The Divine Comity

As we approach the inauguration of the new President, I think back to 2001 when President Bush was about to take office. I had helped him on education issues in the campaign and would be his Senior Education Adviser in the White House.

But there was more to our story than that. He was Republican. I had been an active Democrat. What was I doing in the picture?

As governor of Texas and then as President, he wanted to improve education dramatically, and he believed that doing so required cooperation and mutual commitment from both Republicans and Democrats.

Of the many education leaders of that era, none did more to improve student achievement than President Bush, and none made the progress on a bipartisan basis better than he.

I don’t want to get mushy about cooperation in government. Both sides hold to different views, for which our system requires that they fight vigorously. Too-easy compromise can take us nowhere. And the nation deserves better than the “tepid water” that too often is the result of everybody’s being happy in the legislative process.

But, as I think about the more significant policies that have moved our nation forward in recent times, most have had support from both sides, built with great effort, leadership, and comity.

My mind goes back to the Civil Rights Act in the Sixties. What a difference it made in the course of history that President Johnson had support from Senator Dirksen and other Republicans.

One remembers President Reagan working with leaders on both sides to make long-term fixes to the Social Security system.

Later, significant tax reform, ADA, welfare reform, and NCLB – none perfect, but all hugely difference-making for the country and responsive to both sides’ interests – passed because each side chose to work with the other.

In the past, no matter how contentious the battle for the presidency, the losing side deferred to the newly elected President in the confirmation of Cabinet members. From 1977-2013, the last six presidents made 109 appointments to Cabinet-level positions. Only six failed approval, all because of ethical issues.

As to Supreme Court nominees, going back to 1975, only one was voted down in the Senate, even with daunting filibuster rules in place. True liberals like Ginsburg and Breyer were confirmed by votes of 96-3 and 87-9, respectively. In Obama’s terms, Sotomayor and Kagan were confirmed by significant, bipartisan margins.

Yet, we’ve recently experienced a severe loss in comity. As House Speaker Paul Ryan has said, “it did not used to be as bad” as it has become. “And it does not have to be this way.” “People with different ideas, they are not traitors. They’re our fellow citizens. We shouldn’t go into the echo chamber where we take comfort in the dogmas and the opinions we already hold.”

I don’t know whether the cause of our current problems is the fractured media that thrive on provoking differences rather than encouraging a coming together. Or, the special interests that have funded the groups and views on the edge and left dry those in the middle. Or, the good people in the middle who either don’t have the stomach for the battle or have simply lost the full interest and commitment needed to make our republic work optimally.

Whatever it is, we must restore comity to our civic life. Yes, we must hold to our principles and fight for what we believe. But, as Speaker Ryan suggests, it’s time for more respect, mutuality, and a shared stake.

As hard as it will be to do, there’s no better time to start than this week when power passes peacefully under our Constitution.

One person has been elected President. He should be given the respect and deference we traditionally accord the President, and we should set high expectations of conduct for him as well.

There will be battles, to be sure, in Congress, the courts, and future elections. But the penchant for permanent trench warfare, which has been increasingly the choice of both sides, must be curbed.

An extended hand – not a fist – is what’s needed. Both sides must work at comity. And we, the people of the United States of America, must insist on it.

The wisdom of our tradition teaches:

“Behold how good and how pleasing if people could sit together in unity.”

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Bipartisan Mangling of Education – Now It’s Trump’s Turn

As readers know well, I have been critical of the Obama Administration on many of its major education decisions.

It was especially troubling, after failing to secure a timely reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that the Administration exercised executive power in a very harmful manner, supposedly to “fix” the law. In effect, essential accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was badly weakened in return for states promising to adopt “reforms” that ultimately materialized on paper but seldom on the ground. Now, with no student achievement gains to show for it, and in the wake of a change of Presidents, the “reforms” will gradually but substantially vanish.

The recent election, of course, didn’t turn out well for the Democrats. Now we ponder where education policy is headed under President-elect Trump and his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Let me begin with some nice words.

For some reason, I like Donald Trump, certainly far more than do most of my peers. (Lord only knows, and I hope I’m right. But that’s all for another discussion.) In addition, I must say I am increasingly pro-choice in education, so I am impressed with the focus the new Administration is placing on choice.

With that, though, the nice words come to an end.

Let me state it simply. If Donald Trump were running education policy like he ran his successful businesses, he would never take the approach he is currently taking.

