I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

27 July 2012

SBOE=SOL | An Education System in Crisis

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an utter disgrace not only to our state but to our country. Every Texas citizen — indeed, every American citizen ought to be nothing short of furious with the currently abysmal state of affairs in which our public school system finds itself. We are desperately in need of a MAJOR overhaul in structure, organization and composition of the relevant governing bodies responsible for putting us where we are today. At the risk of sounding alarmist, we are on a collision course with disaster—some might say we're already there—and the longer we allow this broken runaway ship to continue forging full-speed ahead in the direction of the dark ages, the worse off we will all be as a result and the more difficult it will be to repair the damage. I don't feel it unreasonable to argue that education is easily the most pressing problem we face in Texas today, and our track record in recent decades for finding, funding and successfully implementing workable solutions is, at best, thoroughly disappointing and downright depressing. If this does not have you deeply, deeply concerned, well—it should. Our collective future depends on it. . .  

My father used to tell me growing up, "You are allowed to complain if—and only ifboth of the following conditions are met: (a) you can articulate the problem, and (b) you have solutions to offer." I always found these requirements terribly stifling, particularly in those teen years when one loves to complain about everything, but it turns out that was pretty good advice. So in honor of him, that's exactly what I plan to do here today.

The Problem

There are so very many problems with education in Texas, it is difficult to know where to begin. Just the size of it alone is pretty overwhelming. While the saying that everything is bigger here is clearly untrue, to which the intellectual capacity of our Governor will surely attest, it does seem to be the case with respect to our public school system. We house more schools than many small countries. But, perhaps surprisingly, size doesn't make my short list of contributing factors; even if it were a major factor, I see no realistic solution to unalterable geography, thus violating rule (b) above. Solutions. We're focused on solutions here. Besides, I do not have the time nor the patience nor the inclination to torture helpless readers by attempting to discuss every problematic feature here. So, I am going to discuss only one.

The biggest one. . . .


No, it's not teachers or standards or parents or funding or testing or students. It's not even Rick Perry (though he certainly isn't helping). In my estimation, easily the single biggest obstacle to improving our public school system is, ironically, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). . . . (<—and yes, I realize it isn't proper to capitalize the "O" in an acronym when it stands for "of," but this is how they do it and I haven't a clue why. My best guess would be either another agency called the SBE, or yet another point to add to my argument. But we'll get to that in a minute.) In case you're unfamiliar, don't worry—you aren't alone. It sometimes seems to be the best kept secret in Texas. Aside from the intermittent rounds of headlines that sweep the nation about them every decade or so when new textbook purchases are on the horizon, you don't often hear much about them — which I always find absolutely shocking given the substantial degree of power and influence they have over our schools.

But again, in case you're unfamiliar, here's a quick rundown: The SBOE consists of 15-member board elected on a district-wide basis to terms of four years; they meet a few times each year to discuss and decide upon public school matters concerning textbooks, curriculum, teaching standards, and oversight of the Permanent School Fund. You can find more about them on their website here. If you think that sounds like a mighty big job for 15 people, not to mention in only a few days each year, I agree; but that's a topic for another day. 

One would expect, or at least I do, that to be elected to a board that makes such crucial education decisions affecting nearly 5 million public school children, there would be some sort of criteria for candidates. Like a college education, for instance. However, one would be wrong. The sole criterion is simply this: get votes. Period. 

In sum, the SBOE consists of an overwhelming majority of radically conservative evangelical Christians, young-earth Creationists who are almost ALL devoutly anti-science, anti-sex-ed, anti-equality, and apparently, even anti-public education. Seriously. Which would all be well and good by me so long as they weren't proselytizing to my children and yours via public school textbooks. And so long as they weren't MANDATING that Texas teachers tell our children flat out lies and present them as "fact." 

But that is exactly what they are doing.

One writer puts it quite concisely here:
Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education from 2007 to 2009, is a “young earth” creationist. He believes the earth is 6,000 years old, that human beings walked with dinosaurs, and that Noah’s Ark had a unique, multi-level construction that allowed it to house every species of animal, including the dinosaurs.
He has a right to his beliefs, but it’s his views on history that are problematic. McLeroy is part of a large and powerful movement determined to impose a thoroughly distorted, ultra-partisan, Christian nationalist version of US history on America’s public school students. And he has scored stunning successes.
If you missed what many have humorously (and sadly) dubbed the latest "casualties" in the "Texas Textbook Massacre" circa 2009-10, here's a quick review. Unlike most states who leave book selection up to individual districts, the SBOE requires that schools choose from a "board-approved" list; should a district decide to choose a book not on the list, they are entirely on their own in paying for them, and as we all know too well, those things aren't cheap.

So the textbook writers and publishers, well aware of our weirdly backward Texas system, know they have no choice but to write the books pandering to a very specific (and radical) subset of people in the first place. And that still is never good enough. A list of candidate books are first compiled in draft, and the board members put together what they call "a panel of experts" who make revisions, deletions and amendments however they see fit, then return the drafts to the board for final review and a vote, and publisher approval. Sounds legit, right? I wish it were. 

