Ron Parlato

All articles on this page were written by  Ron Parlato, who is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog, http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

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 Religion in America Is Big Business and Should Not Be Tax-Exempt

The New York Times has hosted an online debate, to discuss the issue of religious tax exemption. This exemption is misguided and often abused, and in this time of fiscal scrutiny, should be discontinued.

The IRS has published “A History of the Tax-Exempt Sector” and in it they give the original justification for the policy – voluntarism.  They cite Alexis de Tocqueville: “I have frequently admired the endless skill with which the inhabitants of the United States manage to set a common aim and to persuade them to pursue it voluntarily.” Before there were public service programs – government-sponsored health care, education, and social welfare – churches provided these services, and still should.

One of the Times debaters cited Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, for another insight into government policy:

Religious groups provide a ‘critical buffer’ against the power of government, and religious autonomy ‘has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.’

Churches and other tax-exempt institutions should remain free from the political influences of the government and the IRS.  Congress can change tax laws at any time, and if churches were not tax-exempt, they might be subject to oppression:

In 1890, Kentucky State Representative Whittaker summed up the sentiment nicely, when he said, “Let an untaxed Gospel be preached, in an untaxed church house, from an untaxed pulpit; let the emblem of a crucified, but risen Christ be administered from an untaxed altar, and, as the spire points heavenward, . . . let it stand forever untaxed.” (TownHall.com)

Another observer, a legal counsel for the Baptist Church, has added yet another dimension:

The “intangible benefit” theory of tax exemption highlights the intangible and often unseen benefits provided by churches to the community: reduced crime rates, resulting from transformed lives: suicides prevented, when people surrender to Christ; and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens, who contribute to the well-being of the community (TownHall.com).

I think that this last justification gets as close as any to the real reason for continuing the exemption. America is one of the most religious nations on earth; and the evangelizing mission of most Christian churches should not only be protected, but promoted.

There are just as many arguments as to why churches should not receive tax exemption.  The Teapot Atheist debunks the myth of special status, saying they are nothing more than businesses:

They have salaried employees; mission statements; they compete with other churches for market share; many of them sell products; they own property; and some run profits in the millions. Some churches, like the Catholic and Anglican churches, closely parallel the franchise model…

The critic attacks the other principle of church exemption – good works – by saying that churches do very little, in comparison with individuals and other voluntary organizations:

There are many large religious charities (like the Salvation Army) and secular charities (like Doctors Without Borders) that do all kinds of important charitable works, but individual churches, by and large, do not do anything on nearly such a scale.

OVO, an Oregon public interest group, summarizes the case against church tax-exemption:

Since there is no definition of religion to differentiate ‘real’ religious organizations from ‘fake’ ones, decision-making for or against tax exemption is arbitrary. As importantly, religious organizations rarely make contributions to their community that are proportional to the amount they are awarded in tax breaks; nor are they held accountable for their programs.

Of these, the definition issue is by far the most important.  The Church of Scientology fought a long 26-year battle with the IRS, but, in1993, the Church was awarded tax-exempt status because it convinced the courts that it was indeed, a church. The Church argued in court that it provided a much-needed spiritual refuge and an offer of enlightenment.  The government argued for Christianity.

Perhaps the strongest argument against church tax-exemption is that, since churches are almost always political, they should not be tax-exempt.  The Catholic Church’s engagement with government on public policy (contraception), or the obvious and deliberate use of the fundamentalist Christian pulpit to rail against “socialism”’, gay rights, family values, and individual liberties, are examples.

The churches insist on their rights to view social and political issues through a religious lens.  Homosexuality, abortion, and contraception are against God’s law, so they are well within their rights to fight these issues. God’s law always trumps Man’s; but, do churches step over the church-state line, when they enter a public arena?

In 2007, Senator Charles Grassley initiated an investigation of six televangelists, asking them to disclose their organization’s compensation plans, spending practices, assets and business arrangements. The investigation was prompted by complaints that these ministers live lavish lifestyles, with multi-million dollar homes and private jets.

In 2011, Grassley concluded that he could find no wrongdoing, because most of the ministries refused to voluntarily turn over documentation or appear before Congress. Grassley was unable to pursue his investigations largely because of the special status accorded to churches:

  • Religious organizations do not have to prove they are doing charitable work and automatically receive tax exempt status from the IRS.
  • Religious organizations do not have to inform the public of what assets the organization has, what their annual income and expenses are, etc
  • The IRS has special rules that make initiating an audit of churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious entities more difficult than with other secular non-profits.
  • K-12 schools run by religious organizations (Secular Coalition for America)

Religion in America is first and foremost a business – a big business – and it is afforded special status and protections that no other enterprise enjoys.

In conclusion, since religion is a business, churches should no longer be afforded a tax exemption.  If they are businesses, then let them compete like businesses.  Congregants should either throw extra change in the basket on Sundays, to make up for taxes, or turn to low-budget discount store-fronts.  This alternative would challenge the most suspect mega-churches, while allowing religion to flourish, and would force churches to compete in the do-good marketplace

Originally Published in the May 30, 2012 Print Edition

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Why Republicans and Democrats Cannot Compromise

In a new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, writers from the Left and Right, respectively, conclude that the fault for a deadlocked Congress lies squarely with the Republicans:

Mann and Ornstein cite the “appalling spectacle of hostage taking” in last year’s budget crises, when Republicans threatened government shutdown and public default in the name of fiscal responsibility and 238 of the 242 House Republicans took a pledge to never raise revenues, shirking their duty to put country first.

The question is how this rabidly partisan and obstructionist sentiment came to be so prevalent, when American history has abundant examples of successful compromises, which, more than simply representing a reasonable standoff between the parties, were crucial to the development of the United States.

American Heritage has recently (2010) published an article on the five great compromises of American history: The US Constitution, The Missouri Compromise, Clay and the 1850 Debate, Whittling Down The New Deal, and Medicare’s Complicated Birth.

* The Constitution: The Great Compromise revolved around the issue of the character of representation in Congress. (Everyone had already agreed that the new legislature should be bicameral.) The question remained whether representation should be determined by state, as in the government under the Articles of Confederation, or by population.  The Great Compromise was a split-the-difference solution, making representation by state the rule in the Senate, with two representatives for each state, and by population in the House. Other important Constitutional compromises had to do with slavery, specifically the Constitutional provisions to end the international slave trade and to count slaves as 3/5 of a free white, which were largely unpalatable to both sides, but acceptable enough for the provisions to pass.

* The Missouri Compromise: Two states were admitted to the Union (Maine and Missouri) in a single bill, which preserved the concise balance [of slave and free states] in the Senate. Although the Missouri Compromise did not prevent the Civil War, it demonstrated that even on one of the most contentious issues of the new republic – slavery – there could be some accommodation.

 * The Compromise of 1850  Clay’s amendments provided that California and New Mexico be admitted to the Union without mentioning slavery; that the United States assume Texas’s debt, before annexation, on the condition that Texas forgo all territorial claims upon New Mexico; that it was “inexpedient” to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia but “expedient” to forbid the slave trade there; and that a more effective fugitive slave law should be passed, to forbid Congress from interfering with the slave trade. The Compromise of 1850 delayed the Civil War for a decade, giving the North valuable time to further industrialize and strengthen its ability to survive a protracted war, an advantage the South would not enjoy.

