Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts, ideas, possibly musings. Might be a rant. Still, these posts are my opinion. It’s possible these are very informative, and yet, it is also possible that these are utter nonsense. And may fall somewhere in between.

How to Think Critically

So, I can sit here and tell you what I think about this article. And, you might believe me, or not. But, then, I thought I would try promoting critical thinking. So, read the article and then i’ll tell you HOW I think about it (which will also include some of WHAT I think about it.).

First, I want to point out that all news is propaganda for someone. I don’t care what a journalist says about being objective, it is impossible not to exhibit some bias. After all, just the decision to tell a story is a bias. In order for me to decide that a given event is newsworthy betrays some world view or another. As well, I might include and discard certain facts because of my bias. Now, that being said, that doesn’t render news unusable. In fact, I think that knowing the bias of a reporter is good because it helps you understand their story better.

Critical thinking means that you don’t automatically just accept what the speaker/author is saying. It means asking questions about who is saying it, what they’re saying, why they’re saying it and who stands to benefit from you believing what they’re saying. Critical thinking means examining both the message and the delivery method. As a high school teacher, I absolutely love when a teenager gets mouthy and says, “What? All I did was say I’m already working.” Right, because the tone of voice and body language that was telling me to go piss in the wind should be completely disregarded. As a critical thinker, I can tell from the way the words are being said what the speaker really means.

The example is a little bit facetious, but true, to a point. If you watch a TV show, thinking critically means you listen to the words that are being said but you pay attention to the music, the lighting, the colors, the images that go along with it. You listen to the word choice. Connotation and denotation can be interchanged and used cleverly. This happens all the time with the news. The reporter will refer to one person fighting their government as a rebel and another as a terrorist. Somewhere in between those two are guerrilla fighters. Think about that. If I tell you a group of rebels stormed a police station because they were fighting for freedom, that sounds noble. But, if I tell you that terrorists stormed a police station seeking to overthrow the government, well, that sounds awful. But, both sentences could be describing the exact same incident.

Critical thinking means you listen to the message within the message. We all put messages within messages. It’s not evil. But, be aware that news programs do it to. I remember hearing on TV about the Soviet Union news service Tass. Tass meant “truth” in Russian. Occasionally, the news would report something that Tass had reported to the Soviet people. It was always in direct opposition to what we were being told and I remember thinking, “Gosh, do the Russians really believe that?” Well, yeah, they did. And, we believe what our news tells us too.

The article that I’m looking at here is not, technically speaking, news. It’s Op-Ed (opinion and editorial) which means that this is what someone thinks about the news and is, journalistically, distinct from news reporting.

Okay, with all of that being said, I am going to promise you that I will be as honest and transparent as possible. I will write down my thoughts as they occur as I go through this process.

Protective Bargaining by Thomas A. Cochran
Boston Review | MARCH 23, 2011

Just when America needs everyone working together to resolve the severest economic crisis since the Great Depression, we are … Read more

One thing I consider as I read the article is where it came from. I’m not familiar with the Boston Review, or the author, Thomas A. Cochran. The page provides a blurb about the author:

Thomas A. Kochan is George M. Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.

That doesn’t tell me a lot. MIT has a reputation as a good school and is well known for it’s engineering and mathematics programs. But, I’m not familiar with the Sloan School of Management. Right off the bat, though, I’m going to make a guess that the School of Management probably leans more toward the employers’ point of view than the employees. From that I would guess that many of the professors are conservative. So, for further evaluation, I’m going to go to Wikipedia. And, yes, I’m well aware of the criticism that Wikipedia is not necessarily a reliable source. I will say, true, anyone can edit it. So, generally speaking, I would not use Wikipedia as a sole source for research. But, to get a general idea of something, and as a starting point, Wikipedia is excellent and without peer.

