Saturday, November 1, 2014

Is College Becoming a Ripoff?

To try and answer the above question, we have to answer the question of what is the value in a good college education. 

I think there are two main camps here.  One is that college can (or at least should) provide the graduate with the way to make a living that would justify the cost of the education.  But there is a much less utilitarian view that college (at least should) provide a balanced and broad education that fosters an appreciation of the humanities along with critical thinking skills.  In this view, college is seen a preparation for life with specific job skills taking a secondary meaning, 

Certainly going back a few generations ago, the second camp seemed to have it right.  College graduates were relatively rare and employers hired them based on the assumption that they had a brain on their shoulders and could be trained to do the specific tasks an employer wanted. 

But today, things are so much different. With well-paying jobs becoming more scarce, employers have become far more selective, often asking for a college education for jobs that previously did not require one.  As a result, many more people feel they need to go to college to get a well-paying job.  But with all of the college graduates we are turning out, employers now are raising the bar by now demanding graduate degrees in many fields meaning more time spent getting a degree instead of earning a living along with more money spent.  But worst of all, employers have become much more selective in what degrees they will accept for their positions. 

The result can all too often be a college education that can produce a load of debt and not a good enough job to pay off that debt and enter the middle class.  Ripoff!  

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Making the right choices of a college and major can eliminate many of the pitfalls. But making the right choices can be difficult if the information is not presented in a transparent way.  So I am advocating 3 statistical measures that each college should present for each of the degrees they offer to make it easier for prospective student to make informed decisions.  

  1. What is the 4-year graduation rate for each undergraduate degree offered?
No college can have a 100% graduation rate in any field.  People sometimes just change majors because they decide they don’t like what they are taking.  But a low graduation rate should be a red flag.  Most notable are the for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix which only has an overall graduation rate of about 16%.  
When calculated using the standards set by the Department of Education, the university's overall graduation rate is 16 percent, which, when compared to the national average of 55 percent, is among the nation's lowest. The federal standard measures graduation rates as the percentage of first-time undergraduates who obtain a degree within six years. This measurement does not take into consideration the typical University of Phoenix student who comes to the University as a dropout from another institution, so is not a first-time college student.
The university acknowledges the 16-percent graduation rate but takes exception to the standard used by the Department of Education to calculate the rate, saying that the rate is based upon criteria that apply to only seven percent of the university's student population. The university publishes a "self-calculated" graduation rate of 59 percent to account for its large population of non-traditional students.

 If so few students are making it all the way to the end, people are getting ripped off! 

In addition, there can be claims that a high percentage of their graduates either make it to graduate school or find jobs.  But this can be misleading if too many students don’t get counted as graduates. 

  1. What percentage of graduates obtain a job in their chosen field within 6 months of graduation?
There are too many majors which lead to low paying job offers that don’t need a degree,  How does that person pay off their student debt?  Ripoff! 

  1. What is the average starting salary of those graduates who get a job in their chosen field?
Let’s face it, some fields are just low paying ones.  Why pay good money for a degree that will lead to poverty wages?  But some people do pursue careers in low paying fields simply to do what they love.  That’s OK as long as they have the facts up front to make an informed decision. 

This would also answer another question on whether colleges that charge higher tuitions result in starting salary offers that justify the extra cost of one’s education.  

But while we are at it, we need to take a look at why college tuitions are growing like wildfire.  It certainly can’t be because of what they are paying professors who more and more are working as adjuncts for poverty wages.
You’ve probably heard the old stereotypes about professors in their ivory tower lecturing about Kafka while clad in a tweed jacket. But for many professors today, the reality is quite different: being so poorly paid and treated, that they’re more likely to be found bargain-hunting at day-old bread stores. This is academia in 2014.
So where does the money they save on faculty expenses go? 
The most telling …words are “the school as a business.” Colleges across the country have transitioned from bastions of intellectual enlightenment to resort hotels prizing amenities above academics. Case in point: The ludicrously extravagant gyms in America’s larger universities are home to rock climbing walls, corkscrew tracks, rooftop gardens, and a lazy river. Schools have billions to invest in housing and other on-campus projects. Schools have millions (or in some cases “mere” hundreds of thousands) to pay administrators.  Yet schools can’t find the money to hire more full-time professors. If one follows the money, it’s clear that colleges view education as tertiary. The rigor of a university’s courses doesn’t attract the awe of doe-eyed high school seniors. Lavish dorms and other luxuries do.
Maybe colleges are charging what they do simply because they can.  And one of the reasons is that student loan debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.  

