Grading Obama’s State of the Union address: was it well-written?

Obama was Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.

He set an agenda that will help staunch the bleeding from more than 30 years of class warfare by the wealthy on the rest of us. But that’s all it will do—staunch the bleeding.

As usual, the President didn’t go far enough. He asked for tax reform that would close loopholes for businesses, but not for any increase in taxes for the wealthy. He gets on the universal pre-K bandwagon, but he doesn’t say anything about more teachers and returning government support of public schools and universities to pre-Reagan levels.  He raises the minimum wage for employees of government contractors for new contracts, but only to a paltry $10.10.

Did anyone expect anything else from Obama, who always talks progressive and acts centrist? Except, of course, in matters involving national security, in which he is a neo-con’s dream, even if they won’t admit it.

As far as his boldness in using executive orders to accomplish what Congress in unwilling to do, many will share my perceptions that it’s about time and he could have done more.

From the standpoint of writing, the speech was fascinating. He opened by cataloguing hypothetical vignettes of a country on the right track. He didn’t bother to introduce the subject, but went straight to these imagined mini case histories, following Horace’s dictum to “begin in the middle” (in media res).

In presenting these vignettes, Obama used the same sentence structure in each case. Repetition of a phrase, rhythm or sentence structure to start each of a series of sentences is one of the most well-used and successful rhetorical devices in speeches (and poetry). Repeating “I have a dream…” gave Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech of that name its eternal power. The accumulation of the same phrases—or the same sentence rhythm in the case of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address—mesmerizes people. People also delight in the musicality of the repetition, as the speech suddenly turns into a variation on theme.

These two techniques—opening with an anecdote and using repetition—are standard among professional speechwriters. I teach both techniques to young writers who work for me or in seminars.

All very clever, but it doesn’t make it a great speech. To attain the immortality of Dr. King would require vivid images, and in almost every case, the President and his speechwriters settled for the most general statement one could imagine. Instead of creating a vivid image, they merely made points.

For example, Obama starts with “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.”  “Spent extra time” is very general. Why not, “spent extra time to explain the Electoral College”?

Next sentence: “An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.” The overly general “flipped on the lights in her tech startup” could be “hired 10 people to work for her automation software company,” which is still general but more specific than “her tech startup.”

Next sentence: “An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.”  The speechwriters were reaching for the broadest of generalities with “fine-tuned.” Are they so lazy that they can’t find an article on the Internet about jobs in auto factories?  It took me a few minutes to find the information that led to this alternative: “programmed an automated machine that fabricated an engine part.”

And on and on he went, piling generality on top of generality: “A farmer prepares for the spring…” Finally his fifth example paints a picture, creating what Carson McCullers called piquancy: “A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford.” But then he turns general again when he talks of a father on a bus ride home from work “dreaming big dreams for his son…”

Typically, a variation on theme in poetry or a speech ends with the longest variation, as a way to unwind, change subjects or convey a sense of completion. It is only in the last long variation of Obama’s address that he presents a vivid image: “And in tight-knit communities across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades, and give thanks for being home from a war that, after twelve long years, is finally coming to an end.” Note that Obama saves the creativity for the part in which he tells a half-truth: “the war is coming to an end,” also means that the war is not yet over. I remember that the Viet War was “coming to an end” for about half a decade.

The remainder of the President’s address is quite conventional. Like every State of the Union since Ronald Reagan, Obama peppers the speech with mentions of people who serve as symbols for successful or failed policies. Some examples:

  • “Andra Rush opened up a manufacturing firm in Detroit. She knew that Ford needed parts for the best-selling truck in America…”
  • “Misty DeMars is a mother of two young boys. She’d been steadily employed since she was a teenager. She put herself through college. She’d never collected unemployment benefits. In May, she and her husband used their life savings to buy their first home. A week later, budget cuts claimed the job she loved. Last month, when their unemployment insurance was cut off…”
  • “Estiven Rodriguez couldn’t speak a word of English when he moved to New York City at age nine. But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.”

Andra, Misty, Estiven and the others mentioned serve in place of facts and figures.

