Archive for March 2011

The Road to Hell pt. 2

Last week I explained why I was ambivalent about the attacks on Libyan dictator Mohamar Ghadafi’s regime and the support of the rebels, and the more the Media celebrates the rebels’ success the more I think it was a bad idea. Yesterday I watched John McCain and Joe Lieberman, two senators whom I respect, speak in support of this war, even referring to the rebels as “freedom fighters.” Maybe it’s because back in the 1980’s that term was used a lot to describe the murderous thugs known collectively as the “contras” we supported in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but my stomach dropped a tad when I heard it.

Here is an example of a “freedom fighter” in Libya: rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi. As the Daily Telegraph reports:

Mr al-Hasidi insisted his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists,” but added that the “members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader”.

Those are not the words of a freedom fighter; they are the words of a madman – but this being the Middle East there are plenty like Mr. al-Hasidi around. I realize that one of the problems America has had in the Middle East is that everyone in power – or chasing after it – has blood on his hands. The Martin Luther Kings, the Vaclev Havels, the Andre Sakharovs in the region have all been killed over the ages, and the institutions that support their creation – religious institutions and academia – simply don’t exist. Islam today is best considered to be where Christianity was during the Middle Ages: it offers no protection for anyone who doesn’t share its specific view of world domination. There are no Islamic peacemakers in the region, no leaders who could be considered as untainted by corruption and murder. Why? Because corruption and murder is how you survive in the Middle East if you dare to taste power; it has been that way since the days of Mohammed, and probably predates even him by millennia.

So we end up picking a side. Back in the 1950’s we backed the Shah of Iran. In the 1970s we chose Anwar Sadat after signing the Camp David Accords. After Sadat was assassinated we backed his successor, Hosni Mubarak. We’ve supported Saddam Hussein after the Shah was overthrown, King Hussein of Jordan and the Saudis and other assorted kingdoms in the Middle East. None of these men have the morality of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. None of them had the metanoia that turned Nelson Mandela from a leader advocating filling the air with the blood of white people to a man who with his mortal enemy guided the rebirth of his nation along a bloodless path (unfortunately for South Africa his successors have jeopardized this success, but I digress).

The problem is that by choosing a side, especially one which acts amorally depending on its circumstances, we open ourselves to charges of acting in our own interests (as if somehow this is a crime of states to do), backing murderous regimes with bad human rights track records (as we have in Egypt, Iran under the Shah, and in Saddam-ruled Iraq), or worse, sacrificing our ideals for oil (as if energy wasn’t a resource worth fighting for). We also inevitably find ourselves in the sights of the opposing side so that when one group of murderous thugs that happen to be “our” murderous thugs gets replaced by another, we end up being on their “shit list.” This almost guarantees that the arms and money we gave our murderous thugs will be turned against us.

Al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies merely complicate the situation. In the past when we backed or “bought” a side, at least our man stayed bought. Not so today with Islam. The most egregious example of this has been Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been an “ally” that we picked up in the region after supplanting the British, yet the Saudis have built a global infrastructure with its petro-dollars dedicated to spreading fundamentalist Islam. Three-quarters of the 9-11 attackers were Saudi, as is the largest contingent of foreign insurgents attacking our soldiers in Iraq. If one of History’s great statesmen like Talleyrand came back from the dead and assessed the situation today where we treat Saudi Arabia as an ally, he would no doubt laugh. What we call our ally he would recognize as a very crafty enemy – a wolf in sheep’s clothing or in the case of the Saudis, a crocodile in a thawb. In fact most of our so-called allies in the Muslim world are this way: from Indonesia to Pakistan to Turkey and on to Morocco. All these states are happy to receive our support in terms of military equipment and money, but use at least some of both to attack us and undermine our position in the world.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Double-dealing allies have been around at least since the time of the Greeks; but the Greeks and Romans knew how to handle them. When these “allies” strayed too far, they paid a price – usually in blood and treasure lost. We have been unwilling to exact this price or worse, even to recognize the problem with our “allies” in the first place. The fact that Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family continues to breathe let alone remain in power after funding the deaths of 3,000 Americans on 9-11 is proof of this.

