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Sep 17 10

Take It When You Can

by Editor

I will happily take my validation where I can get it.  The September 11th, 2010, edition of The Economist included an article about the value of education to earnings, and the types of work that graduates end up with.  It included the following paragraph, along with an illustrative chart:

“The ‘education is good’ mantra does not work everywhere (see chart). In some countries many students have to be content with the intellectual rewards of

Education doesn't always help...

From The Economist. (Right above Poland - what a coup!)

study. In Spain, for example, 44% of college- and university-educated youngsters are working in low-skill jobs. America, Canada and Britain also have high shares of graduates working in jobs for which they are overqualified. In lucky Luxembourg hardly any graduates end up in menial jobs.” [The emphasis is mine.]

Yes, well … I’m big on this point, as readers of my column “The Jobs and Education Con Game” will surely recall.  I think we are kidding ourselves if we are not able to be more specific about the different kinds of education — and the different value they offer.  Not all jobs are created equal, neither are all forms of education, and there cannot possibly be a perfect and unwavering connection between simply having a college degree and higher earnings.  In the United States, where it is easy to get a college education but not necessarily easy to get a good college education, that point seems clear, and is underscored by The Economist‘s chart.

This should deter no one.  I believe in education for the sake of the mind.  But for the sake of the mind, let’s stop pretending that formal, higher “education” solves every problem.

Aug 25 10

Fans and Heroes

by Editor

I love NPR’s sports commentator Frank Deford: he’s comfortingly authoritative and commanding, in the way that newscasters mostly are not these days, even if he’s generally talking about a subject that does not interest me.

But my ears perked up this morning for Deford’s story “Who Can A Young Fan Look Up To? It’s Tough.”  It is not that I disagree with him — the current crop of sports stars are either bizarrely self-centered (Lebron) or have flamed out gloriously (Tiger, Ben), or simply faded a bit in the way that people do (Serena), — but to my mind, he did not go far enough in defining why a sports star should be a hero, or why a fan should care.

Yes, of course, someone playing professional sports owes their first allegiance to being good at their chosen sport.  At the same time, I think what defines a sports star as a star is when they surpass their own achievements as a player because they realize they can apply their success in more significant ways.  Jesse Owns, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Larry Doby, Arthur Ashe, or Muhammad Ali?  Those players were stars, stars worthy of being heroes, because they surpassed their on-court mastery to have a tremendous and positive impact on our society (and in more ways than just providing fodder for the paparazzi).  Where are the 21st century versions of these players?  Missing, entirely, as a class of people it seems.

So, thanks, Mr. Deford, for reminding us of the failings and persistent fallibility of folks like Tiger Woods, and for the endless confusion of the news media who seem increasingly to need stars to guide their coverage of issues (navigational puns intended).  (And thanks, too, NPR, for two good sports stories this morning; for the record, I agree with Tim Layden that football would benefit from bringing back the running game.  Passing is boring!)  But, Mr. Deford, I think you missed an opportunity to call sports players to account, and to encourage them to seek out a higher purpose for their lives and even their sports.

Aug 18 10

Not My Messiah

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

When I think about my co-religionists, I must admit that in less generous moments it is easy to dismiss some of them as members of a messianic cult. For many so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, there is a kind of messianic fervor that exerts a definite pull on their behavior and views of the world, whether it’s the anti-Zionism of the Neturei Karta (I once attended a protest rally at which these folks, and some others who called themselves simply Satmars, received much abuse from other Jews) or the “presumed with assurance” Schneersonism of some Lubavitchers, or some of the settlers occupying Palestinian lands. We may all be Jewish, but their Judaism and mine differs in a variety of ways, not the least of which is their belief in the messiah as something more than an abstract concept.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to see current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted in a new article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, saying: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs”. Indeed, I do not want this, and for a brief second I thought Netanyahu was speaking about the prospect of Jews more Orthodox than he taking over the state of Israel. After all, this seems to be part of Orthodoxy’s official goal, if (for example) the hubbub around a new “conversion” bill is to be placed in a broader context.

