Economy, Education, Idaho Politics

Who Needs Enemies With These Friends …

Years before it became an engine of the Idaho economy, and a leading American manufacturer of what Micron Technologies describes as the “world’s most advanced memory and storage technologies,” the Boise-headquartered company was a struggling start up.

Founded by twin brothers Joe and Ward Parkinson in the basement of a dental office in the late 1970s, Micron became a home-grown Idaho success story, not unlike Jack Simplot’s sprawling agri-business empireSimplot was an early Micron investor – or Joe Albertson’s big grocery store company.

A home grown Idaho success story

Like many successful startups, Micron often depended on support from politicians to go from the ideas hatched in that basement to a company today with facilities in 17 locations around the world and 40,000 employees. Micron recently received some of that governmental help, the so-called CHIPS Act, a bipartisan initiative that invests billions in “semiconductor research, development, manufacturing, and workforce development.” Days after Joe Biden signed the legislation, and not coincidentally, Micron announced a $40 billion expansion, including a $15 billion commitment to new manufacturing facilities and many new jobs in Idaho.

Here is the curious thing, indeed the mind-boggling thing: Idaho’s all Republican congressional delegation opposed the CHIPS Act. So did the Chinese government. Square that circle if you can.

As Reuters reported: “The Chinese Embassy in Washington said China ‘firmly opposed,’” the legislation “calling it reminiscent of a ‘Cold War mentality.’” In other words, China wants a weak American manufacturing sector, particularly when it comes to technology.

Biden pointed out that the US needs computer chips for major weapons systems like the Javelin missile. “It’s no wonder the Chinese Communist Party actively lobbied U.S. business against this bill,” Biden said.

Boise’s mayor supported the legislation and is entitled to celebrate

Here’s another curious thing: the all Republican Idaho delegation voted against the legislation that paved the way for the hometown expansion of a major Idaho business, and then celebrated the company’s decision to expand. It is the most shamelessly hypocritical act of political jujitsu that I can remember in more than 40 years of following Idaho politics.

The shameless pandering was widely pointed out by among others the editorial board of the Idaho Statesman. “There’s something worse than hypocrisy going on here … There was no clearer beneficiary from the CHIPS Act than Idaho. Roughly half of Idaho’s total manufacturing exports are computer chips, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Indeed, chips are on par with, though a bit behind, agricultural products. Idaho exports more value in microchips than in potatoes.”

The newspaper concluded Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressmen Russ Fulcher – Fulcher was an early Micron employee – and Mike Simpson ignored a basic duty of their office to support a policy that directly benefits Idaho and the country, while attempting to keep this vital manufacturing here at home.

The no votes were votes against jobs, against international competitiveness, against common sense. Apparently, the Idaho delegation was more focused on opposing a policy that originated in a Democratic administration, even though many House and Senate Republicans ignored the pleas of party leaders to deny Biden a legislative victory.

The most shameless pander of all came from Risch, who had the gall to say on his social media feed that “Idaho & Micron have been partners since Day One of the company’s founding. This announcement of a new fab coming to Boise deepens that partnership.”

Senator Jim Risch’s celebration of an event his vote tried to prevent

In Risch’s case that statement is particularly untrue. I know. I was there.

In 1988 when Risch was president of the state senate, then Democratic governor Cecil Andrus championed increases in educational support, including the first concerted and ultimately successful effort to bring higher education science and technology courses to the Boise Valley. Risch was a no then, too.

In 1988, Micron was in its first big expansion phase with plans to create a new manufacturing facility and 1,000 new jobs, but the company worried that Idaho – and legislators like Risch – wouldn’t support its aspirations for better educational offerings close to its Boise headquarters. Micron seriously considered siting its new facility in Oregon.

But Andrus intervened, along with then Boise State University president John Keiser, and quietly helped engineer a land swap and funding from the university foundation to build the necessary educational infrastructure. Risch, not surprisingly, defaulted to his kneejerk position which was to oppose anything Andrus tried to accomplish. He complained that Andrus negotiated the deal without legislative input. On that Risch was correct.

The governor was afraid that age-old rivalries between Boise State and the University of Idaho over control of engineering offerings would kill the deal, and he worried that land values would skyrocket with speculation about a new university building. And that nearly happened, as Risch complained that he’d “never seen a situation like this,” meaning apparently, he’d never seen a governor solve both an educational problem and secure an economic development win by leaving naysaying Republicans on the sidelines.

So, when Risch says Micron and Idaho have been partners since day one, he’s counting on the fact that none of his constituents will remember that 34 years ago – Risch really is a career politician – he actively opposed the educational investments that jump started Micron’s rise to become one of the biggest international players in semiconductor technology.

As far as I can tell no one in the Idaho business community, including Micron, has called out Risch and the rest of the Idaho delegation for opposing the CHIPS Act, and that is really a shame because failing to hold the shameless responsible for turning their backs on a major employer, not to mention ignoring a national security matter, will merely encourage more such behavior in the future.

Twin Falls Times-News, April 17, 1988

It wasn’t always so. In 1988, then-Micron CEO Joe Parkinson, hardly a liberal, took Risch on, saying the company was dismayed with his legislative leadership. “We thought we were talking to a senator who represented us,” Parkinson said in an interview where he announced Micron would oppose Risch’s re-election due to his lack of support for education.

Risch responded that he was just doing what his “constituents want,” which was to hold the line on educational spending “and not raise taxes.” The senator’s position was as shortsighted then as it is now. And, just to complete the history lesson, Risch lost re-election in 1988 by more than 10,000 votes.

After that election, which Andrus described as “a referendum on education,” Risch told reporters he was done with politics. “I never intended to make politics a career,” he said.

It wasn’t the last time he misled his constituents.

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Additional Reading:

A few other stories from around the Internet …

The Bizarre Story of Piggly Wiggly, the First Self-Service Grocery Store

Another economic origin story.

“Before Piggly Wiggly, groceries were sold at stores where a clerk would assemble your order for you, weighing out dry goods from large barrels. Even chain stores used clerks.”

The Pig, as my mom called the store, changed the game. Link here.


Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness

A review of a book by Elizabeth D. Samet who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“The great thing about the American empire,” observes historian Niall Ferguson—a fan of that empire—“is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence.” Samet argues that a major reason for this disbelief is the collective misrepresentation of America’s triumph in the Second World War. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Steven E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan are only some of the better known evangelical texts of American exceptionalism. A sea of popular culture—books, movies, newspapers, radio and TV shows, comics, and social media campaigns—has transformed the war into what Samet calls an enduring “testament to the redemptive capacity of American violence.” This, she writes, “leads us repeatedly to imagine that the use of force can accomplish miraculous political ends even when we have examples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to tell us otherwise.”

From Dissent Magazine.


THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD

The Queen is dead.

The Financial Times front page

“On Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, she delivered a radio broadcast that would define her life. Addressing all ‘the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire,’ and specifically ‘the youth of the British family of nations,’ she asked for their permission to speak as their representative. Delivered from Cape Town, South Africa, this was not a message to England, or Britain, or even the United Kingdom, but to the already fading empire.

“The message was designed to inspire, but also to begin a transition. The princess declared that just as England had saved Europe from Napoleonic domination in the 19th century, the British empire had saved the world from Hitler in the 20th. The task now before the empire was just as pressing, she said: It needed to save itself.”

From The Atlantic.


I’ll be away from my regular Friday column for a while, but may be posting here and there during some down time. I’ll be in touch and thanks for reading. All the best.

Books, Education

The Greatest Threat to America is Not a Book …

We have reached the book banning stage of democratic collapse. The end can’t possibly be far away.

In states from Tennessee to Idaho ultra-rightwing lawmakers are enjoying spring by roughing up librarians, cutting their budgets, banning books and intimidating teachers. It’s a coordinated effort that echoes through the alt right determination to wage endless culture war. After all, how better to demonstrate your commitment to “freedom” than by banning a book?

A photo from the New York Times

“It’s definitely getting worse,” Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the free-speech organization PEN America, told The Guardian recently. “We used to hear about a book challenge or ban a few times a year. Now it’s every week or every day. We also see proposed legislative bans, as opposed to just school districts taking action. It is part of a concerted effort to try to hold back the consequences of demographic and social change by controlling the narratives available to young people.”

As National Public Radio reported earlier this month: “More than 330 unique books were challenged from September through November last year, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. That’s twice as many as the entire year before.”

Not surprisingly, most if not all the book banning has featured works that consider already marginalized individuals or groups, while dealing with what are apparently frightening concepts like sexuality, gender identity or race. It’s apparently not enough for some Americans to be openly antagonistic to the LGBTQ community or to people of color, they demand that no one read about their stories.

If book bans were merely a manifestation of old fashioned, small-bore bigotry that would be in keeping with American history. In the 1830’s, after all, the U.S. House of Representatives forbid members from even discussing slavery, let alone legislating about the peculiar American institution. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852 in the run up to the Civil War, was banned in the South for fear it’s anti-slavery message would stir dangerous ideas. Lots of books over a long period have been banned for being too sexy or too graphic, however you define those terms.

But the current battlefield in the alt right’s culture war is more calculating and more strategic than simply old-style American bigotry, and therefore more dangerous to the ideas of free expression and anti-censorship. Moreover, the book ban mania has not grown organically, but rather has emerged in harness with intense new attacks on public schools and educators, animated by misinformation and fear about how American history is taught.

This fight is all about ideology and surely represents a concerted effort to limit what Americans, particularly young Americans can read, absorb, debate and decide about.

“You’re seeing really powerful movements under way to constrain expression,” says Jeffrey Sachs, an academic who specialized in free speech issues. “It’s not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all,” Sachs told the news website Vox.

The agenda here is being advanced on two fronts. One involves the systematic demonization of public education. The farthest fringe elements of the conservative moment – the Idaho Freedom Foundation, for example, or former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – are hardly subtle in advocating an end to public schools. This movement is lavishly funded, and there is a vast amount of money to be made by those hyping charter schools and other forms of privatization.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a very Trumpy Republican, recently used his State of State speech to tout a charter school plan for his state that would channel public dollars to a small, private, Christian school in Michigan – Hillsdale College – that has been an incubator for school privatization efforts. Lee reportedly wants as many as 50 Hillsdale-supported charter schools in Tennessee. They will teach a sanitized, false version of civics and history.  

Betsy DeVos, the Trump Education Secretary and public school privatizer

Hillsdale’s president chaired the laughably incompetent, yet ideologically frightening history commission Trump established near the end of his term. And it’s no coincidence that DeVos used a speech at Hillsdale last fall to help stoke the alt right’s anti-public school crusade. DeVos and others in this movement talk a lot about “freedom,” but they really advocate control. They want to dismantle the long-established system that many states require – a uniform system of public schools. A good entry point is through the library.  

Banning books or destroying public education are wildly unpopular ideas, so it becomes necessary to clothe the efforts to ban and destroy in the guise of protecting you from something sinister and dangerous. Success in this anti-democratic effort requires standing the truth on its head, because controlling thought, banning books and diminishing valuable institutions like local schools and long-established colleges and universities are not the tactics of freedom loving people. They are, however, tools in the service of authoritarianism.

The absolutely unprecedented attacks on libraries and librarians during the recent Idaho legislative session, actions that included threats to jail librarians, were straight up authoritarian. I doubt most of the political geniuses behind the Idaho library wars actually visit libraries or read books, but if they did, they might know that a mediocre Austrian painter once used this very playbook.

Idaho legislators, as the Spokesman-Review’s Shawn Vestal noted recently, eventually “agreed to form a legislative committee to investigate library materials statewide, a McCarthyite tribunal that promises to be every bit as intelligent and productive as last year’s task force investigating indoctrination in schools.”

This is a red-light flashing moment.

It is time for all Americans to defend with new vigor and new commitment the American institutions that the alt right plans to destroy, and openly speaks of doing so. Institutions, as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has often pointed out, cannot defend themselves. People defend institutions. And people destroy them, too.

Visit the local library. Praise a teacher. Support good people who believe in genuine American values like intellectual freedom, dissent, inquiry and who aren’t so insecure and filled with grievance that they see threats between the covers of a book.

Institutions, Timothy Snyder has written, “fall one after the other unless each is defined from the beginning.” We are well past the beginning in the assault on educational institutions in America. Time is of the essence to defend them from evil, misguided people who would in the name of freedom destroy freedom.