So what does this mean for Libya? It means that by refusing to watch one side slaughter the other we have chosen a side. Contrary to what Lieberman, McCain, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton want to believe, this side will eventually turn on us – even as Mohamar Ghadafi turns on us for supporting his enemies. By involving ourselves in this conflict we have opened ourselves to attack from BOTH sides, not just the one we didn’t pick. How many of the AK-47 rounds we are providing to the rebels today will end up in our soldiers in the future? How many of the lives we saved in Benghazi are going to choose to end them in a truck filled with explosives or a suicide vest detonated in proximity to American civilians or soldiers?

There are many roads in the Middle East but they all lead to one place, and good intentions or “humanitarian imperialism” will not stop us from arriving there.

Another American Hero

From the comments on another post, this one deserves to stand on its own. It’s the least I can do.

His name is Sgt Buddy James Hughie. And the world didn’t deserve him.

The Council Has Spoken: March 25, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners:

Council: The Razor –-Unforeseen Consequences of American Foreign Policy

Noncouncil: Lee Stranahan/The Huffington Post - Shame: Ignoring Death Threats to Wisconsin Politicians Is Media Bias

Full voting here.

Unforeseen Consequences of American Foreign Policy

I am very conflicted about Libya. Once you make a threat you must follow through no matter what or America’s enemies will view you as weak. That’s why you don’t make threats unless you are ready and willing to act.

But truth is we were screwed no matter what happened: If we didn’t attack and Gadhafi slaughtered the rebels, we’d be blamed for not acting. By acting we will now be blamed for anything that happens. The Wife was joking today after seeing a report about attacks against Libyan tanks that al Jazeera would report the tanks were driven by pregnant mothers and puppies. We simply cannot win either way when Muslims are involved.

The problem with preventing genocide is that you don’t see the events you stopped. Those hippies chaining themselves to the fences outside of the White House today would have been the first ones screaming for us to do something when the cell phone videos came back of Gadhafi forces machine gunning women and children to death in Benghazi. By choosing to intervene, we prevent that from happening, but put ourselves at risk. Libya is yet another intervention in a long series that have fostered unforeseen and unintended consequences for American policy.

Muslims never allow any good deed to go unpunished. In 1982 President Reagan orders the Marines into Lebanon in order to protect the Palestinians from the advancing Israelis. Hezballah showed its gratitude by detonating two suicide truck bombs that killed 241 American Marines and 58 French soldiers. Beginning with the Carter administration the US backed the Mujahadin against the Soviets in Afghanistan, thereby educating and arming an entire generation of Muslims who went on to attack American and Western interests throughout the 1990s and 2000s – including Osama Bin Laden. In 1991 we stopped Saddam Hussein from invading Saudi Arabia. The Saudis rewarded our protection by financing al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups bent on the destruction of western civilization.

We feed starving Somalis and rescue Pakistani peacekeepers, and the bodies of our soldiers get dragged through the streets of Mogadishu (and Bin Laden learns from our failure). We protect Bosnians and Kosavar Albanians (Muslims) from slaughter at the hands of Russian-backed Serbs, and one shoots and kills two unarmed soldiers in gratitude. American individuals and corporations donated $1.5 billion to the relief effort after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia. That hasn’t stopped Indonesians from protesting against the United States and supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda with cash and recruits. And when we get airliners slammed into the Twin Towers there are celebrations throughout the Muslim world (including by the precious pets of liberals, the Palestinians).

Had we not supported the Mujahadin, would Afghanistan be better off today? Would the United States? It’s hard to imagine not. The Soviets had the Mujahadin on the ropes, but success there would not have prevented the empire’s collapse a few years later.

241 Marines would be alive today if we had simply allowed the Israelis to clean the PLO out of Lebanon. It’s quiet possible that the Lebanese and even the Palestinians themselves would have benefited by a PLO that had been wiped out. Perhaps a new organization would have formed to represent them, one less corrupt and steeped in 1960s socialism.

If we had turned a blind eye towards Saddam’s invasion of Saudi Arabia (as he initially thought we would), the Saudis, Kuwaitis and the Iraqis would have been worse off, but would we have been? Saddam knew how to handle religious fanatics: he killed them as soon as he found them. If he couldn’t find them, a family member would do. It’s quite possible that the Saudi 9-11 attackers would have been executed fighting against a Saddam regime, or at the very least too terrified by it to get themselves worked into a Koranic frenzy against the United States.

