United We Stand, Divided We Fall

With notable exceptions, such as the Civil War, I believe we are living in one of the most contentious, least cohesive times in our history. And it poses serious dangers for our future. Let’s look at the evidence.

First, has there ever been a greater division in our politics? I will not romanticize the past. Elections earlier in our history were vicious. The contests, for example, between the Federalists and the Republicans in the early 1800s were nasty and brutish. But I do not remember a time in recent history in which the two main candidates for president were as negatively viewed as now. Well over 50% view both Clinton and Trump unfavorably. We are slated to have the first president in modern times who will start off his/her service with no interest whatsoever on the part of the opposition to cooperate. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/06/09/fox-news-poll-trump-drops-now-trails-clinton.html?intcmp=hpbt1

Just this past week we experienced the latest and one of the worst terrorist-inspired attacks on our own soil. This is bad enough. But what’s worse is we face the challenge very much divided. One side sees it as evidence of radical Islamic terrorism in need of a harsh and strong response. Others think greater gun control is the principal remedy to the violence. And yet others call for greater love and compassion, and less hate.

It’s not that the right approach might not consist of some of these responses. The problem, rather, is that we appear totally unable to work toward any consensus, and we don’t appear even to want to try. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/once-again-national-tragedy-drives-americans-further-apart/2016/06/12/ec6c6350-30bc-11e6-8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html?tid=pm_pop_b

Ideologically, we are deeply split. The media are as fragmented as ever, promoting our splits even more. Culturally, there is little that binds us – in the arts, in music, in literature. We seem, from many different indicators, to have lost much of a sense of history, including the essential quality of a shared sense of history.

And our resort to religion as a source of guidance, comfort, and shared ground is at an all time low.

Weakness in our society as measured by the education and economic condition of all our people is worrisome. We made progress in the 2000s in closing achievement gaps and improving the education of students, but that progress has now stalled. Our economy, though recovered considerably from the Great Recession, shows signs of serious and enduring problems that we seem unwilling or unable to address.

I am not by nature a pessimist, but I am as worried about the future of our beloved nation as I have ever been. We’ve faced problems in the past of at least as great a magnitude as those of today. But we stood closer together and were more united in doing so. That made a huge, perhaps determinative, difference. This is not to say that we are on the verge, at least yet, of civil disruption. But, rather, we largely go our own way, and it is increasingly down many separate, and often opposing paths, with increasing animosity or antipathy to others and the other side.

The history of the world teaches many powerful lessons. We would be well advised to be especially mindful of them. While this maxim does not guide us explicitly on how to get back on path, it might be a good piece of wisdom with which to begin our journey – united we stand, divided we fall.

Let’s make our first assignment a reading and understanding of the truth of the powerful fable from Aesop, The Four Oxen and the Lion.  Then let’s come back together to consider all the many other things we must do to join together to strengthen ourselves against all the many “lions” that threaten our well-being and our future.





The Reason Party Voters Will Stick With Clinton and Trump

There’s a lot of speculation these days that many Democratic opponents of Hillary Clinton and Republican opponents of Trump will refuse to support these two candidates should they be nominated. The prospect of such abandonment of the victors in intramural party squabbles has arisen in hotly contested primary seasons in the past, though it perhaps seems more dismal this time.

Supporters of Sanders, for example, seem to be very much opposed to the option they see in Clinton as the conventional, less idealistic, more compromising, and, in their view, the tainted candidate. This seems as serious a disdain for the more established Democratic candidate as any I can recall perhaps since Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy were challenging Lyndon Johnson and then Hubert Humphrey in the midst of the Vietnam war.

On the Republican side, I can’t recall either knowing or studying a contest in which the establishment has been as distant from the leading candidates as it is in this cycle. Both Cruz and Trump are as much “outsiders” as we’ve seen in some time or ever. Indeed there are activists in the media, leaders among various groups in the party, and other opinion leaders who have insisted they will “never” support one or the other of these two, especially Trump, in the general election. There may indeed be greater distance between one or both of these candidates and others in the party in position, posture, and approach than we have ever seen.