In a business startup where the loan can be discharged through bankruptcy, the bank wants to see a business plan to make sure the borrower can make enough money to pay off the loan. 

But there are no such restrictions for student loans.  Banks have no such reason to question whether a tuition is too high or whether the student is likely to make enough to pay back the loan.  Why?  With no possibility of bankruptcy, the banks know they will eventually get their money repaid even if it means a ball and chain debt load for much of the graduate’s adult life. 

This is not about telling people to avoid going to college.  It is about being able to have more transparency in knowing whether obtaining a certain degree at a certain college is financially worthwhile. Many degrees are clunkers when it comes to earning enough money for a comfortable living.
Not all college degrees are created equal. According to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, your choice of college major substantially affects your employment prospects and earnings. 
“What you make depends a lot on what you take,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, Ph.D., director of Georgetown’s CEW. “Most young people in college take whatever interests them, without thinking what it can really do for them.”
Do we really expect colleges on their own to be forthright about this?  After all, they have to attract enough students in each department to keep them running. 

Of course, there are other important considerations in selecting a college, but for something that involves such a large financial investment, we shouldn’t just make selections based on guesswork!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

America Needs The Roosevelts' Can-Do Spirit

This last month brought to public TV in the US, another of Ken Burns’ epic documentaries, The Roosevelts, a story of how the one family through Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor brought a can-do spirit to America – one that is so sorely lacking in America today. What is even more remarkable is that these people who tireless worked for those who were disadvantaged were themselves born to wealth and privilege.  

For those who missed it, check out the official site for the documentary which includes a collection of video clips.
To outline everything they have done would take too much space. But here is a brief summary with details in the hyperlinks. 

Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal centered on improving labor conditions, health and welfare, and conservation which included creating the National Park system by reserving pieces of land to be enjoyed by all of us.  And the Panama Canal was constructed during his time in office. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) inherited a country in the middle of the Great Depression and notably created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help relieve the historic crushing levels of unemployment.
The WPA built traditional infrastructure of the New Deal such as roads, bridges, schools, courthouses, hospitals, sidewalks, waterworks, and post-offices, but also constructed museums, swimming pools, parks, community centers, playgrounds, coliseums, markets, fairgrounds, tennis courts, zoos, botanical gardens, auditoriums, waterfronts, city halls, gyms, and university unions. Most of these are still in use today.

But perhaps his greatest accomplishments were the creation of the Social Security Act and his efforts to get the US ready for World War II in what was largely an isolationist country.

Eleanor as FDR’s First Lady worked tirelessly behind the scenes for civil rights, an issue that her husband was sometimes reluctant to champion because he didn’t want to lose favor with Southern Democrats he felt he needed to win presidential elections.  But it wasn’t until two years after Eleanor’s death that segregation of public accommodations was finally declared to be illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964  which caused many of those Southern Democrats to then become Southern Republicans (adopting the party of Abraham Lincoln no less).

When looking at this impressive list of achievements, one has to wonder how many of these could be accomplished in today’s toxic political environment. I say few if any.  The Republican conservative movement was once one that also favored helping and protecting people, e.g. – Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System and Richard Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency.  But in more recent years it has adopted a much more libertarian philosophy where especially the federal government should have little more to do than fighting wars.  Helping people who are down on their luck in their minds is best left to charity.  The chronic unemployment that still lingers on is attributed by many conservatives as workers just being lazy.

But most if not all of the accomplishments listed above can only be effectively done by the federal government.  There is only so much that state and local governments can do. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow once did an interesting video  to illustrate just this point.    I invite the reader to check out one of my previous postings Government on the Cheap to see how people are hurt when the government is rendered ineffective by tax cuts that starve it from needed revenue.

While the federal government can run on deficits created by tax cuts – like what was done for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the state governments cannot get away with this.  In deeply conservative Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback has tested conservative theories to the max by deep tax cuts which have led to massive deficits and cutting of needed services like in public education.  Even many Republicans are turning against him as seen in this Meet the Press video segment titled The Anti, Anti-Tax Movement.