I call this rhetorical device “arguing by anecdote.” Writers love it, especially when they have the facts against them, as research by Daniel Kahneman and others demonstrates that most people will trust one anecdote over substantial facts and figures that prove the opposite, especially when the anecdote supports what they already believe.

Reagan was the first President to mention real people in anecdotes in the State of the Union, often having the person there to receive a brief spotlight and applause.  These in-person call-outs always lend an element of sentimentality to the address and every State of the Union since Reagan has had them. It would be refreshing to hear a State of a Union without the ritual of the in-person call-outs. Obama had three in the 2014 State of the Union.

At least Obama makes good use of his arguments by anecdote because in every case, the anecdote is used to make a point that is based in reality, unlike Reagan, whose anecdotes too often supported untrue statements or gave a distorted impression of what the facts really were.

While it dominated the news for the 24 hours leading up to the speech and the 24 hours after it, Obama’s speech will not be remembered.  State of the Union addresses rarely are, probably because the President has to talk about every aspect of his agenda—to stuff 10 pounds of ideas into the proverbial five-pound bag.

New study shows that right-wing Christian values lead to higher rates of divorce

Call me counter-intuitive, but I always figured that divorce rates were higher in communities and states in which the Christian right dominated.  For one thing, fundamentalism predominates in rural and exurban areas, where there are really only three things to do most of the time and two of them lead to sex, while one is to have sex (the other two are drugs and drinking). More poor people tend to inhabit rural America than urban or suburban communities, and poverty serves as a destabilizing element in relationships.

It turns out that I was only half right. Christian fundamentalism leads to greater divorce in every circumstance—among the rich, the poor, rural folk and city slickers. It doesn’t matter, according to new research by Professors Jennifer Glass (U-Texas) and Philip Levchak (U-Iowa). Their paper, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” scheduled to be published soon in the American Journal of Sociology, ” demonstrates that “Conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, in balance, decrease marital stability through the promotion of practices that increase divorce risk…”

Yes, less educated people get divorced more frequently, but the less educated fundamentalists get divorced more often than the less educated who aren’t as fanatical about their Christianity. And yes, poor people get divorced more often than wealthier people do, but again, the poor Christian fundamentalists get divorced more often than the poor non-fundamentalists and the same pattern exists among the wealthy—the more you buy into the Christian right, the more likely you are to have a divorce. Even non-believers living in communities in which the Christian right predominate have higher rates of divorce. The effect is additive: Protestants in conservative Protestant areas get divorced more often than conservative Protestants in more mainstream areas.

I first ran across the report in Nation by Michelle Goldberg, but it turns out that it has received a goodly amount of pre-publication publicity at least in the non-Conservative print and Internet news media.

As Michelle Goldberg details, the very practices that right-wing Christians follow to strengthen marriage in fact make it harder to stay married. By promoting abstinence until marriage right-wing Christians give teenagers the best reason in the world to get married early—to satisfy the natural need for sexual contact that most teens and adults have.  The children of Christian fundamentalist communities and families tend to receive poor sex education and have limited access to contraception, leading to more unwanted pregnancies which lead to more marriages made under the duress of a shot gun (or AK-47, depending on the gun-toter’s taste in weapons). Less access to abortions and social norms strongly forbidding this safe and inexpensive procedure exacerbate the increase in unwanted children and early marriages.

Then there’s the pressure to conform: The study authors mention the pressure to marry younger, but there is also the pressure on people who are not the heterosexual marrying kind to get hitched and have a few young fry. I’m guessing that more LGBT in fundamentalist communities succumb to the pressure and opt for conventional heterosexual marriages, as do more of the asexual. More couples who don’t really want to have children succumb to the pressure and have them anyway in a fundamentalist community. People have an almost infinite multitude of desires, cravings, preferences and inner voices. The more strictly regimented the social norms, the more people are going to chafe under them and become unhappy. And there can be no doubt—unhappy people get divorced.

No one mentions it, but I imagine that the Catholic taboo on divorce prevents the divorce rates among right-wing Catholics from approaching the sorry numbers of right-wing Protestants.

