Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where Size Matters Most

We’re trying to bring our country back from the brink of economic collapse, so that we can have a future. But what is a future without people who are prepared – educated – to live it? And what is a "good education"? Let’s look at public schools. There are lots of factors that determine the success and quality of primary and secondary education – home life, parental involvement, the leadership and quality of the teachers, the size of the school itself, the neighborhood – but there is one factor that is pretty easy to measure: class size. According to

  • Gains associated with small classes generally appear when the class size is reduced to less than 20 students.
  • Gains associated with small classes are stronger for the early grades.
  • Gains are stronger for students who come from groups that are traditionally disadvantaged in education—minorities and immigrants.
  • Gains from class size reduction in the early grades continue for students in the upper grades. Students are less likely to be retained, more likely to stay in school and more likely to earn better grades.
  • Academic gains are not the only benefit of lowering class size. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that reducing class sizes in elementary schools may be more cost-effective than most public health and medical interventions. This is because students in smaller classes are more likely to graduate from high school, and high school graduates earn more and also enjoy significantly better health than high school dropouts.

I was speaking to a friend recently, and he noted that with academic performance plummeting annually in the U.S. when compared to students in Europe and Asia, all that "extra money" we were throwing at education seemed to be a waste. He spoke about all those "bond measures" that passed here in California (most failed, by the way) and how all that cash could be better deployed elsewhere, since it clearly wasn’t helping students learn. After I picked up my jaw that had fallen to the floor, I asked him exactly what he meant by "extra money." I asked him where the funding was coming from for all those additional children who are reaching school age now. He sat silent.

California isn’t the least expensive state to live in, particularly in the Bay Area and in Southern California, but we are 46th in the nation on per-student spending when it comes to our public schools. Despite legislation to the contrary, California, like many states, has been forced to cut public school funding, even before this most recent economic meltdown. There are fewer teachers and more students. In fact, California has one of the worst (highest) student-teacher-ratios in the nation and has been facing an overall budget crisis with massive deficits for several years now. Parents, who are able, have dug deep into their own pockets to fund public schools or reach even deeper to send their children to private schools instead. The story has been repeated all over the country; although California’s situation is a bit extreme (isn’t it always?).

With the emphasis on schools’ getting a passing grade on the state standards test (states get to set their own rules – this is hardly a national literacy standard) required under the federal "No Child Left Behind Act," our public schools, all across the nation are forced to "teach to the test," not to teach to learn and thrive in the real world or even for the sheer joy of learning. They are turning out "test drones," not educated young men and women. With about 50% of public high school students in the largest cities (74% in Detroit) dropping out, we are processing problems – not solutions – through vast segments of our public school system.

So when you put it all together, a generation of adults who have trashed their economy and borrowed themselves into deficit history are now passing this massive debt load on to the next generations without giving them a globally competitive education to earn enough to pay that debt off! What’s wrong with this picture?! We need to "change that."

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

How Black was Black Friday?

Last year, U.S. consumers spent $10.3 billion on the Friday after Thanksgiving – “black Friday” because it represents the first time in the calendar year that retailers are profitable (“in the black”) – and, according to a November 29, 2008 estimate (reported by the Associated Press) from ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a Chicago-based research firm that tracks sales at more than 50,000 retail outlets this year, we increased to $10.6 billion on Friday, November 28th!

Great news, right? Well, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye (which “less” would have meant), but given the steep holiday discounting that lured shoppers in this year, no one is holding their breath for increased profits. Surveys still show that holiday shoppers are scaling back and looking for bargains, but the one day tally suggests that there is at least a glimmer of a retail season left this year, which places just 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas (last year had 32 days).

Nonetheless, the consumer market reflected a “willingness to spend” that is a clear, positive marker, especially as the stock market rose and settled for a relatively longer five day stretch. We still have financial crises to see bottom out – the impact of hedge fund capital withdrawals, the confidence-killing of rising unemployment, private equity firms holding damaged and over-borrowed companies that need to be restructured, an illiquid housing market that seems far from bottom, and credit card debt that dangles as dangerous levels – but any positive sign shows that a bottom can be reached, that given a little push, consumers can be given enough confidence to buy, has to be good news.

With new leadership, bipartisanship possible in our nation’s capital, maybe our government can lead us back to the country we all know we can be. We can expect a few more downturns before we stabilize, but the numbers show that everyone is ready to participate in the “big restart.”

I’m Peter Dekom, and this one is short and sweet.

They Succeed Even as We Destroy Them

For the longest time, Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population on earth, practiced a form of Islamic religious co-existence that was gentle and recognized that portion of the Qu’ran that preached acceptance of the other “people of the Book” – notably Christians and Jews. The Hindu island of Bali rested peacefully with the vast Muslim majority elsewhere. They called it “soft Islam.” While the largest Muslim association in that country, Nahdlatul Ulama, still promotes tolerance and religious pluralism, in the last 10-15 years tolerance has faded as Islamist (radical Muslims) have made heroes of those who attack “non-believers.”

Militant groups, like Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Darul Islam, many with strong ties to al Qaeda, spread the word to hopeless and impoverished farmers and villagers, and fomented a resurgence of radical hate for non-Muslims, particularly Western superpowers. The power of the Jihad – a holy war against the non-Islam world – was hoisted as a national goal. Indonesia was no longer a safe tourist destination for most.

Remember the bombs that rocked, among other places, a bar frequented by Westerners on that non-Muslim island – Bali – in the Indonesian archipelago? On October 12, 2002, a series of blasts killed 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 were Indonesian citizens. There have been more attacks since then. This fervent anti-Western, anti-nonbeliever message became increasingly legitimized.

The October 7 International Herald Tribune reported: “In a sign of its growing prominence, Indonesia's Council of Ulemas [religious leaders] moved its headquarters from the basement of a major mosque here into an expensive new office tower in the heart of downtown… The council was established in 1975 as a quasi-governmental body of Muslim scholars by Suharto, the country's leader for three decades, partly as a tool to keep politically minded Islamic organizations in check.”

For almost 400 years after the fall of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, the Islamic sword conquered North Africa, Spain and raged eastward and north, through France, Italy and up into the Balkan states. The West countered with an equally destructive Crusade that lasted about 119 years. Then Muslim conquest returned. Mughals invaded central and south Asia, while the Ottomans attacked the Byzantine empire, spreading their power through parts of northern Africa and the Middle East. These new Muslim rulers grew fat with riches and weak with self-indulgence. Starting in 1627, British traders slowly disemboweled the remnants of the Mughals, formalizing the British Raj in 1857, and by the 1800s, the Ottomans lands – the empire was labeled the “sick man of Europe” – were all but formally in Western hands. The formality finally came with the end of World War I.

Since then, the lure of modernization and the hope of a Western lifestyle had stalled the fundamentalist aspirations of the masses of the Islamic world. They just wanted what we wanted. When greed and corruption, often encouraged and supported by the Western powers, made the promise of economic prosperity unattainable, there was fertile ground for radical resurgence. We even supported this radical movement in the Russian war over Afghanistan that ended badly for the Soviets in the 1980s. We armed and trained the Afghan Mujahideen (we called them “freedom fighters” then. We call them the Taliban now.), the same radicals who nurtured and provided training grounds and safe haven to those who attacked the Twin Tower and the Pentagon in 2001. We rationalized this phenomenon as “blow back.”

Muslim pride, amplified by secular greed and corruption, has brought the specter of a globalized Jihad to the forefront of every nation on earth, even as the economic realities have crushed hopes, dreams and lifestyles everywhere. It is useful to ask “why now?” We know that most Muslims simply want to practice their faith quietly and live their lives in harmony with the rest of the world. But the Muslim extremist edge has gorged itself on a litany of success and still pictures a global Caliphate (Muslim governance) under Sharia (Muslim law).

The Mujahideen have long since taken credit for bringing down the Communists of Soviet Russia by sapping her military and economic strength in the Afghan campaign. They brag about how their heroes, men like al Qaeda leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, remain free and at large despite concerted U.S. efforts to find them. They’ve gorged themselves on “guilt” money paid by oil rich barons hoping to buy peace and religious blessings with large sums of cash paid to Muslim extremists. They’ve used some of this money to create schools – madrasa – to inculcate radicalism deep into young minds.

They revel in the fact that somewhere around 70 nuclear weapons reside under Muslim control in Pakistan, a regime that appears to be perpetually on the brink of collapse – a potentially easy target for Muslim radicals who control, without government interference, the entire Western Tribal District, a large region that borders Afghanistan. Strangely, Iran’s nuclear menace is less of a concern, for despite the malevolent rhetoric, this Shiite nation finds few friends in the vastly larger Sunni Muslim world, and the arms are (or will be) in the hands of a central government that appears to be very much in control. Unfortunately, the Iranian link to Pakistan remains the nuclear design brilliance of Dr. A.Q. Khan, who passed the Iranians information not only on how to build the weapons but on how to construct the exceptionally complex centrifuges necessary to secure enough weapons grade plutonium to power the bombs and missile warheads.

The radicals tout how they lured the U.S. into a battlefield to fight a war in the wrong country (Iraq), a war that they believe was as damaging to the U.S. economy – a nation that has incurred in excess of a trillion dollars of national debt – as was the war in Afghanistan to the Soviets. They really expect us to collapse as well. They laugh as America turned her focus from Afghanistan to Iraq and allowed the Taliban to return to power over most of the war-torn Afghan nation. They love that Afghan opium poppies supply the heroin to over 90% of the planet’s addicts – mostly in the non-Muslim world (although, as much of the drugs pass through Iran on the way to the West, Iran has been blessed with a particularly high addition rate). The Islamist world is actually taking credit for initiating the global economic downfall by sapping the U.S. economy over Iraq and Afghanistan, a fall which they feel has been accelerated by the non-believers’ greed and avarice.

