialing required for jobs in medicine and law, others noted careers in skilled trades or even generalized fields like marketing that don’t require college. And Gash pointed to a “Gallup survey which found that just 39 percent of Gen Z, defined as ages 12-26, think college is "very important."

George Will’s column about dropping college enrollments, posits that “As enrollments plummet, academia gets schooled about where it went wrong.” Specifically, Will believes students are choosing options other than college because they are turned off by the political environment on campus and the political stances taken by school administrators. While I generally agree with Will, he's naive to believe enrollment is dropping because of progressive politics. The reasons are simply economic — cost/benefit for degree in relation to job potential. And, of course, the burden versus payoff for taking on college debt.

That said, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently lamented what many major colleges and universities have “done to themselves.” In my view, both Noonan and Will are exaggerating and overemphasizing the politics on campus. Though the recent congressional testimony and resignations of three elite university presidents lend credence to their criticism. As likely as colleges being political action committees is the schools simply becoming semi- professional sports training facilities. With the establishment of NIL payments to student-athletes and the astronomical salaries of elite football coaches, it seems education is just a side-hustle.

The history of the university system in the United States was not based on job training and economy-based skills – it was about character and personal growth. The system was founded on the idea of a classical liberal arts education grounded in the classics. The goal was to create well-educated, well-rounded citizens who would provide the educated electorate that the newly formed republic needed to function and support a system of individual rights and self-determination. As Pepperdine President Gash laments in his column “the college experience has failed to provide far too many students the character-forming experiences necessary for a free and flourishing society.”

The classical liberal arts foundation is still an excellent reason to pursue higher education. If people need college degrees for their careers, or they have the luxury of paying for a few years to figure that out, higher education makes sense. Otherwise, working and credentials are the better choice.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Rent is Too High

Though I’m no economist, I have a theory about inflation. The “general increase in prices and the fall in the buying power of money,” commonly known as inflation, has been dominating financial news for several years. Even now, as prices drop and inflation cools, economists and pundits and politicians are talking about the causes of inflation and how to ease it. Well, I have some suspicions about what is causing the most recent wave across the Denver metro area and the country at large.

It’s the landlords’ fault.

Landlords cause inflation. Property speculation with a specific focus on rental properties leads to an increase in prices that is not specifically related to other market forces. When taxes and utilities and repairs do not cost more, but rents rise dramatically, there can be only one answer. Basically, landlords are raising rents simply because they can. The astronomical rent increases across Colorado in the past ten years are personal choices by landlords, as opposed to any other relative increase in costs.

Because housing costs are the highest percentage of most individual budgets, renters can easily be priced out of access to shelter. That disproportionate cost of housing is nowhere more evident than in the mountains, especially Summit and Eagle counties. Resort communities have long passed the time when local residents and service workers could afford to live there. This disparity has led to communities such as Breckenridge taking action to build affordable housing specifically for resort workers. While that’s an admirable idea, it would be unnecessary if landlords in Summit County were not gouging renters by raising prices to unsustainable levels.

A similar conundrum can be found in communities across the state where public employees, specifically teachers, are unable to afford housing. Granted, the demand side of the equation obviously lends to the increase. As popular areas draw increased desire to live there, landlords can easily increase prices, and that often means forcing one renter out in order to charge a new renter more. Now, clearly, in a capitalist free market economy, it is the right of any business owner to make as much money as possible. That said, there are residual effects that are not healthy for individuals, communities, and the economy overall.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Denver area is $1700, a 50% increase over ten years. Clearly, other costs have not risen 50%, certainly not taxes and utilities. Thus, rent increases came simply because landlords could charge more and did. The problem is the residual effects. If housing costs more, employers are pressured to pay employees more, so they can afford to live where they work. That irrational rise in wages subsequently leads to product prices increases – hence inflation. It all happened because landlords started raising rent simply because they wanted to and could.

When my wife and I first moved to Greenwood Village twenty-one years ago, we loved many local independent businesses, and we particularly enjoyed shopping at Cooks Fresh Market in Belleview Promenade. We would often pop in for picnic supplies on weekends or pick up deli selections for weeknight dinners. Sadly, we heard the popular store was forced out of its location by rent increases, but fortunately found a prosperous location on the Sixteenth Street Mall. Cooks Fresh market closed permanently last year, but they had a great two-decade run in downtown Denver.