First, this talk of Common Core is utter nonsense. The feds haven’t promoted Common Core since the early Obama days, and now, they can’t, by law. However one feels about Common Core, what exactly is this “back to the locals” President saying he will do? Is he saying he’s going to demand that states and districts that choose to use the standards on their own should be prohibited from doing so? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Can you imagine the quite successful businessman, Donald Trump, acting in such a fashion in the management of his real estate entities?

Yet, the one area in which he and fellow Republicans have clearly eschewed a federal role is in demanding accountability for results from those who have been bestowed the largesse of federal borrowing, taxing, and spending.

Education policy now is little more than “we stopped doing this, and we will stop doing that” (which mostly means we’ll no longer hold local politicians and educrats accountable for their use of the billions of dollars the feds send their way).

I fail to see anything conservative or intelligent in the resulting policy. Now the feds are basically spending billions, leaving all the decisions to state and local bureaucrats, and no longer demanding student progress as the quid for the quo of the spending. And this will be the approach whether there are gains or not.

Would businessman Donald Trump act this way? Would he send tons of money to partner businesses with total control of how the dollars are spent and without any accountability for success? NO WAY.

Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s simply throwing out crowd-pleasing lines in education talk. They get applause. But, a a smart guy, Trump would never go this way, if he truly cared about the enterprise. And, as a person who seems to care a lot about economic growth, opportunity, and jobs, he should care about the details of education policy and insist upon, not merely wish for, its success.

This brings me back to the issue of parental choice. I’m for choice, and I’m glad he and his Secretary-to-be are, too. But is there to be any accountability to parents and taxpayers in the choice? And what happens in the policy if all or even most of the students and parents don’t get choice because choice opponents stall or minimize the degree to which choice occurs?

In other words, choice must be done right, and choice does not an entire policy make.

The real overall issue for Trump is whether he’s satisfied to relegate education policy to the typical sphere of ideology and political tummy tickling and back scratching. It would be more difficult to do the hard work to assure success. But, hard, smart work is the only true way to effect improvement for students. And it’s the only true way to effect improvement for the economy through a better-educated workforce.

The President-elect faced similar choices when he built his businesses. And, he knows: the easy, sloppy path didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. If he thinks through it deeply, he will understand. I hope he does. America will not be great under his watch if he doesn’t.

Why Keith Ellison For DNC Chair?

Although it’s hard to do, let’s put aside for the moment Keith Ellison’s unfortunate past in terms of both anti-Semitic comments and actions.

Indeed, let’s also put aside his previous affiliation with the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan.

Rather, let’s take him at his word that he’s apologetic about and truly disavows these earlier comments, actions, and affiliations.

The question remains: why in the world would the Democratic Party choose Keith Ellison to be the Chair of the Democratic National Committee at this particular time?

Put another way: why, after this election, would the Democrats choose a person who is as far to the left as is Keith Ellison to be their titular leader? In a recent ADA rating, which appears representative of where he is on the political spectrum, Ellison was 100%.

The Democrats have lost ground politically by every measure over the past eight years. The White House and both Houses of Congress are now firmly in Republican hands. And in the upcoming 2018 Senate elections it is the Democrats who are at greatest risk of further losses in seats currently held by Democrats in purple or even near-red states.

More state legislative chambers than ever are Republican-dominated, and virtually half the states now have both Republican governors and legislatures.

In this recent presidential election, states, traditionally won by Democrats, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, went Republican. And toss-up states, also in the Midwest, including Iowa and Ohio, voted with Trump.

A deeper dive into voting patterns in these states shows that many working class voters, who voted for President Obama in the past two elections, voted for Trump this time. The gap between union voters for the Democratic and the Republican candidates narrowed from 20% at the peak of Obama’s power to only 8% in this election, the same gap that existed when Reagan did so well with “Reagan Democrats.”

It’s instructive to look back in recent political history to see how Democrats have responded in the past to a loss of power when their base shrunk in such fashion.

In the wake of Richard Nixon’s rise to power, Bob Strauss and other centrists in the party came to positions of leadership and helped enable Jimmy Carter to re-claim middle ground and take power back in 1976.

In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s dominance of the political scene, the Democratic Leadership Council grew quickly and powerfully and set the stage for one of its centrist leaders, Bill Clinton, to take the presidency back in 1992.

Though President Obama certainly turned out to be no centrist, he initially ran a consensus-type campaign to bring America back together. One could argue that the loss of Democratic power during his terms may have been due to his serving in a manner that was out of sync with the manner and stance that had made him popular in the first place.

Some Democrats argue that the party ought to move further left to excite that part of its base. That’s exactly what the “wings” always argue, and the argument almost never turns out to work, for either party.

