Thursday, November 25, 2010

Who is for austerity now?

I'm no economic expert... But I have taken some business classes and I think I understand the basic tenets of business strategy. Also, it's really not that complicated. I'm surprised it's a four year degree... whatever.

Look: the idea that raising tax rates on the top two income brackets is going to lead to a decrease in job creation is logically absurd. Let's go over something simple:

Job creation is not tied to profit margin. Job creation is tied to demand.

It's true that if you aren't a smart business owner and are prone to irrational decision making, you might be influenced by the fact that your post-tax take-home margin of profit is smaller (and you won't be in business for long). But for those under the influence of reality, a business owner is going to capitalize on increases in demand (probably by hiring workers) regardless of what their profit margin is (in this way, they will increase their profit margin). Additionally, they won't add jobs if there isn't demand for their products.

Let me just repeat this: the more demand there is, the more jobs there will be. Likewise, the less demand there is, the less jobs there will be.

Let's say I own a business manufacturing plastic frogs and I gross $100 a year. I pay $30 in taxes every year. I pay $20 in wages to my workers and another $30 to actually manufacture the plastic frogs. This leaves me $20 that I get to take home as my personal profit.

Assuming I'm running an efficient business (every worker is contributing to the bottom line), what would happen if my taxes were increased? Would I fire some of my workers so that I could have more "take-home" pay? Probably not, because then I would be making less money in the first place and wouldn't necessarily have more "take-home" pay. However, I wouldn't necessarily hire more workers either (unless there is unsatisfied demand in the market). It's fair to say that personal income tax rates (of business owners) don't influence employment numbers.

Having said that, there is one scenario where raising taxes can hurt job growth, when raising taxes hurts demand. If we raise taxes on people who would have used that money to buy things, we're hurting demand. Since poor people usually have a marginal savings rate and are therefore usually spending all their money to buy things, we shouldn't raise taxes on the poor. However, the rich are an entirely different story. The wealthy have much higher savings rates and it's true that they often wouldn't be spending more on consumer goods if they were taxed less. Therefore, raising taxes on the poor would hurt job growth, but raising taxes on the rich would not.

If you don't believe me, check out the facts.

In other words: contrary to what Republicans are saying, raising taxes on the wealthy isn't going to cause businesses to fire workers or even stop hiring. Tax rates on the wealthy and job creation are two unrelated concepts.

I'll go one step further. If we taxed the wealthy more (which wouldn't hurt job growth), and used that money on social programs for the poor (giving them more money to spend) we would actually be helping the economy and encouraging job growth.

So, when it comes to the Bush Tax Cuts, there is only one thing to determine: what constitutes "rich" in the sense that "rich" means you'll save money from tax cuts instead of spending it. We ought to do what President Obama is suggesting: extend the tax cuts for the middle and lower classes and let them expire for the rich.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Moving past ITT Tech

If you don't know much about the debate surrounding education reform, then you may not know about the struggle between vocational education and holistic education... or maybe you know more about education reform than you thought.

So here's the drift. Some people see school as a way of training people to be good workers. Others prefer to see it as a way of training people to be good people. But, these aren't just ways of "seeing" the institution of education; whichever view you tend to ascribe to usually informs the way you believe education ought to be structured.

As John Taylor Gatto writes in The Underground History of American Education, our current education system is a hold-over from a time when it was important for schools to turn out graduates who would make excellent factory workers. Rote memorization, mundane worksheets, coloring inside the lines, and other forms of busy work are a perfect preparation for the incessant routine of factory life. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you'd rather our economy was based on something real rather than the giant casino we call the "stock market"), this sort of training is becoming less and less applicable to the needs of U.S. companies. Further, this sort of education was never good at training people to be thoughtful citizens.

But I stray from my point.

I work at the National Geographic Society. Known mostly for its magazine, National Geographic is much more than the publisher of a periodical. I work in the Education portion of NGS, and this week is Geography Awareness Week. Hence, this blog post is dedicated to the most ignored social studies subject (except maybe civics).

Geography hasn't always been relegated to simply coloring maps of France while the teacher drones on about how important the Rhone River is (before mercifully switching to World War I history and trench warfare). Up until the middle of the 19th Century, geography actually enjoyed equal teaching time in classrooms as the other social studies subjects. History, civics, economics, and geography were all allotted equal time.

In the middle of last century, education folks decided that social studies ought to be taught as an interdisciplinary range of topics rather than separate classes. Since they were all closely interrelated, this seemed logical enough and the reformers moved forward.

Most everyone in the social studies disciplines was enthusiastic about switching to a more interdisciplinary approach. However, those in the history wing of social studies were more hesitant. So, while most social studies folk lost the focus of their specific disciplines, history professors and students maintained theirs. To make a long story short, the under-emphasis of the other disciplines led to them taking a backseat to history, which had never abandoned its focus. This is why history is a much more significant subject in today's schools.

This story explains the present state of social studies education. I want to make the point that geography is much more important than we give it credit for.