About this panel of "experts". . . Just last week the board considered the following three amendments, proposed by both Republicans and Democrats, and reported here by TFN, which outlines the bulk of the problem here: 
  • Reformers proposed that experts appointed to help them revise curriculum standards have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the curriculum standards being revised. The current rule is that an expert need only have a bachelor’s degree in any field. A master’s or doctorate would be a better indicator of expertise, but surely it seems reasonable to expect that an “expert” in, for example, science have at least a bachelor’s degree in that field. But that was too much for the board’s creationists. “I don’t know why we’d want to limit ourselves,” said board member and evolution denier Terri Leo, R-Spring. The proposal failed on a tie vote.
  • Reformers then proposed that appointments to “expert” panels require at least a majority vote by the board. Board creationists, however, argued that the current rule — that appointment to an “expert” panel requires the consent of just two board members — “protects the rights of the minority.” “I don’t think we need to be in the business of vetting other people’s experts,” said board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont Buna. “It’s an uncomfortable situation.” Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, even argued that requiring two board members to agree on a nominee was a sufficient check to stop “crazy people” from being appointed: “I can’t pick a crazy person because I’ve got to get another (board member) to agree.” The proposal for a majority vote for “experts” lost by one vote.
  • Reformers also wanted to rein in the board’s habit of making sometimes hundreds of amendments to proposed drafts of new curriculum standards late in the revision process without formal guidance from teachers, scholars or anyone else. But the board’s creationists defeated a motion requiring that proposed amendments to draft standards be filed at least 24 hours in advance so that all members would have a chance to study them and consult with scholars and other experts. Lowe and other creationists argued that such a requirement would “hamper” their work.
Is it just me or is this not, pardon my French, BAT-SHIT CRAZY?! We have a very tiny group of people, many of whom have prestigious credentials such as 'part-time copy editor' and 'college dropout' not just electing non-expert experts to panels, but actively editing, deleting, and amending textbooks unilaterally however they please. Excuse me for being "Elitist" (which is no doubt what they would call me), but I happen to think that a college dropout who calls evolution "hooey," says that pollution and global warming are "junk science," and who thinks all public schools are "evil" is maybe, just maybe, not the best guy we can find to take a red pen, sharpie and white-out to my child's biology textbook, which was originally written by a TEAM of actual biologists. . . or any other textbook for that matter, considering this kind of behavior:
His most dramatic rejection, however, was of an algebra textbook that he criticized for pictures, recipes (!), and references to women’s suffrage, biology and the Vietnam War. By law, the state board can reject textbooks only if they fail to cover established state curriculum standards, contain factual errors or do not meet manufacturing specifications. Knowing that his ideological bias was not a legally sufficient reason to reject the math textbook, Bradley tore the cover off (with some effort), stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, worthless binding. I reject this book.”(11)
To better illustrate the types of "amendments" and "revisions" we're talking about here, when reviewing social studies curriculum in 2010, the board voted to make changes such as removing Thomas Jefferson from the list of Enlightenment thinkers, removing any added emphasis on Mexican-American history, slavery and the separation of church and state, meanwhile "beefing up" the ideas that we were born a Christian nation, Ronald Reagan was a god, and the NRA has been a leading voice of reason working "solely for the public good." One board member suggested removing references to Martin Luther King, Jr., for Christ's sake...

As Gail Collins notes in her witty yet quietly disheartening book As Texas Goes... "Approval of textbooks was once held up over board concern that they were teaching children to be more loyal to their planet than to their country." Again, seriously. I couldn't make this up if I tried. (By the way, this book has an entire chapter devoted to the insider 4-1-1 on this issue, aptly titled "The Textbook Wars," in case anyone is interested. She's hilarious and it's a quick read, easily worth the purchase if only for this chapter.)

And now, I'll let some of the past and present Board members speak for themselves and make my argument for me, also courtesy of Gail Collins:
“One of the first real breaches of limited government was public education.”  — Don McLeroy, R-College Station, (BurkaBlog, Texas Monthly)
"What good does it do to put a Chinese story in an English book? So you really don't want Chinese books with a bunch of crazy Chinese words in them."         — Don McLeroy
"Sending children to public schools is like throwing them into the enemy's flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch."                  — Cynthia Dunbar
Unfortunately, I could go on for days about this, but I think that's quite enough.

The Solutions


Solution #1.   For starters, in a state where everything from firefighter uniforms to fire hydrant color is decided upon by popular vote, why are we letting the SBOE members vote upon referendums aimed at regulating their wildly damaging, radically irrational behavior themselves? Is this not like rounding up all the bankers and asking them to vote on whether or not we should have fair banking regulation? These types of safeguards must come from outside of the SBOE. It's absurd to submit it directly to them for consideration. Let it be a matter for the Texas House or Senate or anyone besides the people it's meant to reign in. If that violates our Constitution, then let's amend it. We do that about twice a week anyway.

Solution #2.   Either change the term limits to two years rather than four, or keep them at four but stop staggering them so that they always coincide with presidential elections, since that is apparently the only time Texans get off their couches and into a voting booth.

Solution #3.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in education, you cannot be elected to the Curriculum Committee.

Solution #4.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in finance, you cannot be elected to the Education Finance Committee.

Solution #5.   New Rule: If you have ever said anything even remotely akin to "Public institutions of education are subtle tools of perversion implemented by the Devil to poison the minds of our children" (more awesomeness from former SBOE Chair Cynthia Dunbar) then you are not — I repeat NOT —allowed to serve on the State Board of [Public] Education.

Here's what the Texas Constitution has to say about it:  
"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."
Particularly in reference to the reasoning offered for Solution #5, the SBOE, as it stands, is in direct violation of the Constitution and not living up to its duties.

