The Light of the Tiny Screen

Steve looked up from the paper on Sunday morning and said, “Ross Douthat is on a roll.”

In his long Sunday op-ed, “The Age of Decadence,” Ross touches on the nihilism that I wrote about last week. He writes,

The truth of the first decades of the 21st century, a truth that helped give us the Trump presidency but will still be an important truth when he is gone, is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling forward toward transhumanism or extinction. Instead, we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.

Like me, he doesn’t see political revolution, just stagnation and corruption. He has a few lovely anecdotes — The Frye Festival, Thanos, Uber — meant to highlight the lack of new ideas and the frauds that dominate our world. I have another one.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle emerged from their Canadian igloo to give a speech at a JP Morgan event in Florida last week. According to the gossip blogs, which are always right, they made a cool million with a talk about Harry’s difficulties dealing with his mother’s death and his years in therapy. Apparently, three different countries covered the security for them.

Now, it’s a sad tale, but Harry is the hardly the only person in the world who lost a parent at a vulnerable age and now goes to a shrink. JP Morgan paid him all that money along with a private jet, because he was catnip for super, super, mega rich people, who would then invest money in their bank. Famous people want to meet famous people and then swirl all their beautiful money together and make more money.

The only people who seem to really be bothered about these sorts of events are the basement dwellers who comment on those blogs, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with this couple. (To be fair, they also hate Prince Andrew and have some very juicy gossip about Uncle Pervy as they call him.)

I have been saddened by the post-presidential Obamas, who seem to have also cashed in on these sorts of events. They aren’t exactly Jimmy Carters quietly building houses for poor people in their spare time.

And as an army of publicists create Instagramable moments for the masses, things are getting worse. Fiddling, while Rome burns.

With a child with special needs, I go to a lot of presentations about how to navigate the system for adults with disabilities. And it’s all bad. As long as Steve and I are around, my kid will be fine, but what happens when we’re gone? What happens if his brother can’t fill the void? What happens to individuals that don’t have parents that have our resources? The lack of any sort of safety net in our country is terrifying. It keeps me up at night, which is when I read the gossip blogs.

I sort of want to delete this post. Pessimism is bad for one’s brand. Screw it. Publishing.

Revisiting the Gifted & Talented Debate

Mayor DeBlasio recently proposed getting rid of the special gifted and talented schools in New York City. There’s scrutiny on the IQ test given to 4-year olds. Those schools basically caused us to leave New York City, so I have written a lot about them in the past.

In a nutshell, I had my kid tested when he was FOUR YEARS OLD (ugh!) to see if he was gifted and talented, like all of my friends. Because nobody wanted to send their kid to the underfunded local school. He did well enough to get into the lower level gifted schools, but it would have involved lots of subway riding with Ian who was still a toddler who needed naps. I couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so we left.

In a rant on Twitter this morning, I listed my reasons for hating G & T programs:

  • There is no scientific way of sorting out a bunch of hyper 4 and 5 year olds into two camps of gifted and not gifted. None. Just looking at my son’s cohort at school, his kindergarten teacher sorted extremely badly. The kid who is on track to be an aerospace engineer at NASA? Dissed.
  • The process of sorting kids into two piles — gifted v. forgettable — is awful. Full stop.
  • Why should one group of kids get more challenging, fun instruction with higher paid teachers than another group? Equal education for all.
  • The literature on G & T verges on science fiction. Attributing supernatural powers of empathy and reason to mysterious kids. It’s laughable.
  • There’s a place for specialized programs in high school, where sorting is based on mature test taking ability and years of evidence of solid work. But earlier than that, it’s silly, unfair, and pointless.

Previous posts:

Elusive Equality

Back in my early 20s, after two years in the workforce and two years of gazing out the window at all the people jogging in the middle of the afternoon in Central Park, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school.

I decided on a terminal masters program at the University of Chicago in the social sciences. Looking back on it, it was a shockingly bad decision. It was a masters program, after all, no benefit in that. Masters programs are never funded, so I had to pay for the first trimester on my own before a dean saw my A’s and gave me money. And I had been doing really well in publishing. They were about to give me another promotion. Ugh.

Going to the University of Chicago may have been a terrible career move, but it was an amazing intellectual opportunity. I’ve never read so much, been so challenged, been so scared shitless of smart people. I mean it was an intense place. I knew people who totally lost their minds there. But it was also a brain-feast.

I took one class from an old German Jewish guy, who spent half the year in Israel, about revolutions. We compared the causes and outcomes revolutions in the US, France, China, and Russia.

