Saturday, March 21, 2009

AIG IS US

In a recent column, the conservative Charles Krauthammer correctly notes that the amount of money involved in the AIG bonuses is miniscule by comparison to the size of the bailout loan to this company. And he correctly cautions to beware of action when people are angry. We should not be engaging in extra-legal remedies—period—but especially not for relative chump change.

What I have wondered about is the outrage over such a relatively small amount of money, when so much else is deserving of so much more outrage. My best surmise thus far is that some people are outraged because they still adhere to the out-of-fashion idea that people should receive bonuses for good performance only and not receive them for non-performance or, worse, bad performance. But the outrage of many people is a toxic mix of envy and hypocrisy.

The slogan may go back before my time, but I recall being stunned in the 1950s, when I first saw a TV advertisement that urged me to buy a product on the grounds that “you deserve a break today.” As a late Depression baby, the notion that I did not have to earn a break was contrary to the way I and everyone whom I knew were raised.

Most of the decision-makers in Washington and New York are now a generation younger than I am. So it should come as no surprise that none of them thought such bonuses were inappropriate. I think that most “Depression” kids and their hard-working descendants today would have recognized the problem. But many “boomers,” now the “busters” of the economy, were blind to it because of their sense of entitlement (i.e., deserving). AIG officers just had more money to give to those who, by past standards, had not earned it, especially in contributing to the current economic collapse.

That notion has been implemented by inattentive parents and character-free parenting, and institutionalized in education, public and private. Education is geared to reward self-esteem and self-centeredness; education rewards desires, not results. Of course, I exaggerate, but I do so in the service of truth: just consider the implications of social promotion and grade inflation for students, and, for teachers, more than COLA salary increases for no additional work and no improvement in student performance.

To be fair, not all teachers want more in these hard times. In California, teachers just want to hold onto their jobs. In one Maryland country, teachers are voluntarily forgoing their contractual 5-percent salary increase because of the economy. But, in New Mexico, with one of the worst—that is, poorest performing—educational systems in the country, teachers are doing their best to get legislation calling for a large salary increase. New Mexico seems less the Land of Enchantment than the Land of Entitlement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

LADIES FIRST

Americans like to think of themselves as first in everything. We like to think that we are first in baseball, football, and basketball, and we are. We also like to think that we are first in education and health care, but we are not. We pay more per capita than any other people living in an advanced economy, but we perform woefully.

Not surprisingly, Americans also like to break barriers with firsts. We like to think that Obama is our first black president. He is a first but only as a mulatto. When we elect someone with two black parents as president, then we shall have our first black president. We can look forward to that first.

Other firsts on the national scene: Madeleine Albright, our first female Secretary of State; Colin Powell, our first “black” Secretary of State; and, the topper, Condoleezza Rice, our first female and black Secretary of State—all firsts, none distinguished. Albright lent her name to nothing. Powell lent his name to a lie. Rice lent her name to piano recitals.

Another first on the national scene: Alberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic Attorney General. This Bush family pet is best known for pre-senile memory lapses about torture, spying, firing federal prosecutors, and who know what else. Does anyone think that the American Hispanic community is proud to claim him as their best?

The only thing to be said for these four appointees is that they were firsts in breaking the gender, racial, and ethnic barriers to the positions to which they were appointed. Someone has to be first, but I have my doubts about appointing someone to be first to break a barrier. Is it not better to select the best first and then celebrate the first second?

Now to the local scene: Waded Cruzado, heir-apparent to the presidency of NMSU. This puppy, dividing her love between two masters, Michael Martin and Bob Gallagher, fawned her way to the top. Ardent feminists urge her presidency because of her two primary qualifications, gender and ethnicity. Unlike Gonzales, whose memory losses and ethical lapses became public only after he had become Attorney General, Cuzado’s are already known. Thus, last year’s unfulfilled promise, when she was Provost, to conduct an investigation of, and make a public report on, the sex-race-pornography harassment cabal in the College of Health and Social Services. How perverse is her feminist support!

So, even before the presidential search begins again, feminists concede that being first is more important than being best. They also concede that Cruzado is not good enough and thus needs all the gender and ethnic credits which she can muster to distract from her defects and deficiencies. I wonder whether feminists will abandon her when she proves to be unfit or defend her by alleging bigoted obstruction and criticism.