They do, however, align perfectly with their respective political base. Though many of us have known this for years, the Republican Party of Texas has recently taken the unusual step of formally and publicly announcing their continued commitment to irrationality and the decimation of our public school system by calling for the eradication of critical thought from public education. Again, SERIOUSLY. If you are in a state of disbelief that they would do such a thing, trust me —I am with you. But allow me to share with you a direct quote taken from the official 2012 GOP platform declaration in the section addressing education:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
So, in case there were any prior misconceptions that the argument I've presented here is merely the product of "liberal bias" or "political spin," or that I have somehow misrepresented the reality of the situation in the interest of serving some personal, political or social agenda, I hope we can now safely put that false presumption to bed. The parallels drawn between the Republican base, their friends at the SBOE, and the deliberate denigration and degradation of the very institution of public education in Texas are not imagined and they have nothing whatsoever to do with partisan conjecture. These relationships are real, they are dangerous, and they must be acknowledged.

As I said before, if you do not find all of this deeply, deeply troubling—so much so that you are willing to actually do something about it—then, as far as I'm concerned, (a) you effectively forfeit your right to complain about it, or anything else that requires active citizen participation; and (b) you are part of the problem.

Incidentally, we have a very unique opportunity coming up in November. Because of last year's Census and subsequent redistricting to adjust for population changes, all 15 seats on the Board are up for grabs. And since it's a presidential election year, we'll at least have a better shot at getting something resembling a balance... It is still Texas, though, so it will undoubtedly have an artificial but heavy lean to the right (waaaaaay right), but I guess that's better than nothing. 

To those of you that are maybe just hearing about this for the first time and would like to keep up with what's happening, the Texas Freedom Network, started by ex-Gov. Ann Richards daughter specifically to combat the "crazy," does an amazing job of keeping up with SBOE happenings. They also have a tool to sign-up for e-mail reminders when Board elections are coming up, among other relevant and helpful things. You can find it here.

The nonprofit group Teach Them Science has by far the best breakdown of current Board members that I've found to date, listing detailed background info, beliefs, quotes, stats, pics, voting histories and various interesting tidbits about all 15 of the members, along with a neat little tool at the top of the page to type in your zip to see whose district you're in. Check it out here.

Whether of not you care to hear anymore about the SBOE anytime soon, I promise, you will. There is a blockbuster expose-style documentary about them coming soon to a theater near you. Here's a clip from that film below, followed by a pretty fantastic interview with Don McLeroy on the Colbert Report last month, in case you missed my inaugural post.

But before I go, let me reiterate that unlike this year, most SBOE elections happen in off-years and with little to no press coverage. They have the lowest voter turnout of any state-wide office — which means that if absolutely nowhere else, even a handful of votes matters. If you are reading my post now, odds are you are a fellow student; which tells me that even if you loathe politics and government, there is likely some part of you that does value a quality education. VOTE. It matters.

24 July 2012

The Conservative Conundrum

Greetings, you lucky devil, you! You're just in time. The moment everyone's been waiting for has finally arrived. Reporting live from the studios of Merriam-Webster et al. I now bring you the next exciting edition of . . . .(drum roll, please). . . . K's Word of the Day! 

co·nun·drum  /kə-ˈnən-drəm/  (noun.)  
1.     A confusing and difficult problem or question.
2.     A paradoxical, insoluble, or puzzling situation; a dilemma. 
3.     An issue or problem having only a conjectural answer.
              Synonyms:    riddle – enigma – paradox – mystery – the conservative position . . . 

 Perhaps you noticed something unusual there at the end. I noticed that too, but let’s be real here—who am I to question THE Merriam-Webster? Before we delve any deeper, I should perhaps also clarify number (3) from above with a follow-up definition, just in case any of my Jersey-Shore-watching friends happen to be reading along with us today and are in need of a “refresher”: 
con·jec·ture  /kən-ˈjək-chər/  (noun.)  
1.     An inference from defective or presumptive logic.
2.     An opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information. 
              Synonyms:    guess – supposition – speculation – the conservative position.

Unusual again, you say? Odd, everything looks right to me… Fine, fine, I confess. I have taken the liberty (liberty!) of making a few minor adjustments. It’s true, the Merriam-Webster original didn’t say exactly every word as stated above; however, they would’ve been fully justified in doing so, as we will soon see. Let me explain . . . . 

The Issue

As I’m sure you are all well aware, there has been much media fuss of late and certainly no short supply of heated headlines concerning Gov. Rick Perry’s controversial decision to reject all federal funds being offered to the states for expansion of Medicaid and a handful of other services as provisioned by the newly-Supreme-Court-approved PPACA legislation typically referred to, be it hatefully of affectionately, as "Obamacare."(Dun-dun-dun...)

As someone who has worked in health care for many more years than I care to admit, with experience in both the private and public sectors, and a substantial portion of that time spent in the most underfunded area of medicine, mental health, it is reasonably safe to say that, naturally, I bring to this particular debate quite a bit of “baggage.” I’ve put in my 10,000 hours fully immersed in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of health care. That being said, while I do feel that my experience affords me a great deal of insight into the situation, and lends credibility to whatever opinions I’ve come to hold, I am also rational and self-aware enough to understand that this might prove to be a double-edged sword, with my frame of reference potentially eliciting an emotional rather than reasoned evaluation.