What will the unforeseen consequences be of our actions in Libya today? It’s difficult to say, but we should begin at least begin to consider and discuss them.

For those opposed to the intervention, would you have been able to live with yourselves seeing Ghadafi’s forces going “house by house, alley by alley” gunning down people in cold blood in Benghazi? Such an action would at least have served as a reminder to Muslims that when it comes to body counts, Muslims have more Muslim blood on their hands than all Jews and Americans combined. Now Ghadafi can play the “crusader” card, something that Vladimir “W’s BFF” Putin has already suggested.

For those supporting intervention the questions are more obvious. How are you going to win when you don’t even have a set clear goals – let alone a battle-tested command/control center? What are you going to do if Ghadafi survives in power and the “rebels” prove that they all don’t wear white and carry lightsabers? Is it really a good idea to support these uprisings in the Middle East? There are no Muslim Lech Walesas, no Islamic Vaclav Havels, Andre Sakharovs or Nelson Mandelas. Progressives under the direction of billionaire judenrat George Soros are desperately trying to make the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood into Charter 77 or Solidarity. So far smearing lipstick on that pig hasn’t worked.

The Council Has Spoken: March 18, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners:

Council: Joshuapundit–-Horror Returns; Sleeping Israeli Family Murdered by Arabs, Including An Infant

Noncouncil: Sultan Knish- An Open Letter to Harvey Weinsteinsubmitted by Right Truth

Full voting here.

The Japanese Earthquake of 2011

This is the first I’ve written about the earthquake that hit the Tohoku region of Japan on Friday. It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it – it’s always in the back of my mind thanks to my history and ties to that country. It’s more because writing is a synthesis of ideas, and as the magnitude of the disaster grows with each passing hour, there aren’t many ideas to be had. What more can be said about a wall of water that wipes away an entire city, leaving behind such indelible images as a house on fire floating out to sea or ocean freighters floating through neighborhoods? This is the kind of disaster that sticks in your throat and leaves you at a loss for words, and after decades of writing I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to forget the words and simply let yourself experience the event. Writing about it and understanding it will come later.

Here are some points that I can muster as the disaster continues to unfold.

1. I’m already seeing articles out there wondering why the Japanese aren’t killing each other over bottles of water and blankets. This is a common reaction by outsiders who marvel at the social harmony exhibited by the Japanese, especially during times of stress.

The Japanese are unique in the world. They are unlike any other nationality or ethnicity (in fact they should be thought as the latter, not the former. Japanese nationality is by blood, and it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to get it unless you are a sumo wrestler). There aren’t riots and looting in Japan because the individualism and selfishness that drives those actions have been repressed for centuries out of the Japanese. While this social trait seems exemplary at a time of disaster, it also underlies the high Japanese suicide rate (and declining birth rate), the lack of entrepreneurship or creative thinking shown by young Japanese, and even the reason the Japanese treated conquered peoples and POWs so viciously during World War 2.

To us “the nail that sticks out gets hammered” is a cliche but in Japan it’s a way of life. Japanese society is a pressure cooker that forces people to conform to the norms set by the group. Those that can’t be pressured occasionally leave or more often drift towards the edges of society where the Yakuza and other criminal elements flourish. Most drown their frustrations in alcohol; some even take their own lives. In a disaster Group-think and collective action is good, but the history of Japan is filled with bad ideas that were put into action without anyone defying the group and saying “No.” The Rape of Nanking. The treatment of POWs during World War 2 as exemplified by the Bataan Death March. The sex slaves euphemistically called “comfort women.” Unit 731 experiments on Chinese and POWs.

There is nothing we can learn from the docile and calm reaction of the Japanese to this disaster, and kicking ourselves for not being more like them is a pointless exercise. What we should learn from their behavior is to get relief supplies to those in need within 48 hours no matter what obstacles are in the way. It’s only after the first 48 hours that law and order in our society begins to fray.

