Monday, July 10, 2017

Thinking and Acting Like a Banana Republic

OK, this is another longer blog, but stay with me. It’s pretty clear that, unlike the all of rest of the developed democracies, our economic trend lines are moving us into an income inequality neighborhood more reminiscent of a banana republic… where a sliver of rich folks at the top own and control most everything. Our one-percenters own most of this nation’s assets (more than the entire lower half of the nation combined); our polarized national numbers should be an embarrassment to us all. For more on that economic reality, please go back to my June 25th blog, Stealth Wealth Redistribution.
We have a populist president, connected to his base by a tweet-driven umbilical cord, who promised income inequality, high paying jobs and much better, cheaper healthcare… whose only actual accomplishments towards his angry working-class constituency have been to backtrack on social policies, equal rights for minorities and the installation of a conservative Supreme Court justice whose decisions suggest a rapid retreat into the ethos of the 1950s. The economics for his base, at least those who are not willing to be reskilled into relevant job qualifications, are as dismal as ever, while the prospects for the one percenters have never been better. But Trump’s base still believes.
Trump can phrase failure to look like triumph, and his base laps up his alternative facts. He’s touted repeatedly how many new jobs he has created already and saved, like the Carrier air conditioning workers in Indiana, who discovered to their dismay that most of those “saved jobs” were still going to be off-shored to Mexico. But The Donald has the gift of gab. Take this example from the July 4th Los Angeles Times, citing Trump’s own Department of Commerce (Bureau of Labor Statistics - BLS) numbers: “The average of 162,000 net new jobs a month so far this year is off last year’s figure of 187,000…. At the current pace, the U.S. would add about 1.9 million jobs in 2017. It would be the first time since 2010 that the figure was below 2 million…
“The unemployment rate has declined under Trump to 4.3% in May from 4.8% when he took office. The latest figure is the lowest since 2001 and Trump noted that in a tweet Sunday [7/2]: ‘Stock Market at all time high, unemployment at lowest level in years (wages will start going up) and our base has never been stronger!’… But the decline in May was largely for the wrong reason — about 429,000 people dropped out of the labor force.” Ouch!
During his campaign, Trump constantly referred to all those folks who have dropped out of the job market, skewing the unemployment numbers as “false news” coming from the Obama administration. Now he chooses to ignore the same “job dropout” folks. By the way, the BLS has always published those numbers in a different category: “Alternative measures of Labor Underutilization,” which most presidents prefer not to quote.
Furthermore, despite rises in income experienced in the first quarter of this year, for all but the most skilled and educated of us (plus those one percenters), our long-term earnings prospects look like the mathematical slope of that banana up above. And we haven’t even begun to address the issues we are destined to face as artificial intelligence challenges our socio-political system like nothing we have ever seen before.
But back in the 1950s, as the Soviet Union launched the first satellites into space, the United States reacted hard and fast under Republican Dwight Eisenhower to reprioritize scientific research and education. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM subjects) became our driving force. And boy did that effort pay off. The United States soared as the world’s most technologically advanced nation. We were deploying that scientific effort everywhere, and the “stuff” we made was far better than the “stuff” made overseas. Jobs and technology flourished, side-by-side.
Yet the United States has long since lost it primacy as the high-tech manufacturing center it once was. Today, we seem to be facing another, even larger global-competition-technology threat, with more countries playing an economic game… winning more all the time. Apparently, they are not tired of winning so much. Just as we cut back on what made us technologically superior for so long.
Today, austerity and economic manipulations – mostly catchy but empty slogans like “incent the job creators” – have replaced the hard work of mastering technology and building solid infrastructure. There are no short cuts. We’ve reduced government support (state and federal) for public education, made college increasingly unaffordable, and our notion of infrastructure rests on the ugly premise of “deferred maintenance.” Even Donald Trump’s extremely modest infrastructure plan (heavily reliant on the profit-driven private sector) has been tabled for now.
Further, to the extent our work force is driven by science-skeptics, people who believe that religiosity will rebuild their prosperity, there are entire countries out there leaping and bounding with joy that we are simply electing not to compete with them, nations who are dedicating their resources with a heavy bet on educating more STEM graduates. It is hardly a coincidence that most of China’s leadership are engineers by training. We can try and insolate ourselves from globalization, but our big corporations are too invested overseas and our consumer realities have created an unbreakable dependence on international trade.
I guess there is a reason we call it the “past.” We are reveling in long “past” glory – assuming we get to have that glory forever without continuing to earn it – and living on the “past” investments of prior generations without believing enough in ourselves to bolster that which actually made us great: investments in education, research and infrastructure. Our president has even pledged to move back to past practices and values, when we should be looking forward. To illustrate how far we have fallen, I’d like to drill down into the Betsy DeVos’ (Trump’s Education Secretary) view of education, one where religious preceptstrump hard science, a flag bearer for an administration that, as official government policy, holds that man-induced climate change is a hoax.
Like the revulsion to science and facts that accompanied the end of the Age of Reason at the end of the 18th century – where France’s fledgling democracy was rapidly replaced with the monarchy of Napoleon Bonaparte – the United States is now led by a government with comparable aversion to science and facts. Back then international trade was just beginning to ripple. Mass transportation across vast distances posed tremendous barriers to the kind of globalization we see today. So our modern attempts to change the way we teach our children to focus on faith-based doctrine, how we prioritize our values plus our belief that we can erect trade barriers to force the rest of the world to kowtow to our practices are sheer folly, destined to shove our standard of living into the world of a second or third-rate economic player.
Time for an example that should make you cringe? Nothing screams that “stupidity” like the implementation of a recent statute in Florida, where a conservative sweep has pushed politicians into sacrificing their state’s future just to get elected. The July 1st Washington Post explains further : “Any resident in Florida can now challenge what kids learn in public schools, thanks to a new law that science education advocates worry will make it harder to teach evolution and climate change.
