Thursday, December 15, 2011

Screw You Kids!

It’s an incomplete and problematic memory, but I remember a time when people talked passionately about investing in the children, about children being the future, about protecting future generations. My parents are very clear that their job in life was to provide a better life for their kids than they had for themselves. Their parents before them charged themselves with the same task.

Maybe I’m just becoming more cynical as I get older, but it sure seems to me that the message we are sending to young people now is something entirely different. It’s no longer “the children are the future.” It’s more:

Fuck you kids. You’re screwed. Do it yourself.

This attitude has been making headlines for a long time now, in a variety of arenas: the Occupy Movement is dismissed as a bunch of lazy kids who think they are too good to work for a living; high school kids walking out to protest budget cuts to their schools are vilified as leeches; children of immigrant parents are told they are not wanted here.

But the tipping point for me came this week as I skimmed the headlines at Everyone is aware of the sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse by now, but that’s not even what I’m talking about (though I have several opinions on the Syracuse leadership and specifically the esteemed basketball coach of the fighting Orange). No. The story that sent me over the edge was one of a coaching change in Pac 12 football.

Arizona State University, the academic punching bag of the Pac 12, fired a notoriously dirty coach in Dennis Erickson and hired in his place Todd Graham of the University of Pittsburg.

A week earlier, BYU quarterback Jake Heaps, who has been pushed out of the starting role recently, announced that he is going to transfer to another school.

What do these things have to do with each other? Stick with me.

According to the NCAA rulebook for college athletes  - a 300+ page tome of unbelievable bureaucratic crosswords – Mr. Heaps can transfer to another Division I school, but he must sit out a year before playing football for said school. Mr. Heaps is a model kid who went to BYU and played by the rules. He is a strong student. He did nothing wrong. He simply wants to go to a school that allows him to be around his family more and where he can get more playing time. He also said he is interested in more academic rigor. His punishment for taking charge of his on academic and sporting life? A year on the sidelines.

Mr. Graham, by comparison, is a douchebag. Yes, I’m still using that term even though it isn’t cool anymore.  Graham’s first coaching job was at Rice University. He stayed for one year and bolted for Tulsa, where he stayed for six years. Presumably he only stayed because a better job wasn’t forthcoming, because as soon as one was offered (at Pitt), he bolted. At Pitt he recruited players on the promise that this was his dream job, that they would stay at Pitt together and build a dynasty in the Big East (not hard to do given the competition). According to players, as recently as the week before he took the job at Arizona State he denied he was interested in any other positions. Then? He sent his players a text message. From the road. On his way to Tempe:

"I have resigned my position at Pitt in the best interest of my family to pursue the head coaching position at Arizona State," the message sent to players said. "Coaching there has always been a dream of ours and we have family there. The timing of the circumstances have prohibited me from telling you this directly. I now am on my way to Tempe to continue those discussions. God Bless. Coach Graham."

This from Mark Schlabach at

In today's college football, coaches jump from job to job every season without consequences, but most coaches handle leaving their schools with more sincerity and professionalism than Graham did.

Graham said he took the Arizona State job so his wife could be closer to her family in Arizona. He said Arizona State is a place where he'd like to retire.
Just seven months ago, Graham said the same things about Pittsburgh.

In other words, “Fuck you kids! You’re on your own!”

Backup quarterback Trey Anderson tweeted his reaction: "I take a nap for 2 hours, wake up to find out my head coach is gone.”

This is the free-market. This is money talking. But Graham (and Erickson, and Paterno, and Tressel, and every other college coach) gets paid because those kids toil and sweat for them. The kids on the field do the risky labor and get none of the payment. Oh sure, there are some kids on scholarships (1 year, non-guaranteed scholarships) and a tiny fraction of them play pro ball and profit from the opportunity to play college sports. But those kids also take all the risk. And all the punishment.