I remember reading one paper that said that the French Revolution ended up with headless aristocrats and blood in the gutters, while the US was relatively less crazy, because Americans never had the goal of égalité. Americans wanted the equality of opportunity, but never thought that everybody should have the same piles of money. Equality of opportunity is a much more sober goal than perfect equality.

There was a lot of talk here and on twitter this week about whether schools can truly provide equality. (I can’t insert links right now, because I’m typing this up on an old iPad at my mom’s kitchen table as I wait for Ian to get out of his science exam.) On their own, schools can’t do much to move the needle on inequality, which shouldn’t be a huge shocker.

My comment section has had a fascinating discussion about inequality this week. Everybody seems to agree that inequality has risen. Causes discussed include tax changes, de-unionization, declining wages for certain jobs, and regional abandonment. (What did I miss?) Check it out.

So, how nihilistic should we be about schools? Can schools alone make up for all those changes in society and make things more equal? Can they at least create conditions for the equality of opportunity, so the most talented, hardworking people can rise to the top? Some schools do. I’ve seen it. But these are amazing, remarkable places led by charismatic crazy people who work like missionaries to change the work.

Ideally, I would like everyone, who is interested in a brain-feast like I got at the University of Chicago, to get it. It was transformative for me. While my parents didn’t pay for the program or help me in any way get in, they did all the groundwork from ages 0-18, so I that as a young adult, I could apply, figure out costs, and succeed.

And this is why there will never be true equality or even equality of opportunity. You can’t force families to be equal. And with such inequality baked into society, children are already vastly unequal before they even get to kindergarten. Schools can’t fix that.

Contractor Blues

So, we are nearly finished redoing the kitchen and ground floor of our house. The remaining issue — the TV hookup — is going to require a visit from the cable guy tomorrow morning. In the past 24 hours, I have learned volumes about the exciting world of HDMI cables. I’ll add that to the vast amount of arcane information that I’ve picked up in the past six months.

Because when I am about to spend a shitload of money, I do what I do best — I research the hell out of it.

Yes, we spent all the moneys on this renovation, but I still did it tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than other families in town. First, I came up with the perfect design for the room by going to five or six different kitchen designers and stealing their ideas. I pinned hundreds of pictures in Pinterest and watching hours of HGTV.  Then, I found a cabinet wholesaler to get me the right price, and I had him redesign the plans three times until it worked perfectly.

Then, I found a contractor who wasn’t a darling of the rich families in this town. Rich the Contractor was cheaper than the town groupies, but working with him required me to do a lot of supervision of the subcontractors. Rich did a great job with the woodwork and installing the cabinets, but everybody else — the plumbers, electrician, tile guy, sheet rockers, floor guy, fireplace guy, painter, architect — needed oversight and sometimes, I had to pay them separately, because the contractor didn’t want any liability for their work.

I could probably run any kitchen renovation in any home right now. I just got a PhD in kitchen repairs. I briefly thought about going into the home flipping business with Rich the Contractor, because I don’t suck at this. He was hinting at it, but that’s not my path.

And Rich the Contractor is thinking about moving into home flipping, because his job is ending. My guess is that our kitchen is his last job. His best worker left last week, when he was scooped by a big corporation that could pay him ten dollars more per hour and give him benefits. Rich can’t find anyone to replace him.

His business is barely profitable. Rich spends $24,000 per year on health insurance for himself, his wife, and his two 20-something kids. He can’t compete with the guys who get their health insurance through their wives or go without. He insists on following the letter of the law for everything, so he pays tons for workplace insurance, workman’s comp, social security. He gets inspections and follows local codes. He hires other guys like himself — middle aged, white guys who live in the area — to do the subcontracting work.

When it came time to do the painting, Rich recommended one of those middle-aged, white guys from the area. His quote was a $1,000 more than the Latino from Newark. Carlos and his friends did a fabulous job and were in and out of here in a day.

Like the contractor from Murphy Brown who never left, Rich has been here for two months. Whenever I needed a break from work, I would go upstairs and pick a fight with him about politics. He’s a Trump voter, so there was lots of fodder. In fact, Rich gave me a question or two to ask the high profile subject that I interviewed last month.

On top of losing his career due to competition from big corporations, more agile immigrant businesses, and his aging knees, his kids are struggling. One is doing okay at a local state college getting a degree in communication. He says that she’ll find a job. But his son, who wanted to be a cop, can’t find a job without having a family connection in the business, so he’s waiting tables and living at home.