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Additional Reading:

A few other items that may be of interest …

Banning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 California

Steinbeck and his controversial book

As noted above, book banning is an old tactic in the United States, even as I think it’s important to note that the current wave is something particularly unseemly and destructive. Kern County, California banned Jon Steinbeck in 1939.

“Officials there actually got the idea from a newspaper story reporting that the Kansas City Board of Education had removed it from public libraries there.”

Read the story.


Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing

You probably have read all you need to read about the “slap seen round the world,” but perhaps you haven’t read Kareem.

“Worse than the slap was Smith’s tearful, self-serving acceptance speech in which he rambled on about all the women in the movie King Richard that he’s protected. Those who protect don’t brag about it in front of 15 million people. They just do it and shut up. You don’t do it as a movie promotion claiming how you’re like the character you just won an award portraying. By using these women to virtue signal, he was in fact exploiting them to benefit himself. But, of course, the speech was about justifying his violence.”

The guy could play so hoop, too. Read his essay.


The Dramatist

This a really terrific piece about the historian Barbara Tuchman.

Author of The Guns of August, among many other books

“In addition to acknowledging that she had help, a frequently taboo subject for successful women, Tuchman was forthcoming over the years about how being a woman with children influenced the development of her career. In 1978, she told the New York Times: ‘My obligation was primarily toward my three children. . . . When the children came home from school or had the measles, I had to drop everything. If a man is a writer, everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you’re an ordinary female housewife, people say, ‘This is just something Barbara wanted to do; it’s not professional.’ For a woman, it’s very difficult to work behind a closed door.'”

Meredith Hindley is a senior writer for Humanities. Read her piece here.


LBJ Announced He Wouldn’t Run Again. Political Chaos Ensued

I remember watching the speech – 54 years ago this week in .

“LBJ’s announcement was so dramatic partly because it was so unexpected. When LBJ sat down to deliver the speech, even he wasn’t certain that he would utter the words his aides had written for him. LBJ had acquired a reputation, rooted in decades of service in Senate leadership and then in the White House, as a brilliant legislative operator, a masterful manipulator of men and laws, a politician who wished both to advance his own self-interest and outdo FDR as the greatest reform president of the 20th century.”

Good piece of political history as told by Matthew Dallek.


Be careful out there. Keep reading. And thanks.

Education, Idaho Politics

Entrepreneurial Hypocrisy …

Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation, officially a public charity under federal tax law, has become a force in Idaho politics. The group is similar to several dozen like-minded libertarian-leaning political actors that for a decade or more have been trying to influence education and other policies in every state. These groups get their money from secret sources, but you can make an educated guess as to who funds their pernicious, frequently fact-free advocacy. The Idaho edition of this template is particularly odious.

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In 2020, the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), a libertarian “think tank” funded by dark money, deep pocket donors, did something wholly inconsistent with its self-proclaimed mission of “exposing, defeating, and replacing the state’s socialist public policies.”

The IFF took help from the government, namely a $130,000 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan – since forgiven – that was part of the Trump Administration’s plan to stave off economic collapse due to the Covid pandemic.

These free-market gurus, who lobby like crazy while enjoying IRS status as a non-profit, public welfare “charity” organization, have become a force in Idaho conservative politics by helping drive the state’s Republican Party into a ditch of crazy conspiracy, medical misinformation and hatred of public education. Former Republican attorney general and Supreme Court chief justice Jim Jones has correctly called IFF an “extremist political outfit.”

But apparently extremism in the defense of hypocrisy is no vice. When IFF received its taxpayer money back in 2020, Wayne Hoffman, the lobbying group’s president was indignant that anyone would point out the irony – or was it the hypocrisy – of his anti-government, low tax group putting its Milton Friedman-like snout in the federal government trough.

IFF was, by the way, getting taxpayer cash at the same time it was working overtime to deprive health care for thousands of Idahoans, limit rent relief during the pandemic and make it harder for citizens to put an issue on the ballot. Freedom is clearly a one-way street.

When called on the PPP hypocrisy, Hoffman railed “fake news,” and insisted the government made him do it.

“The government shut down Idaho’s economy,” Hoffman said, “Idaho business, and therefore the donors who we depend on to generously support our work.”

Let us linger over those words: “the donors who we depend on …”

That statement baldly suggests the free marketers were in the same boat as millions of other Americans. A world-wide pandemic that has now claimed more than 900,000 American lives – IFF has militantly opposed public health efforts to contain the disease – was going to hurt the “think tank’s” bottom line. The PPP loan was a lifeline. A poor little free market charity was just being prudent in taking the government “handout” in violation of all of its stated beliefs since, well, they needed to make payroll. And lest we forget, five board members of IFF also received PPP loans.

But wait, there’s more.

Posted on the IFF’s website is a copy of the organization’s most recent Form 990, the annual filing with the Internal Revenue Service. And right there on page one, just below Hoffman’s name, is an accounting of the group’s prior year and current year “contributions and grants.”

In 2019, IFF pocketed over $708,000, but in 2020 – the year of the PPP loan when “donors who we depend on” were “shut down” – IFF reported more than $967,000 in contributions and grants, including the PPP loan.

In other words, the Freedom Foundation free marketers not only didn’t need your taxpayer dollars to match their previous year level of contributions, they actually exceeded their prior year take even without the forgiven taxpayer loan.

Like with so much else that attaches to the IFF – University of Idaho president Scott Green recently termed the group “conflict entrepreneurs” – Hoffman’s explanation for his PPP loan is a lie. Turns out Wayne’s conflict spreaders aren’t merely a public charity, but a charity case.

But before dismissing the lies and this hypocrisy – after all, what would conservative politics be these days without both – recall the real mission of Hoffman and his grifting team. They aim to destroy public education in Idaho, a state that already funds schools worse than any other state and that last year let IFF craft, as the U of I’s Green told legislative budget writers last month, “a false narrative” about higher education that cost the state’s institutions of higher learning $2.5 million last year – $1.5 million hit to Boise State University and a half million each to Idaho State and at Idaho’s land grant school, the University of Idaho.

University of Idaho president Scott Green recently called IFF “conflict entrepreneurs”

Hoffman and a loyal group of his trained seals in the legislature have been pushing a fake narrative about “social justice” education, alleging that the impressionable minds of Idaho students are being “indoctrinated” with dangerous notions about equality and history. Green dismissed it as a lie, which it is.

