Americans, guns, and apple pie for brains

From Vox:

America is an exceptional country when it comes to guns. It’s one of the few countries in which the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, and presidential candidates in other nations don’t cook bacon with guns. But America’s relationship with guns is unique in another crucial way: Among developed nations, the US is far and away the most violent — in large part due to the easy access many Americans have to firearms.

Lots of charts and graphs in this piece. Big (unanswered) question: Why the uniqueness? The Vox article does imply, albeit obliquely, that Americans are not a very bright people.

Americans by and large support policies that reduce access to guns. But once these policies are proposed, they’re broadly spun by politicians and pundits into attempts to “take away your guns.” So nothing gets done, and preventable deaths keep occurring.

What to do with all my goddam money?

Accumulating wealth in the hands of a few presents a significant challenge: What to do with the money?

Investing is very much a matter of confidence. What asset or financial instrument will generate the highest returns? It could be stocks. It could be real estate. It could be oil. But investors are like animal herds. If one asset shows promise, money quickly shifts in that direction. The result, of course, is a bubble, and that bubble inevitably bursts. The process repeats, creating booms and busts. Like sharks patrolling the seas for food, investors are constantly searching for the next bubble.

Paul Krugman suggests that the problem affecting the world’s economies is a glut of investment and too little consumer spending.

…what we’re seeing is what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Rest of Us struggle. The solution would seem to be too obvious to mention, and it has nothing to do with making the rich richer.

Back to Amazon

Convenience is power, and Amazon clearly has figured this out. After all, we are a busy people, at least those with money to spend. Traipsing off to Costco or the mall in search of what you need loses out to the utter expedience of point-and-click shopping.

But suppose the hundreds of thousands of us succumbing to convenience enable an unstoppable juggernaut that some day drives most stores out of business. Even approximating such a monopoly gives Mr. Bezos the ability to set prices, since competition crumbles with each online purchase. One can take bets on what will happen first: Amazon’s global hegemony or the systematic parching of the planet.

But one more thing, this from economist Dean Baker:

Amazon has not had to collect sales tax in most states for most of its existence, giving the company an enormous subsidy in its competition with brick and mortar competitors. The cumulative size of this subsidy almost certainly exceeds its cumulative profits in the years that it has been in existence. Any discussion of Bezos success should mention this huge subsidy from the government.

Bezos the libertarian accomplishes a two-pronged objective: world dominance and the squeezing of governments. A Faustian bargain, trading convenience for the destruction of both the environment and the commonweal.

Jumping over higher hurdles…only to fall flat on your face

For the Everett Herald‘s editors, raising the testing bar ensures success. They write in today’s editorial:

Hurdles have their place, especially when you want to be certain students can clear the taller hurdles of college or job training that then lead to careers that support and fulfill them.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times this morning reports that many people seeking full-time work strike out repeatedly, even after years of trying.

Still, the number of Washingtonians working part time while wanting full-time work is higher than before the recession.

Washington ranks eighth highest among the states in the rate of those working part time involuntarily.

The article features a graduate in economics from Washington State University, an academic discipline considered among the most promising for career potential.

Eskinder Said graduated from Washington State University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, a specialty in international economic development, and high hopes of getting a job within his field.

Four years and dozens of job applications later, he’s working part-time, driving a car for a town car and limo service.

The inconvenient truth, which the Herald (and the Times, for that matter) refuses to acknowledge, is that those who pass tests in elementary and secondary schools and then go on to college have absolutely no claim to meaningful jobs paying decent wages over working lives.

Moreover, there is zero research supporting the argument that testing leads to any of the results promised by the current purveyors of education reform. In Finland, which boasts a superior education system, testing is rare and particular, developed and used by classroom teachers to diagnose their own students’ progress. There are no standardized assessments like Smarter Balanced tests. Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons includes this comment:

…frequent standardized testing is not a necessary condition for improving the quality of education…[original emphasis]

Worse, as in America, student test scores are being used to judge teacher performance to pernicious effect. Sahlberg adds that in such environments the “evidence suggests that teachers tend to redesign their teaching according to these tests, give higher priority to those subjects that are tested, and adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorizing information rather than understanding knowledge. Since there are no standardized high-stakes tests in Finland…the teacher can focus on teaching and learning without the disturbance of frequent tests to be passed.”