Yet, I want to suggest the hypothesis that a vast majority of party-loyal voters will end up voting for the nominees, even if they turn out to be Clinton or Trump. Indeed I would predict that the percent that returns will be so large it will be close to the norm.

Part of the explanation for this view is based on the serious, substantial, and virtually unmatched concern that partisans in each party have about the particular nominee on the other side. Whatever problems party loyalists might have with Clinton and Trump and however high their negatives, the country is badly divided and there are real and large differences that are likely to keep “the Hatfields and the McCoys” on their respective sides as we get closer to the general election.

I recognize how unusually nasty the primaries have been. Trump, in particular, has treated his opponents and their interests as nastily as I have ever seen or studied. Many of the offended folks will likely sit on the sidelines. Some just can’t see supporting Trump because of his manner, his speech, and his disposition. But, for reasons mentioned above and the cardinal one I will address below, I don’t foresee unusually high numbers engaging in abandonment of the nominees.

It really comes down principally to the Supreme Court, where so many issues of great import are resolved these days, especially in the age where divided government holds action on most big issues in check. Whether it’s the 2nd Amendment, or abortion rights, or affirmative action/merit, or federal/state authority, or labor/management authority, and so forth and so on, the Court is where decisions on so many crucial matters will be made.

With Scalia’s death, there are four very reliable liberal votes (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan). There are three fairly reliable conservatives (Thomas, Alito, and Roberts). There is the moderately conservative Kennedy who was often a tie-breaker when Scalia was alive, and there is an open seat created with Scalia’s death.

Assuming there is no action on Obama’s nominee, the next President will have huge power over the course of our nation simply in filling the vacancy that exists. If Clinton wins and pushes a new, perhaps more liberal nominee, the Court could have a solid liberal majority for the first time in some time and for some into the future. This would be perhaps the biggest difference maker for liberals in recent history. If Trump wins, the Court would, assuming he nominates someone of the sort he’s suggested, return to the nominally conservative position in the status quo ante Scalia’s death. This would be dramatically better for conservatives than the Clinton scenario.

Whether the new president serves one or two terms, there will likely be new vacancies. Ginsburg is 83. Kennedy is 80. And Breyer is 77. If any of these seats opened up, Trump could conceivably replace one or more liberals and/or the moderate with reliable conservatives and turn the Court in a decidedly conservative direction. Clinton, on the other hand, could perhaps create a younger core of liberals and a solid liberal majority that could conceivably rule for the rest of the baby boomers’ lifetimes.

Recognizing, of course, all the uncertainties in the direction of the Court, including the unpredictability of openings, appointments, and changes of direction in justices as they evolve once on the Court, we still will likely see the President’s role in shaping the future of the Court as one of the very top issues in the campaign. It will be so significant, I predict, that Republicans in typically high numbers will return home to vote for Trump, as will Democrats, for Clinton.

Sports As a Metaphor For Life

My mother was a huge sports fan. She followed college football as closely as anyone I ever knew. In fact, she developed a method for recording a football game in a written system that was unique and remarkable. It’s amazing to look back through her old binders and see accounts of all the great Longhorn games, especially in seasons in which they won the national championship.


Well – sports was more than sports to her. She had the view, and frequently taught us based on it, that sports is a metaphor for life. We learned more from her about the proper conduct of our lives from events in sports than lessons in the Bible. Often, it had to do with never giving up. Sometimes, it was about how to confront difficult challenges. It always had to do with understanding and living true to the traits of good character. You get the drift.


Now that Mother is no longer here to teach from this perspective, I find myself teaching from it myself, as those who live on after their parents’ death tend to do. So, let me say it right here: you understand, dear reader, that Sports Is a Metaphor For Life.