“In short, the entire social justice narrative on which the University of Idaho was penalized $500,000 was a false narrative created by conflict entrepreneurs who make their living sowing fear and doubt with legislators and voters,” Green said, in what must count as one of the most straightforward and honest putdowns of Hoffman’s brand of grievance-based conspiracy politics ever uttered by a senior Idaho official.

Standing up to bullies and shysters who specialize in conflict requires guts, a commodity that is in dangerously short supply among Idaho elected officials. Many of them know that Hoffman’s grift – he pays himself $139,000 a year – is as phony as his PPP loan explanation. Yet, most conservatives – there are some growing exceptions – treat this dark money cesspool as though it were something legitimate. It’s not.

IFF is part of a network of more than 60 similar hard right and libertarian “think tanks” in every state, part of a web of influence peddlers called “The State Policy Network.” In Montana they fly under the “Frontier Institute” banner. In Oregon it’s the “Cascade Policy Institute.” In Wyoming they call themselves the “Wyoming Liberty Group.” The groups are all about demanding transparency for everyone other than themselves. Where their high six figure or larger budgets come from is a well-guarded secret.

The Guardian newspaper got its hands on grant applications in 2013 from more than 30 of these state-level “think tanks,” not Idaho’s, however. The paper reported that “the documents … cast light on the nexus of funding arrangements behind radical rightwing campaigns. The State Policy Network (SPN) has members in each of the 50 states and an annual war chest of $83 million drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, food giant Kraft and the multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline.”

Add to that list “the American taxpayer” who helped pay Wayne Hoffman’s salary in 2020 so he could work full time spreading lies about education and educators. It’s a pretty clever con, but it’s still a con.

After reviewing those grant applications, The Guardian concluded the state-level “think tanks” were involved in a “coordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment.”

Idaho policymakers are too often a little slow on the uptake, but these “conflict entrepreneurs” have once again exposed themselves for what they are: dishonest dividers with a nasty and ultimately destructive agenda for Idaho and every other state where they peddle their lies.

It’s way past time to give Hoffman and his cronies all the respect they deserve, which is zero.

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Additional Reading:

A few things I stumbled across this week…

‘A deranged pyroscape’: how fires across the world have grown weirder

Coming to a neighborhood near you.

“Australians call the event Black Saturday – a scorched hole in the national diary. There, it contends with Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Thursday, Black Friday and Black Sunday on Australia’s calendar of conflagration. But recently it has been surpassed – they all have – by the Black Summer, the cataclysmic 2019-20 fire season that killed hundreds with its smoke and burned an area the size of Ireland. A study estimated that the bushfires destroyed or displaced 3 billion animals; its stunned lead author couldn’t think of any fire worldwide that had killed nearly so many.”

A frightening straight up take on climate change and fire from The Guardian:


What is ‘legitimate political discourse,’ and does it include the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol?

Quite the moment in American political history when the national Republican Party proclaimed the January 6 insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol “legitimate political discourse.”

“Legitimate political discourse…”

Here is a good backgrounder.

“Persuasion, even in its most vigorous and aggressive form, is an invitation. When a person seeks to persuade someone else to agree with their viewpoint or values, or to recall or ignore history in a particular way, the recipient may choose to go along, or not.

“Coercion, on the other hand, is a kind of force – a command, not an invitation. Coercion denies others the freedom to choose for themselves whether to agree or disagree. Coercion and violence are anti-democratic because they deny others their ability to consent. Violence and coercion are the very opposite of legitimate political discourse.”

From The Conversation:


What Will It Take to Resuscitate American Democracy?

Regular readers know that I worry a lot – a lot – about this.

“The alarm has been rung, and often enough. Any American who can read knows that democracy is in crisis. The US government increasingly struggles to fulfill its most basic tasks, like guaranteeing the debt, passing budgets or confirming the diplomatic corps. Meanwhile armed groups of insurrectionists, like the one that stormed the US Capitol just over a year ago, spread incoherence. Think tanks on the right and universities on the left still debate policies like the tax rate or parental leave but they’re playacting by this point, whether they know it or not. They distract themselves with antiquities while the temple collapses around their shoulders. The questions have become much more basic than abstruse policy. Will democracy survive? How to keep America’s institutions alive?”

Worth your time from Stephen Marche:


That’s it for this week. I’ll sit back and with for the attacks from the Idaho Freedom Foundation. In politics – or writing about politics – you are known by your enemies, as they say. Stay well. All the best.

Education, Politics

Illiberal America…

There was a time when Boise State University, the 22,000-student college in Idaho’s capitol city, only made national news with a football team that played on a garish artificial blue turf.

Now, with the football team struggling, BSU is grabbing national attention for arguably more important reasons. The school is front and center in the raging culture wars around the value of higher education, diversity and equity, sexual orientation and, believe it or not, feminism.

The Boise State story has many threads, including being part of a growing national effort – orchestrated on the illiberal libertarian right – to broadly discredit education at every level. Like everything else these days it’s all political. Stay with me. I’ll try to connect some of the dots.

The latest Boise State angle involves a tenured professor in the political science department of the university, Dr. Scott Yenor. Yenor is a scholar of political theory, but more importantly he is a provocateur, which is an important angle of the larger story.

Yenor recently gave a speech in Florida at the National Conservative Conference. Among other intellectual luminaries on the agenda for this Trumpy conference were Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, two Republicans who aided and abetted the January 6th insurrection. Christopher Rufo, the guy who singlehandedly created the pseudo-controversy about Critical Race Theory, also spoke.

Yenor’s Florida speech – now widely available on the Internet – advanced some of his theories about family life, marriage and feminism.

Using language that would have made Archie Bunker, TV’s most famous bigoted white guy, blush, Yenor said, among other things, that “independent women” who seek fulfillment in “midlevel bureaucratic jobs like human resource management, environmental protection, and marketing” are – I kid you not – “more medicated, meddlesome, and quarrelsome than women need to be.”

The professor suggested it was a mistake for women to be recruited into fields that have long been dominated by men. “Young men must be respectable and responsible to inspire young women to be secure with feminine goals of homemaking and having children,” Yenor said, suggesting that the achievements of men have not been adequately “celebrated.”