What works typically for Democrats when they lose is to recognize why a group of regular voters in the middle who often vote Democratic choose to vote Republican. These voters are constantly up for grabs, and they typically make all the difference in races that are determined “within the forty yard lines.” The winning path is to go after them with leaders and policies likely to attract them back, all in the middle.

These voters, generally speaking, leaned toward Carter, fled to Reagan, came back to Clinton, went to George W. Bush, sided with Obama, and recently decided to give Trump a try.

One would think that Trump has a better chance of keeping them if the Democrats choose to rally around the views and policies of a leader so far out to the left as Keith Ellison.

Of course, I’m an independent, so I have no role in this matter. So, chalk this blog up to my “just sayin’.”

An Eight-Team Playoff – Now

It was only a matter of time.

Yet, though bad, it could have been worse. And, in future years, it likely will be.

But now we have proof enough that a four-team playoff in college football is insufficient. This year, in my view, only Alabama merits sure inclusion. It gets crazy from there.

Let’s start in Happy Valley. Penn State would make the argument that they both beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten championship. Even with two losses, their case, at least for inclusion, is strong.

And, as we look at the rest of the competitive teams, how confident can we be about the other picks of the committee? However these “experts” came to their decisions, are we really convinced, for example, that Washington is better than Penn State and Michigan? One loss in a terribly easy schedule should not be deemed better than two losses in a tough conference with big wins against top teams.

And Clemson? Look at their pitiful schedule. Do we want to say their work merits beating out Michigan, Penn State or even Oklahoma, for that matter? After a rough start, Oklahoma, like Penn State, came on strong to win 9 straight games against a stronger set of opponents.

Recall Michigan’s situation. They handily beat Penn State, and they beat Wisconsin, the two teams in the Big Ten championship game. They beat Colorado. They lost two games on the last play of each game, including the game in overtime with Ohio State at Columbus.

Last year, the problem began to surface with Stanford’s exclusion. This year, it’s gotten worse. In future years, it will likely get even worse.

The role for committees and pundits and points should be reduced again. (Aren’t you totally tired of pundits and TV talkers, by the way?) This experiment with four teams is an improvement, to be sure. But let’s take the needed next step. I realize if there’s an eight-team playoff there will be teams in the 9th and 10th spots who will complain. No system is perfect. But making it over the bar of at least the top eight to compete for the national championship is probably the right and best marker.

So, Alabama should absolutely be in. Ohio State, Clemson, Washington, Michigan, Penn State, and Oklahoma ought to be among those to play, too. They’re too close in achievement for a committee to be able to make legitimate off-the-field judgments in favor of some and against others in the group. Let’s not just be satisfied that the committee did the best it could and accept it. Let the close decisions be resolved on the field, not in the committee room.

The bureaucrats complain the season will be too long if there’s an extended season. Balderdash! Cut out one of the meaningless early games. Or eliminate the conference championship games. Or, perhaps best of all, let four teams play extra games.

Fans would love it. The revenues would be huge and could be shared appropriately. Although the details would have to be worked out, the existing bowls could largely share in hosting most or all of the games.

I repeat: it will only get worse. There will be years when the problem is greater than it is this year.

So, fix it ASAP. Pretty please.

This Election Has Turned Me to Religion!

I have been following politics virtually my entire life. I remember my mother putting me in front of one of those first generation TVs to watch the 1952 Democratic convention. I was only 3 years old.

 

It may have been part of the ethic of my family. Or it may have been a demand of the times. But the idea was clear. It was crucial to have good political leadership, and I was to make it a big part of my life’s work to seek, work for, and to support good political leaders. As it turns out, (though the leaders I’ve chosen have not always met with my mother’s approval), I have spent much time and energy, in politics, trying to help achieve this mission.

 

Now, we find ourselves in the middle of the 2016 presidential race. Isn’t this something? As a centrist, progressive on some issues and conservative on others, I find the current choice appalling. Indeed, I can’t think of a single campaign that I have followed personally in which the choice was worse. In fact, as an avid student of American history, I haven’t ever learned of one that was worse. But, I must concede I know little about John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, or Chester Arthur, or their opponents. So, forgive me if there were worse apples in one of those barrels.

 

There seems to be little satisfaction in the current race anywhere, even among partisans. Democrats tend to wish they had a better choice, as do Republicans. I still suspect most hardline party folks “feel worse” enough about their party’s opponent to justify a vote for the inadequate nominee of their own party.