The other night I happened upon the YouTube of the first fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. It’s tempting to look back at that fight with a lens colored by our strong current view that Muhammad Ali was probably the greatest fighter who ever lived. So, of course, we reason, it’s only natural to think, he won. It was the fight that got him started on the path.


Unless we lived through those times or know the history, we might not realize that Liston was an 8-1 favorite and that the debate among those-in-the-know at the time was whether Liston would knock Clay out in the first round or the second. This was hardly the expected win of a future superstar.


Sure, Clay bragged he was great and would take Liston down. Who can forget his pre-fight histrionics? We know now things folks then didn’t know. But, then, perhaps with the exception of maybe Howard Cosell, no one took Clay seriously.


It’s very much worth your while to watch this video of that fight. It’s amazing simply to see how archaic TV was at the time, as was coverage of sports generally. It’s of interest to watch the way the reporters and the crowd responded to the fight, including the inimitable Joe Lewis who provided color commentary.


But, mostly, it’s worthwhile to watch how Clay handled himself. How does a quite good and cocky young person handle such a challenge? That’s the magic to see here.


Yes, he was better – by far – than anyone at the time knew. Further, he had assets few knew were as valuable as they turned out to be. But what truly impresses is how he built on these assets.


He was extraordinarily fast. So, while Liston was powerful, Clay prepared, obviously tirelessly, to stay away from Liston’s punches through his speed and foot movement. He had a tremendous reach advantage over Liston (and most fighters he would later face). Keep Liston away with that reach, and use it to probe for openings, he strategized.


While not the stronger fighter, he figured to be stronger than he appeared, and to use combinations in fast flurries when there were openings.


Finally, Clay determined first to win the battle psychologically. Ali did this frequently in his career. Here once the first few rounds were over and Liston not only had not won but also was actually behind and fatigued, Clay was well on the way to victory. Listen for the moment after a few rounds when Lewis observes this reality in stunned surprise.


I can hear my Mother’s thoughts as I write: listen, we’re not all Muhammad Alis. We’re not even Cassius Clay in his first fight.  But we all have strengths that if we work to develop and use we can surprise all those who take us lightly. We can win battles that others (and perhaps we ourselves) are unsure we can win. Confidence in our selves is important. If we don’t think we can win, we probably won’t. And, if we don’t have confidence and the will to succeed, we won’t do what it takes to prepare ourselves to have the best chance to win.


Watch the fight. It’s truly one of the great events in sports. Look at what Clay does. Look for the little things, such as how winded he was after the first round. Look at how he took advantage of his strengths and the mammoth preparation he did in advance of the fight that made a good deal of what he did seem effortless.


It’s a joy to watch on its own as sport. But, as my mother would insist, it’s great evidence of Sports As a Metaphor For Life. Don’t you agree?


Let’s Start Over Again on Our Brackets

Amazing! I thought I’d apply meta-analysis to filling out my brackets at the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this year. I spent an entire afternoon studying at least two dozen systems with varying degrees and types of sophistication involved in them. There were those steeped in deep statistics. Others had other mathematical twists. Some were “qualitative.” Others were simply the reflections of regional or national basketball “experts.” One, of course, was that of our amiable President. I put it all together as one would with a crude sort of meta-analysis.

And, of course, they were all equally wrong, as was my distilled version of them. That’s the beauty of March Madness.

Really, Michigan State, going down to Middle Tennessee. How does one deal with that?

Well, I say let’s have a do-ever!

I admit to looking at fivethirtyeight this morning. But, I don’t know why. It’s like listening to pundits on the presidential race. What good does it do you?

So, I’m largely now operating on feel, relying mostly on what my eyeballs saw in many of the big games in the first two rounds and games I saw during the season. Here are my picks for the Sweet Sixteen and beyond to the championship. What are yours?