Having now read/skimmed those two pages, I have a little more information. And, note that I didn’t read those pages word for word. I skimmed a lot of it. Here’s what I think about what I read. MIT is an extremely prestigious private university that has been around since the 1860’s. It is, indeed, primarily known for engineering and mathematics but is heavily into scientific research. One thing I saw was that a founder of Koch Industries graduated from MIT. Also, reading about the Sloan School, I see it is well known and is designed to train leaders, that is, CEO’s. As such, I feel pretty safe thinking that the professors there are going to be conservative, and business-minded. I wouldn’t immediately think that they would be on the worker’s side.

Could I be wrong? Sure. But, this is what I’m thinking. Now, also, what I’m thinking is that it’s possible, although I have no proof of it, that this particular piece of writing is a whitewash of the Walker/Wisconsin episode. For me, what Governor Walker did in Wisconsin is straight up wrong. I disagree with both the premise (that government workers are the problem) and his solution (stripping away collective bargaining rights). I agree with the United Nations that collective bargaining and unions are human rights and not privileges. I’m not going to go into my reasoning on this right now (though I will be happy to in another blog post). And, even though this article appears critical of Walker and what happened in Wisconsin, it’s possible that this is a veiled attempt to continue taking away the power of unions.

Why? Well, for one thing, while Kochan appears to be supportive of unions and collective bargaining, he is also critical of unions. Specifically, he states that teachers’ unions are protecting “poor” teachers (he means that they don’t teach well) at the expense of students. He also says that unions are slowing education reform.

“Teacher unions have also been slow to accept the call for education reform and are doing so now only after considerable pressure and incentives from the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement programs. The public will no longer tolerate seniority, tenure, or other barriers that protect poor teachers from competition, at the expense of their students.”

I disagree with these statements and the fact that it is thrown in the middle of the article with no facts to back it up gives me pause. By doing it this way, Kochan allows those opinions to look like facts that not in dispute. It’s intellectually dishonest.

Teachers have been slow to accept the call for education reform largely because most of the current proposals to “reform” education suck. Standardized testing is useful to a degree but it’s use has grown to fetishistic levels. Merit pay sounds good at first but in reality research has shown it to be ineffective, plus no one seems to be able to show a good, fair way to judge teachers.

Let me put this one to rest: Tenure does not protect bad teachers, bad administrators and districts do. My tenure as a teacher does not protect me if I suck at teaching. If I suck at teaching, my administrator can observe me, evaluate me, write me up, offer some interventions, observe me some more, document the observations, write me up again, and then, terminate me if there is no improvement.

Is it “easy” to get rid of a bad teacher? Not necessarily. There are steps to take. Tenure is my protection against bad administrators who don’t like me or my views or the cut of my jib or whatever. But, I have seen “bad” teachers improve because of these steps. Look at it this way. There is a lot of research to show that veteran teachers are far more effective than their brand new counterparts. The only people that don’t think this is so are not teachers and couldn’t survive a month in a classroom.

Teaching is hard. It is complex. And firing teachers without cause is stupid. If you can get a veteran teacher back on track it is far more effective for students in the long run.

Know the best reason to get rid of a veteran teacher? They cost more than their greener counterparts. So, if you are a “business person” (ie. maybe someone that teaches management at a private university), you might think that a less expensive teacher is a good thing.

Okay, so that was a huge digression. But, I think it is useful and appropriate because it tears apart a hugely biased and misinformed paragraph smack dab in the middle of this discussion that is obviously about teachers unions and Wisconsin. Why? It’s the lead of the article! So, if you throw in a grenade like that in the middle of the article after looking fair and researched from the start (see where he refutes the idea that public employees are overpaid), then it makes your other statements look true and verified.

So, now I’m deeply suspicious of the rest of the article. When he declares that Kaiser Permanente is a model for how to reorganize and improve an organization, I’m now thinking he’s either willfully ignorant or very badly informed. At worst, he’s evil. Yes, evil because he lies. He writes, “By working together in this way the partnership helped turn the organization’s finances around, supported steady growth in wages, increased employee and patient satisfaction, and improved patient care.”