* Trimming The New Deal: FDR compromised many principles concerning unemployment insurance, health care, and other social services to enable passage of The Social Security Act. It may not have conformed to his highest aspirations, but it has benefited hundreds of millions of Americans—retirees and the unemployed alike – for three-quarters of a century. It laid the foundation on which Medicare, Medicaid, and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 were later erected. It’s not too much to say that it rewrote the American social contract. As Roosevelt envisioned, it made life more secure for generations to come.

* Medicare’s Complicated Birth: To combat charges of socialized medicine and signal his desire to reach an accommodation with the opponents of his initiative, Lyndon Johnson compromised a more comprehensive health bill and advanced a much more limited one that covered only hospital costs for seniors through expanded social security – but was likely to pass Congress and would lay the foundation for more ambitious social service programs to follow.

What was it that characterized these compromises that is absent today?  In all cases they were brokered by political leaders that were revered as heroes or at least accomplished politicians, with a very clear vision of American society.  They were consummate politicians who had the country’s interests at heart and who understood that compromise was the first step to reform.

Lincoln, perhaps, compromised his own values most.  He was against the idea of slavery, but he understood that the respect for the Constitutional protections of property, states’ rights, and due process were important for the long-term survival of the nation, even if it delayed emancipation.

The beliefs of the opposition, in all five cases, were no less strong or ideological than those of today; but today there is neither the individual leadership of an FDR, LBJ, or Lincoln, nor the collective commitment of the Constitutional Congress. The situation is sadly reminiscent of Bangladesh, which is lauded for having a representative, freely-elected government, but which does not play by the rules. After elections, the defeated party often chooses not to be seated, defying the democratic process for personal gain. The United States Congress is behaving the same way.  If Republicans don’t get their way, they will take their marbles and go home.

Are American politicians cut from a different cloth than those of yesteryear?  Less interested in the common weal and more in their own advancement?  It looks that way.  Perhaps it is due to the true democratization of the political process, whereby the primary system allows for all kinds of radical, self-serving, and venal interests to predominate.  Voters, empowered by the primary process, are complicit in this deal and care even more about their parochial concerns. Due to a two-year election cycle, members of the House of Representatives are running for re-election the moment they are sworn in.  Getting re-elected means taking intellectual shortcuts and pandering to the most ignorant instincts of the electorate.

Both we the electorate and those we elect are, therefore, complicit in this situation.  Unless we as an electorate become better informed, more demanding, and insist on national, rather than parochial, priorities; and unless our representatives are willing to compromise in the national interest, nothing will change.

Originally Published in the May 23, 2012 Print Edition

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Sam Spade’s Noir Ethic – Facing Reality in International Development

Despite billions of dollars being poured into international programs of health, civil society, and education, there have been few successes.  This similar to those religious evangelists in South American jungles, who believe that if only they can Christianize the natives, economic and social progress will follow.

Richard Brooks has recently written about the importance of looking at economic development from a less idealistic and more objective and practical perspective.

If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into wonderful young people who are doing good and who have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self – starting a company that will empower Rwandan women, by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world. Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age.

These idealists avoid politics, because they have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it. That’s a delusion. You can cram all the non-governmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory, then your achievements won’t add up to much.

On a recent UN assignment, our team was invited to the home of the Secretary of Health.  The team leader insisted on lecturing him on his country’s corruption, inefficiency, and irresponsibility.  Unperturbed, the Secretary replied, “I have achieved my success thanks to my family, my community, my tribe, my region, and my country – in that order; and now that I am in the position of authority,  I will repay them exactly in that order.”

Americans want to do good, but they either ignore the corrupt and/or dysfunctional political environment in which they must work, or naively believe that they can change it simply by force of example.

The prevailing service religion [in international development] underestimates the problem of disorder. Many of the activists talk as if the world can be healed, if we could only insert more care, compassion and resources into it.

History is not kind to this assumption. Most poverty and suffering, whether in a country, a family or a person, flow from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.

The World Bank has tried to address this issue by imposing “conditionalities” on every loan – conditions of reform, which governments have to fulfill, in order for them to receive installments and new loans.  However, the loans were the construct of international bureaucrats, and far from the priorities of borrowing countries.  Adding to this, the Bank gave “soft” loans at marginal interest rates, repayable over an extremely long period. Because the Bank was well-capitalized and since its performance rating was based on “loans out the door”, repayment was never an issue. Conditionalities were irrelevant.

The United States also got on the conditionality bandwagon, and proudly trumpeted new programs through which money would be granted only to those countries which were democratic, followed the rule of law, and were financially transparent.  However valid the selection process, a country did not have to meet all the criteria to receive a grant.  A country with a reasonably free press and elections could receive financial support, even though it ranked near the bottom of the Transparency International (corruption) index.

To satisfy Congress’ preoccupation with waste and fraud, USAID’s current focus has been on tight financial control and, of course, maintaining a constant flow of politically-motivated dollars. A project with a poor evaluation report, often due to failed local institutions, can be renewed quickly and easily, with only the promise of doing better next time.

In short, there’s only so much good you can do, unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder, head-on. The noir heroes, like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon”, served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder. The noir hero was a moral realist who assumed that everybody was dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. The assumption, in a Hammett book, is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.

Brooks, however, rather naively assumes that, simply by addressing institutional reform, projects will improve, money will be spent efficiently and the recipients of aid will be better served.  Recent history has shown that traditions of self-serving venality and corruption – or adherence to outmoded but politically appealing policies – have been durable and resistant to change.

For decades, India was the recipient of billions of dollars of US foreign assistance.  Little or no progress was made, in terms of social and economic indicators, until India rejected the Soviet Socialist model and liberalized its economy.  In little more than ten years, India – very much on its own – went from a stagnant, impoverished country to one of vital dynamism and energy.

“Development”, as we know it, should be ended and returned to the pre-McNamara World Bank as “lender of last resort”, where grants and concessionary loans are eliminated and countries must turn to international capital markets.  Countries would then have to choose only those projects that were likely to perform and which they desperately needed; and they would have to reform their institutions.

This [Sam Spade] worldview had a huge influence, as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism, and noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on core issues. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.

Originally Published in the May 16, 2012 Print Edition

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 Reducing Cellphone Use While Driving – An Addiction Model

While there is a strong consensus that phoning and texting while driving causes accidents, enforcing the use of hand-free devices as a principal measure of reducing risk has been only partially effective.  A recent white paper published by the National Safety Council has shown that the real problem is talking on the phone, regardless of how it is done:

Studies have shown that hands-free phones offer no safety benefit when driving. Conversation occurs on both handheld and hands-free phones. The cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation – from listening and responding to a disembodied voice – contributes to numerous driving impairments.

Estimates indicate that drivers using cell phones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. Drivers suffering from this “inattention blindness” are looking out the windshield, but they do not process everything in the roadway environment that they must know to effectively monitor their surroundings, seek and identify potential hazards, and respond to unexpected situations.

Anyone who has talked on the phone, while driving, has experienced this spacey feeling.   You cannot recall what you saw in the last ten miles. You don’t remember much about the drive, once it is over, but assume that some deeper, lower-level you had “seen” the road, without really seeing it or remembering it.