Sweet Sixteen: Kansas beats Maryland. Miami beats Villanova (my nervously chosen upset). Oregon beats Duke (though that damned Duke has a way, don’t they?). Oklahoma beats A&M (The Okies would never blow a double digit lead in the last minute.). UNC beats Indiana. Wisconsin beats Notre Dame (50-50. Yikes!). Virginia beats Iowa State. And Gonzaga beats Syracuse.

Elite Eight: Kansas beats Miami. Oklahoma beats Oregon. UNC beats Wisconsin. Virginia beats Gonzaga.

Final Four Semis: Kansas beats Oklahoma (what a series this has been all year). UNC beats Virginia.

Final: Kansas beats UNC. (Texas beat UNC but lost twice to Kansas. That’s my test.)

There you go.



You’re a Commie; You’re a Fascist!

I remember back when I was just getting interested in politics as a young teen in the 60s. My family was fairly liberal, and I was pretty much in sync with their views. I vividly recall being taken aback by the frequency with which ultra-conservatives, generally then from the John Birch Society, would label liberals with whom they strongly disagreed as “Communist” or “Communist-influenced.”


Unable to square our family’s rather modest progressive views with the doctrines I knew characterized Communism, I asked my mother to explain how these labels could possibly be applied to those who held our views. She was very patient in answering, essentially teaching me that some in politics chose to avoid legitimate debate or even the tough contests associated with political disagreement. They, she said, would try to scare others by associating their political opponents with evil enemies who would bring about cataclysmic times if they were allowed to gain control.


Well – I shot back – “shouldn’t we be concerned about anyone or anything that might pave the way to Communism, or God forbid, fascism or Nazism?” She responded that we always need to be on guard against any real threat of tyranny, but we must be careful about too easily associating political opponents with tyrants who have led, or might lead, the world down such a dark path.


I have often thought about those first conversations in my political awakening. We’ve had more than enough of the easy classifications over the years, coming from both the right and the left, and all sorts of interest groups in-between. These nasty, extreme, and over-the-top labels that have been slapped on people in such political disputes have seldom been deserved or helpful in solving problems, resolving differences, or bringing people together.


Today these bad habits have manifested themselves in perhaps the strangest ways of all. There is no doubt that the presidential campaign we’re witnessing is one of the most bizarre we’ve seen in a long time. The leading candidate on the Republican side, Donald Trump, is exceedingly controversial. Obviously, he’s drawing considerable support from the field. Yet, he says things and takes positions that worry others considerably.


I am one who has had some of those concerns, and I’ve written about it.


But here’s the point I want to make: where do folks, often strangely enough from the so-called intelligentsia, come off likening Trump to Hitler or Mussolini, and his supporters to Germans in the 30s?


Yes, he has controversial views about permitting Syrian refugees at a time of heightened concern about terrorism and dealing with immigration from Mexico (though apparently he may have indicated to the NY Times that his final position might be softer.) While disavowing David Duke frequently throughout his career, he failed to do so in a single interview. But comparing him to Hitler? Mussolini? A proto-fascist?


I’ve done considerable study of that awful period in our history. Much of my father’s father’s family was killed in the Shoah. So, I’m intensely sensitive to any sort of development that might conceivably lead that way again.


While there are always many words and actions to worry about, where are the signs that this political movement or any other of our time in America bears any true resemblance to that of the 30s in Germany and Italy? There’s a lot that’s awful, but nothing even close to that.


If folks want to argue otherwise, fair enough. Do it in a thoughtful essay that is grounded in history and analysis. But, in the meantime, cut out the cheap throwing around of these labels on Facebook and Twitter. It demeans the victims of Hitler and Mussolini. It misleads our fellow citizens. And it libels your political opponents.


Ah, to think when I was young that this was just the domain of the dreaded John Birch Society.


What’s in the Water – Religiously?

I realize there are always bizarre things happening in the area of religion and politics. In fact, one could make a good case that, relative to the often very dark distant past, things are relatively calm now. Having admitted that, however, I still can’t help but note that there are unusual and unfortunate religious developments in this political cycle.