While the far-right critics of the New Deal can argue that its programs were nothing more than make work ones that were not really needed, we do have a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done.  For example, our roads, bridges, and transportation system along with our power grid are sorely in need of upgrading and repair to bring it up to 21st century standards.  So investing in infrastructure projects like these is not only necessary but is a great creator of the jobs that we sorely need.  For those of us who believe that good government can promote the common good for all and not just for those with money and power, we can only hope that those who are in the endlessly cutting taxes and government camp have finally overplayed their hand!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Can We Talk About Depression and Suicide?

The entertainment world along with his countless fans were stunned and saddened upon hearing of the death of Robin Williams at the age of 63.  And while any premature death is a source of deep sorrow, the apparent fact that he took his own life makes it all especially unfathomable.  How can somebody who was so great at making us laugh be depressed enough to do this?  Of course, we cannot go through his thoughts prior to the act, but it stands to reason that he must have known how much pain his death would cause to his wife and children along with his friends.  It would then stand to reason that he must have been suffering tremendously to do what he did.
Williams had been battling severe depression and in addition, was fighting alcoholism.  His widow in a statement said that he was sober when he took his own life.  But although severe depression alone can be bad enough to contribute to suicide, it is well established that alcohol abuse can make an already bad situation with depression critical enough to push a person over the edge. 
The sad fact is that it too often takes a celebrity tragedy to put something like depression on the public’s radar despite the fact that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death worldwide. Since this tragedy, there have been a number of writers, mostly among the mental health community who have written on depression. For example, this outstanding op-ed on suicide was written by a psychiatry professor who once battled suicidal depression.

Of course, their input is vital for us to understand about depression and how it can sometimes lead to suicide.  But especially for laypeople, it is difficult to truly understand this disease unless one has either experienced it first hand or through a friend or loved one. 
As someone who has battled severe depression over a number of years (but was never suicidal), I believe I have something to contribute to the discussion.
Back in 2008, I did a previous posting Can We Talk About Depression? that was in response to losing a member of a singles group I am part of to suicide.  I truly hope the reader will read this posting which among other things points out the extreme stigma surrounding this disease.  While most of us would not be uncomfortable talking about physical ailments, many of us would never admit to others (even loved ones sometimes) that we are suffering from a mental illness.  For some, that means not wanting to get professional help.  How many people would want to admit that they need to see a ‘shrink’ or disclose to others that they see one? 
All too often, this stigma associated with depression drives the suffering underground where the victim suffers in private – sometimes even with friends and family in his or her life.  This suffering in private whether from being alone or not makes things worse since all too often, the person afflicted can’t help but think over and over about how hopeless things appear to be along with possibly increasing feelings or worthlessness – a part of depressive symptoms for many.
But to confuse things, we hear of people who commit suicide who seemingly have it all – loving friends and family, meaningful work, and adequate financial resources – just  like Robin Williams and wonder how this could possibly happen.  Perhaps the answer can be found in the trite phrase: perception is reality.  It is not what we on the outside feel that matters, it is all about the person suffering those feelings.
One of the things we lose as we fall deeper into depression is a sense of perspective.  We all have disappointments and setbacks – that is simply a part of life.  But the normal person can deal with these and soon move on.  But to the person with severe depression, events like these can be devastating.  If I lose my love (or my job or my money etc.), will life go on?  Here, we have another unfortunate trite phrase: suicide is a permanent solution for temporary problems.  This is easy for those of us on the outside to say, but for the person suffering from severe depression, it is all too easy to endlessly think and rethink tormenting thoughts (known in psychobabble as ruminating) until his or her emotions and reasoning spin out of control.
Allowing a person to gain that vital sense of perspective is how we can best help the person suffering from severe depression and help to avoid the horror of suicide.  While severe depression often requires the help that medication offers, simply having somebody to talk to in the form of a therapist, or at the very least a caring friend or loved one can make all the difference in the world.  In can lead to some straight thinking that those problems a person is wrestling with are indeed temporary and are not the ‘end of the world’ – still another trite phrase.
But sad to say, we will never know for sure why some people ultimately decided to end it all unless they were unsuccessful in their attempt(s).  One of my favorite entertainers is another funnyman, Craig Ferguson who hosts a late night comedy/talk show on CBS (until the end of this year).  His show is usually non-stop silliness, but one night after feeling bad about all of the laughter and ridicule around the news of Britney Spears going into rehab, he surprised me and his audience with some serious reflections on his battles against drugs and alcohol to the point where he actually planned to take his own life.  The poignant 13-minute video can be seen in this link: Craig Ferguson Speaks From The Heart.   In addition, for those who are interested, he tells his story in more detail in his well-written autobiography, American on Purpose.   Although Ferguson and I have never met, I believe I feel a closeness with him ever since seeing him tell this story about himself.
As it turned out, he got distracted from ending his life as planned and then decided to immediately go into rehab.  Since then, he has had a wonderfully productive life as a writer, actor, and comedian.  It was John Mellencamp who sang, life goes on – long after the thrill of living is gone.  With the proper help and support, those with depression can someday indeed get a thrill out of living again!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Can We Have a Compassionate Immigration Policy?