Oh really? Personally, I refuse to be a patient for Kaiser Permanente. This is partially biased by the fact that I believe poor care by KP was a deciding factor in my mother’s death. I think that the way KP compartmentalizes care is completely awful. Have you been a patient there? You never see the same doctor (or rarely). They have to read your chart to find out who you are and what’s been wrong with you. Look, I’m not a doctor but I think I’m safe in saying that knowing a patient’s history is a great way to solve problems in the present. So, for me, KP is an awful medical HMO and a poster child for how bad medical care can be in the United States.

So, what I think now, having read his article is that it is suspect at least. I noted above that a founder of Koch Industries graduated from MIT which is the employer of the author of this article. Koch Industries has been well documented as fully supporting Governor Walker and his actions in Wisconsin. I think it is possible, though not necessarily probable, that this author has been influenced by the Koch brothers. It’s not probable just because, for example, I went to U.S.C. but that doesn’t mean I’m going to share the same views as other alumni. However, being the George M. Bunker professor in the Sloan School of Management is a pretty high profile position. It’s not impossible that Mr. Kochan wrote this article as a favor.

How does it benefit Koch and others who want to break unions? Well, the episode in Wisconsin was ugly and drew a lot of attention. They would much rather have unions forced into conceding all kinds of things quietly. This article very much says that unions have to move faster, bargain more reasonably, and give up more for the good of all involved. Kochan writes how Massachusetts was facing a Wisconsin-type situation. Describing the solution, Kochan says:

“To avoid these consequences, a new union coalition formed and bargained as a single entity. Management agreed to negotiate with the coalition in return for full freedom to integrate the workforce without regard to traditional jurisdictional boundaries and work rules. A multiparty negotiation ensued, producing an agreement that “red circled” (froze in place) the wages of the higher-paid employees in return for the right to hire new employees on the state salary schedule. The parties called this the “grand bargain” because nobody thought it could be accomplished.

The agreement also created an operations-improvement program in which 10 percent of the workforce savings achieved would go to into an equity fund to help close the wage gaps between employees doing similar work. Joint labor-management committees were created and chartered to address the myriad issues that will arise as the integration proceeds and to modernize the job structures inherited from the old state system. In short, this negotiation established the framework and alignment of interests needed to build an efficient, indeed model, organization for public transportation.”

If this kind of thing was implemented in California, it would mean, for example, that the wages of teachers currently employed would be frozen in place at current levels. In return, laid off teachers would be hired back by need instead of seniority. (Yes, I’m making this up but it’s not far-fetched.) Teachers currently employed would keep benefits as they are. Teachers hired in the future would receive reduced benefits plans to save money (this would effectively divide the union, by the way). It’s still having the union give up some pretty fundamental rights.

As a reasonable person, I want to like this article. The summary at the end seems very fair and useful. But, some of the premises are not right.

And, as I’m sure you know if you read any more of my posts, it absolutely pisses me off that for some reason, we, the people have to pay for the mistakes of Wall Street. Nowhere does this article discuss the true roots and causes of the Market Meltdown of 2008 which is what got us to this point. Rather than point more fingers at teachers and other public employees, I wish more would be done to recover the tax dollars we flat out gave to the banks.

Honestly, before you come to me and ask for concessions, could you at least punish the people who created the problem? Teachers didn’t do it. AIG, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan did it. Where are their concessions? What are they giving up? The Bush tax cuts are still in place. The corporate tax exemptions are still in place. The TARP money is still outstanding, largely.

So, for all of it’s reasonableness, this article clearly is written to benefit the top 1% and ask the middle class and working class to give up more so they can have more.

Critical thinking means you have to question what the news, the opinion, the “facts” are really saying. Who is the author and what is their background? What are their possible biases? Critical thinking means you don’t just accept what people tell you. Don’t even accept what I’m telling you in this article. Talk to some teachers, read some books, find information from a variety of scources. As a teacher of ten years, I have a good deal of personal experience, and bias, regarding this situation. But, I’ve talked to union representatives. I’ve read books and magazine and newspaper articles about the budget and the financial meltdown. My bachelor’s degree was heavily weighted toward critical thinking and examination of media presentations.