I also wonder whether the very mentality of right-wing Protestantism plants the seeds for more divorce. The essence of fundamentalism is that all humans are sinners, but that we can all be born again unto the Lord. So if the social strictures leading to unwise marriages are strong, even stronger is the forgiveness that each receives upon finding the Lord again. The ability to be born again can both wash away the sins of the divorce (or those committed in the marriage) and justify the divorce as part of the process of becoming the new, more pure person. Starting over is what divorce is all about and it’s what born-again right-wing fundamentalism is also all about.

Mass media gets high on stories about marijuana

Marijuana, lauded, rued and feared as an appetite stimulant, is causing the news media to get a major case of the munchies.  A pot-crazed mass media is chowing down on the devil weed as if it were a bottomless bowl of Toll House chocolate chip cookies.

A media feeding frenzy occurs when a story becomes so big that every media outlet looks for a new and different angle for covering it. News junkies begin to feel as if they are drowning in stories about the topic, as everywhere they turn another media outlet is blasting or reblasting a story. It can leave one dizzy, disoriented, maybe feeling a little stoned.

Some media feeding frenzies last a few days or weeks, like the recent outbreak of Cyrus-twerking. Others last the length of a trial or a campaign. Others like Watergate—and perhaps now Bridgegate—go on far longer than anyone suspected they would when they first emerged.  In my lifetime, the longest feeding frenzy was the coverage of the emergence of AIDS: the mass media literally produced at least one new story about some aspect of AIDS every day during the 1990’s.

A year and even six months ago, gay marriage dominated feature news coverage. Now it’s marijuana.

If you don’t believe me, go to Google News and key in one word: marijuana. More than 41.3 million stories will pop up. The following sample of story topics come from the first few pages of the search, and all have appeared within the past 72 hours. Many stories on this list appeared multiple times, as the news media consists largely of reprints and repackagings of other stories, with very little original content reported:

What distinguishes a media feeding frenzy from normal news coverage is the great lengths that journalists will go to find or create a connection that involves the target of the frenzy. For example, we see just about every approach to feature news coverage in this list: Legislation, personality profiles, business aspects, dueling politicians, celebrity interest, law enforcement, health and the bizarre and quirky. All that’s missing are consumer features, such as comparisons of cooking recipes, quality of pot strains (brands) and where and what the hip people imbibe; what I call “sell” journalism: stories dedicated to helping someone sell a good or service. But these will come, just as we are now seeing stories on goods and service related to gay courtship and marriage.

NY Times reviewer feels he has to remind us that anyone who watches serious theater is a snob

As New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff details in “To See or Not to See? A Season for High Art,” New York City theaters—Broadway and off—are currently offering an unusually large number of productions of what many call “serious” drama, which means plays that tackle serious subjects in nonconventional or experimental styles or belong to the “canon” of classic world literature.

The language of serious theater is often elevated, sometimes strange. The characters portray both positive and negative traits. The endings are often unhappy or ambiguous. Serious theater tends to make viewers think about deep philosophical or social issues. Among playwrights considered to be authors of serious works are Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams and Berthold Brecht, all of whose works are in production in New York City at this time.

And how does Itzkoff describe this amazing cornucopia of high dramatic art? The current theater season has been a veritable snob’s paradise.”

A snob’s paradise!!

To understand just how anti-intellectual this statement is, we have to review all three meanings of the word “snob” given in Merriam-Webster’s (or any other standard) dictionary:

  1. “Someone who tends to criticize, reject, or ignore people who come from a lower social class, have less education, etc.”
  2. One who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors”
  3. “A) One who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior; B) One who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste”

Snobs criticize those they think beneath them. Snobs fawningly imitate and chase those considered socially superior. Snobs have an offensive air of superiority. Snobs are thus among the most distasteful and despicable people in the world.

Who would want to be a snob? Yet “snob” is the first word that comes to mind to a writer about culture when describing those who like serious theater.

Admittedly, serious theater engages our intellectual faculties more than light theater or most musicals do. Sometimes serious theater is hard to understand. To call serious theater an intellectual pursuit is accurate.

But why is someone a snob by virtue of liking serious theater or preferring it to light theater, action movies or reality TV?

It’s just another of the almost daily examples of mainstream media criticizing intellectual pursuits.  Reporters and pundits go out of their way to say denigrating things about intellectual activities.

