Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for February 2016

Will the Real FDR Please Stand Up?

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The Bernie Sanders campaign is seeking to make the Senator’s self-described socialism palatable by drawing parallels to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointing out that FDR’s enemies called him a socialist in his day.

Essential continuity of thought.

Essential continuity of thought.

There is some merit to this positioning, but what is there to learn about FDR and his policies? The memory of FDR that is kept alive in our high school history classes is a very incomplete picture of the man.

The key to understanding FDR is his own self-description:

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
— FDR to Henry Morgenthau, 1942. Quoted in Fleming, The New Dealers’ War.

It was known at the time that Roosevelt was not only willing to put duplicity in service of a national war effort, but any other cause that would further his ends.

If [Roosevelt] became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he needs so sorely, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House yard come Wednesday.
— H. L. Mencken, 1936.

Roosevelt left no political testament that states his principles, but even if he had, we would be wise to treat it with skepticism. His book Looking Forward — a play, for those in the know, on the utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward — was essentially a repackage of previous speeches and articles he had written. The principles to which he committed himself in action can be briefly enumerated:

  1. Power;
  2. More power.

Bernie Sanders is much more ideological, whereas Roosevelt was totally pragmatic. Sanders has been a socialist through fair weather and foul. I have full confidence that Sanders’ positions in the campaign are those that he believes fully.

Roosevelt was much more willing to shift his positions and tack with prevailing winds. The most notorious example of this was his behavior in 1940-41, when he sensed the strong isolationist current in America but knew he could not allow Britain to fail. He promised the country to not become involved in foreign wars, while at the same time calling for every act he could get Congress to pass to aid Britain, China and, after June 1941, the Soviet Union. His embargo of oil to Japan pushed the Japanese into a corner where they had to either initiate war or back down.

Roosevelt had no animosity toward business, banks or Wall Street provided they would do what he wanted them to do. His practical course of action is properly understood as corporatism: a private-public partnership of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government, Big Education and Big Media. While all the sloganeers of the 1930s talked about “the little guy”, the only way the little guy had any chance was to become a member of something big.

In 1935, the Supreme Court handed down the Schechter decision that invalidated the National Recovery Administration. FDR launched a vendetta against the Supreme Court that has altered juridical history from then to now. No court has ever challenged broad delegation from Congress to the executive branch since.

The 2016 candidate who best matches the principles displayed in the actions of FDR is Donald Trump. It is undoubtedly true that FDR would have considered Trump vulgar, but much of public life has changed in eighty years.

Written by srojak

February 15, 2016 at 10:59 am

College Algebra Should Be Illegal

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Apparently it is in this year to promise a free college education. That way, college-age people will like you, back you and strive mightily to get you elected. Their parents, who in many cases cosign their college loans, will like you, too.

To be fair, we have all been beaten about the head with statistics showing the supposed advantage in earning power college graduates have over non-graduates since I can remember. While the economist in me wants to dig a little deeper and look at component factors (such as major, program rigor and course content), I can see why people react the way they do to that data. Meanwhile, college costs have increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation since the 1980s. So, yeah, I understand the pain.

In 2014, 69% of graduates of public and private non-profit colleges graduated with debt, and the average debt load of those graduates was almost $29,000. This is a substantial portion of anticipated first-year earnings that alters the economics of getting a college degree. In 2013, Senators Dick Durbin, Jack Reed and Elizabeth Warren called for a basket of student loan reforms, including penalizing colleges who had high graduate loan default rates.

“They will have to have skin in the game,” [Senator Reed] said. “They will have to make financial judgments based on how well-informed and how reliable their graduates are in terms of paying back their student loans.”

I would like to take a different approach to this issue. In this essay, I will survey what content can be moved into public secondary education so that more of what we now consider to be a college education is available at no cost to the student.

Preparation for What?

I am not saying that the education professionals are scheming to slow children’s learning down in order to exploit them by selling them more courses. Many of the people who have shaped our public education system are earnest, sincere and want to do what is best for the kids. That is what makes the problem so intractable.