2. The Japanese government is weak and incapable of operating effectively in this crisis. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 I met people who walked from Kyoto and Osaka into Kobe along deserted railroad tracks carrying backpacks of food and water into the devastated city because the central government hadn’t acted. The government needs to be pushed aside (at least in deed if not thought) by the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF). The JSDF has a history of mounting relief operations, and has only gotten better since the Kobe quake. In 1995 the Japanese central government refused aid from foreign countries including the United States which had aircraft carriers and fully-staffed ships hospitals at its disposal in the area. This was an act of nationalist pride by the government, and the citizenry paid the price. Here again the JSDF has worked closely with the United States armed forces and can access aid offered by the US military much faster than that offered through non-government and diplomatic channels. Although the scope of this disaster is unprecedented, the JSDF is in the best position to lead the relief effort – NOT the politicians in the Diet (and especially not PM Kan).

3. We need a sober and non-biased assessment of our nuclear power plants. I am a strong proponent of nuclear power even as three nuclear reactors are in the process of meltdown. The immediate reaction of the anti-nuke crowd will be “See? We told you so!” and advocates of nuclear power will be on the defensive. Neither Japan in microcosm nor Modern Society as a whole can ignore nuclear power. To paraphrase Professor David Mackay, author of “Sustainable Energy: Without All the Hot Air,” it’s not a choice between wind, or solar, or coal, or nuclear – we need all of them. Our species is a voracious consumer of power, and our demand is going to continue to outstrip supply for the foreseeable future. Nuclear power will remain an important contributor to our power needs, but we must learn from this disaster to determine what went wrong and how we could redesign reactors to withstand even greater disasters in the future. We need to move away from the outright rejection of nuclear power and replace it with a model where engineers learn from past mistakes to improve designs. When the first passenger airliners crashed there were outcries that air travel was too dangerous. But instead of chucking air travel into the dustbin because it was too dangerous we learned from each aircraft disaster to reach a point where we are today when a downed aircraft anywhere in the world makes news because it is such a rare event. The same can happen with nuclear power if a) The anti-nuke lobby isn’t allowed to kill the technology and b) The pro-nuclear lobby is willing to allow engineers to design safer reactors and the public accepts them.

4. We 21st century humans have proven time and again that we cannot predict how bad the worst natural disaster can be. Just off the top of my head I think I’ve heard over the past 38 years the flooding of the Mississippi River referred to as “once in a century floods” no less than four times. Natural events are always stronger than we think they can be, as if Mother Nature consciously resists our pathetic attempts at controlling her by binding her with worst-case predictions. When we design anything that is meant to resist natural forces we should make it so that it “fails gracefully” – not to resist the worst earthquakes or hurricanes we can imagine. Why? Because rest assured, there will be always be worse hurricanes and earthquakes than we can imagine, regardless of whether Global Warming is happening or not. It is better that we control how and when a system fails than to do the impossible: make a system 100% robust.

I have no doubt that the Japanese will survive this calamity and my gut tells me that their nation will be that much better for it. In the meantime all I can do is watch, and hope that the tens of thousands missing are found alive and that relief reaches even the most isolated village as soon as possible. The Japanese people gave me much while I lived among them, and I wish I could do more to give back to them now in their time of need than ask that you to consider a donation to the American Red Cross.

Japanese flag

The Council Has Spoken: March 11, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners:

Council: Joshuapundit--Eyes Wide Shut – Dealing With ‘Anti-Zionism’ On Campus

Noncouncil: Iowahawk- Longhorns 17, Badgers 1

Full voting here.

Why Walker Did It

In 2010, Megan Sampson was named an Outstanding First Year Teacher in Wisconsin. A week later, she got a layoff notice from the Milwaukee Public Schools. Why would one of the best new teachers in the state be one of the first let go? Because her collective-bargaining contract requires staffing decisions to be made based on seniority.

Ms. Sampson got a layoff notice because the union leadership would not accept reasonable changes to their contract. Instead, they hid behind a collective-bargaining agreement that costs the taxpayers $101,091 per year for each teacher, protects a 0% contribution for health-insurance premiums, and forces schools to hire and fire based on seniority and union rules.

So writes Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in today’s Wall Street Journal. My only question: Why are we learning about this now? Had he made this argument a month ago we would not now be having a meltdown in Madison.

Wisconsin Vote Fallout

Well finally it’s done. Scott Walker finally followed Charles Krauthammer’s advice and split the collective bargaining section out of the budget bill. Civil servants, who have apparently forgotten they are servants and have  acted quite uncivilly during this imbroglio, have lost this battle.