I’d imagine a new Denver landlord killed the business just like one did in Greenwood Village years ago. Denver has recently seen a rash of business closures, specifically independent restaurants, due to rent increases and relative wage increases. What’s particularly sad is these closures have come post-pandemic when the economy has recharged. In Greenwood Village, we’ve lost mainstays like Tokyo Joe’s and the Starbucks at Belleview Square, and word is those exits were forced by unreasonable and inexplicable rent increases by Regency Centers.

I’ve lived in the same duplex house for two decades, just a short walk from Cherry Creek High School. The other townhouses in my neighborhood rent for two-and-a-half to three times my monthly mortgage payment. In all honesty, that is simply ridiculous. What’s particularly troubling is that many housing units are being bought up by hedge funds and foreign-owned investment companies. They have no connection to the community and no concern for residents. They just raise rents because they can.

Simply put, as the single-issue political party in New York says: “the rent is too damn high.”

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Knee Pain? Start Running

I've never understood or agreed with people who don't run because it "hurts the knees." Or worse, they don't run anymore because being a runner in high school and college "ruined their knees." If running hurts your knees, it's likely you're just doing it wrong. And, if a person has bad knees, which like resulted from running incorrectly for most of their life, then the best thing they can do for their knees might be to start running.

The "heel strike" is the primary cause of pain for people whose knees hurt while running. When people run, their heels should not really hit the ground at all, except as a secondary impact. Runners, true runners, run on the balls of their feet, and it's the quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles that absorb the shock. Thus, the knee is not the target of force in running. Knees have very little to do with running form – or, at least knees should have very little to do with it. And, these days there is an ever-growing body of research that supports the idea that running is actually good for your knees.

Gretchen Reynolds, a health columnist for the New York Times and Washington Post, has spotlighted the research that speculates running not only won't ruin your knees but is actually good for them. In fact, results even propose the idea that running may prompt cartilage self repair. In reviewing several studies of the impact running has on knees, she writes “running likely also fortifies and bulks up the cartilage, the rubbery tissue that cushions the ends of bones. The findings raise the beguiling possibility that, instead of harming knees, running might fortify them and help to stave off knee arthritis.”

When I was shoe shopping recently, I noticed the common trend in shoe design that features thick cushioned soles in shoes. In recent years, however, elite running has steered away from that trend, and pure runners have gravitated toward shoes with less obvious structure and a style that mimics the foot in its natural form. With that shift toward minimalism came the rise of the barefoot running craze. This movement was greatly influenced by Chris McDougal's excellent sociological work Born to Run, which spotlights the emergence of barefoot-running "shoes" like the Vibram Five Fingers.

While running barefoot seems counterintuitive on concrete roads or rocky trails, it’s actually better form. The key is to run, as if sprinting – or as McDougal says, "like you would if you had to chase a toddler into the street while in bare feet." Basically, natural runners land on the balls of their feet, not the heels. The heel strike – and the potential damage from wear and tear of impact – results from the more padded shoes of the past thirty years that allowed runners to land on their heels. That's not what a runner should do. And, in fact, for many years the running shoe companies contributed to the problem.

Nike is undoubtedly the running shoe behemoth, and it has been since the 1970s when Phil Knight hooked up with the running coaches at the University of Oregon and Stanford and began peddling more structurally padded shoes. The effect was the launch of a new industry and fitness craze, as jogging entered the lexicon. As the shoe industry developed, the style became focused on bigger shoes with more cushion and added support.

In fact, that extra support is unnatural and might have actually weakened knees and ankles, contributing to injuries rather than preventing them. While many running shoes feature thick soles to allegedly absorb impact, Nike saw the trend toward barefoot running ten years ago, and in 2013 came out with the Nike Flyknit, a “barefoot-style” shoe made of a single piece of fabric. Nike was actually late to the game with their shoes. Companies like Merrel, Newton, and Adidas have offered shoes with minimal cushion for years.

Certainly, there is no specific shoe for someone who wants to revert to less structure and more natural barefoot-style running. In fact, anyone in nearly any shoe can "run barefoot while wearing shoes." In reality, barefoot running is all about the gait and not really at all about the shoes. So, for people with New Year’s resolutions to get healthier, there’s no reason bad knees should keep them out of the running game.

But run a 5K instead of a marathon. And that’s a whole other story.