So, I did what I always do when issues like this come up—an approach that is apparently unthinkable to the vast majority of the American public. Grit my teeth, grind my heels into the ground, and scream, “LOOK, PEOPLE - I KNOW WHAT’S BEST HERE BECAUSE I’M AN EXPERT, SO YOU ALL SHUTUP AND LISTEN TO ME!”…? In a word, NO. Absolutely not. That would be the American Way, but I like to think that my way is better. First, I begin actively seeking the very best arguments I can find against my position. I make a concerted effort to find any and all cases that oppose, contradict or refute my beliefs in any way; I read them, genuinely consider them, and weigh them carefully and honestly against whatever preconceived notions I might’ve held. Then—and only then—do I decide whether my original position is a valid one, worthy of defending, or if it would be wisest to instead amend or even completely abandon that view in light of new or better information. (Yo, Jersey, are you still here? You and a few others might want to back up and take notes here. You know who you are.) Anyway, in this spirit of challenging my beliefs and ongoing critical analysis, my search for conflicting views continues -- which now brings us to today’s topic.

TexasFred lost his head.

In what can only be described as a Fox News pundit’s wet dream – and a sane individual’s worst nightmare – conservative political blogger TexasFred has weighed in on the health care debate, enlightening readers everywhere with his seemingly infinite wisdom. And to your great fortune (torture?), I will now share his argument with you.

20 July 2012

On the Fallacy of the Self-Made Man

It often seems as if the Texas State Seal ought to be emblazoned with the byline, “Proud Home of the Self-Made Man.” Indeed, according to many, Rick Perry is the walking, talking embodiment of this concept. As the Houston Chronicle puts it, “In many ways, Gov. Rick Perry is the iconic Texan, a self-made man whose rugged individualism has come to define his public life, for better or worse.”

But what does it mean, really, to be “self-made”? This term the Chronicle has coupled with it, “rugged individualism,” seems to fit the stereotype quite nicely. I am inclined to think that the mental image that springs to my mind when I hear phrases like this is not terribly different from what most people envision—particularly my fellow Texans: A salt-of-the-earth, grassroots, tough-as-nails type of man; a man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and through nothing but hard work and individual merit, made something great of himself, in the face of considerable odds. A truly self-reliant, rugged individual, who never took a dime from anyone and doesn’t owe the world a dime. Perhaps even a pair of boots named Freedom and Liberty….

At least this is what I picture. And it does seem to be the very essence of the Great American Dream. If absolutely nothing else, it’s damn sure the Texan Dream, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw parallels between this ideal and the staunchly conservative position that typifies Texas politics, along with a substantial portion of the nation. And anyone that dares to challenge this glorious Texan/American Dream, may the Good Lord have mercy on their soul…

But challenge it he did, our beloved President, and the conservative talking heads roiled with unchecked rage. In a scathing article published in the Dallas Morning News yesterday, staff editorial writer Mike Hashimoto effectively attempts to crucify Obama for comments made last week to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia; comments which Mr. Hashimoto apparently equates with sacrilegious desecration of the Great American Way. But I shall now let Mr. Hashimoto speak for himself: 
[Obama] slapped aside the efforts of business builders and owners in what’s supposed to be a free-enterprise system, was it a mistake or a mistaken revelation? As the news business goes, the quote has been reduced to this: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”
My answer would be to track back through his government-vs.-private-sector comments and his policy prescriptions over time. I think it’s pretty clear that this is a president — of the United States — who has little appreciation for the American way and certainly the American Dream. To his mind, if government doesn’t provide it, it’s not worth having.”
He goes on to argue against what he seems to view as the liberal apologist default position, attempting to invalidate various arguments made in defense of Obama’s comments. To better illustrate his own opinion of such arguments, he quotes Reason.com’s Tim Cavanaugh, who says the following:
The president’s supporters have a multipronged counterargument: Either he didn’t make those comments or they were taken out of context or even if they are in context they don’t matter because we should be reading between the lines.
As an example of the former type, he offers up a Tweet posted by Texas State Rep. Eric Johnson, a democrat from Dallas, who apparently posted on Twitter: “U know #POTUS comment is being taken completely out of context, so why perpetuate a lie? Integrity, bro.” To which Hashimoto replies, “Yeah, OK, bro. Clown question.” Um, seriously? Granted, Johnson’s comments weren’t the most eloquent the world has ever seen, but that was on Twitter… What’s Hashimoto’s excuse? Is this seriously a mainstream news Editorial, or are we reading a random Facebook rant?

Anyway. It isn’t until the end that he finally recounts the President’s actual statements in full:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
The article author then closes with the following gem:
So, please, spare me the “roads and bridges” defense. You can wish he didn’t say what he said, but to pretend his words don’t mean exactly what they appear to mean falls far short of reasonable. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.” In Obama’s mind, obviously, that somebody is the government. And I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are “allowed” to thrive by government.
Now, I’m going to refrain from taking cheap shots at the grossly substandard quality of writing offered here because, frankly, he did a mighty fine job of that himself. And why add insult to injury? Instead, let’s just focus on the disassembly of this appalling excuse for an argument—if one can even call it that.