News is propaganda. Don’t just consume it. Question it. Find the truth. Vote accordingly. Don’t accept what you’re told just because you think you believe the same things that the person telling you does. Those people on TV are not us and they are not automatically on our side. In fact, based on the amount of money they make, I am gonna guess they pretty much are not on our side. Think critically. Research. Vote.

Edited to add: I looked at the Wikipedia page on the Boston Review after writing this. This gives me some reason to reconsider a little because the Boston Review appears to be a respected periodical. I note that it is, at least tangentially, related to MIT, in that it partners with the university in an book imprint. In my mind, this could make them a little less critical of an MIT professor and his article. Like I said, I want to believe a lot of this article. It seems reasoned and reasonable. But, those statements about teachers and teachers’ unions really throw me off. To me, this article still looks like a wolf in sheep’s clothing more than anything. But, I could be wrong. 🙂

A Plea for Common Good Sense

I realize how this might sound. But, I feel like I have to say it. I wish that more of us would make a choice to work more for the common good. I want us all to have a better sense of our common good. I am worried about the direction our country is going, where we are going as a people.

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies. Maybe things never were all that good, people were never all that kind. But, I think things were different. I think that we went to war for the right reasons in WWII. I mean, it’s not like we’ve found out that, in actuality, despite what some idiots might say, the stories about the Nazi’s were exaggerated. I don’t think there was some kind of conspiracy to get us into the war so we could secure our supply of sauerkraut. But, ever since then, it seems like our wars have ulterior motives.

And our parents tell stories about how you didn’t even lock the door of your house when you went out. Seriously? I turn on the burglar alarm at night and if we leave the house for more than a short errand, and even then sometimes. I have deadbolts and bars and dogs.

I think things were different with employers and bosses, too. It used to be that an employer took care of their employees. It was the right thing to do. And, it made sense because your employees made your company better. Employees felt cared for, worked harder, had loyalty. It wasn’t just a paycheck, it was your job. Now, that being said, it couldn’t have been all roses since the government did, at some point, need to step in and mandate a minimum wage as well as health benefits for full time workers.

So, maybe that last part is wishful thinking and Hollywood hoohah.

But, I can’t help feeling like things are different now. And I wish we would all just make a decision to do it differently.

A lot of it has to do with corporations and the drive for profits. It’s hard to blame corporations. They do what they are designed to do. And, not only that, they have a legal obligation to maximize profits. But, maybe some things shouldn’t be for profit. Things like schools, health care and utilities. Capitalism is a good system for business. But education is not a business. It is an art. We have a problem when we are cutting costs to maximize profits when it comes to education. Or health care. Because what happens when you start thinking of cutting corners, making things more efficient? Well, we know what happens. We lose. People don’t get the care they need. The don’t learn the things they need to learn. Utilities that earn a profit mean that some people won’t get them because it will price them out of the market. Or, that profit-taking will occur in times when supply drops or demand rises.

Isn’t that what we saw with the housing bubble? Isn’t that what we’re seeing with gas right now? Libya produces about 3% of the world’s oil, but that’s all the excuse that was needed to start raising gas prices 20 – 30 cents per gallon. Rediculous.

The Buddhists have a concept called Right Livelihood from the Eightfold Path.

I am not a Buddhist so I will probably either oversimplify this or get it otherwise wrong, so I apologize in advance. However, as I understand it, it is the idea that we should make our living in life in a way that doesn’t hurt or victimize others. Think about that for a second. No, think about it for a good minute. How many corporations violate this all the time? We have Apple and the FoxConn controversy. Or Enron. BP. All of Wall Street. HMOs. I mean, let’s be honest here. Practically every business of any success has made a good portion of it’s profit on the backs of some people or another in a way that has made them poorer or less happy in the process. Think of all the polluted streams and toxic dumps, the sweatshops and the grey markets. We don’t even pay the full cost of things because of the human suffering that subsidizes our commerce.

But, hey, that’s Capitalism. People vote with their dollars and all that. Well, yeah, if we know about it.