That it’s a cultural reporter who should find excitement in Beckett and Shakespeare who is delivering the blow against these authors, and by implication against intellectualism, is also nothing new.  In the recent past we have seen a science writer imply that brilliant people have no common sense and an education expert say people don’t need algebra. Mass media editors like nothing more than finding and then funding a self-flagellating expert who will denigrate his or her intellectual discipline.

Calling serious theatergoers snobs is a throwaway line in an article which focuses primarily on the business aspects of having so many productions of serious theater in town over a short time frame. For example, he discusses the marketing challenges of the Pig Iron Theater’s production of “Twelfth Night,” which follows by a few weeks the closing of the acclaimed Elizabethan-style version imported from London with Tony-winner Mark Rylance.

Itzkoff, the culture critic, does not consider the cultural implications of the seemingly sudden return to serious theater—that audiences may be tired of the flash and glitz of Broadway musicals or that a new generation of theatergoers is now discovering the joys of Odets, Albee and Ibsen (three other “serious” playwrights whose work has popped up on New York stages in the recent past). Did the trend start in the hinterland or has New York become the last American bastion of classic drama, much as it has for serious post-bop jazz?  There are so many approaches that Itzkoff could have taken to exploring this sudden and wonderful outcrop of serious theater. But he decided to write about the one topic held above all others by mass culture— making money.

NY Review author details extent of government financing crisis & a centrist way out

If you read one article this month—change that to this year—make it Jeffrey D. Sachs’ “Our Dangerous Budget and What to Do About It” in the New York Review of Books.

Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s The Earth Institute, takes a look at the federal budget and tax revenues as percentages of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and compares the numbers to historic patterns and what the numbers are in other countries. He then makes assumptions about future inflation and concludes that within 10 years the federal government will be spending money on the military, interests payments on debt, mandatory social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and nothing else. No aid to education. No construction or repair of bridges, roads and dams. No support of alternative energy. No national parks. No federal support of medical or scientific research. No National Science Foundation. No weather satellites. We will cease investing in the future of the United States and the result will be that we enter a rapid decline.

He starts with the fact that federal, state and local tax revenues are now a mere 30% of GDP, much less than before what he rightfully calls “Ronald Reagan’s successful assault on government beginning in 1981,” and much lower than Canada’s 38%, Germany’s 45% and Denmark’s 55%. We average a mere 18-20% a year of GDP in federal taxes.

Sachs takes a look at the federal spending pie and finds that mandatory programs accounted for 9.6% of GDP in 1980, but have soared to 13.6%. The aging of the population and the fact that people are living longer has a lot to do with that increase, but so does medical inflation. Sachs tell us that we spend 18% of GDP on health care, compared to 12% in other high income countries, although he forgets to mention that these other countries all have longer life spans and lower infant mortality.

Adding the 5% of the GDP that we spend on military and that adds up to almost 19% of GDP, or just about all of our federal revenues. That doesn’t leave much for all that other stuff I listed above.

But wait, it gets worse! Thanks to the Federal Reserve Board’s program of quantitative easing, interest rates have been historically low. Quantitative easing has to end and it looks as if it may end sooner than later. When the Fed does pull the plug on bond buying, interest rates will return to what Sachs expects will be an historically normal 4%. At that point, interest on the national debt will account for 3.1% of GDP. By 2023, if we do nothing, we will have absolutely no money to spend on anything but guns, health care, retirement and interest.

Sachs lists four ways out of this untenable situation, three of which he rejects:

  1. Continue on the current course, which will doom us to a backwards economy with unskilled people in a degraded environment.
  2. Fund more of what the beltway crowd label discretionary spending through borrowing more money. Sachs worries about the increase in the debt to GDP ratio. I worry more about the fact that borrowing money to fund government spending transfers money from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, even when the money is spent on these less financially secure groups. Here’s why: Instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, we borrow money from them, giving them a rock solid investment. The loan and all interest are eventually paid back by all of us.
  3. Cut spending on Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and other “mandatory programs” (which essentially means programs for which spending levels are voted into law not subject to annual budgeting) to fund the discretionary programs like education, environmental protection, infrastructure improvement and research. As Sachs points out, the Republicans like this approach, but he forgets to mention why: because it takes from the undeserving (read: minority) poor.