What is the likely fallout from this bill?

Nothing much. Walker is at the beginning of his 4 year term and by the time he’s up for re-election there will be other issues on the minds of voters. The same cannot be said for the Republican legislators, some of whom will be up for reelection next year. I expect that unions will put nice big bullseyes over them – both figuratively and perhaps literally. Democrats will make gains – and not necessarily because of this vote; the popular vote swings between both parties and it has reached its greatest arc rightward. Democrats will replace Republicans as the pendulum swings left.

Wisconsin public sector employees will not be reduced to penury. The collective bargaining portion passed still allows for the practice to be used for raises up to the rate of inflation – something that has been skyrocketing (although the Fed says otherwise). Having to pay a few percent more for pensions and health care will continue to leave the employees in better shape than the majority of people in the private sector. Those are the people who actually pay the civil servants’ salaries and benefits, and they will experience some relief from this bill (though not much given the size of the state deficit.)

Although they have lost in Wisconsin, they put up such a fight that unions have already killed similar bills elsewhere and will most likely limit their losses nationally. Even the most conservative governors aren’t in a hurry now to pick a fight with the public sector unions while they enjoy the public’s sympathy.

So who won? The Wisconsin taxpayer, Gov. Scott Walker and the unions.
Who lost? The Wisconsin Democratic and Republican parties, and public sector employees.

Charles Krauthammer has been advocating that Walker should do that for weeks. I’m a big Krauthammer fan, especially since we’re both ex-liberals (he worked for the Mondale campaign, and I cast my first presidential vote for Mondale – regrets, I’ve had a few…) In the end I’m not sure why Walker didn’t split the bills to begin with. Part of me thinks he didn’t know he could do that, another part makes me think he wanted to provoke the Dems in order to make them look stupid. He’s succeeded.

But he’s also damaged the Republican party in Wisconsin; I fully expect some of those Reps to lose their jobs in ‘12. Walker is secure until 2014 but I’m sure the Republican state legislators are going to pay for this sideshow. In fact I think that those reps, the fleeing dems and the civil servants (who forgot they were servants and acted very uncivilly throughout this affair) are the losers. The unions – who pretended to justify the dues they collect from each civil servant’s paycheck, the WI taxpayer and Walker  – who delivered on his campaign promise – are most likely the winners.

I hope other governors out there learn from this event. One lesson is that when you make cuts, you make them quickly – AFTER you’ve determined you have the votes for the bill to pass. If
you don’t have the votes, don’t support the bill. It’s freakin’ PoliSci 101 stuff.

Another is that Walker allowed the unions to frame the debate. Civil servants were portrayed as indentured servants of “the Man” instead of the overpaid, pampered servants of the citizenry they are supposed to be. I don’t know why Walker let that happen given the current climate. Again, is because he’s new at the job or is he plain stupid? Only time will tell.

Economist at Boston U Discovers Higher Education Doesn’t Pay

More on the Higher Education Bubble. This essay points out how lost wages and compressed earnings due to higher education can put you in a higher tax bracket and therefore cost you more in taxes. It also examines the outcomes of four different scenarios and finds that a job in plumbing pays roughly the same in a lifetime as a primary care physician.

Plumbers also don’t have to work 80+ hours a week in internship, and an average of 50-60 hours a week in practice. They also don’t have to worry about accidentally killing anyone or being sued.

On the Front Lines of America’s Hidden Drug Problem

“I’m going to kill you!” the patient screamed at the doctor after telling him “f*** you!” for his refusal to write a prescription for 270 Oxycontin. The patient had taken the “Oxy Express” but came back to North Carolina to fill her prescription – a stupid move since narcotics prescriptions can’t be filled across state lines – and then visited his office and demanded her family doctor rewrite it. Her doctor explained the situation and offered to refer her to a clinic that specialized in pain management, but she refused. She wanted her “f***ing pills” and threatened to sue him unless he wrote the script. He didn’t budge, and the outburst followed in front of several patients and staff.

Over the years he has seen a rising in prescription drug abuse among his patients making otherwise normal people who have suffered injury into pill-seeking addicts. “Patients will bounce from one doctor to another until they find one who will write the scripts. If they can’t find one locally, there is always the Internet, a friend they know who will sell them a few tablets, or the ‘Oxy Express’.”