Rich is ticked off about a lot of things, so he wasn’t really able to sort out how he can’t be upset at the high costs of health insurance on the one hand and then resist efforts to reform the system on the other. You don’t have to go to West Virginia or Kansas to meet people who aren’t thriving in the new economy.

What Will Help Working-Class Americans?

If we’re looking a silver lining in the whole Trump election business, then we have to say that it’s a good thing that the media is shining a light on the problems of working class Americans. They have been forgotten. Whole sections of the country are struggling. I’ve seen it when visiting family in Cleveland (here and here).

So, now that the focus is on this group of people, the debate has begun about what to do to help. Should we bring back the labor unions? Do we need stronger boards and trade restrictions? Can a president really do anything to turn back the clock?

It’s a good debate, I think. I’m looking forward to seeing how this whole thing plays out.

Would “Free Tuition” Make Inequality Worse?

I’ve got a couple of work phone calls today, so Steve is taking the boys to look at a SLAC in Pennsylvania without me.  I would have liked to go, too, but it will be really nice to work without a million distractions. I can’t properly getting into the writing mode with the boys around. I’m always bracing myself for an interruption that tears me away from a thought. I hate that. I’m not the most admirable parent, when that happens.

Ronald Brownstein has an interesting article in the Atlantic today about the impact of Bernie’s — and now Hillary’s — plan for free tuition at public colleges. He quotes research from Anthony Carnevale from Georgetown.

If tuition is eliminated at public universities for families with income up to $125,000, as Clinton has proposed, more upper- middle-class students who now attend private schools may decide that Austin, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley are better bargains—and intensify competition for the limited slots available there. “What this will do is create a lot of people competing for spaces at public institutions and it will have a bumping effect,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “For minorities and low-income students it will push them down the selectivity queue, toward open admission and two-year colleges.”

I know that there are parts of the country where a family income of $125,000 is upper middle class, but it isn’t around here. It certainly isn’t around Carnevale’s Georgetown neighborhood. A $125,000 is the family income of a school teacher with ten years of experience married to an office manager. That’s not upper-middle class.

$32,000 — that’s the in-state tuition for Rutgers — is a stretch for a family making $125,000. College tuition might amount to a third of the take-home income for that family. If that kid is lucky enough to finish in four years, that B.A. will cost the family more than an entire year of salary.

A kid with an average GPA and test scores from a family like this isn’t going to Georgetown or other very selective private colleges that have a price tag of $70K. Rich kids are hardly going to be swamping the campuses of Rutgers and Delaware and pushing out more needy kids, if a plan like Hillary’s actually makes it through Congress (pretty unlikely anyway).

Now, a plan like this would be great for the lower and the middle middle class. For families that have enough resources to prepare their kids for college, but not enough to afford them. Would it help many lower income families? No. Because not enough of those kids are going to college and those that do are going to less selective colleges and many of them don’t finish school, because they weren’t adequately prepared in high school.

Brownstein does hit on a real problem in his article. The problem is that public colleges have become too competitive. While $32,000 is a lot of money, it is still cheaper than the $70K for the private colleges. With all the new amenities on these public school campuses, they are drawing kids that would have gone to the private schools. There aren’t enough seats in the classrooms for kids with average academic backgrounds. So, the traditional students of public colleges – middle class kids with B’s – are in a jam. Parents are sending them to out of state colleges with price tags in the $40-$55K range and racking up more debt.

So, there are three separate problems all of which need different solutions. Problem One is that college is unaffordable to middle class families. Problem Two is that there aren’t enough seats in public colleges in some states, like California, New York and New Jersey. Problem Three is that lower income kids are getting funneled to less selective schools and failing out.

The “free tuition” proposal solves Problem One, but doesn’t do anything about Problems Two and Three. Unlike Brownstein, I don’t think that “free tuition” will make Problems Two and Three worse.

The Middle Income Squeeze

The Wall Street Journal reports on the changing spending habits of Americans, since 2007. More on home internet and health care and health insurance. Less on restaurants and clothing. Earnings look about flat.

To see how it has moved, the Journal analyzed Labor Department data on 2013 out-of-pocket spending for the middle 60% of the population by income—households earning between about $18,000 and $95,000 a year, before taxes.

The data show they are losing ground. Overall spending for the group rose by about 2.3% over the six-year period from 2007, even as inflation totaled about 12%. At the same time, income for the group stagnated, rising less than half a percent.