Sachs’ approach is the right one: Raise taxes and cut military and healthcare costs. He proposes a one percent wealth tax on any individual with a net worth of $5 million and more, a tax on financial transactions and the end of preferential tax treatment of multi-national corporations and hedge fund owners. His military cuts leave the United States as the preeminent military power in the world, with offensive capabilities much greater than any other nation. His medical cuts do not bring our medical costs down to European levels and involve changing how we pay for health care from a fee-for-service model to one price for every patient.

With this combination of cuts and tax increases, Sachs is able to squeeze out 5% of GDP to invest in education, technology, infrastructure, jobs, mass transit and everything else in which we currently need to invest.

Sachs plan is too centrist, if you ask me. A lot of damage has been done over the last 30 years by privatizing money—taking it out of the public coffers where it was used for public ends and giving it to a the wealthy, thin sliver of the population who didn’t really need it. I would also propose lifting the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax and end the capital gains tax for any investment in the secondary market (as opposed to buying an initial stock or bond offering). I would also raise the basic tax rate on just about everyone making more than $150,000 a year. I would cut the military even more than Sachs proposes. I would use these additional revenues and cost savings to ratchet up investment in education, mass transit and the environment.

These differences are more than minor quibbles—they represent the difference between a pre-Reagan American centrist and a European-style social democrat. But Sachs’ proposal is a good start, and it seems to be considerably to the left of our supposedly progressive President.

Sachs ends with the hope that there is truth in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s well-known statement that we have 30-year cycles of private greed followed by 30-year periods of public service. He sees the election of Bill De Blasio as Mayor of New York City as a possible harbinger of a swing leftward. Judging from the many surveys by Pew and others, Sachs may be a little too optimistic. The country has been tilting left for years, but even as it does our politicians have driven the conversation right and one of our two major parties has attempted to disenfranchise those voters most likely to vote for progressive candidates. Days after De Blasio’s inauguration, the Governor of New York state—a Democrat—came out with a plan to cut taxes in that state further.

Considering our current political alignment, Sachs plan looks pretty good. I suggest that everyone copy it and send it to all their elected officials with a note that if they want the vote and donations, they have to come our explicitly and loudly for the Sachs plan.

Right-wing persists in pushing charter schools and cuts to education budgets

When it comes to education, it seems as if the right is more interested in ideological posturing than in actually helping to give children the knowledge and skills they need to live in the modern world, have rewarding careers and achieve their version of ‘’life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it.

These past days have brought two more examples of the blind ideological furor which drives purveyors of the politics of selfishness when it comes to education. In both cases, government bodies are taking actions that all credible research shows do not work in improving student performance in the classroom or on standardized tests.

Let’s start with Phoenix, Arizona. The state of Arizona is the poster child for the failure of charter schools. The research shows that charter schools in the state significantly underperform public schools. While proponents of charter schools can cite one or two charter schools nationally which outperform their public school districts, none are in Arizona, where the performance of charter schools is truly dismal.

So what is the Phoenix school district doing to help students living in poor neighborhoods? Giving them charter schools, which until now have mostly been in the middle class sections of Phoenix—primarily, I assume, so that middle class whites could avoid having their children associate with minorities.

Why would Phoenix want to expand a concept that has proven not to work? My answer: those in control of the Phoenix school board and Phoenix government care more about breaking the teachers’ union than educating kids. Charter schools generally are exempt from having to hire teachers in the union and so are used in most areas as a wedge to break the union. The advantage to the charter school operator is the ability to pay teachers less and reallocate the money to higher salaries for the administration and, in the case of for-profit charters, to profit for the owners.