What troubles him is that there isn’t the stigma with prescription drug abuse that there is with alcohol or illicit drugs. “People take vicodin and think it’s safe because it’s legal and they got it from their doctor. But then they start finishing their prescriptions early. Like all addicts they slide into addiction.”

The problem, as the doctor explains it, was that we had gone from one extreme to another. “Years ago people were just told to suck it up when they were in pain,” he says. “There wasn’t much pain medication out there beyond morphine and a few benzos. Now we’ve gone to the opposite extreme where we treat every twinge and ache with painkillers.” He believes that people’s understanding of pain had changed, and that the overuse of painkillers was making the treatment of pain worse. “Pain is your body telling you to take it easy,” he says. “By dulling it with drugs you risk making the injury worse.”

The issue is more complex with what people call “chronic pain”. “Not all pain disappears within a few days or weeks,” he says. “But pain rarely lasts forever either. It may take months or even years for the underlying condition causing the pain to resolve.” Because pain is part of a complex feedback system between the mind and body, it is possible that treating it as a chronic condition with drugs may result in a situation where the body has healed completely but the mind still perceives pain. “The pain is real – it’s not in the patient’s imagination,” he says, “but the painkillers disconnected the pain from the event that caused it in the first place. It exists on its own, and therefore becomes a true chronic condition.”

Back pain is real and may never resolve, condemning the patient to a life-time of pain. But pumping him full of narcotics debilitates him just as much as the pain does. “We’re in the Dark Ages when it comes to handling pain,” he says. “We cannot reliably remove pain without impacting a person’s daily activities.” Some pain management clinics are experimenting with hypnosis and bio-feedback as well as acupuncture in order to find pain relief that doesn’t turn people into zombies.

But the doctor wasn’t hopeful. “Treating these patients isn’t easy which is why I don’t like doing it,” he says. He refers as many of his patients to pain management but worries that all he is doing is passing along the problem to someone else. Worse he is developing concerns that some of these clinics are just money-making pill dispensaries, leaving Society to suffer the consequences of a growing legion of addicts.

A few years ago three of his patients were in a car accident. A man, his wife and their 10 year old son were cruising at high speed before the car slammed into a box truck…. All three died instantly. Pill bottles were found on the car’s floor, and toxicology found the dad was high on painkillers. None of the bottles had his doctor’s name on them, which gave him a measure of relief. One of the first respondents on the scene – another one of his patients – was haunted by the sight of the boy’s limp head hanging upside down in the back of the car. He was a strong middle-aged man who had seen a lot over the years as a volunteer firefighter, but what he saw that night still haunts him.

The doctor remembers that boy whenever one of these junkies come seeking drugs, and it makes it much easier for him to keep his prescription pad in his pocket.
The above is a composite based on a series of conversations I’ve held with health care providers over the past two years. Both the addict’s rant and the accident occurred as described. SK

The Grouch At Right Truth, an ER physician, lists 11 warning signs of a drug seeker. My favorite:

4. They frequently present with illnesses that are hard to objectively diagnose. A couple of favorites are headaches and back pain. Now many people present with legitimate causes of headache and back pain and some of those can in fact be life threatening. Herein lies the problem. Sometimes the bullsh*t train ride can be long and expensive as we run many, sometimes costly tests in an attempt to separate the sheep from the goats as well as protect ourselves from lawyers.

Another reason the Wife should have been a plumber.

Pat Sajak On Why Hollywood is Uniformly Left Wing

Here’s Pat Sajak’s opinion on why Hollywood is full of liberals.

Is it hypocritical to ask people to drive electric cars while you’re flying in a Gulfstream? Or to tell them to conserve energy while the cumulative square-footage of your homes is measured in the tens of thousands of square feet? Or to ask them to pay more taxes while your high-priced accounting firms are protecting your money? Of course it is, but hypocrisy cannot penetrate the bubble.

And I particularly like this point:

And, frankly, I would be appalled if anyone made an important political or lifestyle decision based on the advice of a TV game show host. Maybe that’s the best news about the bubble: it not only protects us, but it protects you from us.