 

The looming issue inevitably is: what the heck do we do after the election? Some trot out the old, rarely used option of moving to Canada, if their candidate loses. Some pledge to pay no attention whatsoever to politics, turning off the news shows at every opportunity and turning to sports, movies, or other effective distractions. Others vow to make life miserable from the beginning for victorious opponents. And a few good souls hope to be able to make a positive difference by working through the mess as best they can.

 

Since I have recently turned more and more to the study and teaching of sacred texts, I decided to seek guidance in the Bible for how to deal with this awful situation. Here’s what I found.

 

There are solid ideas about the nature and importance of good leadership. Leaders are to be effective, but they are to show some humility and restraint. In being asked to write out a scroll of the sacred text, the kings are to learn and be true to the values and principles that are important to God and community. Further, they are to understand that their work is about service to God and community, not their own interests. Their sovereignty is to be subservient to that of God and God’s expectations.

 

There is perhaps no better symbolic way of saying it than through words we find in Deuteronomy: a king must not acquire too many horses, too many wives, or too much silver and gold. Whatever that might mean in our day, surely, it will be true that whichever of these two wins, he/she won’t score very well against those ethical standards!

 

So, where indeed are we? As for me, I will probably resort to all of the options I mention above at different times and in different ways, save moving to Canada.

 

But here’s an additional insight that has been helpful for me, and it may be for you, too. When the Israelites moved into the Promised Land, after Joshua, there were roughly 375 years in which the people were led mostly by judges. Other than Othniel, Deborah, and Gideon, I can’t find any of them who were worth much of a damn.

 

After such a pitiful stretch, the people cried out for a change in “the rigged system;” they wanted a king. Both God and Samuel weren’t very happy with this request, but they relented. Then, for roughly 450 years, the people of Israel and Judah had 42 kings. Other than David, Hezekiah, Josiah, and perhaps a very few others, all the rest were bums.

 

The bottom line: while we might want good leadership, we rarely get it. Do we give up in despair? No. Do we desperately look for other leadership? Maybe, but that’s not the best path. The real leadership in Kings, I would suggest, comes from the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. These are true-blue people who live worthy lives in private and in public, trying their best to serve God and their neighbors, and finding meaning in doing so.

 

In the years ahead, let’s all pay less attention to the circus, acknowledging its fascinations, but recognizing its ugliness and resisting getting too caught up in it. Rather, let’s focus more on Elijah and Elisha, and certainly for Christians, Jesus, emulating them, and devoting our head, heart, soul, and resources to living as they did. If we do that, this election will not turn out as bad as it appears. Indeed we might be redeemed by it.

 

Highlights of This Year’s ACL Music Festival

Austin City Limits (ACL) has always been a top-notch music festival that caters to all sorts of music fans. I’ve seen artists ranging from electronic/house favorites like Deadmau5 to classic stars like Neil Young – all in our own Zilker Park. This year was no exception. Three artists in particular had both phenomenal discographies, and each put on an excellent show.

Challenged to advocate for “today’s music,” I want to describe my experiences, and encourage the reader to seek out this music and decide for himself/herself.

 

1) Kendrick Lamar (Saturday, 8:30 PM)

 

Kendrick Lamar may be the best rapper alive today. To understand what it is that makes him one of the greats, one must understand several important concepts in rap.

Two of these concepts are some of the basic technical principles of rap: flow and delivery. Flow and delivery are rap’s answer to the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ poetic meter and stress. Meter is the rhythm with which the poet reads his words; in rap, flow is the skill of choosing the right words and rhythm to fit to the beat. Stress refers to the natural tones of a language and their impact on how the poem is read. Delivery deals with the rapper’s tone and how he uses it to influence the feeling of a song.

Kendrick is a master of both. His flow is best seen in one of his more popular songs, Alright. From 0:53 to 1:03 he speaks with a continuous rhythm, rapping fast and rhyming well. Then, at 1:04, he moves to a more melodic rhyme scheme. The beat never changes – the only thing that changes is the pattern of speech Lamar employs. His delivery style changes significantly from song to song as well. The best instance of this is on the song U, one of his darkest tracks.  Lamar raps the first half of the song using his normal voice, but once the beat slows down, he adopts a squeaky, panicked voice to fit his dark subject matter.

But flow and delivery aren’t everything. Lamar also has a remarkable command over the language, and a keen sense of his own beliefs. He’s got a few quips that would make a more traditional/conservative person flinch, but in context many of these quotes are actually fairly moderate statements.

He’s also a master of crafting a running narrative for an album, especially on his sophomore work Good Kid, M.AA.D City. Using skits before and after songs, Lamar tells the story of growing up in the hood and his transition from boyhood to manhood. He creates a world and invites us through his album to spend an hour in it.