Let’s move on to Kansas, where the state legislature and Governor Sam Brownback have cut the money for public schools per student so low that a judge has ruled the allocation unconstitutional because the Kansas constitution explicitly requires the legislature to finance the educational interests of the state. Like all opponents of public school spending, the Wall Street Journal editorial board is wringing its hands over the court decision, claiming that If there’s one certain conclusion from the last 30 years of education reform, it is that more money doesn’t yield better student results.” This statement is a half lie: What the studies show is that spending more money per student doesn’t help to improve performance unless the money is spent in the classroom—that is, for more teachers to lower teacher/pupil ratios and for new and better books and other learning materials. Spending in the classroom does improve performance. The Kansas legislators and their supporters may or may not care about Kansas children who can’t afford private schools, but they certainly care a lot about enforcing the right-wing ideological principal that the government must continually cut taxes and never raise them.

Money enters into the Arizona situation as well, as the state spends 17 percent less on public education than the national average and had the country’s largest drop in funding from 2002 to 2012 despite a 12 percent increase in enrollment. If Arizona increased support of public schools and used the additional money to hire more teachers, it would have a better chance of raising school performance than would establishing more charter schools, a failed experiment. But Republicans, who dominate the legislatures in both Arizona and Kansas, would rather keep taxes at historic lows than care for the children in their charge.

We see ideology trump facts every day, whether it is some pseudo-expert proposing that environmental regulations hurt the economy (false) or that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to job creation (even more false). The news media suborns this reign of ignorance by telling both sides of the story, even when the one side is full of poppycock—for example by giving equal say to ignorant opponents of childhood vaccination as they do to infectious disease experts or by publishing tirades against the concept of climate change.

But let’s not get too hung up on this right-wing obsession with hewing to disproven notions for ideological reasons, lest we forget that in this case the victims are our children. Of course, if the Arizona and Kansas powers-who-be thought the children involved were theirs, they would act differently. But they think and have convinced the voting public that the children belong to some undeserving other—poor and minority—who are not part of their real America. We should therefore not contemplate the state of right-wing educational reform with intellectual arrogance, but with a burning shame that so many children of all races and backgrounds in America are being denied the opportunity to fulfill the dream that slaveholder Jefferson had for white males.

And why? So we can keep taxes low for “them that got,” to quote Billie Holiday’s song.  Few in power in Kansas and Arizona are blessing the child.

Wall Street Journal diverts class warfare with false claim that middle class pays for poor to attend college

A Wall Street Journal article is reimagining university finances as a wealth transfer program that steals from the rich and middle class to give to the poor. In doing so, writer Douglas Belkin attempts to reframe the current class war in the United States.

Belkin’s argument starts with the fact that government has withdrawn massive subsidies from public universities in recent years. Belkin does not mention that this cutback resulted from an historic lowering of taxes on the wealthy. The way that public universities made up the shortfall from reduced government subsidies was to raise tuition. But, as many American families understand with painful clarity, that pushed tuition out of reach of many deserving students. Universities have responded by giving tuition breaks to more and more working class and poor students.

The article quotes from both poor students who say they wouldn’t be able to attend college without the tuition breaks and from students whose families make amounts that are just out of reach for qualifying for needs-based aid. One student bemoans the irony of her tuition payments subsidizing poorer students while she will graduate with educational loans to pay. The article seems to postulate that the sole reason for tuition increases has been to make sure middle class and rich students pay enough to carry their poorer cohorts.

Following the money is often helpful in understanding a situation, but in this case, the Journal has only followed half the money trail, the half after tax cuts have gutted state and federal budgets. When we follow the complete unvirtuous cycle that has radically changed the nature of college finances over the past 30 years we see that the real transfer of wealth has not been down the ladder but up the ladder. Rich folk pay less in taxes, and the middle class and poor pay more in tuition. When we consider that rich folk represent a higher percentage of private school students, which enjoy no or limited government support, the redistribution of wealth upwards intensifies. Moreover, it is naïve to think that most poor state school students get enough of a tuition break to make up for the obscene inflation in college costs over recent decades.

Behind the Journal’s partial and partisan math looms the politics of selfishness, the benighted idea that it always unfair to make a citizen pay for another citizen. The ideology of selfishness informs and shapes the entire article. It describes the efforts of students in Texas and protestors in other states to fight what the article calls “set-asides,” funds earmarked from tuition to pay for tuition discounts for needy students. The article quotes Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute; “We used to believe that public higher education benefited all residents of a state, not only the people who were attending, because the more highly educated workforce meant more economic growth…But now our society has moved toward the notion that the people who are paying are the ones who will benefit, so they should pay.”