No word on what the professor thinks about women as political science majors, but this part of his speech might provide a clue. “Every effort must be made not to recruit women into engineering, but rather to recruit and demand more of men who become engineers. Ditto for med school, and the law, and every trade.”

It appears the larger point Yenor was attempting to make is that “feminism,” and the radical notion that women and men should be treated equally, have come close to destroying the American family, weakening the institution of marriage, and generally putting us on a path to utter societal destruction. Yenor has produced a wide array of articles and books on this theme.

Typically, many were quick to condemn Yenor, and he may have created serious questions about whether women students he has taught at Boise State have a cause for action, particularly if they can show Yenor’s “theories” have penalized them in some way. Did he grade the “striving women” in his classes differently than men, for example? Expect more on this. The university would do well to get in front of the issue with its own investigation.  

Boise State, correctly in my view, defended the professor’s odious views under the necessary umbrella of academic freedom. Pointy-headed academics on the nutty right are entitled to be as silly as are their counterparts on the crazy left.

Yenor’s ideas, while backward, demeaning, even hatefully misogynistic are worthy of debate. Worthy of being demolished. Worthy of being broadly rejected. Yenor should not earn a wider platform by becoming the latest crackpot martyr who has been “silenced,” which one suspects was part of his rationale for taking on half the human race. What better way to get a bucket load of attention these days – and a Fox News hit – than by saying outrageous things and being called on them by “liberals?”

The university’s “official” response was supplemented by a tepid statement to the effect that women are appreciated at the school. But to date there has been no serious pushback against Yenor’s nonsense. This is what you get, I guess, when you operate in a state where the political leadership is either weak or fully onboard with the craziness of modern conservative politics.

But here is where the Yenor/Boise State story goes wider. Make no mistake, the real agenda here, and that of the people who gave Yenor a platform in Florida, is to discredit public education. The goal is to play to growing resentment among conservatives about modern “liberal” education – and I use liberal in the classic sense – being a leftist plot to undermine America.

Yenor is deeply connected into the world of the anti-education Idaho Freedom Foundation, and he was a member of the phony education indoctrination task force created by Idaho’s Trump-endorsed candidate for governor, current Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin.

Yenor is a “Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute,” the once widely respected conservative California think tank that now happily endorses the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the last election.

The Institute’s “Center for the American Way of Life” – Yenor is listed among the Center’s scholars – argues, Trump-like, for a new rightest movement. “The Right must be morally unflinching in refuting the Left’s ideologies,” its website proclaims. “It must speak clearly and confidently about the effects of radical feminism, ‘antiracism,’ and globalism. It must be prepared to protect its children, its property, and its standards from encroachments.”

Nothing short of revolution is required, Claremont says, to free the country from “the adversarial press and media, Big Tech oligopolies, and corrupt universities.” Trump authoritarianism, however, is just fine.

A Claremont “Senior Fellow” is John Eastman, a law professor and author of the crazy, anti-constitutional “Stop the Steal” memo that attempted to create a rationale for then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College votes of several states and keep Trump president.

Eastman is deeply implicated in the events of January 6, subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. Scott Yenor, you might not be surprised to learn, recently wrote a defense of the insurrectionist law professor who was – surprise – not exactly given the red-carpet treatment at the recent National Political Science Association’s conference.

So, back to the Boise State prof. He’s clearly not a dim bulb – I have met him, by the way – but even gifted minds can lead others astray. He’s playing a game on the fringes of the far, far American right, not unlike the old Birch Society or Phyllis Schlafly once did. The game is to inflame by outrage and hearken back to “America’s better days” when mom was home in an apron waiting for her man to return from men’s work.

Birch Society billboard

This is the “real America” these throwbacks advocate, and what better way to channel it than arguing that women are always better off barefoot in the kitchen rather than as educated professionals?

The American “revolution” Claremont and its scholars envision isn’t just insulting, illiberal and undemocratic, it’s a profound rejection of modernity and a repudiation of a society that has struggled for decades to create equal opportunities for all its citizens without regard to the makeup of their chromosomes.

It is essential to refute and reject these dangerous people – mostly mediocre white men – who claim so cavalierly the moral high ground that justifies revolution. They have already proven they will stop at nothing to create an authoritarian America, and they are prevailing. It’s probably just a coincidence that Scott Yenor’s misogyny is in the news just as the Supreme Court prepares to roll back the abortion rights American women have had for 50 years

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Additional Reading:

A few more things worthy of your time…

Is society coming apart?

I am a huge fan of the historian Jill Lepore. Her recent long read piece in The Guardian explores what’s happened to the ideas of social fabric and community. Very good.

“Forging stronger bonds in a post-pandemic world, if one ever comes, will require acts of moral imagination that are not part of any political ideology or corporate mission statement, but are, instead, functions of the human condition: tenderness, compassion, longing, generosity, allegiance and affection. These, too, are the only real answers to loneliness, alienation, dislocation and disintegration. But the fullest expression of these functions across distances as easily spanned by viruses and flood waters as by broadband cables and TikTok videos, requires both society and government.”

Always read Jill. Here is a link:


How to Save a Ski Town

Affordable and workforce housing is in shockingly short supply across the American West. This piece from Outside Magazine explores how one town in Colorado is trying to address the need.

“When the situation reached its breaking point over the summer, Crested Butte officials acted swiftly. In June, the town council declared a state of emergency, the first time a Colorado municipality had used the designation for a housing crisis. This enabled them to bypass certain municipal codes and provide some immediate relief, like purchasing a six-bedroom bed-and-breakfast and converting it into dorm-style housing for local workers. They also began allowing RV and tent camping on private property in town. In July the council issued a moratorium on new short-term rental licenses for a year, and officials resumed discussions about a controversial tax on empty homes, which they had started in 2020 but tabled for the pandemic.”

Link here.


Fabiola Letelier, Chilean human rights activist, dies at 92

Some of you may remember a sensational and outrageous murder that took place on the streets of Washington, DC in 1973.

The gruesome scene of the assassination of Orlando Letelier in 1973

“One of the most brazen acts of state-sponsored terrorism ever perpetrated in the United States took place on Sept. 21, 1976, when Orlando Letelier, a Chilean exile and leading critic of strongman Augusto Pinochet, was assassinated in a car bombing on Washington’s Embassy Row.”