The Council Has Spoken: March 4, 2011

Congratulations to this week’s winners:

Council: JoshuapunditSchooling Dave Weigel On ‘Incivility’

Noncouncil: Bruce Kesler/Maggie’s Farm-Jawohl, Mein Professor

Full voting here.

Reward Some Teachers, Fire Others and Allow All to Teach

I haven’t written about education much over the past 10 years. It’s not my favorite subject to write about because I don’t know much about it other than what I’ve picked up through my own personal experiences including being the parent of a teenager in a public school. But watching the spectacle in Wisconsin got me thinking.

I have begun feeling a sickening sensation in my gut, and I suspect my son’s education is the source. Smack-dab in what may be the middle of his formal education I am wondering if I have made a terrible mistake by subjecting him to the public school system. As the product of generations of working poor who nevertheless made the sacrifice to put their children through Catholic school I am wondering if I have betrayed my ancestors by avoiding a Catholic education and allowing the State to take the lead in educating my only child.

I have not completely outsourced my son’s education to others. I believe that a critical role of parenting is educating your child no matter what time it is. I have used TV to educate my son about marketing, to help him become skeptical of the promises made in commercials. He has learned that drinking beer will not make women flock to him, but developing a keen wit and treating women with respect will. I have begun involving him in my driving, using him as a second pair of eyes and a navigator as I try to pass along the important lessons I have learned in close to three decades and half a million miles of driving. A glance up at the night sky will provoke a discussion about interstellar distances – for example, the analogy how if the sun was scaled down to the size of a basketball, the earth would be about the size of a BB orbiting 93 feet away, and the nearest star system would be over 2500 miles distant. I want to share with him the feeling of vastness that the analogy gives me, and how instead of making me feel insignificant it makes me appreciate how wonderful, rare and precious Life truly is.

But my time spent with him is dwindling; he spends most of his time with his friends and in classrooms manned by professional educators who can’t be fired and who advance in their careers not through merit but seniority thanks to their membership in a union that is allowed to collectively bargain – a concept that even Democratic icons like FDR and George Meany would have opposed. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. Executive Council noted in 1959, “In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress — a right available to every citizen.” President Roosevelt wrote

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

I have spent most of my career in IT as a contractor working at large companies. I have been dropped off at work only to be returned home an hour later by my boss when the startup I worked for went bust. I have lost jobs when funding was cut as often as when projects came to their natural conclusion. I have seen a woman cry as she was forced to clear out her desk under the passive gaze of building security, and saw my boss dance barefoot through the aisles after solving a coding problem that had her up all night. In short I have worked in an environment that is the exact opposite of my son’s educators. To call it Darwinian would be an insult to Darwin since I have seen incompetence and stupidity trump competence and brilliance more often than not. But it is dynamic, and to survive I have had to develop and refine a skill-set that didn’t even exist when I started in the field 15 years ago.

Survival hasn’t been easy. I have never had a pension or received subsidized medical insurance from my employer. I have seen positions outsourced and brought back in-house including my own. I founded a lobbying group to fight that and made Wired magazine. But even when I fought offshoring and its worse cousin, labor dumping through the H-1b visa program, I never advocated for unions. Why? Because unions reward the lazy and penalize the hardworking.

My son has come home with assignments scraped from the Internet. The teacher did this so often that I used the opportunity to teach my son how to use search engines to find the answers to the assignments. This year my son was struggling with negative numbers to the point where I scheduled a conference to talk to his math teacher. The teacher, a woman in her fifties, explained to me how she taught them: “I explain that the numbers are like a people being baptized. They walk into the river and their signs get changed.” If that doesn’t make sense it’s because I didn’t get her point either – especially since neither my son nor I have been baptized in a river. I explained my method of teaching negative numbers, where you lay out the numbers in a line – negative numbers on the left with positive numbers on the right. Negatives slide to the left, positives slide to the right. She didn’t get that and tried explaining her method again. She had one way of teaching and that was it.

I have also had my son bring home math assignments where he had to show his work. I would help him with the assignment only to find out later that it had been graded down because the way I showed him how to do a problem differed from the way his teacher did even though we arrived at the same answer. There was a right way (hers) and a wrong way (mine). I have learned that such concrete thinking gets you shown the door in large corporations; one has to adapt in order to survive. But such rigid thinking exists unchallenged in schools.