Except that Netanyahu was talking about Iran, which is the focus of Goldberg’s story, an examination around a series of questions: Will Iran get the bomb? Will they use it against Israel, if they do? Will Israel attempt to stop them by preemptively attacking their nuclear installations? Will Israel succeed in setting back Iran’s plans, or only provoke a broader war? And is the US doing enough to act as a deterrent, both to Israel’s preemption and Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

The problem is that the two-thirds of the article takes the view that Iran is motivated by an instinctive, unyielding anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, driven by this “messianic apocalyptic” view of the world—in contrast to the people of Israel, who have no such crazy beliefs and are not at all driven by some sense that they have a greater, grander, theologically inspired destiny.

I should not really be so surprised. Whatever Goldberg’s strengths as a security analyst, he also tends to be an apologist for Israel (or, more nicely put, an unapologetic supporter of Israel). With that statement, let me be clear about two things: first, I support Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. Second, I support containment of nuclear weapons, and I have no desire to see Iran acquire them. However, I object to a journalistic presentation (even under the guise of some kind of analysis) that simply presupposes that some people or nations are inherently good, and other people are inherently evil, and that seeks to ignore evident ambiguities or contradictions. Or put another way: in Goldberg’s view, it is acceptable for Israel to insist on its policy of opacity around its own nuclear weaponry—this is just a clever playing of politics, nothing more, and no greater honesty is needed—but Iran’s “official” anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism absolutely must be taken at face value and cannot be viewed as political theater or the means to distract a beleaguered populace from oppression closer to home.

Parts of the article are more honest, such as when Goldberg presents an anonymous Israeli view with a different perspective. He writes: “Israeli policy makers do not necessarily believe that Iran, should it acquire a nuclear device, would immediately launch it by missile at Tel Aviv. ‘On the one hand, they would like to see the Jews wiped out,’ one Israeli defense official told me. ‘On the other hand, they know that Israel has unlimited reprisal capability’—this is an Israeli euphemism for the country’s second-strike nuclear arsenal—‘and despite what Rafsanjani and others say, we think they know that they are putting Persian civilization at risk.’”

I agree with this view, and I have written before that I do not believe that Iran will bomb Israel, or that the US will bomb Iran. Iran can be remarkably pragmatic, as even Goldberg acknowledges in describing how they play the game around international sanctions. So, again: it is offensive that Goldberg presents the broader contours of this dynamic in such a way that there is an unchallenged sense that Iran’s motivations are irrational, while Israel’s are eminently and obviously the opposite.

The problem with any kind of messianism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, is that it leaves little room for genuine discussion or debate. But it can just as easily be said that messianism is a problem equally in all three faiths. After all, the entire premise behind an uncompromising view of keeping the occupied land of the West Bank is based on a Biblical, messianic view of Judaism, Israel, and that land. Every other justification, including security concerns, could be negotiated in a settlement; it is only the religiously held views that cannot be swayed by other outcomes. Similarly, look no further than the messianic strain within Christian Zionism (the root of much contemporary American support for Israel). Some Christians believe that supporting Israel and the return of Jews to Israel is essential for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the “rapture.” Just Google “Christian Zionism,” and you cannot miss it. The hypocrisy here from an Israeli perspective—or even that of an American Jewish one, since we not only tolerate but encourage these Christian Zionists in their support for Israel—is clear and unambiguous: they are “our” messianists, so it’s all ok, and anyway, we don’t believe that the rapture presents much of a threat to us.

Iran on the other hand…

Jul 17 10

Stimulus, Slowing Me Down

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The Merritt Parkway is a lovely, four-lane road (two in each direction) that cuts through much of southern Connecticut, from the New York line to just past New Haven. For a driver, among its pleasures are the freedom from trucks—it’s much too small for commercial traffic, with lots of low overhanging bridges and sharp curves—and its many trees. It is truly a parkway.