Actually, despite his overt claims that he’s actually making one here, I cannot, in good conscious, even classify this as an argument. An argument requires, at a minimum, two things: Propositions/statements/evidence and a conclusion, which do all seem present here, but there’s a catch: to be an argument, the propositions have to actually offer support in some way to one’s conclusion, and inversely, the conclusion has to be supported in some way by the propositions offered. This is why they’re typically called “supporting statements.” All I see here is a conclusion: Obama is the Devil. I kid. But that isn’t too far from the truth. Hashimoto more or less tries to convince his readers that Obama has opened up a good ol’ fashioned can of Texas whoop-ass on our beloved “self-made” man; however, despite his painstaking efforts to present it as such, this rant amounts to nothing more than a randomly asserted belief—which, contrary to popular belief, is NOT an argument.

But considering how many people in our state and country would wholeheartedly buy into this random assertion, let’s play along and pretend that it is an argument for a moment, in the interest of exposing its inherent incoherency. If we were to break it down into formal logical structure, it might go something like this:

·       Obama said “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.”
·       Most Americans do believe they build their own businesses.
·       Building one’s own business is the American way.
·       Therefore, Obama must be wrong, because we believe in the American Way.

For starters, this pseudo-argument’s only offering of anything even resembling supportive evidence is that most Americans “believe” something. To use his words, Yeah, OK, bro… 47% of Americans don’t even know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun... Hell, 29% think that the Sun revolves around us. Forgive me for being cynical (realistic?) here, but I would be more than a little hesitant to trust anything the general public “believes,” simply because they believe it. And even if it were true, it’s a circular argument. Non-argument.  Whatever.

So what did we learn from all this? Absolutely nothing—which is kind of the point. The vast majority of arguments waged in this vein contain little to no worthwhile substance, and no matter how many times they might work in the term “argument,” that does not make it such. If you’re going to claim that you’re making an argument, then MAKE ONE. Convince me. Show me some evidence that refutes Obama’s claim that we effectively couldn’t do what we do or make what we make or become what we will become entirely independent of all external factors, namely, the federal government. I’ll give anybody a shot to convince me that’s not true; I’ll listen to whatever coherent case might be made, and I am not so stubborn or arrogant or pretentious that I’m incapable of changing my mind. But you may as well give up the empty noise and tired hand waving, because that is never going to cut it. And as it turns out, Obama happens to be in very good company on this one—with his strongest support coming from the last places one might expect….

A dear friend of mine, Lovelace Soirez, sent me a letter on this subject a while back titled “Taxes and the Myth of the Self-Made Man.” Because I feel that he states this position much more eloquently than I can, I’m going to quote a bit of what he wrote here, and I do hope that he won’t mind.
We can debate all day about whether or not our current form of government is the best way to address the myth of the self-made man, but what follows is the bare-minimum of what needs to be acknowledged when having this debate.  In my opinion, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the role that society plays in shaping who we are.  It's the starting point. The commenter (at the very bottom) sums up nicely why this is so.  We all benefit significantly from public goods... much more so than libertarians are willing to admit.  Sorry there's so much here, but it's worth the read.
He goes on to cite numerous references that collectively serve to decimate this notion of the “self-made man" to the point of virtually irrefutable. I’ll admit I feel a bit guilty for piggy-backing off of his sources here, but I do so only because they are among the best I’ve yet to find. Time and space will not allow me to share them all with you (believe me, I am tempted), but I’ll try to hit the highlights. And like he did, I will apologize for length, along with wholehearted agreement that it’s certainly worth a read.

The first comes from this 2010 publication:
Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in North America say there is no such thing as the "self-made man." With more millionaires making, rather than inheriting, their wealth, there is a false belief that they made it on their own without help, a new report published by the Boston-based non-profit United For a Fair Economy, states. The group has signed more than 2,200 millionaires and billionaires to a petition to reform and keep the U.S. inheritance tax. The report says the myth of "self-made wealth is potentially destructive to the very infrastructure that enables wealth creation.”
The individuals profiled in the report believed they prospered in large part to things beyond their control and because of the support of others. Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world said, "I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." Erick Schmidt, CEO of Google says, "Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don't have a fraction of what I have. I realize that I don't have my wealth because I'm so brilliant."
Yes, you read that correctly. That was a few of those so-called self-made men—among the wealthiest, most successful businessmen in America—supporting precisely what Obama suggested and refuting the generally conservative counter-position.

And here is another obscenely wealthy media-empire heiress, Abigal Disney, discussing the many ways in which Disney could never have been possible for her grandfather in absence of . . . Guess who!