Orlando Letelier’s sister never gave up on the memory of her brother or on the fight for human rights and justice.

Read her story here:


Scotland names its snow plows and their titles for 2021 are still amazing

Love this story…

“On first glance, some of the names may not make sense to people in the US, but note the country calls these vehicles ‘gritters’ — that makes ‘Gritney Spears’ make much more sense. This week, social media again took note when revamped names started appearing on the national map of snow plows. The pun game is still very strong.”

Link here…and Vermont is doing the same:


Thanks a million for reading. Stay well. And stay in the game.

2020 Election, Education, Pandemic, Trump

Magical Thinking…

Yeah, the schools should be opened. Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.” 

Donald Trump, July 13, 2020

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For decades Republicans have preached the gospel of “local control” of schools; the idea that the local school board – the homemakers, the local real estate guy, the small business owner – are the people who should have ultimate say about educating our kids. But like almost every other conviction of bedrock conservatism “local control” is no longer, to borrow a word from the Nixon era, operative. 

You know what else is inoperative: competence. Donald Trump and the collection of inept D-list flunkies that surround the president – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos comes to mind – have spent the last three weeks threatening governors, teachers, parents and common sense. Trump even said he’d withhold money from states refusing to open schools, a hollow threat he cannot possibly fulfil, but one in keeping with this administration’s mendacity. Significant amounts of federal education aide go to the poorest schools and to help children with particular learning needs. 

Trump wants the schools open, many others aren’t convinced

The bullying and demanding from Washington, D.C. isn’t based on any serious concern about how schools might operate in the midst of a still accelerating pandemic, but it is based on Trump’s need to manufacture the optics of “a return to normal” that is only happening between the ears of the “very stable genius.” 

As columnist Rex Huppke put it in the Chicago Tribune: “You brats are going to listen to me and to your president, Donald J. Trump, and you’re going to march your little rear ends off to school come fall. I don’t care if you have to wade through 5 feet of coronavirus to get there, you’re going!” 

Yet the people most affected – parents, teachers, school cafeteria staff, among others – seem impervious to this Trumpian logic. “I have yet to see any data where there are appreciable numbers of people who say, ‘Yes, I want my kids back in school,’” says Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, in an interview with the New York Times. “They want their kids back in school, but not right now. I think safety is taking priority over education.”

Or as Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of a small district in Arizona told the Washington Post: “Although the administration can apparently absorb the 150,000 COVID deaths without care or consequence, we do not have the luxury of even losing one.” 

It might have been wise to devote the last couple of months to strengthening distance learning and helping parents prepare for a school year without kids in school buildings. What we got instead is the persistent incompetence and quackery of the Trump Administration and the frightened conservative politicians who dare not offend the man who acts like he has all the answers but possesses none of them. 

While the president lamented Dr. Anthony Fauci’s high poll numbers compared to his – “but nobody likes me,” Trump whined, while wondering if it had something to do with his personality – he again touted hydroxychloroquine, the drug the FDA says has no proven effectiveness against the coronavirus. We won’t go into the quack doctor Trump citing who “made videos saying that doctors make medicine using DNA from aliens and that they’re trying to create a vaccine to make you immune from becoming religious.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci back in the old days when Donald Trump let him speak from the White House

Trump era magical thinking has positioned the United States, with only five percent of the world’s population, but with a quarter of all the world’s cases and vastly more deaths than any other country, as a case study of failure when it comes to controlling the virus. 

The squandering of precious time from late March to mid-May when organization of a national strategy to test, trace and isolate cases could have been done, but wasn’t will be this administration’s deadly legacy. The spreading of quack theories about unproven drugs and phony treatment, while making wearing a mask an ideological litmus test is the final proof of the abject failure of Republican efforts to lead and govern. 

U.S. leading the world in COVID-19 deaths and failed response

The GOP has given up on fighting the illness. It’s just too hard for them to handle, a position Idaho governor Brad Little summed up perfectly last week when he was asked if his state’s schools would reopen. “I think the answer is, it depends,” Little said. 

The governor or his counterparts in Florida or Texas or Arizona might have said: “You know, the answer for very much schools is no. We must recognize that the disease is out of control, spreading uncontrollably and we must redouble our efforts to fight it. One step is to end the magical thinking that suggest we should put teachers and children and the grandparents of school children at real risk by too quickly going back to in person schooling. We have more work to do before we can do that.”

Something like that would have been an honest and indeed helpful answer, allowing parents and teachers to plan and prepare, but instead of the functional equivalent of “we will fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender” to the virus we get “it depends.” 

“This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics,” long-time Republican consultant Stuart Stevens wrote recently. He compared the collapse of the party, its abandonment of expertise and common sense and its embrace of a reality television star, to the demise of the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union. In short, what the party says it is bears no resemblance to what is actually is. 

The disconnect between what Republican leaders tell their constituents about issues like wearing a mask and opening school and the relentless, unbending reality of the pandemic is simply not sustainable. The terrible logic of the virus is going to win every time and the way the incompetents continue to handle it signals that we are on track to never put it behind us. 

Ask yourself this logical question: If, as a result of a still little understood disease that will almost certainly claim thousands more American lives between now and Labor Day, your local school board, your health district, your state board of education is reduced to meeting by Zoom to consider reopening the schools is it really such a great idea to reopen the schools?

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Nespresso…

Great deep dive in The Guardian on the coffee machine and the company behind it.

“Buying a machine grants you membership of the Nespresso Club, literally, and also membership of the Nespresso club, metaphorically – a global fellowship of people who care enough about their morning brew to spend 40 or 50p on 5 grams of it, but not enough to spend more than 30 seconds preparing it. In their homes, the distinctive hum, whirr and clunk of a machine in action has taken its place alongside the churn of a dishwasher.”

Read the whole thing, including a few surprises.


How to think about Jefferson… 

Thomas Jefferson, third president, eternally complicated…and controversial

Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who teaches at the University of Virginia, the university Thomas Jefferson created. In a recent essay he reflected on the contradictions of the author of the Declaration of Independence, a slave owner who declared all men are created equal. 