As well, he demonstrates especially on his newer albums an understanding of and appreciation for many types of music. His frantic interlude For Free? is a vulgar rap interpretation of free jazz. untitled 05, off his newest album, is a six-minute jazz/soul anthem with maybe a minute of rap sandwiched inside.  i, on the other hand, is a guitar-heavy pop hit with some clear rock influences in its solos.

As far as his live performance, Kendrick Lamar absolutely lived up to expectations. A rap show differs a bit from a traditional band, in that for the most part the show isn’t as much about seeing the rapper perform every song verbatim, but rather about the atmosphere and feeling which the performer is able to create.

On Saturday night Kendrick Lamar held thousands of people at full attention for an hour and a half. Every refrain had every audience member singing along, and every attempt at call-and-response was a fantastic success. His video screens were run through a black-and-white filter that made it impossible to tell who was who in the crowd.  The audience was just a giant, indistinguishable mass of people masked in gray. By the end of the show, before the encore, the entire crowd chanted the chorus of Alright – “We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!” – before he came back out to close the show with the song. Everything about the atmosphere seemed as though it had been designed to make every audience member feel like a part of something bigger. Thanks to all this, Kendrick was able to make good on the promise he made at the start of his performance: it was absolutely the “livest show this weekend.”

 

2) Anderson .Paak (Saturday, 6:30 PM)

 

Anderson .Paak’s music is about funky, groovy fun. One of his most popular songs, Am I Wrong?, is a great example. The song has a nostalgic quality to it, backed up by his excellent vocals, but then introduces some 2016 touches with a guest verse from rapper Schoolboy. Q. .Paak does an excellent job of building tension into the song, before breaking into an extended instrumental section that’s impossible to sit still to, whether live or listening at home.

.Paak once again channels a retro vibe in his bassy jam Come Down. With a catchy riff (that’s based on Hatikvah, no less), .Paak just makes you want to move. The song works itself into such a funk that the rap and guitar can begin to feel almost ancillary. At the festival, the guitar work on this song was superb. .Paak is one of several rappers who perform with a full band live, and the decision pays off. This was the opener to his set, and it got all in attendance on their feet.

But Anderson .Paak isn’t all fun; he can play the crooner as well. He shows us that on The Bird, a slow jam in the truest sense of the term. One of the greatest strengths .Paak has is voice, which is fully on display here. The star of the show, both live and recorded, though, is the brass on The Bird. It’s hard to make an extended trumpet solo work with a live rap crowd, but we were mesmerized by .Paak’s band on Saturday.

Though he isn’t revolutionary, Anderson .Paak is one of the most fun, upbeat rappers around today. His live performance, wrought with beautiful instrumental work and a buzzing energy, was a perfect display of his work. .Paak kept the crowd engaged and excited, and he put on a memorable show.

 

 

3) LCD Soundsystem (Sunday, 8 PM)

 

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when LCD Soundsystem announced their breakup in 2011. Their lead singer James Murphy even hinted at it on their last album. In their song, All My Friends, he wrote that “this [album] could be the last time,” and described the band as going out “like a sales force into the night.” Their disillusionment with the cycle of touring and recording was clear, and so they made the decision to retire on top.

But what came as a huge surprise was their announcement that this year they would be reuniting for a series of big festival shows, including both weeks of ACL. They brought their unique electronic-influenced indie rock style to the festival this last weekend to great success, playing on both Sundays to massive crowds of devoted fans.

LCD Soundsystem nailed their more popular songs like I Can Change, Someone Great, and Dance Yrself Clean.

They kept the audience moving and singing throughout the show, and played popular rock hits like Daft Punk is Playing at My House to perfection.

But where the band shined was on their slow, dramatic ballad, New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. Murphy’s light falsetto over the calm piano gives the song a mournful tone that then escalates into a cacophony of guitar and cymbals by the song’s 3-minute mark. New York is at its heart a love song from a man to his hometown, and in that way I think everyone can relate to it. The ACL crowd certainly could – we were all on our feet and singing along to every word.

The magic of LCD’s set at ACL this year was as much in the crowd as anything else. For a band that broke up five years ago, the amount of passion and emotion displayed by the ACL audience was palpable. It’s a clear testament to the musical footprint that Murphy and company have made so far, and it’s that footprint which has made the LCD Soundsystem reunion tour such a rousing success.

Why Isn’t Strengthening the Economy a Real Campaign Issue?