[M]y grandfather vowed never to let himself be taken advantage of again. He soon registered a copyright on a new character named Mickey Mouse. It was 1928, and it was neither the first nor the last time the Walt Disney Co. benefited from a federal system of protections, laws and taxes that created fertile ground for building a business empire.
In addition to the copyright protections for Mickey, the Federal Communications Commission regulated the airwaves that carried the Disneyland television series and, of course, the Mickey Mouse Club. The transportation and federal highway system built in the wake of World War II took millions of visitors to Disneyland. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild devastated European markets into which Disney poured its products, turning a quaint American company into a global brand.
Let’s read more, this time from The Economist:
DANA MILBANK wrote a snark-suffused piece in yesterday's Washington Post on a conference call by a group of millionaires who'd like to see their own taxes raised. The group is affiliated with United for a Fair Economy, which pushes for a more progressive tax code. The thrust of the meeting was that Barack Obama's plans to cancel an extension of the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year are a good first step, but don't go far enough. Mr Milbank quotes fifth-generation paper mill heir Mike Lapham, who thinks he pays "obscenely low tax rates", and notes that the group has pledged to donate the money it saves under the Bush tax cuts to groups pushing for higher marginal taxes on the rich. . . .
 ….Here's the thing: taxes are not charity. It would be a bad idea for wealthy people who feel they should be paying more taxes to instead contribute large amounts of money voluntarily to reduce the national debt. The first, less important reason for this is that any individual's contributions would be meaninglessly small; they can make far more difference by using the same amount of money to advocate for higher taxes, as these millionaires are doing. But the second, more important reason is that even if a million millionaires got together and voluntarily donated money in such quantities that it made a measurable dent in the deficit, it would be even worse, because they would be giving license to other people to continue pay less than their fair share of taxes. It's an invitation to free-riding, with the public-minded rich subsidising the irresponsible and selfish.
If America did not have a severe and potentially catastrophic national debt problem, one could have a legitimate argument in which some people argued for higher taxes and more defense, health care, transportation, etc, while others argued for lower taxes and less defense, health care, transportation, etc. That is not the situation in which America finds itself. For 30 years, we have systematically collected much less in taxes than our government spends; the structural deficit used to be around 3% of GDP, but over the past two years it's leapt up due to the recession. Over the long term, we need to make painful choices to bring expenses and revenues back into line. There are two legitimate arguments one can make here. One is "I think we should raise taxes in the following ways." The other is "I think we should make the following massive cuts in defense, health care, transportation etc." It is not legitimate to say: "Hey, if you feel like paying more to reduce the debts we all incurred together, go ahead; as for me, I'll pass."
And I swear this is the last one, but these are just too great (and important) not to share:
Heimdall wrote:
Apr 9th 2010 3:02 GMT
I rarely see this point brought up, so I'll give it a shot.
A couple of things that you can say about people who are extremely wealthy are pretty non-controversial:
1) They have a lot of wealth.
2) They accumulated that wealth through some mechanism.
Here we get to the controversial part.
Most people who are wealthy credit their situation solely to their hard work, talent, etc. And they credit the situation of the poor solely to their lack of work ethic, talent, etc. Ergo, the wealthy are -- by definition -- deserving of whatever they desire and the poor are equally deserving of their squalor. I think of this as "the Ayn Rand" position.
I'd like to point out that a critical component in wealth accumulation -- possibly even greater than work ethic or talent -- is the infrastructure that the government provides to enable such accumulation: rule of law, the justice system, transportation infrastructure, education, national defense, etc.
Without this infrastructure our wealthy magnate is but a warlord in Afghanistan or Somalia. With them he is Bill Gates or she is Meg Whitman. This infrastructure is a lever by which people can magnify their work ethic and talent.
The wealthy have demonstrably used this lever to a much greater degree than the poor. The poor may get a pittance in food stamps, social security, etc. The wealthy accumulate millions if not billions of dollars by skillfully manipulating this lever.
Shouldn't people who use a thing pay more for that thing?
I submit that an objective measure of utilization of the lever of governmental infrastructure is the wealth that a person is able to accumulate. Thus, the percent of the tax "burden" shouldered by the wealthy should be proportional to the wealth they have accumulated.
Which is not to say that we should have a single "wealth tax". But it is to say that we should recalibrate a diversified revenue stream on occasion such that the top n% as measured by wealth pay approximately n% of taxes.
This is not "confiscation" as some like to say. It is payment for services received in direct proportion to the degree a person uses those services.
In case your typical frame of reference includes a combination of hand-waving pundits and the uneducated powers that be, what you’ve just seen above: these are what arguments are supposed to look like. And unless and until I see something at least comparable from the other side, I will remain of the position that if the “American Way” is synonymous with the “self-made man,” then the American Way is nothing more than a delusion of grandeur.

Unfortunately for those of us in Texas, it is this very myth that fuels the Perry & Co. fire and largely propagates this anti-tax/pro-business culture that the majority of our closest neighbors embrace. We have effectively arranged our state according to a business model based on principles that, so far as I can tell, do not exist. The educated, informed perspective seems to suggest that Rick Perry has it perfectly backwards when he argues that a low-tax/no-tax economic environment is the best recipe for future success. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” And when it comes to civilized society, most unfortunately for those of us in Texas, we do get exactly what we pay for—with our education system being the prime example.  

So when Mr. Hashimoto said “I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are ‘allowed’ to thrive by government,” I suspect he was likely correct; however, unlike Mr. Hashimoto, I also happen to think that most Americans have it wrong

And, again, to Lovelace: Thank younot just for allowing me to shamelessly restate your argument here, but mainly for your friendship and the wisdom that it brings. I am grateful.

17 July 2012

Gay Bashing and Bad Science: The Sequel

After quite a bit of further thought I’ve realized that, while it may seem painfully obvious to me, I should perhaps clarify for some of my readers just what exactly my previous post has to do with Texas politics. More importantly, I also feel the need to better explain and emphasize explicitly why this issue ought to matter—and matter greatly—to all of you, regardless of which side of the debate you happen to be on.