I was talking to Daniel Edelson (the head of Education at National Geographic) about the challenges of propagating geography education. Frankly, the most significant challenge to increasing the appreciation for geography is the limited definition that leaps into people's minds when you mention "geography."

When people think of geography, most envision maps. It's really difficult to explain to someone living in the 21st Century that being good at  map reading is integral to their existence as a human being. Now, National Geographic is famous for their maps and they do a crackerjack job at making maps, but geography is so much more than maps.

Edelson has coined the term "geo-literacy" to encompass more holistic geographic thinking. Essentially, geo-literacy can be broken up into three components:

1. Geosystems understanding: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the creation, movement, and transformation of materials in human and natural systems.

2.Geographic reasoning: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the characteristics of a location and its connections to other locations.

3. Systematic decision-making: A geo-literate individual is able to articulate decision-making criteria, project outcomes of alternatives, and evaluate those outcomes in terms of the established criteria.

While it can be argued that "geo-literacy" is more expansive than the discipline of geography, I think it's fair to say that someone who has studied geography and is competent in the subject could be classified as a geo-literate individual.

Geography is more than merely the study of cartography, it's also the study of the interconnectedness of the material world. The Story of Stuff is a great example of the kinds of things geographers study (my fellow interns even claim that geography is the study of "everything," though I caulk this up to the typical hubris everyone has about their own discipline.) When it comes down to it, geography is a vital part of establishing the kind of materialism that I talk about on this blog.

The challenge moving forward is to inspire an education system that demands each discipline be vocationally applicable to take geography more seriously. If you haven't guessed from our brief discussion about vocational vs. holistic education at the beginning of this post, vocational education currently dominates.

I think it's fairly clear why someone ought to study geography if they want to be a good citizen or consumer, but the real question in our economy is whether studying geography will make you any money. Rumor at Eastern Washington University has it that majoring in geography will virtually ensure successful job placement post-graduation. However, because I reject the paradigm of our education system being glorified vocational school (and because I'm nearing my word limit), I'm going to decline to answer the question.

If there's one thing the 2010 Election taught me, it's that unswerving dedication to ideology will conquer compromise... at least at the polls... at least in the short-term...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack

Note: The following was published on November 4, 2010 in Walla Walla University's student newspaper, The Collegian. For a follow-up, please visit The Tickle Closet. The views expressed here accurately represent the official stance of this blog.

Headline: University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack
By David Mack and Cody Lonning

In June of this year, a very important thing happened: we became alumni of Walla Walla University. The graduation ceremony indicated that we were suddenly more powerful entities on the campus of Walla Walla University. As last year’s news editors, we cannot even count the times we were told that we must “consider the wider audience” that our work in the Collegian was going to reach. By this, it was meant that we’d have to take something out because it might offend the alumni. But now the tables are turned and WE are the alumni who are offended.

Currently, we’re fuming about the censorship of certain pictures in this year’s Mask. Adhering to a long-standing tradition of groups of friends dressing thematically for the Mask, Tommy Poole, Alban Howe, Jordan Kattenhorn, and Jon Nickell dressed in Arab garb for their pictures. Accompanying their pictures were unoffending quotes from the Koran. Every quote in the Mask must be inspected for any hint of moral corruption or controversy, and these quotes passed with flying colors… until it was noted that they cited the Koran. Once the quotes were paired with the pictures, it became clear to the WWU administration that this was an opportunity for them to flex their censorship muscle. To be completely fair, the ASWWU Mask editor made the final decision on whether to censor the photos or not. However, these writers believe the student editor would not have censored the photos had the WWU administration’s representative not pressured him into doing so. Regardless, WWU administration played a vital role in the censorship of the Mask.

In today’s Islamophobic world, it is unsurprising that dressing as an Arab and quoting the Koran would catch some attention. However, in this case, it’s important to engage in something more than a cursory sweep of the facts.

Tommy Poole had just returned from a summer spent traveling the Middle East and understandably wanted to use the headdresses he had purchased during his time abroad. The particular headdresses he purchased are widely available to tourists and are sold by many street vendors. So, the four friends donned Ray-Bans, headdresses, and white undershirts for their Mask photos.

Now, there are a couple of reasons why photos like these would be censored. It could be perceived that they would be offensive to people of Middle Eastern descent, especially those practicing Islam. Or, someone’s grandmother could be frightened knowing that her grandchildren were attending a school with students of Middle Eastern ancestry.

Let’s discuss the first possibility and assume that this university wouldn’t stoop to being swayed by the second. Offending someone with a different cultural background or faith is a perfectly legitimate concern; but while political correctness is a crucial part of producing a professional publication, it’s important to insure that the perceived threat to decency actually exists. Given that these headdresses are sold to tourists throughout the Middle East, it is unlikely that Middle Easterners or Muslims would be offended by the patronization of their exports (both cultural and material in this case).

Further, it’s paramount to consider the motive behind these Mask profiles. The quotes that accompany the photos highlight how unoffending this whole episode really is: “22:73 He chooses His messengers from the angels and from men. He hears all and observes all. He knows what is before them and behind them. To Him all things return. –Koran” The combination of the obviously innocent motives of the participants coupled with the fact that their garb is largely intended for use by tourists, should adequately nullify any worries of appearing offensive.