The headlines about the economy in the US are terribly worrisome.

 

Labor productivity growth has declined steadily from the early 2000s to a recent figure of 0.5%, which is close to a 40-year bottom.

 

The economy has been growing at an anemic rate of just barely over 1% in the past 12 months. The recoveryin the economy since the last recession is by far the weakest since World War II.

 

Business investment in recent quarters has actually turned negative. Its down 2.2% in the second quarter, which was also the fifth straight quarter in which businesses drew down inventories. Indeed business investment has been so weak in recent years it now subtracts from GDP growth.

 

As important as economic growth is and as potent as it typically is in presidential campaigns, the question arises: why have the two main candidates shown such meager leadership in presenting compelling plans to strengthen Americas economy?

 

The candidates and their supporters have made a big deal of how awful their opponent is, but theyve been unusually short on what they would actually do to transform and strengthen the economy

 

The campaigns say they have plans, and they do. Heres a short description and comparison of their positions: Comparing economic agendas Hillary Clinton & Donald Trump

 

But, at a time when we need a vision to move us forward fundamentally, its hard to see how these ideas will do much more than, at best, affect the economy at the margin. And, given the deep partisan differences that exist, its also hard to see, whichever of these candidates wins, any of these ideas coming to bear or having a real impact.

 

Further, given our huge and growing debt, one wonders where the funds will come from, for example, to inject significant and telling increases in infrastructure spending and, indeed, whether any feasible increase would much boost the economy. On the other side, we have proposals to threaten trade barriers to make trade fairer. More trade through fairer trade is certainly a worthy goal, but limiting free trade is not an effective growth strategy. So, even if one of these candidates could get his or her way, its not clear at all it would help much.

 

Could a president lead us culturally or socially to be more productive as a people? Are there other ideas, such as those of the House leadership, that would lead to greater growth and wages? Thats possible, but its certainly not convincing to voters generally that these candidates would be effective at much beyond announcing their paper plans.

 

The one thing I know a lot about from decades of research and experience is this: significantly improved education proficiency and workforce development could dramatically improve our economy and its prospects for our people.

 

The better paying jobs increasingly involve knowledge and skills many in the workforce do not have. A dwindling percentage of adults are working or looking for work. The workforce is less efficient. And, as mentioned above, our productivity and business investment seem to be dwindling.

 

I see nothing but rhetoric and/or throwing spending without accountability at the problems of our underprepared workforce. There are no serious proposals to get better results out of our education system. Rick Hanushek and others have shown that modest, steady increases in education proficiency could have dramatic effects in improving our GDP

 

Happily, also, we have jobs, and we could have more, if we applied more effective policies and strategies to create them. But, as to jobs that are currently available, many of our graduates and workers are frequently unprepared to take them on. Smarter coordination between business and higher education could turn the tide. Some companies, mostly in technology, are already experimenting with stackable certificates and other approaches. A president could turn these successes into a major, broader, and effective strategy, much of which could be pushed with little or no new federal spending.

 

But, instead, we mainly get huge doses of nastiness from each side about the opposition. We get old and stale policy plans. Yet, we get little in the way of doable, promising strategies and truly strong personal leadership that could both draw popular support and make a real difference in improving the economy and how it works for our people.

 

Demand more, friends. The nation deserves more.

Cultural Decline in the Public Square

I recently had the pleasure of reading A Sense of the Future, a collection of essays on science, by the late Jacob Bronowski.  While diving into this fine book, I recalled with equal pleasure the experience of watching the remarkable documentary, The Ascent of Man, which he created for television in the 1970s. One thing led to another in my mind, and before long, I was reminiscing about the incredible array of intellectually and culturally rich programming on television from roughly the mid-50s to about 1980. And – spoiler alert – after I describe it a bit, I’m here to tell you I’m damned worried we’ve lost it, and the loss is no good.

 

Who can forget Kenneth Clark’s jewel, Civilisation, which covered art and cultural history in a fashion similar to Bronowski’s treatment of the history of science?

 

In music, Leonard Bernstein made fifty-three episodes of Young People’s Concerts for CBS. I remember watching these programs as a young person trying to understand what this music was about and whether and why I might like it. Without doubt, it enriched my life culturally, as it did the lives of so many other young and not-so-young people.

 

Though I have only a vague recollection of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, I absolutely marvel in retrospect at its productions. Debuts of new operas by significant composers, exciting productions of Shakespeare’s plays featuring the best actors of the day, and important new plays – all were produced on a major network for the general public to watch, learn, and enjoy.