The white paper suggests that the creation of a “third reality” – one in between driving and talking – is because of our inability to multi-task:

The brain not only tries to juggle tasks, it also juggles focus and attention. When people attempt to perform two cognitively complex tasks such as driving and talking on a phone, the brain shifts its focus. Important information falls out of view and is not processed by the brain. Research shows we are blind to many changes that happen in scenery around us, unless we pay close and conscious attention to specific details, giving them full analysis to get transferred into our working memory

Why, however, does talking, when alone, on a cellphone differ from other distractions, like listening to music or talking to a friend? Scientists have theorized that it has something to do with the visualization of the person on the other end of the line.  It is “Cousin Herman” on the other end of the line, and you have temporarily created a virtual reality of him.

This is bad enough, but phone addiction adds another dimension.  There are clear similarities with other addictive behavior, including positive reinforcement.  When the phone vibrates, we cannot ignore it, for the very fact of having been identified, called, and singled out feels good.

Since phones don’t weigh much and fit easily into a pocket or a purse, “the threshold is even easier to cross, and there’s no end to it,” posits one expert.  “You’re pretty much hooked in wherever you are, if you want to be.”  Constant and continual use of these devices produces chemical responses in the body similar to gambling.  When compulsive gamblers win a hand, they are motivated to keep playing till they win again — no matter how much they lose in between. “That’s a hit, and it’s a powerful reinforcer.” (Gettysburg Times)

In another twist, a researcher (David Lindstrom) has suggested that the emotional link to the cellphone might not be addiction but “love”:

Friends who have accidentally left home without their iPhones tell me they feel stressed-out, cut off and, somehow, un-whole. That sounds a lot like separation anxiety to me. Phantom vibration syndrome is the term I use to describe our habit of scrambling for a cellphone we feel rippling in our pocket, only to find out we are mistaken.

Lindstrom wanted to be sure that his theory of love vs. addiction was right:

Most striking was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones, as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.

The problem is, faced with both cognitive distraction and cellphone addiction, how are we going to stop using our phones while driving?  The chances of getting stopped for a cellphone infraction are extremely low.  Surveillance is unrealistic, since, even with face-recognition software, it would be difficult for an analyst to tell whether you are listening to Twisted Sister or talking on the phone.

The only viable option, it seems, is public information. The Department of Transportation states: “Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have public information/education campaigns to warn about the dangers of driver distraction. Eight states noted that they have initiated efforts to provide training or technical assistance to the judiciary on this topic.”  However, most states have used straight information – the basic “do’s and don’ts”, with an emphasis on the “don’ts”.

However, in view of the increasing evidence on cell-phone addiction, public service advertising messages should be formulated to address more deep-seated and basic emotional issues, such as dependency.  A recent Florida anti-smoking campaign aimed at teenagers succeeded because it was focused not on the ultimate benefit of behavior change – good health – but on a seemingly unrelated but resonant issue – an ingenious campaign that focused on teenagers’ animosity towards fat-cat capitalism.  The ads showed a smug; Monopoly-style capitalist, smoking a stogie, happy with his profits; but the voice-over intoned “Do you want to give your money to this man?” It worked.

A similar indirect campaign on reducing overdependence on cell phones might suggest that “addicted” users are social misfits without real friends; or “get-a-life Type A losers” who have to be plugged in all the time.

In conclusion, we are now at a public policy crossroads.  The data is in, but little real thinking has gone on to devise a realistic, data-based strategy.  Considering the theme of addiction is a good place to start.

Originally Published in the May 9, 2012 Print Edition

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Don’t Reform Public Education – Totally Restructure It

I have written, previously, on education reform, and have taken the position that there is little hope of changing the culture of public schools; that the best hope for progress in education is providing alternatives to a sclerotic, inefficient, and unresponsive system.  I advocate private education, and feel that a voucher system is a good first step in providing families the option of leaving public education.

A recent article in The Atlantic focuses on the crippling bureaucracy that affects public schools.  I have not talked much about this, because, to me, it is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself; still it is worth quoting some statistics:

    • 86 percent of public school superintendents and 84 percent of principals say that “keeping up with all the local, state and federal mandates handed down to the schools takes up way too much time”
    • 82 percent of superintendents and 49 percent of principals say that politics and bureaucracy are the main reasons their colleagues leave the profession
    • 77 percent of superintendents and 72 percent of principals say that “making it much easier for principals to remove bad teachers — even those who have tenure” — would be a very effective way to improve school leadership
    • 64 percent of superintendents and 67 percent of principals say that “markedly reducing the number of mandates on schools and the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with them” would be a very effective way to improve school leadership
    • 63 percent of superintendents and 66 percent of principals say the emphasis on “documentation and due process” makes it “difficult to take action against students who are discipline problems”
    • 47 percent of superintendents and 45 percent of principals say they generally have to “work around the system” to get things done
    • 44 percent of principals do not believe they have enough decision-making authority to be fully effective

Following is an example of the government mandates which make school administrators’ jobs nightmares:

In one Public Agenda interview, a superintendent provided this list to show how it all adds up. By law, his schools must: provide oral health instruction; give students information about organ donation; set-up anti-bullying policies; ensure that children say the Pledge of Allegiance; make sure that social studies classes celebrate Freedom Week; organize parent involvement committees at every school; set up committees on employee policies; set up school and district committees on “closing the gap”; arrange for bus drivers and other employees to have two paid breaks; see that each teacher has a specified amount of money to spend on classroom supplies; and include the body mass index of each child on his or her report card. As he wrapped up the list, the superintendent added this parting shot: “Oh, by the way, remember No Child Left Behind!”

Public schools, in addition to suffering from a crushing bureaucracy, obstinate and immovable labor unions, an increasingly homogeneous population of children from dysfunctional families and communities, has become a catch-all for every progressive agenda in the country.  The author did not cite other, important brakes to improved education, such as the distortions in academic achievement resulting from misplaced programs of “diversity”; the disproportionate funding for low-achievers at the expense of potentially high achievers; and the 19th century mindset of classrooms, teachers, and books.

It should become clear to everyone that public education is an American institution which needs structural change, not merely reform.  The system should be reviewed, from top to bottom, by working backwards – that is by asking the fundamental question “How can the academic achievement of low-achievers be improved, while promoting the interests of high-achievers?”, and not by starting with the answer, “reformed public education”.  The very nature of institutionalized public education must be assessed.  Should it focus solely on academic achievement (my preference), or should it also be the crucible for social progress, as its supporters have always claimed?  As illustrated in the above observations by the school superintendent, when he has to accommodate both objectives – especially when government gets in the way – neither are successful.

Home schooling, for years, has been considered, by traditionalists, as fringe-group paranoia, at best.  Families that opt out of the system were somehow un-American because they withdrew their children from that diverse social brew that was intended to teach community values, respect, and patriotism – among other objectives.  Worse, they did so because they wanted to brainwash their children with their own cockamamie, wild ideas and insulate them from the taming and co-opting mainstream.   While there is a lot of truth to this – families often home school to instill fundamental religious and moral values that they feel public schools cannot provide – the concept is rapidly evolving in the Internet age.  Why should all students learn in the same outdated brick-and-mortar environment?  Why should a smart student be slowed by less talented ones?  Why should education in less traditional subjects be deferred until later grades, when children are more than able to pursue varied interests online?