The players at USC are not eligible for a bowl game this year because former coaches and a former player (all of whom are currently employed in the NFL, by the way) broke the rules. The current class of students did nothing wrong. And they are being punished.

Jake Heaps did the opposite of the wrong thing. He made a smart, informed decision. And the NCAA will punish him for wanting to move schools. The logic behind the rule makes sense only in the profit-minded world of professional collegiate amateur athletics, and it has nothing to do with the kids.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t have a fix for the right wing free-market above all else selfishness. But I do have a fix for the NCAA. It’s a pretty simple plan. Ready?

1.     Establish a salary cap for coaches in the NCAA. Make it generous if you want, but cap it. End the coaching arms race that major conference schools are engaged in.
2.     Require coaches to sit out for one season if they move from one Division I school to another before their contract with their current school is up. They make enough money, they can afford a year off. Make it even better: require them to do service work for their year off. If Steve Sarkisian wants to leave the University of Washington to coach at Stanford, he has to spend a year coaching inner-city kids in the interim.
3.     Allow athletes to major in their sport if they choose. Many athletes will still get business degrees or communications degrees, but a few might choose to be sports majors. They can study the math of sport, the history of sport, the economics of sport. They can write essays about sports. Why not? They let poets major in poetry. Who has the better shot at making a career out of their major?
4.     Require all sports scholarships to be four-year packages. If you recruit a kid and offer him a scholarship, you are committing to that kid for the full four years of his eligibility.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bike to Work Day Blowback

This Friday (May 20th) is Bike-to-Work Day, which I only know because I made the mistake of reading Danny Westneat's short column on "bike bitterness" this morning. The mistake wasn't in reading the column, actually. It was in reading some of the comments that followed. I don't know why I do that, but I'll save that personal psychology for later.

I've covered this over at my Real Running Blog, but it deserves a little more attention here in part because I see the battle being waged over cyclists on city streets as a mere symptom of a larger problem we have with civil discourse and community.

First let's deal with the anti-bike arguments, of which there is one somewhat valid claim to be made: Some cyclists are assholes. After that, the arguments against cyclists make no sense. Let me be clear about this: hate cyclists all you want, but don't wage war against them based on false, pseudo-political arguments that don't hold up to even the most elementary scrutiny.

One of the most common arguments against cyclists on city streets is some variant of the following:

They don't pay road taxes/They don't have to be licensed/Roads are for cars/They should have to pay their own way...

This convenient but flawed argument against cyclists is actually a derivative of the anti-tax movement championed by conservative politicians, pundits, and initiative sponsors like Tim Eyman. It isn't a call for fair taxation (which would require an upward gaze at radically unfair corporate and high-earner tax rates) but rather a misguided attempt to make everyone suffer equally at the base level. Put simply, "If I have to pay a gas tax, so should you!" (See also: arguments against public employee pensions, retirement plans, and health benefits.)

As for cycling, let's take the most extreme example possible. A cyclist owns a cheap, second-hand Huffy dirt bike, doesn't have a car or a driver's license, and rents a small apartment. He has never bought a gallon of gasoline in his life. Even this guy pays taxes that are used, ultimately, to build, pave, and maintain roads, most of which he will never, ever use. Road maintenance money comes from the general fund. It comes from property taxes, sales taxes, and other fees. Gas taxes make up a tiny portion of the transportation budget of ANY city. 

Our fictional cyclist is actually doing more to support the driving habits of his neighbors than they are supporting his access to the roads and bike lanes around the city. And in reality, the vast majority of cyclists are homeowners, consumers, and participants in the economy at a scale far higher than our fictional Huffy rider. Most own cars and put fuel in them on occasion. Most choose to ride once in a while, or only to work and back, only to gas up the car in the evenings to go out, to shuttle kids from place to place, or to generally be "normal" people who pay for and use the highways and roads.