Before we begin, if you’re just joining in this conversation and missed the post referenced above, I would recommend that you start there to catch up since I don’t plan to repeat it all here, but I’ll try to give you the quickest-ever recap in history: As reported last week in the Statesman, UT Professor of Sociology Mark Regnerus is currently under international fire for a recently published study in which he essentially claims to have found conclusive evidence that the children of gays and lesbians fare significantly worse than the children of heterosexual couples. Astonishingly poor experimental design coupled with serious conflicts of interest in both funding sources as well as Regnerus’s biased personal ideologies have led to open demands for retraction by hundreds of well-respected scholars along with countless civil rights advocacy groups around the world. The publishing journal’s parent company, publishing giant Elsevier, has subsequently referred the publication to the Committee on Publication Ethics and Regnerus is now under investigation by the University of Texas for scientific misconduct. Extensive coverage of the case can be found here from outspoken civil rights activist and writer Scott Rose, whose series of investigate reports has been a leading catalyst for the inquiries.

Well, I’m not sure about the “quickest-ever” part, but there you have it. Now, where were we? Ah, yes.

The Politics

Many have speculated, and quite rightly I presume, that the Regnerus study will be both used and abused by those championing the anti-gay rights side of the political spectrum, politicians whom are typically pandering to the conservative/Republican/evangelical Christian voting block. One of the central and frequently heard rallying cries that comes from this anti-gay demographic is something along the lines of "But what about the children!?" with their very appalled-shock-and-horror faces. However, the growing body of scientific research conducted over the past decade has, by and large, steadily chipped away at the myth that same-sex orientation of a parent is inherently tragically detrimental to a child. Science had all but debunked this baseless claim being used as a weapon to serve political and social agendas. 

Now enter the Family Structures Study, courtesy of UTs Mark Regnerus and his team of conservative backers. You might be inclined to ask: "If all of this is true, can a single erroneous study at odds with a massive body of literature actually do that much damage? Won't people simply see it for what it is and move on?" To this I would reply with only one question: 

Do you think vaccines are safe? 

Chances are, even in a tiny sample size of 36, at least a handful of you answered "I'm not so sure." Would you like to know from where this equally baseless and equally damaging idea came? From a single erroneous study published in 1998 in which British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed to have found evidence that childhood vaccinations were "the cause of autism," and the worldwide media frenzy and public hysteria inevitably ensued. However, it gradually came to light—albeit painstakingly slowlythat the Wakefield study was nothing more than egregiously flawed experimental design coupled with radically unsubstantiated conclusions, not the least bit supported by even his own evidence, and severe conflicts of interest concerning funding sources. (Sound familiar? It should.) Despite being abruptly denounced by hundreds of thousands of academics and the entire medical community; and despite the publication's initial partial retraction, followed later (much later, unfortunately) by a full retraction; and despite the fact that numerous ethical and scientific review investigations later found Wakefield guilty of dozens of legal and ethical violations, ruling that he had "failed in his duties as a responsible consultant and researcher, acting both against the best interests of his patients, and irresponsibly and dishonestly misrepresenting data in his published research; and despite the fact that he ultimately had his medical license revoked—yes, despite all this, the myth lived on. Or, I should say, "lives on."

We now find ourselves, nearly 15 years later, somehow still living at the mercy of this one stray, bunk study and the incomprehensible groundswell of widespread fear, irrationality and mistrust that it ushered in. We watch in helplessly awestricken horror as childhood vaccination rates continue to decline, bringing with it the inevitable resurgence of many very dangerous, sometimes deadly, childhood diseases, that prior to the decades-long "Wakefield Massacre," as I like to call it, had been all but eradicated in the Western world. 

 Yes, nearly 15 years later, this one stray, bunk study lives on—at the peril of not only the millions of children who now remain unvaccinated, but also at the peril of those whose parents have been wise enough to immunize because they may very well be running around on the playground with many children who aren't. Increased disease prevalence means increased opportunity for random mutation, which means an increased likelihood that one of these diseases will essentially morph into a version (strain) for which our current vaccines are useless.
 So, again, if you are inclined to ask if one bogus study can really do much damage, even if a few politicians and/or the media latch on with their paranoid, fearmongering fingers? YES. Absolutely and unequivocally YES.
What Does This Have to Do With Texas?

Despite his recent open endorsement of equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens, President Obama has stopped short of pushing federal legislation and has instead left it in the hands of the states. As I’m sure you are no doubt aware, our shared state of residence happens to be among the most conservative in the country. And as I am sure you are also aware, civil rights is not merely a social issue; it is a legal one. As with all things legal and political and nature (and everything else on the planet for that matter) there is no such thing as a “final word.” So even though we have already written a ban on same-sex marriage into the Texas Constitution, this debate is far from over, it entails much more than simply marriage, and it will continue to be a central issue in state and local politics well into the foreseeable future.

Why It Matters

I’ve read that many of my classmates consider themselves largely apathetic towards politics, which leads me to believe that there are also at least a few here who would say that their personal opinions on this (or any other) matter makes no difference whatsoever one way or the other in terms of public policy. I am here to tell you that you are wrong. The relationship between public policy and social attitudes is not unidirectional; it is a perpetual feedback loop where each continually feeds off the other. Even if you have never cast a vote in your life, the general ways in which we speak or act towards one another, even the ways we think about things, has this very weird way of becoming a sort of collective dialogue that eventually manifests itself into public policy.  So I care not only how you might vote on something like gay rights legislation, but also—and perhaps more—I care how you actually think about it, too.