The school has, for too long, been thought of as the anchor for American society.  It is the first institution in which we all find ourselves and, supposedly, the defining one.  It is society’s first attempt to socialize, to homogenize, and instill mainstream values.  As society becomes more complex, more “mainstream values” are added, until the mix becomes chaotic and unmanageable.

The Republican primaries have been sickeningly focused on “family values” – sickening, especially because they are more sanctimony than substance.  The focus is correct and clear – education will not improve; citizens will not become responsible and civil; the country will not coalesce around the core values of civilization, unless families and the individuals within them take responsibility for this maturation.  Communities are the collection of families and individuals, and they must take increasing responsibility for providing the positive social and cultural environment for civic progress.  The public school’s time for playing this role is over.  Government’s time for playing this role is over.

Originally Published in the May 2, 2012 Print Edition

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America – A Christian Empire

In a book review in The New Republic, Michael Kimmage discusses the premier role that religion, and in particular Christianity, has had in American politics since the founding of the nation; perhaps the most interesting observation is the following:

Seeking to explain why “U.S. foreign policy has often acquired the tenor of a moral crusade,” Preston first turns his attention to the seventeenth century. Avidly Protestant, “the American colonies never underwent a counter-reformation,” he observes, and they waged almost continuous war against enemies deemed theologically other – i.e. Catholics and Native Americans. These Christian soldiers prided themselves on fighting holy wars, regularly fitting themselves into Old Testament patterns, the New World’s Israelites imbued with “a consistent belief in America as a chosen nation and in Americans as a chosen people.”

This is of particular interest and importance because that sentiment is as true, today, as it was in 1776.  The Neo-Cons of the Bush Administration went to war in Iraq, among other, more practical geopolitical reasons, because of a deep-seated belief in the rightness of American democracy, our vision of freedom and individualism, and the anointed role we have in promoting it.  American “exceptionalism” is a result of our fundamental religious beliefs:

American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States is different from other countries, in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America’s exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation, “and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840.Historian Gordon Wood has argued, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” (Wikipedia)

Although Tocqueville may have been the first to observe and chronicle this phenomenon, its roots are thoroughly Puritan and Calvinistic.  Kimmage goes on to write:

Going forward, Preston [the author of the book Kimmage is reviewing] accents the Protestant origins of the American Revolution. London was equated with Rome, and “the new political order [in America] newly codified a very old and very Protestant tradition of hostility to arbitrary power,” Preston observes. American historians have outdone themselves in analyzing the Founders and the Enlightenment, the legacy of Hume and Montesquieu in American political thought. Preston notes that “Adams, Washington, and, especially, Jefferson cited Milton to justify or explain their political views,” citations that reflect the rise of an American-style Christian republicanism. In the place of an established church, and opposed to the Church of England, not to mention the Church of Rome, was the first amendment to the constitution.

Both Milton and Jefferson “derived their coherence from their Creator” (Camus), and the Declaration of Independence’s citing of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable because they came from God.

The book not only describes America’s religion-based national and international imperialism, but what the author describes as its “double helix”, whereby both expansionist and humanitarian sentiments are part of our national DNA”

The double helix has two strands. One strand entails the melding of Christian sentiment with state power, through diplomatic maneuvers and the waging of war. This is the sword of the spirit, cherished by the Puritans and by George W. Bush alike. The other strand inverts the ideal of the church militant, appealing instead to a Christian hunger for international peace, for the beating of swords into ploughshares, for a fraternity of nations liberated from war…

Antiwar movements would continue to emanate from New England for centuries to come. In antebellum America, Christian republicanism nurtured the abolitionist spirit, and the Civil War was (among other things) a war over the proper relationship between the Christian faith and the American polity.

FDR’s was a “serene spirituality,” and no less tenacious for its serenity. Synthesizing centuries of historical experience, FDR held “the Christian republican view that religion was the source of democratic freedom because it was the source of conscience and private belief,” Preston writes. Roosevelt pushed this conviction in an ecumenical direction. Catholics and Jews were invited to participate in an American project sure to outshine the authoritarian evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

An extension of this religious-based conviction to promote peace and harmony not written about in the article (and presumably not the book) is America’s “humanitarianism”, also a component of exceptionalism.  We, the anointed nation, have the responsibility of bringing enlightened civilization to the rest of the world, for alleviating poverty and misery.  Our foreign aid program, although very geopolitical in nature, is fueled by the belief that democracy and liberty, God-given in nature, must be extended to the rest of the world.  There is a missionary zeal, therefore, in our attempts to reform authoritarian governments, to extend political representation and civil liberties.

We are not simply extending a viable political system.  We are extending fundamental religious principles.  The focus of the Founding Fathers on individual liberties was not only a reaction against the tyrannies of Europe, but a statement of the Calvinist belief in a personal relationship with God.  Communism and other statist regimes are particularly odious, because they limit the ability of the individual to seek spiritual fulfillment, if not salvation.

The French also had a “mission civilatrice” – a mission to bring French civilization to the rest of the world, but they were propelled more by secular traditions of “liberte, egalite, et fraternite”, and, as importantly, the preeminence of the French intellectual, literary, and artistic traditions, than by any religious sentiment.  Although many of the goals of the mission may have coincided with the French, ours was unmistakably religious in origin.

Our foreign humanitarian programs are derived from the same religious foundation.  Such concerns always trump realpolitik because it is considered un-Christian to refuse to offer help to those who need it.  When I challenged the NGO I worked for on its decision to work in Burma under the generals – providing additional and free resources to a corrupt and tyrannical regime would only serve to strengthen its power, I argued – I was told, “Perhaps, but there are starving children in the country”.  I used the same argument to reject the NGO’s rush to work in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but again was rebuffed.

This scenario has played itself out over and over again.  There is no good reason to continue to prop up corrupt and self-serving regimes with grants and soft loans.  History has shown that few of the essential political, economic, and financial reforms necessary for real self-sufficiency and progress are ever adopted, regardless of the “conditionalities” or externally-funded donor programs; but, we keep giving money because of “the children, the suffering, and the disadvantaged”.  A better outcome for these vulnerable groups would certainly ensue from more objective policies designed to wean irresponsible countries from foreign assistance; but, our Christian conscience gets in the way, every time.

The influence of religious conviction within American politics has never been stronger, as evidenced by the recently-concluded Republican primaries.  Thinly-veiled in conservative political arguments is the belief that America is a Christian country, and even though it may now be populated by increasing numbers of non-Christians, the religious principles of freedom of expression, respect for life and liberty, and the right to know God on a personal basis have not changed.

One further aspect of Protestant and, particularly, Calvinistic theology that is often overlooked, is that of pre-destination.  We are all pre-destined by God for salvation or damnation.

Calvinism’s most distinctive dogma is the doctrine of pre-destination. Good works were not a means to salvation, but they were a sign of having been chosen.