To start, what in the world is the Pope doing coming to North America and, on the basis of differences on immigration policies, making the claim that a candidate for President of the United States is “not a Christian?” One would think that the utter and awful decline of religion in Europe would be enough to busy the Pope full time.

I have previously written about Donald Trump. Putting aside the obvious appeal he has for many in our country, one would hope, whatever his policies might be, that Trump could find a better way to advocate for them, without the vitriol and hateful attitude toward those who get in his way. As suggested above, the Pope and indeed all of us ought to give others respect and some latitude on their policies before demonizing them as irreligious. But, as well, Trump ought to be equally and more generally respectful of his opponents. For the attitude he shows them and others will be predictive of the attitude others show him, should he be elected president. Last time I checked, the job is not all-powerful and does require cooperation and mutual support from a wide variety of people and interests to get things done.

The final issue I want to address in this blog is the matter of Ted Cruz and religion. I have spent considerable time over many years studying American history and our presidents. In that history, as a person of faith, I have also studied our religious past in some detail. In essence, we are, for the most part, a religious people who believe religion is fundamental to our destiny. Further, many have worried, more at certain times, that our having lost our way morally is dangerous and that good leadership is necessary to keep us strong and on the straight path.

Actually, I share these views, as have many of our presidents and their supporters. But as I review the lives of even our most religious presidents, I see very little, if any, of the “God has chosen me” phenomenon that encircles the Cruz campaign.

Among the many quotes we regularly see, here’s one from Cruz’s big supporter, Glenn Beck: “The choice – God’s choice – could not be plainer…(Cruz) is the guy that God has raised up from birth…”

Beck is not alone. We have seen similar quotes from supporters, friends and family of Ted Cruz.

In all of my study of our history and all of my study of religion, I have never seen anything like this before from a president or his camp, nor have I seen any evidence that God favors one political candidate in an election over God-fearing opponents.

Today there is something unusual in the water – religiously. I hope that all people, especially those of faith, will convey to both religious leaders as well as political candidates that these ways of being are not favored and are not appreciated.


Ethics and the Presidential Race

I’ve been teaching two courses recently on ethical lessons from sacred text. It occurred to me that it might be interesting in a short blog to apply some of the most salient principles from this teaching to recent events in the presidential campaign.

As a recovering politician, I’m well aware of the fact that no one in life, much less politics, is perfect. If we use too high a degree of scrutiny, there would be no one left to run or serve. But, surely, ethics should matter, at least a little. The candidates have had enough time to talk and act in their public lives and in this campaign for us to have a pretty good sense of their ethical inclinations. With a thoroughly bipartisan screen and without naming names explicitly, I want to make a few observations.

One last caveat: I know many citizens prefer whom they prefer and tend to brush aside these ethical concerns for many reasons. “Everyone does it.” “My guy was just getting back at the other guy.” “His political consultant did that, not he.” “Politics is just a dirty business.”

My hope is that we detach ourselves enough from clinging to “our side” to recognize ethical flaws, be concerned about them, and expect more from the candidate we choose to support. For though we are tempted to think ethical lapses can be excused, they typically reflect a way of being that ultimately exacts a price on the leader and the country. Though it goes beyond the scope of this small essay to prove the point, I bet the reader can conjure up enough examples in his/her mind to see my point.

Let me begin with a basic concern that certain candidates have conducted themselves in politics long enough to show that they don’t or can’t work well with others or already have half the country opposed in the most serious ways to them and their policies. I realize there will always be “us and them” in politics. We do have two competing parties after all. Plus many citizens want the system shaken up, and it takes a “change agent” to do so. But when no colleagues of any group can work with a person, or a person has such baggage the other side is sworn to full-throated opposition from the beginning, we’ve got problems. The Biblical idea is: “how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” If coming anywhere close to that goal is unlikely with a candidate, I suggest one might look elsewhere, irrespective of ideology, especially given the severe and debilitating divisions in our country today.