I have now posted over 200 articles on this blog on a wide variety of political and current events topics, many of them controversial.  But in all this time, I have never ventured into the controversy over immigration policy in the US. 

So if it’s not a matter of wanting to avoid controversy, why have I avoided it for so long?  The simple answer is that I have such mixed feelings over the issue to where I just had a really hard time voicing an opinion I could solidly stand behind. 

On one hand, immigration policy is a no-brainer.  We reserve the right to control our borders and anyone who is in our country illegally needs to be sent back home.  No if ands or buts. 

But what about the estimated 12 million undocumented residents in our country?  All except the most hard core advocates acknowledge that deporting all of these people would be a logistical impossibility.  And what about those children who were born here to illegal immigrants?  Do we send the parents home and leave the children to fend for themselves here keeping in mind that they are American citizens by birth who cannot be legally deported?    

But my heart just ached seeing the gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis of the tens of thousands of children pouring over the border most of whom were escaping horrible and downright dangerous conditions in their native Central American countries.  For an excellent Q. and A. summary of what is driving this massive exodus of children over our borders, the reader is invited to check out this this link.  Most notable is that many of the children are trying to escape drug and gang-related violence that has propelled Honduras and especially one of its cities, San Pedro Sula to the dreadful title of murder capital of the world. 

It was Senator John McCain who recently said that the only way this influx of immigrant children will stop is when the countries sending them see their children return in planes. I can’t disagree with his logic. But to me, it’s sure as hell lacking in compassion for innocent children who have no control over anything going on around them.  

It was back in 2008 that Congress passed a law saying that refugee children from countries other than bordering Canada and Mexico have a right to a court hearing to try and determine their situation before they are sent back home. Because of the desire to fight human trafficking of children, the measure was passed with broad bipartisan support.  But there are loud voices, especially on the conservative side that are demanding that we repeal this law so we can send these children home quicker and without some of the due process the law demands. 

So here is the immigration problem in a nutshell.  Can we enforce our laws uniformly no matter what extreme hardship (and danger) this places on some people?  Or we can be compassionate and bend the rules a little when common sense tells us we must? 

It is no mystery to me why liberals and conservatives see this issue so differently.  In general, conservatives believe that any well-functioning society must adhere to rules and laws.  An almost unconditional respect for authority above all else is simply an integral part of who they are. 

But they don’t call us bleeding-heart liberals for nothing!  While we do not believe in anarchy, we do believe that compassion must be a part of our rules and laws that we choose whether it comes to things like safety net programs or in this case, immigration..  So while I can completely understand where the conservatives are coming from in wanting to enforce our laws, we must also be compassionate to those in dire circumstances! 

Dealing with refugee children from strife-torn parts of the world is nothing new.  While there have been more recent examples, perhaps the most poignant was when England accepted refugee Jewish children escaping from pre-World War II Europe under a program called Kindertransport.  And while it wasn’t until later that Hitler announced his intention of exterminating the Jewish population, with many of these children having parents in concentration camps, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that we were likely saving their lives.
The Kindertransport (German for children transport) is a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust. 
On 15 November 1938, 5 days after the devastation of Kristallnacht , the Night of Broken Glass , in Germany and Austria, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed in person to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain. Among other measures, they requested that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children, without their parents.