It is also a fiction that roads are for cars. Roads are, by definition and in practice, transportation corridors. They are used by trucks, cars, machinery, pedestrians, and bicycles. That's the law. Because personal automobiles are the dominant users does not empower car drivers to claim their use solely for themselves (though I recognize this as a very American ethic when it comes to space and resources. Every user-group that has interest in the wilderness, for example, seeks to exclude the others).

As for licensing cyclists and/or their bikes, the idea itself isn't a terrible one, but it is a political and implementation impossibility. If the argument here is based in "paying your own way" in terms of license fees, there is no way the income generated would come close to covering the infrastructure and overhead needed to implement such a plan. Would a cyclist need a license only if she rode on the streets? What about kids? What about those who only ride on bike trails? See, for example, the clumsy attempt to license boaters in this state. It will not generate any revenue in the final accounting, and most current users are exempt.

Or perhaps you add a fee to the purchase of every bike in the state, a portion of which would go directly to the transportation fund? We already have that. It's called sales tax. Would double-taxation be fair in this case? Acceptable to the anti-tax wonks only because it targets a hated group?

And just to add an injury here, not one of us "pays our own way" on the streets. Your use is subsidized by those around you. And truth be told, the trucking companies pay the bulk of it. So if you think your daily commute is covered in terms of wear and tear on the streets, etc., by your individual taxes, you are wrong. If you had to pay for it yourself, you wouldn't be able to afford to drive anywhere.

Another common thread is some version of this gem:

Cyclists don't follow the rules/Cyclists are assholes/Cyclists are dangerous

These are all true if you put the words "some" or "a few" in front of each claim. I agree. Some cyclists don't follow the rules. On Tuesday this week, I watched a hip, urban fixe chick leave traffic on 2nd Avenue downtown, hop onto an empty sidewalk and slip back into traffic four cars ahead. While I was running on the Burke Gilman Trail yesterday a three-man peloton rushed passed me at over 20 mph and one of them clipped me on the shoulder. I've seen cyclists run stoplights and narrowly miss pedestrians in intersections. I've even seen a cyclist spit on a car. All true.

But didn't we learn in elementary school not to condemn an entire group of people based on the actions of the few? But what the hell, let's go ahead and do so for the sake of this little exercise.

This morning on my drive to work, I had to slam on my brakes when a woman in a Toyota Camry (which is an automobile, not a bicycle, for those who might not know) decided at the last minute to pull out of the espresso stand, making a left-hand turn across traffic.

My neighborhood has one of those automated "you are going too fast" signs on a street that is posted as a 35 mph zone. I regularly see numbers in the high 40s and even low 50s on that sign as I run up the sidewalk, and that isn't my foot speed, I assure you.

And the other day, moments after I saw our hip urban fixe chick hop the sidewalk, I was almost hit by a young man in a small sports car as he crossed all lanes of 2nd Avenue from right to left to get into a parking garage, rather than driving once around the block to do it legally.

So if ALL cyclists are assholes based on the actions of some, then all motorists are as well. Neither is true, but if one is, so is the other, and there goes the argument. No motorist follows every law. We pick and choose based on our sense of safety, control, and need. Ditto cyclists. Is 30 mph too slow for your needs and wants? So you go 35 instead, deciding you probably won't get caught and if you do you can afford the ticket. For a cyclist clipped into his pedals, maybe it is a worthwhile gamble to roll a stop sign rather than stop and restart. Each is choosing which laws to obey and break.

Further, in most cases cyclists are only a danger to themselves. If you are driving a car and a cyclist runs a light in front of you, he is going to suffer the worst of that transaction. Granted, the motorist is not unharmed emotionally and there is a chance the car is damaged in some way, but the law of tonnage suggests that cyclists usually lose. I have heard arguments but seen no evidence offered of car crashes caused by cyclists (where a car swerves into another or rear-ends someone in their attempt to avoid a rider).