Wealth has always been an indicator of material and spiritual success, ever since the founding of the republic.  Therefore, the link between individual liberty, freedom of religious expression, and the pursuit of happiness through individual labor has always been a strong one.  One of the strongest arguments used in the North against the South in the antebellum period was that of free labor.  It was against good Christian principles to sit back and become wealthy without working for it as the plantation owners of the South did.  Not only was slavery wrong, but so was the principle of riches without toil.  Of the many sentiments that Lincoln felt about slavery, free labor was perhaps the strongest.  Slavery denied slaves rewards for their work; and permitted slave owners to benefit from others’ labor, without investing any of their own.

Although the Biblical parable of the camel and the eye of a needle is often recited; and although Catholic Popes may argue for Christian charity and a rejection of materialism, Protestant theology reins.  Conservative politicians are very right in assuming that the pursuit of individual riches is the lowest common denominator of American society, a principle to which all newcomers aspire and soon espouse.

The book is a welcome addition to the sociological literature concerning religion in America, especially because it focuses on the historical antecedents of modern religious fervor and commitment.  We started as a religious nation and our politics have been guided by Christian principles throughout our history.

Originally Published in the April 25, 2012 Print Edition 

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Character and Moral Values – The Foundations for Social Progress

David Brooks, in the New York Times, has written an article on James Q. Wilson, the social scientist and political theorist on whom I have commented recently in another article, entitled Moral Sense.  Wilson was so influential a thinker, and ahead of his time in understanding the nature of character in society, that I thought I would cite this article by Brooks and offer some commentary http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/opinion/brooks-the-rediscovery-of-character.html?ref=opinion

When Wilson began looking at social policy at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians, at the time, treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives.

Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 1960s and ’70s, he noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated.

The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.

“At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”

What Wilson wrote is even truer today than ever.  While most policymakers still assume that social problems can be best addressed from outside the community – i.e. social or educational programs – few are willing to recognize that the root cause of the dysfunction in many communities is the lack of adherence to majority norms.  These norms, as I have written before, have been common to successful human society for millennia – a strong social order built on mutual respect.  There is no way for a society or community or the individuals within it to progress if it is characterized by lack of respect, aggressive individualism, and lack of a moral compass.  In today’s troubled neighborhoods, too few religious or secular leaders are willing to condemn anti-social behavior and to identify the roots of community regression and failure as coming from within, not from without.

There is only so much that schools and other public institutions or well-meaning remedial programs can do, if the basic values of discipline, hard work, respect, aspiration, honesty, and duty are absent.  “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” Wilson recalled in his earlier days; and was surprised at the label his colleagues gave him:

When Wilson started talking about character, he was surprised that many in the academy regarded him as an archconservative. Why should character be conservative?

I, too, have wondered at the thunder from the Left when I raise this issue.  Part of the criticism comes from those who believe in a social determinism – people are poor because of a dysfunction in the larger society rather than within their own communities or within themselves; black inner-city neighborhoods are dysfunctional because of persistent racism.

There is no doubt, however, that exogenous factors play a role.  I have spent the greater part of the last ten years visiting the South and reading Southern history to try to understand the roots of racism and how the legacy of slavery persists today.  There is no doubt that the Civil Rights and Voting Acts and the vigorous efforts of federal authority helped to dismantle racism.  I also understand that the legacy of slavery – deliberately broken homes, the focus on fertility as an economic imperative, the often brutal rule of white overseers – cannot be erased easily; and that slavery really only ended in 1965, not 1865.

This does not change my view, nor would it change Wilson’s, I imagine.  Understanding a legacy is not the same as addressing it with the same instruments over time.  Civil legislation had its day.  Affirmative action had its day; but after almost fifty years of social interventions to remediate the poverty and dysfunction of inner cities, most of which have had little success, it is time to look elsewhere, to look at the problem for what it is today, not what it was yesterday or last year or last century.  At some point, communities must adopt – or return to – the social norms that have characterized every successful society or civilization in the past.

Character, of course, does not only apply to inner-city neighborhoods.  The avarice, unalloyed individualism, and lack of moral sense – i.e. a breakdown in character – were clearly a factor in the recent Wall Street collapse.  How can one explain an Enron, a Bernie Madoff, a Lehman Bros., without looking at character?  Yes, the federal watchdogs were asleep at the switch.  Yes, Wall Street, like good capitalist institutions everywhere, is all about stretching the law to the limit.  Yet, there had to have been individuals within these institutions who legitimized or justified their immoral behavior by exclaiming “Everybody’s doing it” or “If I didn’t do it, someone else would” or the more venal “Just this once until I get out of the hole I’m in”.

Wilson lived in an individualistic age, but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in “The Moral Sense,” his 1993 masterpiece, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

When this set of beliefs is out of synch with the rest of society, problems begin.  If a culture of street creds replaces a culture of excellence – and no one calls it out for the poverty of its principles – there is a problem.  If a culture of greed permeates a corporate culture – and no one calls it out because it appears to represent the best aggressive spirit of America – it is doomed, because we are at heart – as Wilson has said in Moral Sense – moral.

Encouraging moral values is not the same as promoting a slavish conformity to social norms.  The activists of the Sixties, although they are vilified by the Right, today, were very moral in their convictions about civil rights and the war in Vietnam; and their challenge to a previous social order, which in its Puritanical conservatism restricted thought, feeling, and action, was timely, necessary, and important.  They did not challenge a credo of morality.  They challenged a social order which had perverted morality.

I once heard a Methodist minister defining the difference between blasphemy and “taking the Lord’s name in vain”.  The two are often confused, he said, but blasphemy which incites, in this case, the anti-Christian behavior of adultery, fornication, and disrespect to the Bible – is far less egregious than using the name of Christ or Christianity to justify immoral behavior.  He cited the profligate invocation of religion on the political stump.  Summing up, the minister admonished his congregation for not being truly moral and focusing only on the superficial elements of religious expression.

It is this distinction which is important.  We need to focus on the principles of character and morality – in Wilson’s words “to be good” – whether leading an uneventful life or challenging received wisdom and social order.

Originally Published in the March 21, 2012 Print Edition

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Reforming Education – Let Money Follow Students

Joel Klein, the education columnist for the Washington Post, was Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.  His articles are always insightful, with no particular political agenda.

In a March 2, 2012 article, he criticizes the Presidential candidates for ignoring education on the stump.  They raise the issue, he comments, but they offer no real solutions.  In this thoughtful article, Klein offers three solutions, and I will comment on each of them.

1. Accelerate common standards. Most of our industrial competitors have rigorous national standards in education. The United States has a patchwork of largely inadequate standards, whose expectations for student learning vary wildly, depending on whether children live in Albany or Albuquerque. The accountability regime set up by No Child Left Behind likewise left the design of standards to the states. The result has been what many consider a “race to the bottom,” as states eased requirements to create the illusion of progress.

Klein recites the common joke in the educational community concerning the inability of Congress to pass a law which sets national standards – the Right hates “national” and the Left hates “standards.”  This of course is not a joke at all, but is at the heart of the argument.  Liberals feel that standards will somehow shackle teachers and students both, focusing on narrow, artificial performance goals that ignore the “many intelligences” of students (artistic, musical, expression or excellence in sports), dismantle the cooperative and collaborative learning environments which restrict natural rates of learning, and limit teachers by restricting their own creativity.

Conservatives hate the idea of any consolidation of anything at the federal level, assuming that once it gets mired in Washington bureaucracy, it will be hopelessly lost.  The states are closer to the people – the individuals on whom the final responsibility for education rests.