If NMSU must hire a mediocrity for president, let it do so fair and square, without sexual, racial, or ethnic bias.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

PAYING MORE FOR NOTHING MORE

Thus far, the economic downturn has had less effect in New Mexico than in many other states. Some businesses are reducing operations or production, laying off employees, reducing hours, or cutting salaries and bonuses. Some state and local governments are laying off staff, and some school districts are laying off teachers. But, for the most part, the worst that has happened here is a slow-down in house sales and residential construction. Still, financial caution is, or should be, the rule.

But when many people are even here struggling to make ends meet, in Santa Fe, New Mexico Education Partners, “A Coalition of Professional Education Organizations,” has been lobbying for legislation to increase funding for education, including a heft increase in support for teachers’ salaries.

Opinions differ about the meaning of the word “professional,” but it does not fit an organization simply because its members may be professionals. It fits an organization only when the primary purpose of the organization is to promote the profession itself (best practices, standards, ethics, etc.), not the benefits to its members. That said, I think it says something about the forthrightness of the New Mexico Education Partners that its “professional education organizations” are unions, trade associations, PTAs, and the other usual suspects—not a “professional” organization among them.

The main argument for higher teachers’ salaries urged in the past and, I presume, in the present is that the state average salary is no longer near, but has slid below, the national average. This argument, which merely urges the state to “keep up with the Joneses,” does nothing to improve education in New Mexico. With state average student performance well below national average, state average teacher salary well below the national average seems a proportionate and reasonable way to pay for this level of (low) performance.

As one would expect of a union-led effort, this so-called “professional” coalition offers no change, no reform, no improvement in teacher or student performance. In return for higher salaries, its legislative proposal offers nothing: no higher standards in education, no stricter evaluations, no public accountability to measure any effects of a greater public investment, or no teacher certification of those who have relevant education and experience in other careers.

The House recently approved the legislation; the Senate has yet to vote on it. You might want to remember your representative’s vote as a clue to his or her thinking about this deal. And you might want to advise your senator about this deal before he or she votes to increase taxes. The bill might make some sense with the teachers’ salaries stripped from it, until teachers offer something in return for more money. But something for nothing—not my idea of a good idea.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

WORKING THEIR WAY THROUGH COLLEGE

Not a few anonymous website commentators disparage people of different cultures or races as dumb, lazy, dirty, parasitic, from one generation to the next.

I offer, not argument to the contrary, but encomium to honor a figure of my past and my first real-life hero. After World War II, my family moved from our wartime rental to a big house in a nice suburb. Mr. Lyons was our mailman. He delivered the mail twice a day weekdays, once on Saturday. He drove no truck from one rack of mailboxes to another; instead, he carried his large leather pouch to deliver the mail to each house at the side door. I remember that it took him, an old, tall, thin, black man, a long time to climb the driveway to our mailbox outside the kitchen door. He walked slowly, almost shuffling, like Satchel Page, a famous pitcher in the Negro Leagues and, as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, one of the first black players in the major leagues.

I know almost nothing about Mr. Lyons's life. I have always assumed and have no reason to doubt that he and his wife lived in a humble black neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side. I imagine that his wife took public transportation--buses or streetcars or both--to the suburbs, where she cleaned the homes of white families rich enough to hire domestic help. He and his wife had three children.

Shortly before Christmas, every Christmas from 1945 to 1970, my mother invited Mr. Lyons in for a hot toddy or two--the farther back in time, the more likely snow had fallen or was falling--, a little small-talk, a Christmas card with "something" in it, and thanks for his dependable and considerate service.

I was there in December 1970 for this seasonal ritual. At it close, Mr. Lyons thanked my mother for her kindnesses over the years and then announced that he was retiring at the end of the year. We were both stunned; he was part of the comfortable and familiar routine of our lives. My mother recovered quickly to say that he would be greatly missed. Then she added that he had done such a good job, he must have liked it to have worked so long, hard, and diligently at it.

Then came the real shocker. No, he said, he had hated every minute of it. But, as he explained in our silence, he and his wife had three children, two boys, once girl. They were now grown and gone, two lawyers, one doctor. My mother said a few words of congratulation. We exchanged season's greetings, farewells, and best wishes. Then he left, and his last day in December came and went.

What Mr. and Mrs. Lyons achieved for their children in a segregated Northern city, starting at least 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, is the stuff of an even quieter heroism. The Lyonses are not typical, of course; instead, they are the realization of ideals: sacrifice and betterment. But they point the way for others in similar situations. Today, as then, the culture of poverty can be escaped, perhaps in a second generation. To those who despair that they cannot improve their lives or the lives of their children, Mr. and Mrs. Lyons give the lie.