Notwithstanding the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing the road on its 2010 “endangered” list, I have always considered the Merritt to be among the better roads to drive on. It seems well-maintained, certainly relative to I-95, its bigger and uglier parallel sibling. While storms sometimes damage trees (and thus slow down drivers), and of course accidents hold things up, the Merritt has been reliably drivable. Indeed, even in the worst traffic—such as around holidays—it remains my strong preference. The alternatives are uglier, no less congested, and generally unpleasant.

The state of Connecticut must agree with the National Trust, however: they have chosen to spend $70 million in Federal “stimulus” funds on road improvements to the Merritt. … The near-term results of which are massive traffic jams and slowdowns. On a recent nighttime drive, three separate road work spots added a combined hour of delay to my northbound trip.

You could call this “stimulating,” but not in a good way. Indeed, it seems more than a little ironic that stimulus funds are being used in a way that so dramatically wastes time and energy (gasoline), and I find myself splutteringly frustrated even thinking about how to calculate this. But lets try. Some sources (such as the White House) report that the Merritt sees 60,000 cars per day; since the construction seems to be affecting only one side at a time, primarily during nighttime hours, let’s cut that in half to 30,000 (one half of the road) and estimate that 40% of that number travels at night, to get to 12,000 drivers during the hours when construction is taking place and therefore affected by the slow down.

The construction affects a nine mile long stretch of the parkway. Hopefully every car on the road gets better mileage than nine miles to the gallon—but with the construction forcing cars to idle (or inch forward), it is entirely conceivable that the effective mileage for each car has been reduced to just that. (After all: when you’re not moving, your car gets zero miles to the gallon.) Wasting two gallons of gasoline per car comes out to 24,000 gallons of gas wasted each day just on the Merritt. At an average pump price of $2.85, that’s $68,400 dollars wasted, per day. If it takes six months (180 days) to complete the roadwork then total fuel waste is 4,320,000 gallons, at a cost of $12,312,000.

Then there’s the impact on people’s time. If the average delay is similar to what I recently experienced—one hour—that’s also 12,000 work hours per day lost to this “stimulus”-funded construction project, assuming one person per car. Over the course of 180 days, that’s 2,160,000 work hours. If we generously say that each of those hours is worth $100 (hey, this is Connecticut we’re talking about) that’s $216,000,000 in wasted time. Add in the fuel costs, and that’s $228,312,000 wasted in time and fuel.

$228 million wasted for a $70 million “stimulus” funds road improvement program. That is not even calculating the environmental impact of all that gasoline spent on nothing.  Sure, that $70 million is going to create jobs to do the roadwork, and the jobs required to create the materials used in the roadwork.  But there’s still no comparing $70 million invested to $228 million wasted.  We might as well give that $70 million away by sprinkling it on the streets, which is still likely to create less traffic and less waste.

No question, it’s easier to complain than come up with solutions. If the state of Connecticut says the road needs to be fixed, who am I to say it ain’t so. And sure, someone could make an argument about how much better and more efficient the road will be when it’s done (though it’s not a road widening project, so the efficiency benefits are limited). But the state could make a better effort to inform drivers of the delays before they’re suddenly upon them, and suggest detour routes, and even provide digital signage that estimates (and updates) the length of the delays, so that drivers can make informed decisions. If you’re driving from Bridgeport to Milford, odds are there are local roads that (under these circumstances) would be faster than joining the mass of clogged vehicles on the Merritt. If you’re driving from New York to or past New Haven, you might decide to stick it out—though, still, recommended diversions to I-95 or I-84 could help address the overall problem. Instead, Connecticut provides little in the way of driver information and assistance until it’s too late to do much about it.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in this is the one no one in government will ever learn: loudly proclaiming to drivers stuck in miserable slowdowns that the roadwork is being funded by Federal “stimulus” dollars … may not be having the impact you think, or desire, on this captive automotive audience.