 

Now, before I provoke you with my main hypothesis and questions, let me lay out some caveats. First, I realize that most of what was put on TV in the early days was mediocre, just as it is today.

 

 

 

Second, I know that fine programming has continued to be produced in the decades that followed 1980. Further, it is true that there has been a proliferation of venues all across the country where art and culture can be and are experienced. This is not insignificant, though one wonders whether the best of it is quite expensive and principally accessible mostly to elites.

 

Third, there are new forms of art, such as high quality television series, that have in some ways replaced fine film, etc. I do a little binge watching myself and won’t argue with the fact that we have genres of expression today that are well made and fit the times.

 

But, notwithstanding these caveats, I do want to present a hypothesis that alarms me and challenge you to test it out, and, if it bears truth, begin to think out possible explanations and perhaps solutions.

 

Here’s the hypothesis: though the types and numbers of media generally and publicly available have multiplied many times over, the aesthetic and cultural quality of all their offerings, as a whole, has diminished. In fact, for the most part, they have made us coarser and less attuned to the best ideas and values we’ve inherited from the past.

 

Make no mistake: I’m quite well aware, as a consumer, of the BBC and PBS. But, notwithstanding their occasional good offerings, I would say two things: 1) the times we see giants of thought and performance are fewer and less sustained, and 2) the overall quality of the programming has particularly and noticeably declined in the last 5-10 years.

 

Why has this happened?

 

First, money was important to early era TV producers, but nowhere near as important as it is today. I suspect there was a sense in those days that high culture was good for people and that it ought to be provided, however much profit it produced. I doubt that such an ethic is generally operational today.

 

Second, the public today generally values classic thought, art, and performance less than it did just decades ago. By the way, when I say “classic,” I mean both old and new. It could be Shakespeare, or it could be August Wilson. It could be Beethoven, or it could be Coltrane. It could be Turner, or it could be O’Keefe.

 

Third, the net effect has been that public intellectuals and the great artists are no longer drawn out into the public square as they once were. And in their place, mostly, we get underwhelming pundits and “journalists” and merely popular entertainers.

 

Call me effete, hopelessly out of date, or what you will. But I’ll die standing by the view that it would be good for all citizens to read and understand what Jacob Bronowski wrote in A Sense of the Future. Those producers who cared enough about promoting these and other best values of our culture made a huge difference in the life of this kid growing up on Meadow Lake Avenue in Dallas, Texas. Shouldn’t we expect the same for my kids and yours?

The Price We Pay For Jazz’s Decline

In the space of this short blog, I want to make a few points. One, I love jazz. Two, I worry a lot that jazz has declined. Three, I think it’s no good at all for our culture that jazz has declined so precipitously. And, finally, I think jazz’s decline has had, for reasons I will describe, worrisome racial consequences for both whites and blacks.

 

I won’t go much into the decline itself. The data seem clear.  Jazz the least popular music genre [The Jazzline] and The Decline of Jazz [The Crimson]

 

Nor will I spend much time speculating on the reasons for the decline. There are many theories.  What killed Jazz [Jazzwax.com] and Why isn’t Jazz More Popular. [ Slate: Music]

 

But I do want to look at some points made in this last blog because they express the basis for both my love of jazz and my alarm at its decline.

 

Jazz is distinctly an American music genre, though its deeper roots go back further and elsewhere. While it evolved principally in African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it shares key elements with European and other American music and performance traditions. This is due to its remarkable blend of improvisation, syncopation, and swing with harmony, pop, and the brass band tradition.

 

As the Slate blog notes, jazz became notable for its virtually unique combination of creative expression, formal innovation, complex musical structure, and improvisational heroics.

 

Its spread largely from New Orleans to the nation was explosive in the early part of the 20th century. We were in the Jazz Age by the 20s and 30s. Remarkable musicians emerged, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton. Fine white musicians, such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, joined the scene as jazz entered the swing era in the 30s. However it happened precisely, there is no doubt in my mind that this mixing of black and white musicians as well as the popularity of the music across racial lines contributed to the relaxation of the social barriers that contributed to segregation and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.

 

Jazz’s popularity remained strong in the 40s and 50s, though the shift from danceable music to bebop was both exciting and perhaps threatening to its broad-based popularity. For me, it was remarkable. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others came on the scene, lifting jazz to the highest peaks among all the music genres throughout history.

 

It was inevitable that jazz would move to a freer form in the late 50s and 60s. This is the period when I became attuned and excited. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and others became musical heroes to me.