Some people believe that all children should be prepared for college; others believe that would be a disservice to many students who would be better served preparing for a trade. We have differing concepts of the purpose of childhood: is it to be engaged as an end in itself, or is it a time of preparation for adult life? We have different levels of funding across school districts: how much does that influence outcomes?

All these questions are worthy of discussion — but we don’t really discuss them. The proponents of different viewpoints gather together, share evidence supporting their pre-existing beliefs, and holler abuse at those who disagree.

Creating the Client

The same schools that are not teaching your grade-school child to read are teaching remedial reading when the kids should be learning effective composition and algebra. Then, when the kids go to college, they can be put through more remedial courses in composition and algebra to correct prior omissions in their education.

Indeed, U.S. schools do teach arithmetic well … But they teach it over and over again, instead of assuming students have learned, say, fractions after a couple of years. In his study of textbooks, Mr. Schmidt found that U.S. books covered up to 35 different math topics a year — that means teachers fly through them at a speed of one a week — and didn’t drop any of them until seventh grade.

If some topics are taught over and over, algebra usually isn’t taught at all until ninth grade because . . . well, because ninth-grade algebra has always been an American tradition. But isolating algebra that way means that about 90% of a ninth-grade math book is new material — a huge blast of abstract thinking after years of easy-going arithmetic.
— “Low X-pectations: Students Fear Algebra, And Then Comes the Ninth-Grade Crunch“, Wall Street Journal,  16 Jun 1998.

For many students, Algebra 1 is their first formal encounter with abstract thinking.

.. Algebra is what teachers call a gatekeeper course; you have to go through it to reach the possibilities beyond. Algebra is the language of math and science, “the language of problem solving,” says University of Chicago math professor Zalman Usiskin. It deals in abstractions — using letters to generalize math operations — that expand thinking skills. In a technology-fueled society, says Mr. Usiskin, not knowing algebra “limits what you can do.”

Abstract thinking is essential not only to make a living as a knowledge worker, but to solve problems as a citizen. Without the ability to think abstractly, you can’t find patterns. Every problem is brand new, having nothing in common with any that you have ever seen before. Abstract thinking is a necessary skill, and those who are on the sensory side of Myers-Briggs and don’t come out of the chute thinking abstractly are especially dependent on the education system to teach it to them.

Youngsters who take algebra tend to go to college, research shows, and low-income youngsters who take it are almost as likely to go to college as middle- and upper-income kids. The gap in test scores between students in private school and those in public school largely disappears if they take upper-level math courses, beginning with algebra.

Thus it is premature to say to a ninth-grader, “you don’t need to take algebra because you’re not going down an academic track.” He sure won’t if he can’t learn math and can’t think abstractly.

Three Years of College

Many high schools offer advanced placement classes. Some even offer college-level courses in conjunction with local community colleges. Can we formalize those and push down the content of what is now a year of college so that everyone can get access to it in their public high schools?

The current estimate for a year of room and board at a college starts at around $10,000. Tuition, fees and incidentals pile on top of that. Even in-state tuition at public colleges averages about $9,500 a year. Getting students one year of what is now college somewhere cheaper would significantly reduce their costs.

Do Something Different

It is clear that an adult starting out in life with no work experience and $30,000 in debt is not loaded for success. We wish there were some grown-ups in the room who would tell them not to do that, but evidently that is not going to happen.

Nevertheless, you should understand the risks you are taking on. Look for alternatives to get the same content at lower cost. Above all, wring all possible value out of the free public education options you have available to you.

Written by srojak

February 10, 2016 at 3:22 pm

You Owe Her Your Vote

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According to Madeline Albright, women are duty bound to vote for Hillary Clinton. Speaking at a Clinton event on Saturday, Albright expounded on “why young women have to support Hillary Clinton,” continuing, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

I can’t think of a better illustration of the collectivist nature of the Democrats. When they look at you, they don’t see you as an individual. You are a data point, a face in the crowd. All decisions reduce to identity politics. You have no business thinking for yourself.