Kindertransport had something in common with our present law on child refugees – only the children could come and not the parents.  It has been said by some that these are just some parents who are taking advantage of a loophole in our immigration laws to smuggle their children in. But there are a few problems with this view.  One is that while some children are escaping abject poverty, most of the others are from places that are known to have horrible violence as a daily part of their lives.  Is it any wonder that even an ultra-conservative like Glenn Beck has deeply angered many conservatives by offering to send supplies and toys to the children to help comfort them during their ordeal?
"Everybody is telling me I'm seeing subscriptions down; I'm seeing Mercury One donations down," Beck noted, emotionally. "I'm getting violent emails from people who say I've 'betrayed the Republic.' Whatever. I've never taken a position more deadly to my career than this — and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this."

But more to the point, how can any parent that truly loves their children send them off to another country without them with perhaps the chance that they may never see them again?  For both the Jewish parents back then and the parents of the present refugees, this was clearly an act of desperation! 

President Obama has said all of the ‘right’ things by saying that after the children are processed by our immigration system, the great majority will be sent back and that they should stop sending these children.  But let’s get real!  Imagine in a typical court hearing, a small child describing the horrid conditions in the country he or she came from.  How can anybody at the hearing refute what that child is saying?  How can anybody with a heart put this child on a plane to go home where he or she may well be in mortal danger? 

NYT op-ed writer Charles Blow in his article The Crisis of Children at our Border summed things up elegantly:
To be sure, sending an unaccompanied child, alone, with a “coyote,” for a treacherous trip hundreds of miles long, is not safe. The children are vulnerable to all manner of mistreatment, and may in fact not even make it. 
But that is precisely why we must treat the children who do arrive with compassion. Children aren’t caught up in the politics of this. They are just doing as they’re told, many no doubt shadowed by fear, moving surreptitiously through unknown lands toward the dream of a brighter tomorrow. They dream as any child dreams — of happiness and horrors. 
And their parents are no doubt like any parents, forced to make the most wrenching of decisions, sometimes about whether to leave a child in a never-ending hell or have them risk a hellish journey to a better place. 
No parent makes such a choice lightly.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why We Have Voter Apathy

It was an old friend of mine who used to joke that he didn’t care either way about apathy.  But when apathy is being used to describe US voters, it is no joke.   

To be sure, low voter turnouts are also caused by politically imposed restrictions that make it difficult or very inconvenient for many to vote.  And Voter ID laws pushed by Republicans in a number of states are despite their denials, designed to make it especially difficult for groups of citizens who tend to vote Democratic. 

But why do so many in the US often choose not to vote?   Voter apathy in America is nothing new.  Libertarian author Robert Ringer in his 1979 book Restoring the American Dream offers this cynical observation in a section subtitled Can 70 Million Americans Be Wrong? 

Citizens are continually urged to vote.  Media and celebrity pawns flood us with admonishing slogans like, “If you don’t vote, don’t gripe.”  Even acquaintances make perplexing statements to the effect that “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just so you vote.” (Why doesn’t it matter???)
And yet, not withstanding this constant barrage of reasonless rhetoric, nonvoters continue to increase their standing as the true majority in every election.
If half the people in this country are not voting, it is fairly obvious they are telling the government something.  But the government, instead of being responsive to the people whom it supposedly represents, retaliates with an endless barrage of slogans, the essence of which are, “It’s your duty to vote.” 

Ringer looks at voting as “a process of legitimization” of what many view as a corrupt political system that they may not wish to validate.  He then goes on to write:
The truth is that if politicians were honest, they would encourage a person to vote only if he sincerely believed in one of the candidates.
First of all, it needs to be pointed out that the “half of the people...not voting” that Ringer refers to are for presidential elections.  For off-year elections, especially in the primaries, turnout can be often less than 20% so if anything, he is greatly understating the lack of voter turnout.  

Although my political persuasion has evolved over the years from libertarian to liberal, I think Ringer has put his finger on the question as perceived by too many Americans:  Is there anybody out there who is really worth voting for? 

In my view, voter apathy is not the cause of our problems, but is instead a symptom of serious problems we have in our political system. 