Nearly every argument I’ve ever heard waged against equal rights for the gay and lesbian community has ultimately come down to religious beliefs. Come to think of it, EVERY argument I’ve ever heard waged against equal rights for the gay and lesbian community has ultimately come down to religious beliefs. If anyone anywhere has different motivations for holding that position, I would invite you to please share that with me. Does such an argument exist? Whatever you believe, put it aside for a moment and play along in a little thought experiment: Come up with a convincing argument for the anti-gay position that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with tradition or religious dogma. And NO, the Regnerus study does not count. We’ve been through this. But I will now pause and give you a moment to think.

Nothing yet? Sure, I’ll wait.

Really, it’s fine. Take your time.

Still waiting.

Alright, I give up. I can’t wait all day here. And I’m fairly convinced I would be waiting much longer than that, because so far as I can tell, in absence of religion, no such defensible argument exists.

 Which leads me to the million dollar question: Should religious motivations ever be our primary source of inspiration when considering matters of public policy? Public or social policy does not mean general social dynamic, mind you; it means LAW. If, when and to what extent is it reasonable, appropriate or wise for religious convictions to dictate law? Before anyone answers that question, I would like you all to quickly pause once more and first consider this: If we were to have looked only to the Good Book, “American tradition,” and “Christian values” rather than reason and civility when making ALL of our social policy decisions throughout history, at this particular moment in time each and every one of you reading would, in all likelihood, be one of two things: either (a) slave-owner, or (b) slave.

Let that one marinate.

What Are We Doing?

We are writing discrimination into our Constitution rather that out. Instead of focusing our efforts on ensuring fairness and equality for all, we are banning it. Whatever your personal beliefs about it may or may not be, is this really the direction in which we want to be going as state? As a nation? As we have seen with countless other demonized groups of people all throughout history, in a country that prides itself immensely on principles of freedom and fairness with “liberty and justice for all,” it seems inevitable that hateful Prejudice and Discrimination will eventually be trounced by our greatest friend, dear Equality. So why must we continue to cling to our irrational, insidious “traditions” and force each and every single grouping of people that we’ve arbitrarily labeled as "different" to fight and struggle for decades on end to gain access to the those very principles and liberties that this country was supposedly founded on?

Where Are We Going?

Considering his presidential bid can only be described as a complete and utter miserable failure, and considering that we seem intent on keeping him in charge of Texas forever, let’s see how Governor Rick Perry weighs in on the issue.

A New York Times article, tellingly titled “Perry’s Anti-Gay Rights Focus Divisive Even to Staff,” sums it up quite nicely, but let me break it down for you. Or better yet, let’s let Mr. Perry speak for himself.

Exhibit A:

And then, as the NYT put it, I give you Exhibit B:
“The ad came a day after Mr. Perry stood out in attacking as “silly” a new Obama administration initiative using diplomatic efforts and foreign aid to promote gay rights around the world and beat back efforts in other nations to criminalize homosexual conduct and persecute gays. This policy, Mr. Perry contended, was an “example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country.”

I’m sorry… What? This may very well be the most logically incoherent line of reasoning I have ever heard in my entire life—and I worked as a psychiatric nurse in intensive care schizophrenia units for a very, very long time. I suppose this isn’t surprising, though, coming from a state whose governor vetoed the initial version of a 1998 anti-hate crime bill put forth in honor of a black man who was beat unconscious, urinated on, chained at the ankles and dragged behind a pickup truck for three miles before getting decapitated by a cement block when the truck took a hard turn, only to then be dumped in mangled pieces in a ditch beside an African American cemetery, at which point his white supremacist murders headed on over to their neighborhood barbeque in Jasper, Texas. And why exactly was the initial version of this anti-hate crime bill vetoed? Because its first version included phrasing that extended protections from these types of hate crimes to gays and lesbians, and that apparently isn’t in line with “American and Christian values.” The bill had to be rewritten twice before it was finally passed into law—I guess to assure that safety and equality were not yet extended too far. To be fair, though, that wasn’t Perry. It was none other than our former Governor and President, George W. Bush. This bill was not amended to include crimes targeted at people based on sexual orientation until 2009 after Obama took office, despite the fact that more than 12,000 such serious crimes had taken place—and those are just the reported crimes; the actual number is undoubtedly significantly higher—in the decade that passed while Bush refused to compromise his highly moral “Christian values.” I wonder if Governor Perry took this move by Obama as an “attack on faith” as well.

What Now?

There is a place for religious sentiment and Christian values, if you like, and that place is in a church—not in a legislative chamber. If these are the types of policies that so-called American tradition and righteous moral values produce, then I, and I suspect a great many others, want absolutely NOTHING OF IT involved in the decision-making processes that take place within the hallowed walls of local government buildings.

I think Americans ought to be free to believe in whatever god or gods they choose, if they choose, and I stand by that position. But when factions of people among us begin implementing policies based on such beliefs, or even gross misinterpretations of such beliefs, that are intensely damaging to the general welfare and well-being of our society, then this is where we have to draw the line.

It is high time that we start seriously evaluating these dearly beloved “American traditions.” We all need to take a long, hard and HONEST look at not just the traditions themselves, but the implications that these traditions carry. We must break down the walls of this unyielding, dogmatic, partisan radical extremism that has entrenched itself in our governing bodies so that we may finally give way to an open and honest, rational and intelligent, meaningful public discourse. And once evaluated, we have to then be willing to actively challenge those traditions that we find are not genuinely in the best interest of our society.

This should be the new American Dream.