More testing, however rigorous, is hardly the answer to perceived educational shortcomings. The Finnish government transformed its once-mediocre system into the best in the world by focusing on two basic initiatives: dramatically improve teacher training and provide the necessary social services to meet student needs in and outside the classroom.

Finland embraces economic and social equality both in schools and in society at large. Compare the Gini index for Finland and the US (the higher the number, the greater the inequality):

Gini index US and Finland 2014

America adopted a different ethic, preferring social Darwinism to egalitarianism. Our schools, then, not only reflect but enable the survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Standardized tests sort students and prepare them for the real adult world. After all, once the school years are behind them, graduates will face a dog-eat-dog society dedicated to the proposition that only a few will succeed as the Rest of Us struggle.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Grandiloquent Duper

The topic invites multiple, perhaps nearly infinite, posts on the yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality inhering in the current “leader of the free world.” From climate change and race relations to education, Barack Obama, to borrow an apt descriptor of Mr. Clinton, places a metaphorical arm on your shoulder as he metaphorically pisses on your leg. Let’s touch briefly on education here.

G.W. Bush and, gulp, then-Senator Ted Kennedy jointly crafted the No Child Left Behind Act, which presumed to effect the equalization of educational opportunity throughout the land. It was, of course, a federal program. And federal programs, however well-intentioned at their outset, often morph into monstrous juggernauts, ultimately victimizing the intended targets of salvation. NCLB is one such monstrous juggernaut, having itself morphed into Race to the Top in the hands of Obama and his basketball court mate from Chicago, Arne Duncan—he without any teaching experience whatsoever.

I take you now to this post on Diane Ravitch’s blog. It’s written by a teacher at Mr. Duncan’s former school. Consider:

The direction of Obama education policy was thus built on two factors: the focus on building public-private partnerships in education modeled on the dismantling of the Chicago Housing authority and the need to attract Silicon Valley and tech sector billionaires, most prominently, Bill Gates. The tech billionaires also wanted more access to school markets and the privatization of public schools could free up money that would otherwise go to teacher salaries and benefits. When the Obama transition team chose Arne Duncan as Education secretary over arguably the most knowledgeable and able education researcher in the country, Linda Darling-Hammond, the die was cast.

Testing and eating

The newspapers reported on the latest test scores for the state’s public schools. There was no mention of the most important factor that explains variance—poverty.

I’ve included a poverty proxy (percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals) in the following chart, which includes selected Snohomish County fourth-grade test scores from last year in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.

Test scores 2014-2015 Snohomish County

In the county, the correlation between poverty and test results is much stronger for ELA, about .58. It’s .39 for Math. We’ll note outliers, those schools having test scores lower or higher than expected. These include Monroe and Snohomish. Their lower poverty rates suggest higher-than-actual scores.

An official with the Marysville School District was quoted by the Herald:

The Marysville School District struggled to meet state testing standards this spring. That’s not a surprise to district leaders, assistant superintendent Ray Houser said. An internal audit last fall found that the district’s curriculum, teaching methods and testing expectations did not line up, he said.

“Our focus over the next few years is working with the standards and making sure that those pieces are aligned,” he said.

That means revamping the curriculum and reviewing student-teacher interactions in the classroom.

“We’ve taken steps to correct things, but it’s going to take time,” Houser said.

I expect Marysville will boost its purchases of expensive programs from Pearson and others. Teachers and students are taking the brunt of this latest educational reform movement, which shows no signs of abating. There is much money at stake, and the reformers, led by Bill Gates et al., intend to extract as much as possible from state and local budgets.

Elites and grunts at Amazon

If the privileged who desire to earn lots of money and succeed in their careers face “purposeful Darwinism” at Amazon, those who do the actual work of packing and shipping the millions of boxes a day to you and me suffer mightily.

This Vox piece by Ezra Klein suggests what’s at stake in the workplace, with employees at every level losing to the captains of industry. Those who grunt while they work at Amazon and elsewhere have few, if any, choices. As Klein writes:

The real workplace scandal at Amazon — and in the economy writ large — isn’t the treatment of white-collar workers with plenty of options. It’s the treatment of blue-collar workers with none.

Consumers, of course, have many options (at least, for a while). Costco treats its employees with respect, wages, and benefits. That’s where I’m heading now.