If there is a number one problem, it is the large (and ever growing) influence of big money in our political system.  I’m sure there are dozens of people across the country who would make compelling candidates we would want to go out and vote for but we will never hear of them because they don’t have the personal wealth and/or financial backing needed to run an effective campaign.  In essence, most of our politicians at least on the state and national level are either wealthy enough to self-finance a campaign or must become beholden more to their large campaign contributors than the voters.  It’s hard for voters to get excited over candidates who are effectively chosen to run by others in power.  Going to all publicly financed elections would be a giant step in the right direction – but don’t expect the wealthy and corporate influencers who exert so much power under the present system to willingly give up that power. 

As a political junkie, you would expect that I would make it a priority to vote in every single election.  But I must confess that you would be wrong. 

In the recent primary election in Pennsylvania, we voted for candidates to run for governor in November’s general election.  As a Democrat, I had the choice between 4 candidates who had essentially identical positions.  How can the average voter be able to intelligently choose between them?  But because one of the candidates, Tom Wolf spent a huge amount of his own money for saturation TV ads, it was announced by the news media that Wolf had an overwhelming lead in the polls leading to the election – a prediction that came true with his crushing victory over his rivals.  Now Mr. Wolf may indeed be an OK candidate.  But it is disheartening that he won and the others got crushed mostly because he had the large amount of money at his disposal that the others didn’t.  And as for the Republican ballot, the incumbent governor ran unopposed.  Given all of this, was it a surprise to see far more poll workers in the building than voters?

The other principal candidates on the ballot especially during off-year elections are for the election of judges.  But unless you are a trial lawyer who has worked in an incumbent judge’s courtroom, you have likely never seen the judge at work.  And in addition, it is generally viewed as incorrect for a judge to espouse political positions which is why you often hear little more than that they are in favor of “law and order”.  And on top of that, many judicial candidates in primary elections are even allowed to cross-file and appear on both party ballots thereby hiding the party they are affiliated with.  So campaign strategy mainly consists of an attempt at saturation advertising by way of TV ads along with endless road and yard signs to try and burn a candidate’s name into voters’ minds so that they recognize and pick that name out among the mostly unfamiliar names on the ballot. One of the most memorable campaigns for me from many years ago was for a judicial candidate named Silvestri Silvestri.  His ads consisted of little more than the simple catch line: Silvestri Silvestri – A name worth repeating!  And it was good enough to win elections; check out this interesting story about him. But again, it is any surprise that so many voters don’t bother to show up for elections like this?

In fairness, local Bar Associations do make recommendations on judicial candidates for those voters who want to take the time to look them up.  And it used to be that local papers used to cover judicial candidates (along with the elected row offices that perform basic governmental functions) to provide helpful insight on them.  But with many newspapers in financial distress and cutting back on manpower, features like this have almost disappeared.  A compelling case can be made that judges shouldn’t even be on the ballot and should instead be chosen by merit selection committees.  For more on this, the reader is invited to check out one of my previous postings A Better Way to Pick Judges.

But by far the biggest offenders in turning off the electorate are the anti-government zealots, notably those in the Tea Party.  These are the people who say they hate government but want to run for office so they can become a part of it, obstructing anything it does sometimes even to the point of shutting it down. This causes our government to become dysfunctional not only due to the resulting partisan gridlock but also because necessary government functions are starved for money and resources (like the Veterans Administration, for example). So now these same people can then reinforce their message that government is no good at anything!

But when government is seen as no good at anything, more and more disillusioned citizens (especially those in the moderate part of the political spectrum) will just throw up their hands and say what’s the use in voting?  The result is often low turnout elections that disproportionately favor – you guessed it – those same anti-government zealots!  How convenient!

So there is no misunderstanding – I am not downplaying the vital importance of free elections in a democracy.  But just having the right to vote isn’t enough on its own; there must also be what are perceived as real choices available to have a truly engaged electorate.  After all, dictatorships give their citizens the right to vote but no real choices.  Just imagine what the voter turnout would be in those countries if voting wasn’t mandatory!

There are recent examples of citizens getting really excited about an election.  We can all vividly recall President Obama’s first presidential campaign based on what he called Hope and Change that culminated in an emotional victory celebration where many of the participants were overcome with tears.  More recently, a populist newcomer to politics, Elizabeth Warren with rabid support from many even outside of Massachusetts was propelled to an improbable US Senate victory there.

Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, I am convinced that if she were to spread her populist message on the national presidential stage that she is and will be working for the interests of the middle class and poor instead of for the rich and powerful – she would gather a great deal of support from the electorate as a needed breath of fresh air.  But the Democratic Party machinery and financial support are already overwhelmingly lined up behind Hillary Clinton.  Which means that if Hillary decides to run, Elizabeth Warren will not be a choice and anybody else who may run against Hillary will have little chance for the nomination. 

So just like so many elections before it, our choices on whom we can vote for in 2016 will be largely determined by whichever candidate gets the most financial support from big donors who will then expect the winner to work for them and not the voters.  Is it any wonder that so many prospective voters have just given up?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Betting Our Planet's Future on Climate Change

Just this last month, the Obama Administration fired the latest salvo in the discussion around climate change.   Its presentation summarizes that climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that not only is climate change happening at a dangerous rate but that human activities such as burning fossil fuels and depleting the rain forests are a predominant cause.  I have read through much of the report which the interested reader can access through this link. 

Since this is a complex subject, there is a fair amount to read through.  But having said this, the material is not only presented to be understandable to the layperson but is also well organized.  Unlike a book, the reader can easily roam between topics of interest by clicking on appropriate links.  If the reader only has time to read one part of the report, I would recommend going through the Frequently Asked Questions which address many of the issues that are raised by those who question the validity of the scientific assertions on climate change. 

Of course, not everybody agrees that climate change is real or if they do, feel that man has little or nothing to do with it which makes it at least for some laypeople, a controversial issue.  But for about an estimated 97% of climate research scientists, there is no controversy and that this is a settled issue.  Do we put our faith in some laypeople who may well have economic and/or political motivations for denying climate change or should we put our trust in the climate scientists who have thoroughly studied this?  This is perhaps the most crucial question of all. 

Scientists studying the warming of the earth is nothing new.  Back in the 1820s, the greenhouse effect was discovered and since then, while it may have been studied over the years, it was mostly discussed within the scientific community.  Especially in the later part of the 20th century, the concept of ‘global warming’ was bandied about but again, this was not often discussed as a mainstream issue like it is today. 

That changed when former Clinton VP Al Gore decided to make it his mission to alert our general population along with governments about the dangers of global warming.  Perhaps his signature achievement was his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.  In the movie, Gore presents a compelling case supporting the existence of man-made global warming based on scientific evidence.  Today, in order to stress that it is not just about warmer temperatures but also about many other issues like stronger storms and more severe droughts, the term ‘climate change’ is more often used nowadays to convey this. 

So having Al Gore as a champion for educating us on climate change was good news and bad news.  The good news is that he was a household name and face that we all knew.  The bad news is that he is one of the people that conservatives just love to hate.  If Gore says that global warming or climate change is real, then in their minds it must be false!  No other proof needed!  Many times when discussing this issue with conservatives, instead of discussing the science, it deteriorates into personal attacks against Gore.  And although Republican John McCain has spoken out for the need to deal with climate change when he ran for president back in 2008 (along with Jon Huntsman in 2012), climate change denial is pretty much a requirement for anybody seriously seeking the Republican presidential nomination today.  It is a sad commentary on our present political climate that science is now argued as a partisan issue.
Climate forecasting is indeed a complicated science that involves tremendous amounts of measuring and computer modeling over a longer period of time which is a whole lot different than forecasting the weather which is much more changing and unpredictable.  So how does the layperson sort out technical subjects like this?  It’s simple. We have to rely on the experts in a field who have dedicated their lives to their specialties. 

For example, since I do not have a medical degree, if I want to get an expert opinion on the state of my health, I would go to my physician.  For whatever reason, I may not agree with his or her diagnosis, but I can always get a second opinion.  Or a third or even more if I wish. But if they all come to the same conclusion, I can still deny it but one can then logically argue that I am just denying reality.  What this is about is the concept of expert consensus.  This is far more than just a consensus of laypeople who may well have an interest in a subject but not the expertise of a specialist in the field. 

Yes indeed, experts can and often do disagree.  But if about 97% of climate scientists agree that we do have man-made climate change, it is most reasonable to call this an expert consensus and one can again logically argue that those who disagree are just denying reality.  