Although Klein recommends national standards, given the ideological basis for the disagreement, they are unlikely to be enacted.  This divided and extremely partisan Congress appears unwilling to look at successes elsewhere, learn from experience, and apply the best fix for America.

Compromises do not seem realistic either.  The No Child Left Behind Act, federal in design, left standards up to the states; and as a result, as Klein states above, is a hodge-podge of inefficient and unaccountable programs.

2. Professionalize teaching. There is almost universal consensus that effective teaching is the most powerful way to improve student performance. But, we’re not serious, as a nation, about making teaching an attractive career. Finland, Singapore and South Korea recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of high school and college students. Their teachers train in prestigious institutions that accept only one of every seven or eight applicants. By contrast, only 23 percent of new U.S. teachers come from the top third (14 percent for high-poverty schools). Our teachers are trained mostly in open-enrollment institutions seen as second-rate; poor pay and working conditions compel the best to leave the classroom within a few years. A trade union mentality makes it hard to reward excellence and promote accountability.

Once again, this is a great idea, but it is unlikely to be implemented.  Not only does the trade union mentality to which Klein refers make it hard for school districts to insist upon teacher accountability, the unions and their school board patrons have for too long looked on teaching positions as political appointments.  Secondly, teachers are drawn from the school districts in which they live.  In cities like Washington, DC, the public school student body comes almost exclusively from poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods; and the only teachers who will even consider working in “bad” schools, are from those neighborhoods themselves.  Thirdly, supply and demand – the supply of poor teachers exceeds the demand, thus forcing down prices.  In summary, no amount of federal mandates is going to change this.

3. Promote choice and innovation. Whether a public school performs well or badly, it basically keeps students in that neighborhood, because most families have no other choice. This monopoly leaves no incentive to innovate to improve performance and efficiency — inducements as vital to public schools as they are elsewhere. Families with more means can choose private schools, can move to another town or can otherwise navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, remain trapped. To support choice and innovation, we need to provide real funding equity and ensure that money follows children, not schools. Child-centered funding would give entrepreneurial educators the ability to re-imagine how teachers and students do their work, and to compete to serve families with breakthrough pedagogical tools that creatively tap new learning technologies.

Now, this is an idea that can work.  Give parents free choice, through a voucher system that allows them to choose whatever school they want.  It is really not a fix to the existing public education system; it is a way out of it.  To the critics who say that this “bright flight” will leave a hardened, seriously dysfunctional core of hard-to-educate children, I reply that this will streamline the public school system and give it real focus. Only a few special schools with special teachers will be open, and they will receive high-intensity focus.  Not only that, the school board will be given expanded responsibility to work with the local community – engaging religious and secular leaders to take responsibility for the education of their children and to reform the social environment in which they live – a good balance between public investment and individual responsibility; a good balance between Left and Right.

 Originally Published in March 14, 2012 Print Edition

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Is Democracy the Best System?

As reported in the Washington Post (Simon Denyer, March 4, 2012), India is challenging one of our basic assumptions – that democracy, in the words of Winston Churchill “is the worst form of government except for all the others”; and we have to wonder at the successes of China, which has focused on economic development, and where the right to economic well-being and social cohesion is more fundamental than civil liberties.

We also wonder at Russia, where Russians have not only tolerated Putin’s arrogation of power and abuses of democratic principles, but have elected him overwhelmingly for another term, because he represents “stability”.  Perhaps  Russia’s long Tsarist history and the dictatorships of the Soviet Union are the reasons; but perhaps Russians have understood that one-size-democracy does not fit all.

At times democracy seems like India’s greatest handicap.  In the race to catch up with China, to unleash India’s economic and entrepreneurial potential, Indians are increasingly worrying about the costs of democracy, or indeed whether the country simply has too much of it to function effectively.

As economic growth slowed last year and corruption scandals mounted; as crucial legislation stalled in a fractious Parliament, a deep sense of political malaise settled over India’s middle class, said a member of Parliament. ‘There is a widespread belief that the kind of democratic system in which we operate is failing us.’

In a recent survey of 25-to-50-year-olds from the urban middle class, a third of respondents said India should be run by ‘a strong leader who does not have to contest elections,’ and a quarter opted for leadership by ‘experts and professionals not answerable to political leaders.’

The problem, however, is not with democracy, but the application of democracy.  In India, the lack of a strong central government with authoritarian powers has allowed corruption to flourish; and the democratic institutions which might be influential in bringing it to light and stopping it are weak and inefficient:

It is not hard to find fault with India’s imperfect democracy. The explosion in the number of political parties based on caste and community allegiances, the steady rise in the number of lawmakers facing criminal charges, and the corrupting role of undeclared money in campaign finance are all significant and growing problems.

The problem goes deeper.  A former Secretary of the Bangladesh Government confided to me that the one way to establish a truly democratic society was to establish an independent judiciary.  The problem, he said, was not with government that has always behaved badly, diverted public funds, and enriched itself with taxpayer resources; it was with the judicial system.  Judges are bought off and there is real public access to the courts.

[In India] as hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged the streets demanding action against corruption, as tens of millions of children suffered some of the worst malnutrition rates in the world, as growth stuttered and investors fled the country, Parliament seemed to function on a different planet.

This public outcry and those in Russia against Putin’s rule are encouraging.  However, in the case of India, the institutions of democracy are so sclerotic that change cannot happen quickly.  In Russia, these institutions are too new to reform.  They have just ‘reformed’ from Communism to the current form of democracy.

In Bangladesh, there are two major parties, with smaller parties in coalition.  When one party wins an election, the opposing party walks out of Parliament, charging fraud and abuse; an act of unenlightened opposition that neuters Parliament. The Bangladeshi democratic system has not yet matured to the point that it can effectively represent and govern.

Chaos was the norm in [the Indian] Parliament, legislation the exception, as the body sat for just 73 days, with 30 percent of its time lost to disruptions or adjournments. Other bills critical to the country’s progress — on taxation, land reform, pension funds and judicial standards — were among dozens pending.

In the early 70s there were monitors in the visitor galleries of Parliament, who enforced a “No Laughing” rule, since the proceedings below were so outrageous.  The situation, I presume from this article, has not changed all that much.

[A political analyst] blames Parliament’s dysfunction on a ‘very vicious and bitter partisanship’ between the country’s two main parties, whose relationship, he argues, is far worse than relations between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

‘Any modern democracy critically depends on a relationship of trust between government and opposition,’ [the analyst] said. ‘The relationship of trust has completely broken down, and that is deeply disturbing for the future of Indian democracy.’

Denyer concludes that the problem is not with democracy, but in the institutions of the democratic system.  Elective bodies need reform.  The judicial system needs reform.  Civil society still needs to organize in larger groups than the narrow caste-and religion-based ones that have contributed to the problem, rather than helped it.  Reforms are still needed in the press, and in the bureaucracy.

There is no going back for India, nor should there be. India’s economic system, for all the chaos surrounding it, is more flexible and more innovative than that of the centrally planned system of China.  India is also in a better position demographically, since China’s one-child policy is creating an older population, with fewer younger workers to support them and contribute to economic progress.