The idea that society does not benefit from an educated workforce is complete nonsense and a dangerous notion. More dangerous, though, is the underlying idea that group solutions to public challenges are inherently unfair. The typical family will need public college for 4-12 years, depending on how many children they have. Most people couldn’t possible afford to pay for a high quality education over that amount of time. Fortunately, most people remain in the work force for 40-45 years, giving them extra time to pay their fare share in taxes. Cutting taxes and making people pay for their or their children’s college education over a much shorter time will naturally lead to financial problems. The Journal wants us to blame those problems on the poor, when it fact they have emerged primarily because the wealthy have decided to retreat from the social contract which ruled this country from the end of the Great Depression to the mid 1970’s.

Conservatives like to blame the poor and like even more to pretend that the best interests of the middle class are different from those of the poor and working class. They want to pit the poor against the middle class, so neither will realize who is perpetrating the real class war. But the college financial crisis has as its root cause the same dynamic that has led to our sluggish job recovery, the increased inequality of wealth, our public school challenges and our decaying infrastructure of mass transit, bridges and roads: Taxes are too low, especially on the wealthy, and have been for many years now. As a nation, we have replaced the social contract that created a middle class nation with a dog-eat-dog, I’m-only-in-it-for-myself ideology that helps the rich take more.

Christie forgets to apologize for creating atmosphere in which staff would consider political tricks

We should give New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the benefit of the doubt and assume that he told the absolute truth.  He did not know members of his staff ordered the closing of a lane leading onto to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution.  When he asked about the lane closing, two members of his staff lied to him.

In his “mea culpa” news conference, New Jersey Governor Chris Christies sounded as sincere and honest as a human can appear.

But he also spoke with cunning and extreme care.

Throughout the news conference, Christie carefully parsed words and redirected questions—all with his refreshing brand of straight-talk—to avoid the topic of whether he practices political retribution. His focus was solely on the sheer stupidity of the action and the fact that people lied to him. He berated himself for creating an organizational culture in which staff members thought they could lie to him. He never addressed his role in creating a culture in which retribution was condoned and encouraged. When asked specifically about retribution against the Ft. Lee mayor, he did not speak about retribution but about the fact that he hardly knew the man. He did not deny he practiced retribution, instead suggesting that you only commit dirty tricks on someone who you know.  True enough, but it slides right over the question of whether Christie believes in dirty tricks.

Christie’s avoidance of the retribution issue reminds me of Anthony Weiner’s comments about his sexting when he first announced he was running for mayor. He said that there might be other instances revealed, but he did so in passing and parenthetically, almost hypothetically, so that it was completely ignored at the time. Weiner was deceptive in his honesty, just as Christie is. I might even say that Christie “pulled a Weiner,” but the image is just too grotesque.

The news media passed over the Weiner comment, which led to their collective shock when the next scandal involving Weiner’s electronic sexual practices popped up.  The efforts of Democrats to place the media focus on Christie’s culture of retribution is having only limited success, at least at this point.

That someone in an organization would think that it was just business as usual to create a safety hazard and mess with the lives of tens of thousands of people is, as the Latins liked to say, res ipsa loquitur, a thing that proves itself. Either it was Christie’s habit to condone retribution or two key staff members he had known for years had somehow managed to hide a rare and malevolent stupidity from their boss and everyone else.  Christie doesn’t strike me as socially or politically dense.  His past in what many journalists are calling “rough and tumble” Morris county politics and known scandals involving others close to Christie build the case that the politics of retribution thrived in his Administration.

Bridgegate will not sink Christie’s hopes for national office. No one seriously thinks that a man this poised and clever would approve shutting down access to the most travelled bridge in the world for trivial revenge. But the news media will now go on an aggressive hunt to find other instances of Christie or his cronies using dirty tricks for political purposes. Other scandals will emerge—and it’s very possible that none will approach the notoriety of Bridgegate. But the accumulation of these past tits and tats may very well sink Christie.