It has been argued by some that many scientists are pretending to agree on the existence of climate change based on financial gain or political ideology.  But any true scientist is only concerned with one thing – and that is getting to the truth wherever it may lead us.  If Al Gore is proven to be right on climate change, that’s OK.  But if Al Gore is proven to be wrong, that’s just as OK.  

A true scientist is always questioning.  Perhaps the greatest thing that could happen in a scientist’s life would be to prove through peer-reviewed research that what we have already ‘known’ was indeed not the case.  Put another way, if someone were to come up with solid peer-reviewed scientific proof to disprove climate change, that person would be first in line for a Nobel Prize along with the fame and fortune that would go with it. 

Indeed, the experts have been known to change their minds when confronted with new scientific evidence!  For example, when Isaac Newton gave us the basic laws of physics, they were considered to be equally applicable everywhere throughout the universe. No scientist seriously questioned this until the 20th century when Einstein through his Theory of Relativity showed that particles traveling at or near the speed of light can violate Newton's laws which until then totally explained the workings of the universe. 

Instead of questioning the motives of the climate scientists, we should question those who have far more to gain from climate change denial – the fossil fuel producers!  The only way to try and address climate change is to burn less fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas and to rely more on renewable sources of energy – which would result in less profits for these corporations.  Perhaps the most active financial supporters of climate change denial are the Koch Brothers, billionaire inheritors of Koch Industries, a vast conglomerate, who have tirelessly fought against regulations that would help to keep our air and water cleaner.  But it is a delicious irony that even though the PBS science show NOVA has kept a consistent position warning of the dangers of man-made climate change, one of the major underwriters of the show continues to be the David H. Koch Foundation whose mission is announced at the beginning of each show as “promoting public understanding of science.”  While this is a good thing, liberals are understandably skeptical.  Or perhaps this is a tacit admission that the campaign of climate change denial isn’t really about science after all! 

As an example of rhetoric from the right, I ran across a recent editorial Here's the reality from the Tribune-Review which serves as an alternative conservative voice to the more liberal Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The position of the editorial essentially says that their experts are right and that the climate scientists are pretty much completely wrong about climate change.  

Of course they are entitled to their opinion.  But was most disturbing about this was the deliberate misleading of the reader by stating that their experts, the NIPCC independently evaluates scientific evidence “without taking...corporate money”.  Indeed, they may not directly take corporate money, but they are heavily supported by The Heartland Institute, a conservative/libertarian think tank actively involved in climate change denial which has taken money from the fossil fuel industry including the aforementioned Koch Brothers.   

The first online commenter to the article summed things up well which I am including here:
Why does the Tribune Review uncritically accept the word of the NIPCC? This is an organization that was created by S. Fred Singer, who is well known not only as a denier of human causation of climate change, but also as a denier of the health risks of passive smoking. The NIPCC also has ties to the Heartland Institute, which receives major funding from ExxonMobil, Phillip Morris, The Walton Family Foundation, and even the Koch Brothers. All of this creates serious doubt about the objectivity and accuracy of anything the NIPCC reports. [The Wikipedia link on Heartland Institute funding indicates that ExxonMobil announced that they discontinued funding to Heartland in 2008.]
So which side of this issue of climate change do we take?  It is not a question to be taken lightly.  If the climate scientists are right, we are not only suffering the effects of climate change already but things will get a whole lot worse over the next century or so.  In addition to the severe weather in the way of devastating storms and droughts, rising sea levels from the melting polar ice caps may well make many coastal areas uninhabitable that are now densely populated. 

It can be argued that we may not be able to totally avoid the consequences of climate change that is now happening.  But through lesser use of fossil fuels we may well be able to make the effects less painful for our future generations.  And yes, China is still building coal-fired power plants with abandon.  But they are already suffering from horrible and sometimes debilitating air pollution that will only get worse. But there are signs that they too are starting to accept reality and starting the move away from fossil fuels.  But it will take the leadership of the US in addressing climate change to help make this happen. 

It is not an overstatement that we are betting the future of our planet on whether the forecasts of damage from climate change are true.  If you had to bet it all on one side or the other for all of the marbles, do you go with the 97% of the climate scientists or with the deniers?  That should be an easy one!