The second behaviors that trouble me greatly are those of candidates who are gratuitously nasty and mean to each other and other people who get in the way. However commendable a person might be in other respects and however tough a business this, meanness as a way of being is a bad sign of character and certainly is not a way of being that will make America great again. Discipline, yes. Toughness, fine. But the Biblical aim is loving-kindness. Persistent meanness and nastiness as a way of life isn’t something we should want in a leader.

Finally, I want to address a bad habit of otherwise good men who are failing to attract support for their campaigns. Whether they come to this on their own or are convinced by advisors to do it, it is awful and pitiful when they regularly and consistently turn to bashing other candidates to bring them down instead of lifting their own selves up. This is especially pathetic when they had previously admired or even promoted the people they’re now bashing, or simply never had previously seen or discussed the flaw they so badly want now to expose. This behavior, too, is unworthy of a leader and will bring shame in time to those who fall from noble ways of living to engage in it when it seems necessary for success.

This is the first in a serious of ethical reflections on politics and the campaign that I intend to write. I understand folks may continue to place ideology or self-interest at the top of their concerns. That’s ok. My aim, simply, is for us to bring personal ethics up the list of expectations at least a little.

The Golden Age of Film

In the midst of having read the news about the recent Golden Globe Awards and preparing for the upcoming Academy Awards, I watched this film on the life of the great director, Ingmar Bergman.

All this has brought me to a strong hypothesis that I would like to explore in this short essay. It is this: we had a golden age of film in roughly the decades of the 1950s to the early1970s. And, despite all the money and technological advantages that have since been brought to bear, we have slipped badly and find ourselves in an age of film that is mediocre and both thin and bloated compared to that of the golden age.

Though I have seen films in the last few decades that I admire, I will leave it to the reader to advocate for them against some of the films from the past that I will discuss. Some new films surely merit inclusion in a list of greats, but that some, I think, is very few. Further, I realize that the times and fashions of the day, most younger folks might argue, would lead to the view that more recent directors and their films are more compelling and relevant to the current generation. Plus, some will argue that the excellence that was achieved in film 50 years ago has shifted to other, more currently desirable video media today. I recognize and acknowledge all that. But as to artfulness and enduring power, I simply do not think even the best of today holds up to the best of the golden age.

My effort here is simply to look back at the golden age and identify ten of its many extraordinary directors, lay out a few of their films, and invite a counter-argument that would show convincingly that directors of, say, the last 25 years match up. Further, I will only look at foreign film directors because, while we have had great American directors, it is the rise in quality of films abroad during the golden age that is most notable and spectacular, and its fall that is most regrettable.