But, what if we lived in a world where people decided to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do? What if they paid people more than they had to? What if they paid workers a living wage and helped them take care of themselves and their families when they were sick? What if we lived in a world where a corporation published their misdeeds and then offered to make amends to those who were hurt? What if we lived in a world where corporations actually tried to make decisions that made people’s lives better, safer and healthier instead of making the shareholders richer? What if we lived in a world where the only time war was fought was really to defend freedom and justice? What if we lived in a world where freedom was actually for everyone and not just the people that look like us? What if we lived in a world where people paid their taxes because it made everyone a little better off? What if everyone paid a fair share? What if everyone paid a fair share? (Yes, I said it twice because it seems like such a novel concept. If you have more, you pay more, but in the same percentage as everyone else. And, as I remind my students who complain, “That’s not fair!” Fair means everyone gets treated the same. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not fair.)

What if we lived in a world where people actually had a sense for the common good? Then, being good wouldn’t be so uncommon.

Thoughts on Griftopia, Inside Job and our future

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

You know how you have to take out the trash, or clean the kitchen, or pull weeds? There is always something you have to do around the house that you don’t want to do. It’s not exciting, but it’s important. Or, at first it seems like it’s not exciting. Maybe it’s like painting a room or cleaning the garage. You dread doing it, but once you get into it, you realize how worthwhile it is.
Reading Griftopia is a little like that. I mean, if I say, “Hey, here’s a great book about how the economy totally screws us. It explains all the stuff like credit default swaps, derivatives, adjustable rate mortgages and other ways that corporations and big banks have come up with to really ruin your life.” I imagine most people would rather go watch a nice TV program.
That’s part of the problem, I think. Or, rather, for the banks and government, it’s part of the solution. It allows them to keep doing what they’re doing because a) we don’t understand the nature of what they’re doing and b) it’s super boring and abstract.
If I walk up to you, point a gun at you, and demand all your money, that’s a straight up robbery. We all get it. And, it’s pretty exciting, too. We’d love to read a newspaper story about that, right? If I tell you how my house got broken into and all my stuff ripped off, that’s very tangible. You can see how that was wrong. But, if I say that I was looking for a new house and the real estate agent put me in touch with “his guy” that did the financing, and, in speaking with the financial guy, I found out that there were ways to get me qualified for a loan. And, then, when I expressed some concern, the guy said it was okay, that lots of people do it this way. So, they get me qualified for a loan and tell me it’s an adjustable rate. This is explained as a good way to get the loan because the payments are low right now, so it’s affordable and they can get me into this house (and I really want to get into this house, too) but later, like in five years, the rate adjusts higher. But, that’s okay because, well, the economy is awesome right now and housing prices are shooting upward so I can go ahead and refinance at that point and my higher income (my income will, of course, go up as that always happens, right?) will allow me to get a more favorable loan. Plus the equity in my house will help, too.
So, I take this loan. I sign one document after another in front of a notary whom I just met. She isn’t a finance person. She just works for the mortgage company and gets people like me to sign. I never meet the finance guy. The real estate agent is not here either. So, I sign what seems like 50 documents. And, the house is mine. The loan funds. I move in. A month later, I get a letter stating that my loan has been sold to some other mortgage company. I’ve never heard of either of them, by the way.
A few years later, the economy tanks. My job is in danger. My credit is way overextended and my bills are starting to pile up past due. I try to call the mortgage company but they are not interested in any kind of excuses. They want their payment, that’s all. I explain how our household income has dropped and now my loan rate is adjusting. I can’t afford this payment. There is no sympathy on the other end of the phone. This is not the real estate agent that found me the house. It’s not the financial wizard that got me the loan. It’s not even that notary that signed the documents with me. I don’t know this person and they don’t know me. Soon, I’m getting calls from other companies. I’m six months late on this other credit card. I didn’t mean for it to happen but the bottom dropped out of my household. My wife quit her job and we don’t have the income, now. This guy on the other end of the phone is not interested. He just wants to get money from me. He ridiculously offers me a lump sum settlement of several thousand dollars. I laugh. If I had that money, would I be talking to him?
