Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 67% Solution

Update! Update! Update! Update!

With the predictability of a lunar eclipse, the New York Times today features a front-page report headlined:

Stimulus Plan Would Provide Flood of Aid to Education

So now the taxpayers--US--will be coerced into partnership with failed and corrupt banks, failed, corrupt and stupid carmakers, and a failed, corrupt, stupid and arrogant education industry. The Times article is excerpted here.

The proposed emergency expenditures on nearly every realm of education, including school renovation, special education, Head Start and grants to needy college students, would amount to the largest increase in federal aid since Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II.

Critics and supporters alike said that by its sheer scope, the measure could profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.

In this euphoric run-up to the ascension of The Oba-Messiah, all the usual suspects are lumbering toward the trough in order to slobber up the Fool's Gold now being minted by our leaders in Washington.

Consistently neglected in boom years, INFRASTRUCTURE is now the Golden Calf of the 21st Century New Deal, worshipped by one and all in every level of government.

Who can argue with it? Don't these worthy projects need funding? And aren't these the same public servants that have served us so well in good times and bad?

In recent years here in New York City the tax dollars fueled by Wall Street profits cascaded into the city treasury and--as in boom times past--roads, bridges and transit systems deteriorated.

Did any of our political leaders wail about our crumbling infrastructure?

"Sorry, bridges don't vote" came the reply from the political class as they shoveled money to voting blocs and interest groups for the express purpose of remaining in office so they could shovel more money.

Remember the gas tax? How about the bridge tolls that were supposed to benefit mass transit? Money, money, money with nothing to show. So now that stimulus is our government's most critical responsibility, the Fed is cranking up the printing presses.

Their mission: inflate the money supply to pay workers to dig holes in the ground.

Ten years from now when the next crisis hits we'll be treated to another round of bleating from those who advocate a commitment to infrastructure and we will have all forgotten about the previous roads and bridges scam.

This should come as no surprise.

Wasting money is what governments do and infrastructure is traditionally the way they do it. Nothing new here.

But what of social welfare, healthcare and education? Surely these are noble endeavors worthy of national mobilization and they figure prominently in the new administration's stimulus plans.

Useless infrastructure projects simply produce "Big Digs" and "Bridges to Nowhere" that impoverish our grandchildren. National commitments to worthy social and educational crusades typically result in stunted human development in the here and now. As an added kick in the ass, they prolong and entrench the delusions of the social engineers and educrats so that effective reform becomes impossible.

As an example, let's take issue with a government initiative that is beyond reproach: Project Headstart. Headstart was born in 1965 during America's Great Society frenzy. Its mission and vision, to promote greater school readiness among under served children, was self-evidently noble. Predictably, as the Headstart Medusa spread its reptilian ganglia from city to city, suburb to suburb and state to state, community action groups sprang up, taking proactive steps to keep the federal dollars flowing. Also predictably, advocacy groups such as the National Headstart Association resisted all efforts to provide accountability and financial transparency.

Instead, public money was poured into a black hole while self-serving measurements designed to assess the "SKILLS" promoted by the early education movement showed that these skills developed at a more rapid rate.

In effect, industry studies demonstrated convincingly that two-year-old children who were taught to place "A" blocks next to "B" blocks performed this valuable task better than two year olds who had not been conditioned like trained seals. More than forty years later, the beat goes on without a whisper of protest from those who know better but fear being branded as heartless.

Year after year, independent studies designed to measure long-term educational efficacy consistently demonstrate that when tracked through the four stages of cognitive development, children enrolled in Headstart programs show no greater proficiency in formal operational thinking than children who have started school as late as seven years old.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss biologist, philospher and epistemologist first identified the four stages-- sensory/motor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational--more than seventy years ago.

He also observed that by the end of secondary education about one third of all high school graduates were capable of formal operational thinking. Today, throughout the industrialized world, one third of all high school graduates demonstrate formal operational thinking.

Does this mean that the decline in public education is only an illusion?

I think not. It's true that the proportion of students capable of abstract thinking and symbolic logic has remained constant. However, the academic performance of the remaining 67% of high school graduates has declined precipitously. These are the
students who in past generations achieved a level of functional literacy which has all but disappeared.

Who is advocating for the great two thirds?