  1. Ingmar Bergman. I might try in another essay to make the case that there was no figure in 20th century arts who generally matched this giant. But that argument is for another day. Further, as with the other top directors, it would take 500,000 words, not 500, to properly consider their remarkable contribution. But, at least, think of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in their treatment of life and death; Fanny and Alexander, on childhood, family, ghosts, and life; Persona and Cries and Whispers, on the psyche, emotions, faith, redemption; The Virgin Spring, on cruelty and evil on the most personal level; and The Magic Flute, on the simplicity of beauty, music, love.
  1. Akira Kurosawa was a true giant in film, perhaps matched by no one except Bergman. Think, among many of his great films, of Rashomon, that classic of crime and the uncertainty of truth; Ikiru, on the matter of loneliness and the desire for company and meaning at death; Ran, on epic battle; and The Seven Samurai.
  1. Federico Fellini. (As I think of Fellini, I wonder at my folly of getting into this game of comparing the giants.) Think of La Dolce Vita, on the moral rot and cynicism that began the current era; 8 1/2, on the mix of ego, creativity, fame, control in the artist; and Amarcord, as fantastic a tale on coming-of-age as there is.
  1. Francois Truffaut. Think of The 400 Blows, on hardship, poignancy, and reality in childhood; Jules and Jim, on the mystery of love; The Wild Child, on the primitive, with issues of nature/nurture.
  1. Yasujiro Ozu. Think of Floating Weeds, among others, on core truths of people and family.
  1. Vittorio De Sica. Think of The Bicycle Thief – dispassionate, realistic, poignant, heartbreaking account of people/family in hard times; and The Garden of the Finzi Contini, a lovely, haunting tale of fascism and its price in personal terms.
  1. Jacques Tati. (There should be a playful, deeply comedic director in the bunch.) Think of Playtime, a crazy, comic, always-timely account of the modern city.
  2. Kenji Mizoguchi. While I play too easily with the idea of “the best of the best,” I acknowledge the strength of the argument that Mizoguchi is the best. Think of Sansho Dayu, with the extraordinary imagery and composition in its account of family tragedy; and Ugetsu, a gentle, heartbreaking “ghost” story,” ethereal, mysterious.
  1. Jean-Luc Godard. For those who are forever into “cool,” here’s the true parent of cool. (Who needs the final two hours of a “cool movie” to be senseless violence, Quentin Tarantino? Sorry to break my own rule.) Think, among so many others, of Breathless, on the amorality, deconstruction/worship of Hollywood genres.
  1. Michelangelo Antonioni. Of so many of his remarkable films, think of The Eclipse, on the struggle between materialism and idealism.

Okay, there’s my list of the top ten directors of foreign films from the golden era. Keeping in mind that the criteria are artistry, the power of showing life’s truths, and enduring quality, I invite all comers to pick another era’s directors and beat it.

The 2015 College Football Season: Not Quite Saved By the Bell

Candidly, this would have been a nastier essay but for the surprisingly exciting game between Clemson and Alabama.

Notwithstanding a much better-than-expected championship game, college football this year was a tale of two seasons. The regular season was one of the best in memory. It is hard to remember a Saturday during the fall in which there weren’t multiple several exciting games.

There were so many fine games it’s not possible here to list and discuss even a fraction of the great action. But, just to bring a bit of it back to mind, recall: Ohio State-Michigan State, Michigan State-Michigan, Clemson-Notre Dame, Ole Miss-Alabama, Oklahoma-Tennessee, TCU-Texas Tech, Clemson-Florida State, and Stanford-Notre Dame.

As spectacular as the season was, the bowls were mostly a bust.

It began with the usual run of mostly horrible minor bowls. Mediocre teams, for the most part, playing mediocre football. Standards for the first week of post-season football are so low that teams with 5-7 records are invited.

It’s so bad that a bowl can attract virtually no fans and display poor football,  yet make enough money from sponsors from TV to go forward with these games. If there are enough viewers who are bored and desperate enough for bad football, I guess one can argue that satisfying them and the market is good enough. I don’t buy it. Making a little extra money by showing a few extra bad games during the holidays is simply setting a ridiculously low bar. Cut back on the minor bowls.

Next, the powers-that-be chose to produce the big semi-final games on New Year’s Eve. What? “Let’s take on a major national tradition and hope to make the folks adapt.” This was a boneheaded mistake that lost 1/4 of the audience for football and let fans who had other plans miss key games. Further, it didn’t help that the games were busts.

I realize that things move slowly in the world. But does it really have to take years to get to 8 teams in the playoffs? The authorities are lucky they haven’t had huge disasters in the selection process, with some very even teams getting in while others are out. Such disasters will likely happen one day unless the problem is fixed. As it is, we missed strong Stanford and Ohio State and got feckless Oklahoma and Michigan State. Although Alabama-Clemson was exciting, the play was such that either Ohio State or Stanford could easily have shown better. Shorten the season by a game, and create a better playoff regime.