To take advantage of these positive factors, India needs to reform its democratic system.  Simple adjustments in the bureaucracy – such as liberalizing import and tax policies – are not enough.  Structural reform is necessary, and India has shown that it can be flexible and change. In the Bihar Famine of the mid-60s, India – despite its infamous bureaucracy – quickly and efficiently mounted a successful response and saved thousands of lives. In the late 90s, after decades of laboring under Soviet-style central planning and socialist economic policies, India liberalized its economy, and India’s economic progress has been nothing less than stunning.

India will most certainly figure out a way to reform its electoral system, streamline bureaucracy, activate civil society, and perfect democratic institutions, but according to the old Indian saying, “Takes time”.

  Originally Published in March 14, 2012 Print Edition

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Family Values

Charles Murray, libertarian, and currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written a book entitled Coming Apart, in which he laments the decline in traditional values of industry, hard work, discipline, respect for authority, patience, family, and a strong code of ethics and morals among the white population.  He has found that for 30 percent of white families, these values have eroded or disappeared, further locking these already poor and marginalized Americans into social and economic isolation. The  Wall Street Journal (1.31.12) summarizes Murray’s thesis:

Murray argues that the other 70 percent of the white population is regaining these same values that were lost through the social and cultural revolutions of the Sixties; and the gap contributes to the increasing political divide in the country .  The more educated white elite, he argues, should abandon their reticence about criticizing others, and ‘preach what they practice’.

The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased.  In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen, and non-marital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper-class.

In blue-collar America, however, divorce rates have risen since the 1980s, marital quality has fallen, and non-marital childbearing is skyrocketing. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma.

Murray has been a frequent observer of social trends in America, and has been particularly interested in the phenomenon of isolation from the norm, where certain social, economic, and/or ethnic groups become increasingly marginalized, causing further divisions in society.   Those which are underperforming become isolated and marginalized, and those with high ability, promise, and ambition become separatist and indifferent to the plight of others.  Worse yet,  high-performing individuals within marginalized communities flee, leaving behind a population which, without the intellectual nutrients needed to refresh it, becomes increasingly uniform in its limitations, dysfunction, and lack of potential.

As well as being a researcher, Murray, as a political scientist, has been a strong critic of public education, which, he says, offers little to address the problems of these marginalized, dysfunctional, and underperforming groups:

Murray sees the No Child Left Behind law as an example of “Educational romanticism [which] asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top.”

Challenging “educational romanticism”, he wrote Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His “four simple truths” are:

  1. “Ability varies.”
  2. “Half of the children are below average.”
  3. “Too many people are going to college.”
  4. “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.”

The New York Times interviewer gave an example (of what Murray calls “educational romanticism”) when she said “I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.” Murray responded “You’re out of touch with reality, in that regard.”

A revision of the educational system, which offers more realistic educational opportunities for all, is required.  Those who are not as intellectually promising or ambitious as others should not fail in a system which focuses only on high intellectual achievement and does not reward other more modest talents.  Those who are intellectually-gifted should be offered every possible incentive and support to use their abilities to the maximum.

Over time, Murray has developed a common theme – people and the social groups to which they belong are divided.  They are either high intellectual achievers or they are not; and they either adhere to the majority social and cultural norms associated with social and economic success or do not.

Furthermore, groups which are low-performing and have rejected majority norms are further isolated by government programs, which encourage dependency and lack of enterprise or have subscribed to values of enterprise, progress, and ambition.

Coming Apart expands upon these themes and suggests that only through a return to “‘traditional” values can the marginalized white population join the majority.  In his view, racial differences are irrelevant – it is when majority norms are lost, social groups either descend further into poverty or never escape from it.

The idea of “traditional” values has, according to Murray, been given a bad name, especially by the persistent social reformers of the Sixties.  To them “traditional” smacks of limited freedom and a rejection of the cultural advances that they worked so hard to promote.  “Traditional” means a return to a stifling and exploitive religious culture, a return to Fifties individual and social repression. However, as Murray and others have noted, civilizations were built not on an anarchic and ego-centric individualism, but on strong and cohesive communities with respect for God and King.  India has always been a structured, disciplined, and ordered society and a great civilization, at least in part because of that socio-religious organization.  Much closer to home is the view of at least one of the Founding Fathers:

The economic and political success of the American experiment has depended in large part on the health of these founding virtues. Businesses cannot flourish if ordinary workers are not industrious. The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down. As James Madison wrote: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

Subscription to majority norms – norms which have been the emblems of social, economic, and cultural progress for millennia – is crucial for the evolution of communities out of poverty; and that community leaders must publically renounce socially delinquent behavior. The educational system needs to be reformed to complement this new traditionalism.  It should help students to achieve to the best of their ability; and should encourage the highly-talented to achieve to their maximum potential.

In summary, Murray espouses the best of libertarianism – taking off the rose-colored glasses, to see the facts for what they are.

Originally Published in March 7, 2012 Print Edition

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Voucher Programs – The Best Public School Alternative

There are three important alternatives to public primary school education being tried in the country: 1) Educational Management Organizations (EMO); 2) Charter Schools; and 3) Voucher Programs.  EMOs are private companies which contract with local school boards to run individual schools or entire school districts.  Charter schools are publically-financed, State-chartered institutions which operate independently from local school boards. Voucher programs offer a fixed amount of money to go towards the tuition at any private school of the family’s choice.

Educational Management Organizations

This for-profit system has the following advantages, cited from “Trends and Best Practices for Educational Management Organizations” by WestEd, a non-profit educational research organization.

Access to Capital for Research and Development

For-profit companies have the financing to make systemic changes in education, from curriculum reform, new technology, and advanced, modern training.   They can bring money and organization to the table in the form of venture capital, from the sale of stock, using venture capital, or from philanthropy.  Money can be used to fund research and development (R&D) to develop compelling curriculum systems, professional development, renewable technologies, and accessible, comprehensive information systems.

Incentives to Invest in R&D

Public-sector investment in education R&D, although difficult to es­timate, is about .03 percent of its overall budget, while for-profit firms often spend on average 100 times that percentage. Without R&D, public education cannot hope to under­stand or improve its practices.

Efficiencies and Effectiveness Resulting From Scale

 Most public districts are either too small to afford the kinds of administrative support they need or so large that they become bogged down by their own bureau­cracy.  Private companies can apply their management skills and experience to adjust to scale – to build the most appropriate support systems necessary for whatever size operation.

Curricular, Instructional, and Programmatic Diversity

Because each EMO seeks to distinguish itself through its unique brand, the collection of multiple EMOs brings diversity to school districts and can offer distinctive instructional programs, employee contracts, and school facilities.

Internal Control

 The largest difference between school districts and EMOs is in personnel practices, profes­sional development, and managerial practices.  EMOs have notable latitude in hiring, compensation, and deployment of teaching and support staff.  They also have the ability to utilize merit-based pay, paying more to teachers with specialized knowl­edge and opening up more career options to effective teachers.

Incentives to Improve Student Performance

To assure a profit, EMOs must have satisfied customers; and to achieve this they have focused not only on student academic performance, but parental satisfaction, and financial management.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are based on three principles: 1) Accountability; 2) Choice; 3) Autonomy.  Once chartered by the state, schools are directly accountable to it; and will be closed if they do not perform.   The boards of charter schools are free to determine their curricula, teachers, and educational programs, but all must be approved by the state.  Parents can select the charter school which best suits them; teachers can choose the educational environment in which they are most comfortable; and school boards have the right to apply their educational vision.