“As Hollywood has long known,” Taylor writes, “Americans prefer melodramas that sort people into the good and the evil. So, we treat Jefferson as an icon of our unresolved prejudices and inequalities, which trace to slavery. As that burden becomes conspicuous in our national understanding, partisans wish to cast Jefferson as either an antislavery hero or a proslavery villain. In fact, he was both and neither.”

Your history read today.


Nicholas Baker on FOIA…

Baker is a great writer and a dogged researcher. In his new book Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act Baker tries to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to dig into some mysteries. He writes:

“Isn’t it against the law for government agencies to delay their responses to FOIA requests? Yes, it is: the mandated response time in the law is twenty days, not including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, and if one agency must consult with another agency before releasing a given document, the consultation must happen ‘with all practicable speed.’ And yet there is no speed. There is, on the contrary, a deliberate Pleistocenian ponderousness.”

A fascinating story.


Thanks for reading. Stay well.

Education, Higher Education

Devaluing Education…

My dad never went to college. He graduated from high school in 1930 when unemployment rates were on the way to 15% and eventually reached 25%. He needed – and wanted a job – so he never seriously thought about taking the time to get more education. I believe he regretted that decision for the rest of his life. 

It was the same for my mother, a high school graduate who ended up working in the administrative office of a small state college in Nebraska. She had all the skills needed in those days to be a secretary. She could type, take shorthand and knew how to format a business letter, but I’ve always suspected she longed for more. For many in her generation, particularly women, more was just not an option. 

Both my parents were avid readers and our home was filled with books and magazines and newspapers, but no degrees. They valued what they never had an opportunity to achieve and there was never a doubt that my brother and I would go to college. It would be a financial struggle to some degree, but tuition at a state college in those days was remarkably affordable and besides my parents – children of the Great Depression – accepted it as an article of faith that a college education was a stepping stone on a path to a better, more financially secure life. 

Higher education: Still a path to a better life

Yet, opinions about the value of higher education divide Americans like most everything else divides us. The Pew Research Center reported recently that, “over the past two years, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%), and this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP.” 

Views on the part of Democrats about the positive role of colleges and universities are almost the reverse of those held by Republicans, with wide majorities of Democrats saying, “colleges have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” 

It’s no coincidence that the Republican Party “base,” the die hard supporters of the current president, are dominated by non-college educated voters who apparently broadly subscribe to the notion that higher education is dominated by “elites” peddling dangerous ideas. It’s also no coincidence that Republican elected officials from coast-to-coast are increasingly critical of higher education. 

Alaska’s Republican governor, a Donald Trump favorite, recently proposed an immediate $130 million, 40% reduction in state support for the Alaska university system. Public outrage and the real threat that such drastic action would decimate the University of Alaska prompted a pull back. The university system now has three years to absorb a $70 million haircut. 

Higher education cuts in Alaska will devastate the state’s university system

Two years ago the attorney general of Arizona sued the state’s university system because tuition was too high, but of course failed to acknowledge that the GOP dominated state legislature has wacked higher education funding by more than 40% over the last decade. 

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.” 

In eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina – per-student funding declined by more than 30 percent over ten years. Still, state funding and how it has impacted tuition and fees is just a part of the higher education story. 

In Idaho, of course, some Republican lawmakers want to wage a culture war over diversity programs on Idaho campuses and critiques from the political right often involve the accusation that liberals dominate college and university classrooms and administration. 

While my own college experience is mighty dated, I’m confident the culture war aspects of modern higher education are vastly overblown. My most memorable college instruction was a rumpled old prof who made me grapple with the causes and effects of the American Civil War. He didn’t have a political agenda. He was a teacher. I still have the textbook he used. I know dozens if not hundreds of teachers and administrators in higher education and to a person their motives are education, not indoctrination. 

The new leaders who are now in place at all of Idaho’s public colleges and universities face daunting challenges, including raising tuition costs that can be tied directly to decreased state support. But no issue is more important than impressing upon law and policy makers that higher education is vital to personal and societal success. College presidents can no longer, if they ever could, be content to assume, as my parents did, that everyone gets the message about how important higher education is and will be in the future. 

Amid the culture wars and partisan divides it’s worth focusing on the cold hard fact that the current and future American economy demands more education for more Americans. Not everyone needs or wants a four year degree, of course, and community colleges and skills training of all kinds must be a critical part of producing a talented workforce. A still too little tapped role for colleges and universities are robust partnerships with workforce and skills training program. Policy makers need to find the resources to make that work. 

Yet with evidence showing that the higher educational achievement in the United States has now been overtaken by some of our principal economic competitors, including South Korea (where 70% of young people earn a college degree), as well as Canada and Japan. In fact, the U.S. ranks eleventh among 35 developed nations in college attainment according to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute. 

Like so much that divides Americans, the “is college worth it” gap that has Republicans challenging higher education’s value is based more on ideology than facts. At its core a valuable and valued higher education produces critical thinkers, able to reason a way though problems and opportunities by applying learned knowledge. Never have we needed that kind of education more. 

Education, Idaho Politics

Idaho Ds Win (Occasionally) When GOP Screws Up

My column this week in the Lewiston Tribune

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This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.

Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.

Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.

Democrat Cindy Wilson

Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.

For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.

Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra

Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.

Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.

Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.

The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.

Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.

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Education, Higher Education, Iran, Kramer

America’s Great Problems

1028_retire-early-education-caps_397x278The verdict is in. I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but I’m confident of what I am about to assert – the American attention span is shorter than the time it takes for Auburn to score a touchdown after a missed Alabama field goal.

In other words – short. Very short.

For a few moments earlier this fall we were consumed by the news of a humanitarian crisis and chemical weapons use in Syria. Then the Obamacare website didn’t work. Then Iran seemed to be coming to the international table to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and then China started issuing orders about disputed airspace in the Far East. Oh, yes, throw in a train wreck, a few tornadoes and an NFL lineman who is a bully. So much news and so much noise that much of the media and most policy makers seem to consistently miss the truly great issues confronting the nation.

Most of us continue to look – silly us – to our political leaders to help us understand what is really important, but people in elected office, even the smartest, most dedicated seem more victims than masters of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder. We certainly don’t lack for controversy and crisis. We do lack a leadership that helps define a sense of national priorities. What might we agree on as a nation that would really make a difference?