 

According to most historians, it was during the 60s and 70s that the decline accelerated. And, while I won’t explore the causes in detail, I do want to share a common hypothesis, and it’s this: the high art of jazz couldn’t compete among the masses with its much easier competitors: the ever-flexible world of pop, rock, hip hop merging with pop, and all of their descendants in subsequent decades.

 

I am not saying that people shouldn’t respond to music in ways that touch them. Further, I’m a realist who understands that times change, as do styles and fads. Surely, Terry Teachout is right: jazz musicians will need to try to find a way to re-build an audience, if jazz has any hope of reviving.

 

Yet, the social critic in me still must raise my voice in protest. I know this may sound effete, snobbish, and wrong to some, but my fundamental question is this: what does it say about a culture that prefers cheap pop, rap, and degraded rock to high jazz? Not much good, in my opinion, for reasons that are clear in my earlier discussion of the power and value of jazz.

 

Here’s another crucial point that I think Wynton Marsalis keeps trying to make. It is both amazing and historic that in the great flowering of jazz it was the black experience that emerged as the one that was truly on a par with the very best of traditions in all of music history.

 

That we no longer can look to the likes of John Coltrane for the intellectual, spiritual, and deep emotional power of their musical experience is a horrible loss in ways that are impossible fully to calculate. And it should not go without mention that these great artists whom we no longer have as sources of such inspiration were almost all African American.

 

Vote “Yes” on Pundexit!

I’m on a campaign against pundits and punditry. Call my movement, Pundexit.

Perhaps my feelings and fervor are due to the fact that I have more time to watch, listen to, and read pundits these days. Perhaps it’s that the media, largely the cable channels, have so much time and space to occupy, the increased capacity has attracted more mediocre fill. Or perhaps it’s that the media have not been demanding enough to let the old and stale wash away and disciplined enough to allow only the best and smartest new to come onto the scene. I suspect it might be all of the above.

I’ve written in other places about political and sports punditry that is of such low quality one wonders how consumers put up with it.

My beef today in this quick jab is with the general news and business coverage and punditry that accompanied the Brexit vote in Great Britain. Like many others who follow such matters closely, I was fixated at the television during and after the vote. My laptop was geared hour after hour to all manner of coverage on the Internet of the vote and its consequences.

Did you go through this ritual, too, of wall-to-wall coverage of, and commentary on, this important development? If so, here are some questions I want to pose to you.

How much commentary did you experience that led to the view that something very damaging had happened? How much commentary was based on the pundits’ own opinions or their repetition of others’ opinions? How shallow was the commentary? And then when the story was drained of its emotion and there was another hot rock topic to jump to, how quick was the spotlight moved off of Brexit?

As for me, I would answer “very” or “a lot” to all these questions.

As sophisticated as I would like to think the financial markets are, it appears from the 900 point, two-day drop in the Dow, for example, that those who made short term money decisions followed the pundits in believing something terrible had happened.

I’ll put aside for the moment the conspiratorial possibility that the coverage and the instant reactions in the market were organized, at least in part, by those who sold short or otherwise benefited from the fear that something very bad had happened.

I certainly don’t want to argue here that the vote didn’t have negative repercussions. But why didn’t the pundits immediately ask and answer questions that would have put the vote in proper perspective and show the public how little reason there was for panic?

Here are some of the questions that precious few pundits raised, at least in their totality:

  • Did the referendum have a legal impact?
  • What body or bodies would have to act to give it effect? What was the position of such body or bodies on the Brexit vote itself?
  • Since the vote was so close, what might be the obstacles in such body or bodies to implementing the vote, especially if the bodies included groups with differing agendas, such as the British Parliament and the EU?
  • How many different and complex issues would have to be resolved to achieve an exit, and what are the many ways of resolving such issues?
  • Could an ultimate resolution of these issues end up leading either to Britain remaining in the EU, with certain revisions in their participation, or their leaving under terms that might be close in important respects to the terms of their current participation?
  • What are the politics in both Britain and the EU that will affect the resolution of all these complex matters?
  • Is all of this so complex and will it take so long to deal with that Britain might never leave and/or the EU may change in certain ways, good or bad, in response to the vote?
  • Had these questions been discussed fully and intelligently immediately after the vote, would the markets have behaved more calmly? Indeed is it possible when the markets finally did do the thinking the pundits should have helped the public do, the markets largely recovered their losses.

It’s time to give pundits the heave-ho and start thinking for ourselves. If we want or need expert counsel to help us, let’s find ways of securing it outside the channels of media mediocrity. Starve the bums by not watching, listening, or reading them.

Vote yes on Pundexit!