Who will campaign for functional literacy?

Moreover, will anyone have the courage to admit that America's continued prosperity depends on Americans who can operate a CNC lathe at least as much as it depends on Americans who can design a CNC lathe?

In a matter of weeks the Fed will start pouring buckets of depreciating Greenbacks into the feeding trough.

And you can be certain that the Early Education Pimps will be there, cheek-to-jowl with the porcine infrastructurists, their snouts buried deep in the stimulative slop. So take heart. There will be new roads and gleaming bridges and modern transit systems to speed Americans to work in this grand new epoch of 21st Century jobs. But traffic will be much lighter than normal if there aren't enough qualified Americans to fill these dream jobs.

For today, though, the skies are brighter and the air is fresher and a brave new world is just beyond the horizon. God help the 67% who will be left behind.

Orfeo ed Euridice... or... I've Just Gone Through Hell for This Chick and She Still Won't Do What I Tell Her

We went to see Orfeo again last week at the Met. We don't usually attend a performance a second time, especially so soon, but this is a breakthrough production so here goes.

Proving once again that there's nothing new under the Sun, the Metropolitan Opera wound down its 2006/2007 season with a spectacular production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Orpheus myth, here's a quick synopsis:

Orfeo is mourning the death of his young wife, Euridice. But he sends everyone away because his grief is so overwhelming even their sincere and heartfelt support sinks him deeper into despair.

Then along comes Cupid, yeah Cupid, suspended from a wire no less, who tells him that all he has to do is follow his beloved's spirit into the underworld and bring her back.

But, she orders, he cannot look at her, or tell her why he can't look at her, until they're back home or she will die. And this time, for keepsies.

Yada, yada, yada... he descends into Hell, gets past the Furies, finds his wife and they start home.

"But why won't you look at me?," she asks, "Am I no longer beautiful?"

"Just shut up and follow me." implores Orfeo, but she's relentless.

"Is it because this dress makes me look fat?"

"Have you found someone else? It's that little tart from Thessalonika, isn't it?"

At this point the Missus turned to me and said "What a wimp. Why doesn't he just grab her by the scruff of the neck, tell to STFU and drag her out of there?"

Why not indeed? But this is an opera.

Finally, when he can't take her nagging anymore, he turns and looks her straight in the eyes and she promptly drops dead... again.

At that point poor Orfeo collapses to his knees and wails: "Che faro senza Euridice" (what shall I do without Euridice). Well lets see... for starters I'll play golf, go fishing and drink as much beer as I want anytime I want.

But no.

All Orfeo has to do is threaten suicide and Cupid returns to snatch the dagger from his hand. Touched by his devotion Cupid brings Euridice back to life and she immediately starts nagging him to finish mowing the lawn. What oh what shall I do without Euridice? What oh what shall any of us do?

Well, they live happily every after, have five kids and Orfeo gets a job playing in the house band at Euridice's father's catering hall. They are Greek, after all.

And we can only speculate as to how Orfeo's life would have turned out if he had passed on Cupid's "descend into Hell" offer and just looked around for a younger woman. After a respectable mourning period, of course.

But this is pure fiction. For the happily married among us, thankfully, Orfeo's tragedy is a prospect that few of us (gentlemen) will have to confront. All you have to do is glance at the obituary page or take a walk past your local assisted living center to recognize that we're not going to outlive our wives. It brings back memories of the old Alan King routine, "Survived by his wife." In fact, I'm sure that if we followed the Orpheus legend to its conclusion we'd find Euridice sitting in a beach chair in Boca Raton cashing Orfeo's pension checks from the Amalgamated Greek Lyre Players Union.

Face it, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So when you're tempted to blurt out, "Why can't you do what I tell for once?", understand that this is a male/female dynamic that's been going on since there have been males and females. Just swallow those words before they jump out and get you into trouble because the odds that she'll do what you say are roughly equivalent to the chances that Alex Rodriguez will hit a bases-loaded homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series while still wearing a Yankee uniform.

It ain't happenin'.

Next week: Wotan, the King of the Gods, chides his teenage daughter Brunnhilde for her disobediance. "You're grounded, young lady!", he shouts. Then he places her on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire for all eternity. Would that it were...