Let’s not forget that though images of Mohammed are controversial enough for Comedy Central to censor South Park, dressing as an unoffending and nondescript Arab does not conjure up the same sort of controversy.

In the long run, this single case of censorship is hardly significant. The larger issue here is that heavy-handedness by the WWU administration is getting alarmingly regular. While this fall’s campus-wide implementation of an Internet filter represents paternalism at its worst, the recent episode of censorship merely indicates the administration’s penchant for hair-trigger responses. To be fair, the unfortunate occurrence of the word “shaggin’” in last year’s mask no doubt played a role in the hypersensitivity, but this serves as no excuse.
By silencing the self-expression of its students, Walla Walla University fails to fulfill one of its most important roles. It is the purpose of the university to foster thought and to challenge the rest of society to reconsider commonly held beliefs. Instead of fulfilling its role as the proverbial “great moderator” and leading society in a progressive direction, this university chooses to back down and allow the most extreme and sensitive viewpoints to rule the day.

A better approach for the university administration is to simply step aside and allow ASWWU publications to be student directed and self-moderating. Then, the administration could avoid making messy judgment calls about which groups ought to be protected or what kinds of self-expression should be allowed. In the realm of student publications, these questions should be determined by the open market of public ideas.

After all, students are more inclined to push the envelope when it feels like the administration is constantly pushing back. If ASWWU publications were allowed to monitor themselves, they would be responsible for staying relevant and in touch with the student body. If they became "too controversial,” they would be deemed irrelevant and would be forced to self-correct. By stepping back, the administration can empower the student organization to demand quality from itself. Additionally, the administration could avoid self-imposed restrictions and the burden of having a checklist of concerns that must be addressed before allowing self-expression.

             Ultimately, we believe this overreach demonstrates that the student publications of this university ought to be free of oversight by the WWU administration. Until our demands are met, these authors pledge to withhold our considerable financial contributions from the general treasury of Walla Walla University.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fear/bigotry/infantile behavior/excessive emotion/incoherence

I got a text from David on October 15th (this picture is irrelevant--I just can't let him live it down).

Apparently, the members of the West Whitman Estate have been treading on controversial territory and as a consequence, their mask pictures have been censored. This is less surprising than it should be.

So here's the story:

The house I lived in last year participates in a tradition. Every year, for the Mask publication (a photo directory of students and faculty), the residents of The Estate dress similarly for the photos. This year, after Tommy had just returned from a trip to the Middle East, they decided to go with an Arab theme. The quoted an unoffensive portion of the Koran, "22:73 He chooses His messengers from the angels and from men. He hears all and observes all. He knows what is before them and behind them. To Him all things return. -Koran." According to a good source (Tommy), these headdresses are available at tourist shops throughout the region. Given that, I think it's fair to say the muslim sellers of this garb expect their merchandise to be worn in less than serious situations (like this one). So, the members of The Estate donned the headdresses, Ray-Ban's, and white undershirts.

This, regardless of it's benign nature, was flagged (by the designated censor who works for the university administration) as inappropriate for a Walla Walla University student publication. Depending on the source, the stated opposition is something like either "the general sensitivity about Muslims in this country" or vaguely "that it might offend Muslims" (Update: Actually the only substantial objection turned out to be that the pictures are inappropriate because they are "covering their faces." If you're as confused about that as I was, they have their faces "covered" because their wearing sunglasses.)

The attitudes surrounding Islam in this country are increasingly alarming. In a political climate where Bill O'Reilly indicts Muslims on "The View" by saying that "Muslims killed us on 9/11" and the folks on "Fox and Friends" state that "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims," Mike Rosen gets the prize for "most outrageous." 

During a debate of radio personalities he stated (about the proposed Islamic community center relatively near Ground-Zero) "I think they should be allowed to build it, followed by the hijacking of an Iranian plane right into that building and blow it to smithereens."

I'm speechless. However, I do have something to say about the plight of my buddies of the West Whitman Estate. 

1. The context of this game of "dress-up" could not be more innocent. 

2. Muslims who would be offended by the donning of widely distributed Middle Eastern consumer goods intended to be sold to tourists are probably worrying about a multitude of other things besides the fact that college students are dressing up in Arab garb for a student produced photo directory (like the fact that their faith tradition is being demonized by one of the most powerful political parties in the world's only superpower). 

3. This controversy was created by an over-zelous censorship process that has recently been reinforced (because last year they let the word "shaggin'" slip into the publication and had to scribble the word out by hand). Note: In my opinion, over-zelous censorship is redundant. Any censorship is too much.

4. In an age of incoherent and irrational islamophobia (aka. "sensitivity"), the last thing a reputable academic institution should do is jump on the band-wagon of fear and ignorance. This is an institution of higher learning and as such, should never succumb to all the things mentioned in the title to this post.

Update: David and I ended up writing an opinion article for the Collegian (Walla Walla's student newspaper) that was eventually published after much haggling. I'll post it tomorrow.