My house is in foreclosure. What can I do? I can’t make the payments now. I’m getting divorced. We go for a short sale. The only bright spot is that I don’t have to pay any taxes on the difference between what I owed and what I am selling the house for. They forgive the remainder of my loan. In total, I sell the house for about $130K less than what I paid for it. Turns out I bought the house near the top of the housing bubble. Bad luck for me, I guess.
Or was it? Was it bad luck? Or was I preyed upon? See, because that real estate agent wasn’t dumb. I told him how much money I made. I told the same thing to the financial wizard. Of course, no one put a gun to my head and made me sign. So, that just makes me irresponsible, right? But, then again, I don’t have any experience with this stuff. I’ve never bought a house before and never had to deal with such a complex financial transaction before. Everyone I talked to seemed to think it was a good thing. But, shouldn’t that financial guy have known this would happen? I think so. But, what does he care? He got his fees, as did the real estate guy. And, basically, I paid rent in the form of a mortgage payment for four years until my house foreclosed.
Now that I’ve read about it in Griftopia, I see what happened there. Mine was just a small story amid so many others like it. It wasn’t bad luck. It was all part of a way to make billions off of middle and lower class workers like myself for bankers. My loan was part of a pool of loans that got bought and sold and bet on and insured and finally collected on and bailed out by the government. I realize now that the reason the bank forgave my loan was because, way up the chain, they knew the government would bail them out.
You need to read this book.
The bankers and government are relying upon you to remain ignorant of the scam. This is how they get it done. People like me didn’t understand the transactions. So, we went along with it. And they got richer.
But, if you don’t like reading so much, spend the time and watch this movie.
This movie covers some of the same ground as Griftopia but focuses a lot more closely on the foreclosures and mortgage scams. Griftopia details other parts of the economy like spiking gas prices and commodities markets, both of which are illegally manipulated. Well, maybe “illegally” is a strong term since, technically, the law was broken as much as it was bent. But, then again, the bankers and traders essentially used their wealth to have lots of the loans rewritten so they didn’t have to break the law.
In any case, Inside Job does a great job of making clear that Wall St. presents a clear and present danger to our freedom. It makes it clear that the banks and corporations like Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Citicorp, AIG, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, and so on all knew exactly what they were doing. It was illegal and they stole taxpayer money. But, they were able to do it because Charlie Sheen does a lot of cocaine and the people in the government who are supposed to protect us from con artists like this are in league with them.
Strong words? Well, watch the movie. The same dudes that used to work on Wall St. are President Obama’s advisors. Timothy Geithner. Lawrence Summers. I mean, come on. These guys are totally co-opted by Wall St. I didn’t know this before reading the book and watching the movie. But, I do now.
So, for the future. Honestly, it looks bleak. We have taught the government that we can be made complacent and take whatever they give us. We will give up freedom for security from terrorism. We will give up our money to save banks that are “too big to fail” because we are ignorant of the complex financial transactions that they devised and they tell us we can’t understand. We will allow our country to be put into debt because we can’t take the time to learn the facts. this last week, our government launched over 100 cruise missiles into Libya to help free the people from dictatorship. Each cruise missile costs over 1 million dollars. We spent 100 million dollars to free they Libyan people. But, we spent 700 billion to further enslave ourselves by bailing out the banks and allowing the bankers to keep all of their ill-gotten bonuses and fees. Meanwhile, teachers all over the country are losing their jobs because education is expensive.
Cliche alert: If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.
But, it’s true. Our ignorance cost our country hundreds of billions of dollars. We spent so much money bailing out Wall St. that we could have paid off every mortgage in the country. But, we didn’t do that. We gave the money away to the bankers. Why give taxpayer money to average folks? Why? Because debt keeps us in line. It keeps us beholden. Think it doesn’t work? Well, ask Saudi Arabia how it’s working for them? We didn’t launch cruise missiles into Bahrain this week.
The future is written. We will serve the corporate state. We will accept whatever they give us. We will ignore obvious inconsistencies. We will do whatever they want because Charlie Sheen did a lot of cocaine and had sex with hookers. Crazy, right? I know.