Written by srojak

February 8, 2016 at 10:24 am

In Defense of Humanism

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I find it odd that Protestant Evangelicals have such a negative view of humanism.

Rick Warren is the founder of Saddleback Church in California and an author of several books, most notably The Purpose Driven Life. In this sermon, Warren discusses various philosophical viewpoints. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says, “Ideas have consequences.” But he goes on, at about 32:00 in the audio, to equate humanism to the belief that:

I am my own god; I am the center of the universe.

One could make the argument that secular humanists believe this, but there are other kinds of humanism.

Gerald Robinson and Bob Sjogren have a non-denominational ministry called UnveilinGLORY. They have published a book, Cat & Dog Theology, based on an insightful observation:

A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, you must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God.”

I think it is rather intuitively obvious which animal has it backwards. However, they maintain that humanism is a “cat” way of looking at life:

Humanism is defined as a system of though or actions concerned with the interests or ideals of people. Translating that definition into simpler terms, we might assert that humanism proclaims that the reason for all existence is humanity’s happiness. It’s all about us and making certain we are happy.
Cat & Dog Theology, p. 152.

They might assert that, but they would be wrong. What they’ve got hold of there is hedonism.

Humanism is the belief that human life on this earth has intrinsic value. Life is not just something to be endured to get to heaven.

No Humanism, No Protestants

Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy in 1320, prior to the introduction of Renaissance ideas. Dante identified corruption and worldliness in the Roman Catholic church, finding several former popes in the eighth circle of hell for corruption. He called out the temporal political activity of the Papacy:

O’er Rome, the world’s great healer, used to shine
Two suns ; and by their several light were shown
Two ways diverse — the Worldly and Divine.

One has the other quenched ; since now in one
Are twinned the Sword and Crozier, needs must be,
That ills arise from such false union,

The two, thus join’d, from mutual fear are free.
— “Purgatorio”, Canto XVI

However, Dante would never have dreamt of a reform movement that would secede from the Roman church. Yes, the church was corrupt, but so what? The popes and bishops will answer for their behavior in the afterlife. This earth is only a way station we pass through, a vale of tears. Put up with it; it’s only three score years and ten, if that.

There was no place for Martin Luther in this worldview. In order for the Reformation to occur, people had to belief that life on earth has intrinsic value. People had to believe that the form and context of their spiritual lives on earth matter to rebel against the worldly power of church authority and risk a gruesome and agonizing death.

I am not saying that Martin Luther was a humanist; this would be a stretch. Luther believed that people were incapable of redeeming themselves without the give of God’s grace. I am saying that Luther would not have had his followers without Renaissance humanism. Without humanism, his 1520 treatises To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian would have made no sense to his readers because spiritual life on earth would not matter. A belief in the intrinsic value of life on earth was a necessary prerequisite to the Reformation.

Without humanism, Rick Warren would at most be a Roman Catholic Monseigneur in charge of a parish wherever the bishops sent him. He would not have had the opportunity to build his megachurches in southern California.

No Humanism, No Freedom

Robinson and Sjogren wrote of the sacrifices made by some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some lived on the run for years. Many were ruined financially. These men were patriots and put “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at risk for what they believed.

But if you repudiate humanism, what is the morality of the American Revolution? So the king is a tyrant — welcome to the real world. Thus it ever has been. You’re going to start a war and bring about death, disease and suffering to your own people as well as the British soldiers who are doing their duty — for what? Absent humanism, this is just something we have to endure, as our forbears have for time out of mind. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Only a belief in humanism gives morality to the idea of fighting a war against tyranny and for self-determination. Only a belief in humanism makes it matter what faith you practice on earth, even it is not the faith of the ruler. Only humanism allows us to say:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I could understand a Roman Catholic theologian attacking humanism. That would at least present some degree of intellectual consistency. But there is a biting-the-hand quality about Protestants who deride humanism.

Written by srojak

February 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm