Thursday, December 31, 2015

Words without Substance – ‘Solving’ Problems by Lying

The Congress and state legislators United States of America have become a “reactive” bodies, fearful of preparing for the future, worried about poll results, scared of taking stands that could prove expensive and wrong and terrified of spending money on anything until it is a problem that will now cost billions or even trillions to solve effectively. Congress worries about a president overstepping his authority, even as they will not deal with the most troubling issues of our time: global terrorism (anyone see Congress authorizing the president to do anything about ISIS?), global warming as floods, drought, fires and storms decimate our land (“it’s not proven science”?), infrastructure crumbles and under-serves all of us, and education as our test scores plunge against international values (“Our graduation rates are going up”).
If we say the right words, create catchy slogans, change the standards that measure success, or outright lie, we’ve bought ourselves a couple of nights of rest. But when we wake up, things have gotten a bit worse. While we are ready to pass legislation, from de-regulation to tax cuts, that benefit only the highest reaches of the economic ladder, it is simply to remind those who fund campaigns that spending that money has direct and immediate benefits for the big contributors. Spend more to get us elected, and we will sacrifice spending on those who simply cannot afford to spend enough to buy influence and kick the can down the road on everything else.
So much of the grassroots support for non-professional-political candidates is a backlash against this trend. Unfortunately, the utterance of the new demagoguery from these candidates is little more than more simple “solutions” to complex issues. We’re now falling into the populist scapegoating patterns, venting anger broadly against Mexicans and Muslims for example, thinking that if can just get rid of these groups from the United States, we will be a great nation again. What, we’re not great now? We’re still the richest nation on earth.
Behind all of this is a disquieting feeling that our greatness is failing, that we are facing challenges that are so massive to solve that if we can just create meaningless shortcuts and simplistic slogans, bolstered by mythology, reinforced with desperation, and if we can just buy some time, stuff will just get better. At least it will be someone else’s problem. Year after year, as a deficit we can never repay escalates, we kick the can down the road. Cyclical patterns occasionally give us hope that this theory applies. As unemployment rates move towards normalcy, as stock market values rise, we don’t have to drill down as to the “real” story behind those statistics. For those at the top of economic ladder, how wonderful. For those who make their livings by working or running small businesses, not so good.
Amazon and Big-Box disruption hammers retail, as outsourcing continues unabated and the jobs we’ve been able to keep for the most part require long hours, afford lower pay and questionable benefits; 70% of Americans have been earning less in true buying power, year-after-year, for decades. Our middle class is contracting, our lower classes expanding… but if we just pick the right words and measurements, we can convince ourselves that all will be better without reinvesting in our future, biting the big tax bullet and reconfiguring our efforts for the future. Instead, we insist on living on the investments of past generations (think our Interstate highway system), thinking that somehow we don’t need to reinvest now.
We’ve prioritized high school graduation rates as the metric for educational success. They are rising, to be sure. Unfortunately for the nation, too many of these new graduates only have a piece of paper without the underlying education. The December 26th New York Times puts this trend into perspective: “A sign in a classroom here at Berea High School [Greenville, South Carolina], northwest of downtown in the largest urban district in the state, sends this powerful message: ‘Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn. You Will Succeed.’
“By one measure, Berea, with more than 1,000 pupils, is helping more students succeed than ever: The graduation rate, below 65 percent just four years ago, has jumped to more than 80 percent.
“But that does not necessarily mean that all of Berea’s graduates, many of whom come from poor families, are ready for college — or even for the working world. According to college entrance exams administered to every 11th grader in the state last spring, only one in 10 Berea students were ready for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level college math. And on a separate test of skills needed to succeed in most jobs, little more than half of the students demonstrated that they could handle the math they would need.
“It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and country — urban, suburban and rural — where the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy…
Few question that in today’s economy, finishing high school is vital, given that the availability of jobs for those without a diploma has dwindled. The Obama administration has hailed the rising graduation rate, saying schools are expanding opportunities for students to succeed. Earlier this month, the Department of Education announced that the national graduation rate hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest on record.
“But ‘the goal is not just high school graduation,’ Arne Duncan, the departing secretary of education, said in a telephone interview. ‘The goal is being truly college and career ready.’
“The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work. College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at two-year institutions, where fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree even within three years.”
If we’ve fallen, by not reinvesting and believing in ourselves, our future – at least for the vast majority of us – will only accelerate downwards as time passes. All those chickens are coming home to roost… and there is no more room for them to land. Lots and lots of chickens!
I’m Peter Dekom, and we need proactive leaders with a willingness to do what really needs to be done to restore our greatness… we need leaders!

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