Syria, Iran, China and inadequate health insurance websites are all legitimate problems to be sure, but they are truly dwarfed by two more fundamental issues that, at the risk of hyperbole, really threaten the nation’s long-term viability. For the most part political leadership is missing in action. The issues are growing income inequality and the profound challenges confronting the nation’s education system at every level. As if to render the issues even more complicated, we need to recognize that income inequality and educational attainment are actually two sides of the same coin.

A few statistics to put the great problems in sharper focus:

State-level funding for education at all levels, and particularly higher education, has been tumbling since the 1980’s and at the same time – if you’re putting kids through college you know this – tuition rates have spiked. In Idaho, in-state tuition is up by about 45 percent in less than a decade. There have been comparable increases in Oregon and Washington. Arizona led the nation with a 70 percent increase in the last five years, while the national average increase has been 27 percent. Little wonder there is a mounting crisis – $1.2 trillion worth – of college loan debt.

The American Council on Education, a respected advocacy group of college and university presidents, said in a recent report appropriately entitled A Race to the Bottom, “The 2011 funding effort [for higher education] was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Another data point: The country’s standing in terms of the number of young people completing post-secondary education is in decline compared to much of the rest of the developing world. As the Washington Post reported in September, “Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.”

The attainment rate for college graduates in the United States has actually crept up to 41 percent, but as the Post noted, “in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.”

In terms of college attainment the United States now trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, all of whom passed the U.S. in the latest rankings.

No doubt you’ve heard that a college degree, more costly than ever, just isn’t worth all that much in terms of economic value. It’s just not true.

Eduardo Porter, a very well educated fellow, writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times and recently wrote this: “On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong. Despite a weak job market for recent graduates, workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates. College might be more expensive than ever, but a degree is worth about $365,000 over a lifetime, after defraying all the direct and indirect costs of going to school. This is a higher payoff than in any other advanced nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Now let’s try to connect the dots of educational attainment and income inequality.

In September – you remember September, we were focused on shutting down the government, I think – the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty and a typical American family is making less on an annual basis in 2013 than it was in 1989. From about 1993 until about 2000, median household income was increasing steadily, but that upward trend ended and has, with the exception of brief uptick in 2007, been headed down…and down.

It is not terribly surprising that educational attainment is generally the worst in communities with the worst economic conditions. One example from Las Vegas where, as the Review-Journal reported recently, “With rare exception, school ratings are higher district wide when the surrounding neighborhood has a higher median household income and more college-educated residents, regardless of whether parents have degrees.

“Schools do progressively worse when their neighborhoods have higher rates of high school-only educated residents, families falling below the poverty line, and minorities.” In other words, education equals better economic conditions.

To summarize: state-level support for education at all levels (but higher education particularly) has been plummeting, more Americans than ever are acquiring education beyond high school (in part because the recession sent many folks who were out of work back to school), but most of the rest of the developed world – our economic competitors – are getting more advanced education then we are, and more education is still the surest path to a better economic life, particularly when real family income in the United States is as flat as a pancake.

The progressive “think tank” Think Progress says this about the growing economic divide in America. “Income inequality has been growing since the 1970s, as the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their income grow much faster than the bottom 20 percent. But things have accelerated in the economic downturn. For the past three years, those at the top of the income ladder saw their incomes grow by 5 percent while everyone else’s income dropped. The top 10 percent of the country’s earners took home half of the income in 2012, the largest amount on record.

“And things at the bottom have been declining. The bottom 60 percent of earners have experienced a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, seeing their compensation fall or stagnate. Many forces have contributed to this trend, but the growth of low-wage jobs that replace middle class work during the recovery has helped it along.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that more education for more Americans – college degrees, technical skills training, even an English degree – is the one sure path to a better standard of living and, I would argue, a stronger, more diverse economy. It is past time that our budget and policy priorities got in sync with this reality.

 

Education, Egan, Idaho Politics, Kramer

What Next

Idaho’s Battle Over Education Reform

There was never a real chance that supporters of a recall of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction would be able to collect the nearly 160,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall of the controversial superintendent. Now that the recall effort is officially dead, the question becomes whether opponents of Tom Luna’s education reform ideas can keep the public concern – even anger – at a level sufficient to make a 2012 referendum, already qualified for the ballot, successful?

I’d argue the failure of the recall is a significant strategic setback for those who think Idaho’s education policy is headed in the wrong direction. The decision to mount the recall was, with perfect hindsight, a miscalculation that will now be portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Recall organizers, like Jim Allen in Pocatello, claim a moral victory with the recall effort despite not putting the superintendent’s job on the line.

“We’re not here whining and crying because it didn’t happen. We wanted to send a message and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Allen said.

We’ll see, but moral victories never win elections.

For his part, Luna said recall backers have made the issues surrounding education reform “personal,” while he’s focused on implementing the laws. After upsetting the status quo, the superintendent now is the status quo and so far he seems to be doing a credible job of playing both offense and defense. Luna is turning out to be, whatever you think of his policies, one of the more media savvy Idaho politicians in a long time.

If opponents of what Luna engineered in this year’s Idaho Legislature hope to overturn those laws next year they’ll need three things that may be hard to manufacture: money, a really compelling message and a level of public outrage that can be maintained for the next 17 months.

Recall opponents spent little money gathering signatures over the last few week – there are conflicting stories as to how short they fell – and they never came up with a consistent message about why what Luna and legislative Republicans have done is so harmful. They’ll need to do a lot better in the months ahead and history would indicate that they will need serious money to run a real campaign.

You can take it to the bank that the pro-reform forces will be organized, disciplined and well-financed.

In his statement in the wake of the recall failure, Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko seemed to indicate that he wants the continuing debate to stay focused on what became the GOP talking points during the 2011 legislature, namely curbing the union power of teachers.

Semanko said, in part, the efforts to place “Union interests ahead of the true recipients of public education, the students, have failed in Idaho.” That line of argument, coupled with a desire to control spending on education, essentially carried the day for the reform efforts during the legislative session.

The challenge for those who succeeded in putting the reform package on the ballot next year is to have the resources, the discipline and ability to make the referendum about something more fundamental – the future of education in Idaho. They may well have passion on their side, but they’ll need a strategy and money to overturn what is now the status quo in Idaho education.

A month can be a long time in politics. Seventeen months can be a life time.

 

Education, Egan, Guest Post, Idaho Politics, Kramer, Polling

Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.