And today, as virtually every radical who participated in the attack on Mumbai has been killed or captured, they celebrate that they have literally destroyed the tourism business, shaken to the ground the economy of a city that represents the combined impact of New York and Los Angeles to India, and have seriously damaged if not destroyed the nascent exploration of d├ętente between Pakistan and India – two nations separated by religion that have battled each other since their “creation by separation” in 1947. The countries have especially battled over the disputed border region of Kashmir (heavily Muslim, but within India), where some believe that the Mumbai attackers found their support (with funding, many also believe, from sources within Pakistan). There have been a series of other Islamist attacks in India, mostly over the past year, and tensions are escalating.

Suketu Meta, writing for the November 29, 2008 New York Times, wrote: “The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. Cricket matches with visiting English and Australian teams have been shelved. Japanese and Western companies have closed their Mumbai offices and prohibited their employees from visiting the city. Tour groups are canceling long-planned trips.” Indians will retaliate with success in the longer term, suffering in the near term.

But radicalism is basking in the searing heat of their continued success against their anointed enemies. And the battleground is expanding; as a national elections split along Christian and Muslim factions, the November 29, 2008 CNN reported that the West African nation of Nigeria was being ripped apart: “Mobs burned homes, churches [on the 29th] in a second day of riots as the death toll rose to more than 300 in the worst sectarian violence in Africa's most populous nation in years.” Is this just the beginning or will rational thought find a path to settle this fire of animosity?

I’ll end this little historical piece with a reminder from my own past, as a teenage step-son of a career U.S. diplomat in Beirut, Lebanon – a time of wonderful memories for me. I have never been treated better, with more kindness, dignity and respect, than I was treated by local Muslims – Sunni villagers in the countryside, Shiites in neighboring towns – in that Middle Eastern nation. This morning, as I looked at this new radical movement that has gripped the region and exploded into the world, I started to cry.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I hope my son lives to see a return to a period of more peaceful co-existence in the world.

Friday, November 28, 2008

When You’re a Jet….

For those in General Motors Corp. who really need their jobs and really earn their pay, for the governmental bodies who rely on the economic flow (their tax base) generated from General Motors to fund necessary public benefits, and for the suppliers & dealers for whom a senior general management misstep spells utter disaster and for the communities whose small businesses need customers to keep their modest lives moving along, I ask why GM CEO Chief Executive Officer Richard Wagoner Jr. and his cronies are still in charge? The big three automakers were chastised by Congress and the press alike for taking three separate corporate jets to their recent “beg Congress for a bailout” mission. They’ve agreed to “jet-pool” on their next mission.

But GM executives still do not seem to get it; their very actions threaten those who deserve or need a second chance. They don’t seem to understand that their world has changed, that they just are going to have to let go of pay and perks that should have rewarded success but instead created huge benefits in failure. They battled to cling to the “bigger is better” philosophy, while mass-producing automakers elsewhere understood the global resource and economic factors mandating a downsizing in car and truck size. GM management has been consistently wrong in its major decision-making.

Listen to what they have done now. Bloomberg on November 27: “General Motors, criticized by U.S. lawmakers for its use of corporate jets, asked aviation regulators [the Federal Aviation Administration] to block the public’s ability to track a plane it uses… ‘We availed ourselves of the option as others do to have the aircraft removed’ from a Federal Aviation Administration tracking service, a GM spokesman, Greg Martin, said [November 26] in an interview. He declined to discuss why GM made the request.” They just don’t want us to know about their continued wasteful perks! Sure they’ve canceled a couple of jet leases, but guess who’s still flying high? That picture up there is the inside of GM CEO Wagoner’s jet. Nice perk for a failed executive, huh?

Look, I’m not fond of jet fuel-guzzling corporate jets in a declining environment, but I also believe that success should be rewarded. That’s “success,” not bad habits. And manufacturing small private aircraft does support jobs, but enough is enough already. I’m torn in this debate.

What I am not torn about is pulling private jet travel from a senior management whose planning and leadership (or lack thereof) have slammed GM into the ground. They cry that it is the general economy that is at fault, and no one can deny the massive impact of tight credit, a contracting gross domestic product, rising unemployment and lack of consumer confidence. They screamed earlier when gas prices soared; it just wasn’t their fault. But Toyota, Nissan and Honda posted a profit last year while GM nose-dived even before the market crash. I’ve already blogged on relative pay levels between successful Toyota management and the fools at GM – the disparity is amazing. GM sacked lots of workers; Toyota did not. What’s wrong with this picture?

As Congress and the new Administration face the automakers again, GM’s profoundly stupid attempt to preserve its executive perk package as the world melts around them seems to guarantee that there will (or at least should) be at least three requirements (among many) if there is to be a taxpayer cash infusion into this sector in general and GM in particular: massive senior management pay cuts, the removal of private jet travel to those in charge… and… the replacement of the troika that leads GM today (chief executive, operating and financial officers). It’s too bad the board of directors and the shareholders – whose stock price has all but disappeared – didn’t act sooner.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.