“The legislation, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week and goes into effect Saturday [7/1], requires school boards to hire an ‘unbiased hearing officer’ who will handle complaints about instructional materials, such as movies, textbooks and novels, that are used in local schools. Any parent or county resident can file a complaint, regardless of whether they have a student in the school system. If the hearing officer deems the challenge justified, he or she can require schools to remove the material in question.
“The statute includes general guidelines about what counts as grounds for removal: belief that the material is ‘pornographic’ or ‘is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group.’
“Proponents of the new law say it makes the challenge process easier for parents and gives residents a greater say in their children's education. And state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), who sponsored the bill, told Nature in May that his intent wasn't to target any particular subject.
“But Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, said that affidavits filed by supporters of the bill suggest that science instruction will be a focus of challenges. One affidavit from a Collier County resident complained that evolution and global warming were taught as ‘reality.’ Another criticized her child's sixth-grade science curriculum, writing that ‘the two main theories on the origin of man are the theory of evolution and creationism,’ and that her daughter had only been taught about evolution.
“‘It's just the candor with which the backers of the bill have been saying, 'Yeah, we’re going to go after evolution, we’re going to go after climate change,' ’ that has him worried, Branch said… Based on the affidavits, it seems likely that the law will also be used to request the removal of library books that parents find objectionable.
“The Florida statute is one of 13 measures proposed this year that Branch and his colleagues consider ‘anti-science.’ In Idaho, the legislature rejected several sections of the state's new public school science standards related to climate change — the standards committee was asked to rewrite those sections and resubmit them for approval this fall. Alabama and Indiana both adopted nonbinding resolutions on teacher's ‘academic freedom,’ which are generally understood as encouraging educators to ‘teach the controversy’ around subjects like climate change.”
What controversy? 194 nations signed the Paris climate change accord. Only Syria, Nicaragua and the U.S. have rejected it. Think of all the time that will be wasted fighting about what anyone thinks is objectionable, and then teaching faith-based “science” when such distracted students could be learning hard STEM facts instead… and learning how to deploy scientific method that every developed nation on earth (except the U.S.) teaches regularly. It gets even nastier when you realize: 1. There are about 13 thousand school districts, and 2. Textbook manufacturers tend to accommodate the “lowest common denominator” from large school districts for efficiency’s sake. Think Texas and Florida. Waste and distraction!!!! Manufacturing giants like China and Germany must be overjoyed. Did they pay to get that legislation passed?
Want to teach faith-based values that might matter? How about teaching kids to be respectful of each other and avoid unnecessary insults and confrontations with their fellow students? But how exactly do you do that when our number one political figure – the “example” for all young folks of success and propriety – thrives on personal insults and confrontations? Hey Melania, how’s your anti-cyber-bullying campaign coming along?
I’d like to add a personal anecdotal observation to this mess. A while ago, I had the opportunity to sit in a couple of classes – deemed “advanced” courses – at an east-coast state university that will remain nameless. Those “advanced” courses, particularly math, were what I learned as a sophomore and junior in high school. As I talk to parents about what their college-aged children are learning in comparable “average” state colleges and universities, I get the same reaction. So it seems that too many of our public primary and secondary schools are so bad that those who move on to college are effectively completing their high school educations under the guise of a college diploma.
Betsy DeVos is the wrong person at the wrong time. Florida’s anti-science process (plus parallel movements across too many GOP-controlled states) noted above is precisely what is spiraling out of control, what will tank those children’s future in a world where increasing global competition takes no prisoners. Wake up America or watch the rest of the world zoom by!
I’m Peter Dekom, and it not funny how we have distorted the meaning of a modern education and thrown our children’s future into severe doubt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Scientists come from many religious backgrounds, including atheists to religious devotees. For example, my godfather, a, now retired, research scientist is also one of the faithful scientists. While many prominent scientists, physicists, and mathematicians are indeed outspoken atheists, many also acknowledge that the more they study the physical world, the more they see how things behave "as if" rather than phenomenon giving a definitive story of the world. It is substantially controlled testing plus open minded empiricism that form the basis of the scientific method.

Rather, the objectionable matter about these new "teach the controversy" laws is that one can easily see how this could begin to violate the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, by focusing on countering science with mainstream Christian or other monotheistic religious arguments. From which religions are arguments to be chosen to counter "science"? Are Hindu, Buddhist, and indeed obscure religious and historical origin stories to be left behind to cherrypick more favored religions? If parents, who are not necessarily religion, philosophy, or science scholars, do not object that a certain religion is excluded, will mob PTA rules in fact choose the religions?

Is proselytizing, the essence of what the Establishment Clause guards against in public education, on the horizon in public schools?

About state universities, they frequently provide excellent standards of education, especially in STEM. They may offer some remedial courses and "algebra to calculus" high school refreshers for students who don't plan to focus on STEM, but public research universities also offer higher level mathematics and science for STEM majors.

And case in point of a state school with a world class science program: Florida State University, which beat out M.I.T. to win a high energy particle accelerator, one of the most powerful in the world before CERN. Groups of FSU students now also have ongoing research experiments at CERN. While FSU's National High Magnetic Field Lab (MagLab) holds the world record on strongest magnet, again since 2016, for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Go Noles!

Emily Graham