My son has had good teachers too, but these were often younger teachers who were paid less, received the tougher teaching assignments and were the first fired when cutbacks came because they lacked seniority. But most of his teachers are ordinary. They come and go and don’t seem to leave much an impression on him let alone me. Mediocrity is the norm in most areas, but mediocre teachers do more damage because we charge them with educating our children. When I compare where my son is today and where I was when I was his age, doing my best to account for my own bias, I am left with the fear that my son knows less than I did back then.

I meet his teachers every year and immediately contact them when there is a problem. I’ve found that some teachers don’t like that, ignoring voice mails and blowing off emails to the point where I’ve had to go to the principal to get their attention. I have been critical of public education and had my share of run-ins with these folks over the years. When my son was kicked by a girl in the nuts so badly that he couldn’t sit down for a week, I was in the principal’s office demanding an explanation why the girl wasn’t punished. I at least got the principal to admit that had the situation been reversed and my son hit the girl he would have been suspended. Other issues have been more dogmatic. Reverse discrimination. Labor Day, Martin Luther King jr Day and other holidays are respected by being made holidays while Memorial Day is not. Starting in first grade my son had disruptive kids in his classroom, what is known as “mainstreaming”. I remember that in my son’s first grade class one student shouted obscenities and hit the other kids and even his teacher, forcing his grandfather to sit beside him because he was the only member of the family who could control the boy. The disruptions continued through primary school with the problem student being passed like a bad penny from one teacher to another.

I attended Catholic school until my sophomore year of college. Most of my teachers were lay people, and as employees of the order or archdiocese they were paid a pittance. I have kept in touch with some of my favorites. My elementary school science teacher left and got a job with the Department of Defense. My fourth grade teacher/muse, the woman who inspired me to start writing is still teaching fourth grade at my old elementary school. You don’t stay at a job like that unless you love it. And my freshman English teacher, a young Jesuit novice who taught me to avoid cliches like the plague and appreciate spoken Shakespeare, left the order and now teaches dance in San Francisco.

Some of my favorite teachers left teaching, but I am grateful to have had them when I did. Those that continue today do so because that is their calling; the salary and working conditions matter less than doing the job they are called to do.

I am convinced now more than ever that some of my son’s teachers need to be fired and others need to be promoted or otherwise rewarded. Teaching should be left to those with a passion for it – whether those fresh out of school or those whose identity is so wrapped up in what they do that they can’t dream of doing anything else no matter how bad the pay. And administrative positions should be pared back to match the levels of Catholic and other private school systems.

It also should be expanded to those who are not professional educators but who have experience in their fields. Even though I have teaching experience, 15 years working in IT, know a handful of computer languages, how to architect complex databases, and build my own PCs, I was not qualified to teach an introductory computer science class at my local community college because I lacked teaching credentials. Although I was willing to teach simply because I enjoy sharing what I learn with others, I wasn’t going to spend $20k and two years of middle age to get a degree just to make $18/hour. How many others are out there that are willing to do the job but can’t because the professional “guild” controls entry?

The purpose of education is to educate students, not employ the most people possible. The debate in Wisconsin and other statehouses across the country seems to have missed sight of that fact. Good teachers need to be rewarded with cash, and poor teachers given pink slips no matter how long they have been in the classroom. Unions prevent this by paying teachers the same regardless of how good or bad they are, and need to be curtailed. The idea that doctors should unionize would strike most as being ridiculous for good reason: they can’t strike because doing so could cost a life. And the idea that seniority should determine pay would make it even harder for a patient to tell a good surgeon from a bad one than it is today.

Society wouldn’t stand for unionized doctors, yet we have somehow tolerated it with the education of our children. Is it really so different? When I kiss my son (on the head – he is a teen after all) and watch him climb the stairs to his school every weekday morning, I am watching something that is more precious to me than my own health and my own well-being walk away from me. Yet for the past few years I have trusted him to a system that seems geared towards the full employment of teachers and administrators than it does with educating my son with the skills he needs to achieve his full potential in our society.

As his parent, I am kicking myself for my stupidity and laziness. And the parents in Wisconsin should do the same for allowing their children to be used as pawns in a selfish game in which the only true losers are the kids themselves.