As for New Year’s Day, without placing blame, one can only say it was the worst such day of football in memory. Indeed, except for the ridiculous, but incredibly exciting TCU-Oregon game that a few crazy souls stayed around to see, there wasn’t much of quality in any other of the remaining games.

It’s easy, I know, for sports fans to moan and groan. We do it all the time. We love college football, but the game’s big bosses need to make better decisions to keep and grow the love.

The Economic Value of Student Achievement Gains

I am absolutely fascinated by the recent publication of the working paper, “Economic Gains for U.S. States from Educational Reform.” The paper was authored by Eric A. Hanushek, Jens Ruhose, and Ludger Woessemann under the banner of the National Bureau of Economic Research. A summary of it can be found here: How to make the U.S 76 Trillion Richer.. An actual copy of the paper can be purchased online for a nominal fee.

Essentially, the paper shows that educational achievement strongly predicts economic growth across U.S. states. This is so, the authors show, because there is a strong relationship between growth in the states and the quality of the workforce. The paper consists mostly of an analysis of several models of how various amounts of improvement in the schools can  dramatically improve the workforce and, as a result, economic gains in our states and nation.

For example, the value of reform that would lift each state to the top-performing state would amount to an aggregate $76 trillion for the United States. This would obviously be an extraordinary contribution.

Even lesser levels of improvement, such as achieving a gain of 1/4 of a standard deviation on, say, 8th grade math performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), would generate huge long term growth. Here future increases in state GDP would have a present value of 2.6 times current GDP. For California, this would be a present value of more than $6 trillion; for New York, $3.5 trillion.

There are models that look as well at the substantial gains that would be garnered by improving all students to the basic level on the NAEP or improving state achievement to the level of the best state in the region.

We can better understand the meaning of this analysis by considering the actual trajectory of NAEP performance over the past 15 years. On the 8th grade NAEP, all students improved 10 points from 2000 to 2009. This amounts to the significant improvement of roughly a grade level. Black students improved by 17 points, or over a grade level and a half, over this period; and Hispanics improved by 13 points. At least broadly, these gains, which one sees mirrored in several of the states, represent the improvement that could make a real difference to economic growth.

Look at Texas, for example. Students in Texas had been improving on 8th grade math since the state initiated a system of accountability in the early 90s. Black and Hispanic students improved by a stunning 40 scale score points from 1990 to 2011. This is an improvement of almost 4 grade levels.

Hanushek and his fellows demonstrate in the working paper the remarkable economic effect of getting all students to basic or above on the NAEP. In Texas, the percent of Black students at basic or above in 8th grade math went up from 17% in 1990 to 71% in 2011. During that same period, the percent of Hispanic students at basic or above in 8th grade math went up from 29% to 76%. These are remarkable leaps, the sort the paper suggests could make a significant difference in later economic growth.

Yet, if we are to experience the significant economic growth the authors are discussing, there must be sustained improvement along the lines of the models presented in the paper. Here is the bad news: nationally, and in most states, there was no improvement at all in 8th grade math from 2009 to 2015. In Texas, Black students lost 10 points, roughly a grade level, just from 2011 to 2015, and Hispanic students lost 6 points.

Hanushek, et.al, show that there truly is a huge payoff IF we can better prepare our young people to make up a more qualified and productive workforce in the future. We were on that path during the 2000s, albeit with a lot of additional improvement to make. But, we have eased up. We have slowed down. We lost our commitment to being accountable and doing what it takes to have continuous improvement in student achievement at a high level.

This highly important paper shows that while some may be happy and less pressured in this new world of decreased accountability, we and our children will pay a huge price in lost growth for the stagnation that has replaced steady academic gains.

The real bottom line question is this: what is in us and our politics that causes us to be generally unaware of the tremendous and consequential truths in this paper, unwilling to do what it takes to reap these benefits for ourselves and our children, and, worst of all, actually choose a path that will lead us away from such gains and benefits?