As can be seen, the differences between EMOs and Charter Schools are few.  Most charter schools are mission-oriented, while EMOs and other for-profit institutions are market-oriented. This market orientation increases efficiency and accountability.

Voucher Programs

Voucher programs allocate public funds for private education.  A family which opts out of the public school system receives a voucher for a given amount ($6-12,000) for private school tuition, usually for a religious institution whose fees fall within that range.  Leaving the public school system, whether the traditional system, charter school program, or EMO program, frees the family from often bureaucratically-tangled, inefficient, and politically-influenced systems.  Opting for private education, a family can choose the curriculum, teachers, and environment which suit them.  They might select a highly-competitive academic school or a religious school which integrates faith into the curriculum.

Both charter schools and EMO-run schools are contracted by the state and will always be beholden to political pressures.  They may not be able to freely select courses on evolution or economic theory or choose the teachers they want.   If charter schools exist within a unionized school district, performance will be as poor as in public schools dominated by narrow, union interests.    Charter schools are required to accept all students on a first-come, first-served basis, so intellectual ability and academic performance are compromised.  Although some charter schools prefer to select responsible, engaged parents, these eager families may still have under-qualified children, thus creating an academically mixed student body.  Private schools can be uniform in their selection process.

Under the voucher system, parents can select the school which has the right balance of educational opportunities and facilities, whether in the arts, sports, or academics.   

In addition to distinct educational advantages, voucher programs cost the taxpayer far less than either traditional schooling or charter/EMO education.  Recent estimates have put the average per-student spending in large metropolitan areas at near $27,000. School systems have long been repositories for political jobs, a patronage system which has limited innovation and increased costs everywhere, and both charter and EMO schools will necessarily fall within those systems.

In conclusion both charter schools and for-profit EMO schools offer a step forward on the path to privatization of education.  They have forged alliances with the public sector, which provides them a certain autonomy and freedom from outside interference; but as mentioned above, this autonomy is partial and imperfect.   Voucher programs, in addition to providing families with real choice, are excellent ways to unveil the retrograde influence of teachers unions, and to offer an education free from special interests.

 Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog, http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

Originally Published in February 29, 2012 Print Edition

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Virtual Reality – Our World Will Never Be The Same

Imagine that you are walking through the formal gardens of the Palace of Versailles.  Elegantly-dressed women with long, embroidered gowns, lace bodices, and velvet capes are joined by men in waistcoats, vests, leggings, and patent-leather shoes with silver buckles.  The air is fresh with the scent of boxwood and lilac.  You take your place next to the Sun King, at the long banquet table in the Hall of Mirrors, the gold table settings for 100 reflected on all sides.  Chamber music by Bach or Lully fills the vast hall. After the banquet, you go to your bedchamber, one of the lavish apartments of the Queen, and you and your companion sleep until you are awakened by liveried servants, with breakfast served on a silver tray.  A summer breeze wafts through the chintz curtains and the scent of the flowers from the Queen’s garden drifts in.

You, however, are not actually at the Palace of Versailles, but virtually there, travelling in a world created in your mind, but so vivid and palpable that it is real.  The sumptuous banquet table is from an archive.  The scent of the rose garden is from your childhood.  The color of the walls, the music playing, the food selected, the elegant symmetrical arrangement of the dishes composing each course, the orchestrated service, are yours, recreated in your mind from memory, emotion, and the particular combination of historical information available to you in milliseconds.

The BBC, a few weeks ago, reported a remarkable discovery:

“Researchers have demonstrated a striking method to reconstruct words, based on the brain waves of patients thinking of those words. The technique reported relies on gathering electrical signals directly from patients’ brains. Based on signals from listening patients, a computer model was used to reconstruct the sounds of words that patients were thinking.”

A mind-computer link has finally been established, and there is no limit to where that relationship will lead; and there is no doubt that this discovery will quickly and surely evolve into a fully-linked mind-computer network.  Once the electronic code to our thoughts has been deciphered, we will, through the mediation of the computer, be able to communicate with any other individual.  Equally as important, we will have access to the world’s electronically-recorded information.  Combining the two, we will be able to create our own completely virtual worlds and live in them with whomever we choose, whenever we choose, and wherever we like.

This vision of Versailles is mine; but in a hundred years, virtual journeys to any place or point in the past will be possible.  As more and more minds are linked to their computers and from there to other minds, we will be able to travel with anyone.  Her dreams, fantasies, and images will complement yours.  As you walk through the formal gardens, she may smell the honeysuckle of her youth, while you the boxwood.   As computer software becomes more sophisticated, taste will be recreated with more diversity and accuracy; sensory feeling not only reproduced, but enhanced and intensified.

This virtual world will be a reality because of many factors.  First, the cybernetics of brain-computer interface research will accelerate.  Once scientists and donors realize the potential of direct- mind manipulation of data – a speed-of-light, thought-generated search of all electronically recorded data – researchers will be flush.  Second, we already live in an increasingly virtual world, for which we demand even greater accuracy and precision. It must look real.  As importantly, the desire for virtual reality is very American.  We have progressed far from the brick-and-mortar, field-and-stream mind of the 19th century.  Our virtual worlds of games are pure fantasy and engage our imagination, emotions, and dreams.  We would rather live in Tudor, Georgian, or Spanish colonial houses than those that have an architectural integrity with the land or its surroundings. Social networks of today, linking us to hundreds and thousands of friends, are models for the more sophisticated virtual worlds of tomorrow, where connections will be made not with the click of a mouse, but by thought and will.

In the short-term, our social networking will become progressively more virtual. Video conferencing will be three-dimensional, and then holographic.  Our avatars – either real-time or pre-programmed with artificial intelligence software – will attend meetings, not us.  Eventually we will do away with external hardware links and join directly in mind-mind links, mediated by the computer.

When I first wrote about virtual reality in 1973, long before it had become commonplace, my inspiration came from India, where ascendance to ever higher states of consciousness leads to spiritual enlightenment. The Upanishads state that whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of one’s own self realizes an identity with Brahman and thereby reaches moksha (liberation or freedom).  I understood that, as Westerners, we would never have the patience to live a structured life of discipline and restraint, directed towards a singular spiritual goal.  To achieve any higher state of mind, we would have to do it the American way – through technology.  While the more secular of us might stroll through the Tuileries, others might search out more spiritual states.   Whether we search for the ecstasies of the animist religions of Mesoamerica, or the sublimity of pure ascetic and monastic communion, this liberating link to all knowledge and all humanity would be the way.

I do not believe in Utopia, nor do I doubt the potential corruption or co-option of this system by venal interests.  I only see that now that the mind-computer link has been made, virtual reality is inevitable.

When I suggested all this forty years ago, the only response I got was, “I want reality.  I want to feel real grass under my feet.”

“But what if you couldn’t tell the difference, I replied, and what if you could feel the grass of Himalayan valleys, the manicured lawns of baronial estates; Spring grass, Summer Grass?  Cool, dewy grass of English lawns?” Today the response would be different, for the future is already here.

Originally Published in February 22, 2012 Print Edition

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