Or they may enhance his status among Republicans, who seem to like dirty tricks and political pranks. It was a Republican, Andrew Breitbart, who did Fascist-style video editing to make it appear as if a minor Obama Administration official uttered racist comments. And another Republican pretended to be a pimp and asked staff at multiple ACORN offices for help getting government loans until he found someone who appeared—on the video—to take him seriously. What if not a dirty trick was the swift-boat smearing of decorated war hero John Kerry and saying he didn’t really deserve his many medals? The pain Christie officials inflicted on commuters for four relatively balmy September days is nothing compared to the suffering resulting from the dirty trick of getting Iran to keep the American hostages until after the 1980 presidential election in return for surreptitiously supplying it with weapons.

Come to think of it, Bridgegate may have raised Christie’s esteem in the eyes of many Republican political operatives and elected officials. It confirms that he has the “cojones” to do what it takes. Sincerely.

Is reason conservatives don’t want legalized pot because as an illegal industry, it’s an unregulated free market?

I’m about to perform a feat of rhetorical daring and originality: I’m going to proffer a written opinion about the legalization of marijuana without sharing my experiences or lack of experiences with the drug.

It seems as if virtually every pundit has to share his or her smoking history when offering an opinion or a prediction. It was started earlier this week by New York Times columnist and National Public Radio commentator David Brooks, who always looks to me as if he has indulged in the munchies a bit too often (and I mean that in a nice way!). His rationale for keeping recreational use of pot illegal is short on facts and reasoning, focusing instead on the experience of his group of friends—his clique as he calls it. They all smoked it and then moved on to their lives work, except—in the anti-intellectual fashion of all great American myths—the one friend who was “the smartest of us,” who Brooks hints may have been destroyed by the devil weed.  It’s this one neat detail that makes me wonder about the absolute veracity of Brooks’ narrative.

Since Brooks’ column, the Internet is reeking with reefer confessions. Joe Coscarelli, for example, excerpts from seven opinion writers who cop to blowing weed.

It’s a continuation of the ever-growing trend of the non-fiction writer to put himself or herself into the center of a non-fiction article. As an occasional rhetorical device, making one’s reactions or personal history part of an article can evoke emotions, illuminate a theme or support an assertion. But it seems as if every other feature article now features and often begins with a long session of authorial navel-gazing: an anecdote about the writer’s own experience deep sea fishing for zebra bones or the sexual excitement she felt meeting the world’s oldest professional throat singer or how learning about the repeated torture of a preteen reminded him of the fear he felt the first time he went to the dentist. Regrettably, putting the self into every article is taught at all the finer universities. Instead of turning out creative writers, our English departments have produced a generation of hacks who depend on a single rhetorical device to spice up the facts and analysis.

Of course, Brooks is entitled to his opinion, as are all those opposed to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. And it makes absolute sense that most of the vocal opponents of legalization are conservative. From restricting access to abortion to wanting to introduce religion into science education, social conservatives tend to want to control the private lives of citizens and keeping pot illegal certainly does that. Meanwhile, economic conservatives don’t want any control on the free market, and legalization always brings control—taxation, standards setting, workplace safety.

It’s ironic, but keeping pot illegal makes it an absolutely deregulated commodity.  And we can see what happens in this free market: Much of it is controlled by violent cartels. The relationship between quality and price varies significantly not just from market to market, but from sale to sale.  Buyers have no idea what they’re getting or the conditions under which it was grown and processed. Transport and distribution uses public infrastructure without paying for it, throwing part of the burden of paying for their economic transaction onto everyone’s back.

Now that we’re talking about it, the market for illegal drugs makes a wonderful case for government regulation of the free market.

Brooks and other opponents to the legalization of marijuana line up on the wrong side of history. Remember that the United States prohibited alcohol drinking for 13 years in the early part of the 20th century. And abortion was banned for about a century, a victim to the American Medical Association’s war against midwives (see Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine). Almost a century later, senseless restrictions on how adults behave in their private lives are falling left and right: gambling, gay marriage and now pot smoking. All come with regulations, as we can see with the greater regulation of cigarette smoking. I imagine that it will never be legal to toke up in a restaurant or movie theatre. And that’s how it should be. The government should refrain from restricting private actions, even as it intervenes in public actions and interactions, including the sale and purchase of goods and services in the marketplace.