And since I so love hypocrisy, it would be negligent of me to not include this argument:

Cyclists should stay in bike lanes/Cyclists should stay on trails/Cyclists should ride on the sidewalk/They can't have it both ways

You have to decide which way you want this one. Do you want cyclists off the roads? Then stop complaining about the mayor's pro-cycling budget and attitude. If you want cyclists to use bike lanes and trails, build more of them (and no, stenciling a bicycle on the pavement doesn't make the right lane a bike lane).

But if your argument is that "transportation taxes" should only be spent on pavement for cars, you have to allow for cyclists on the road. Make up your mind.

The bigger issue underlying all of this rhetoric and venom is what is best described as a massive disconnect between emotion and information. Facts be damned, if we perceive something to be true, it is true. There is no incentive to become informed, no reward for doing one's research.

In the case of motorist anger at cyclists, falsehoods about fairness and taxation dominate the rhetorical landscape despite that fact that none of the arguments hold water. Cyclists pay as much or more into the transportation budget as many motorists, and potentially use less of the system and cause less wear and tear on it. Cyclists require less infrastructure. But in part because they are a very visible minority (often dressed like clowns on space-aged looking machines) they are targeted by the largely anonymous majority.

This argument of convenience pops up everywhere. In the "debate" over funding for higher education, for example, you don't have to wait long to hear someone claim (falsely) that if we would stop subsidizing health care and education for illegal immigrants we could afford to pay more for education. No one making that claim is prepared to show how much is spent educating and caring for illegal immigrants, nor are they prepared to show that whatever that sum comes out to would be available for other uses.

In the end it comes down to a question I will never be able to answer and which will continue to baffle me.

Why don't people want to live in a community that is good for everyone and that meets the needs of the many? If we all act myopically and in our own self-interest, the systems suffer and the general health of the community goes down.

Even if you don't ride a bike, don't you want to live in a community that has miles and miles of recreational trails for your neighbors to use and for kids to get to and from school? Even if you don't have kids, don't you want to support schools so you have a community that raises educated, safe children? If you hate sports, can't you see the benefit of having athletic fields and stadiums so that those who get pleasure from sports can have a nicer life? I don't have a dog, but my taxes help fund dog parks, and those dog owners sure do seem happy to have them.

If my neighbor decides a long commute is desirable or necessary for his lifestyle, why would I begrudge him that and battle against roads? It seems contrary to the whole concept of living in a community.

And maybe therein lies the heart of it all. We don't want to live in communities. We want to live in little, fenced off, gated worlds of our own where we can delude ourselves into thinking we are off the social grid, going it alone, and paying our own way.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Political Fast Food. Or, the End of Public Higher Education.

I'm slowly coming to grips with the death of journalism. And as a fan of satire, I'm also getting more comfortable with the idea of fake news shows like The Daily Show becoming our last best source for reason and logic. Jon Stewart's role in the eventual passage of the stalled 9/11 responder's bill has been compared to Edward R. Murrow's participation in turning public opinion against Joseph McCarthy. That it took a comedian, on a fake news show, on basic cable, to bring the issue to the forefront is for me the last necessary proof of the demise of journalism.

Is Jon Stewart our last hope for real journalism in this country?

That all of the "traditional" major news outlets failed to bring to light the Republican filibuster of a bill that would help care for the men and women suffering from illnesses and injuries sustained as a result of their response to the attacks of September 11th 2001 is ridiculous.

The problem is that news delivered in satire (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, SNL Weekend Update) requires a sophisticated audience, and that audience is limited and dwindling. More on that later.

In its best iteration, a free press is a watchdog and a lens on the political machine, and brings the inner workings of the government into the public view. Today, the role of journalist has been abdicated by news outlets and left to the masses. The bloggers, the tweeters, and apparently the fake news show comedians. What passes now for legitimate news is nothing more than entertainment and politicking. What is supposedly "just" entertainment is now our last best hope for actual journalism. Rather than having news outlets on the outside, in the center, looking in at both parties and all players in the government, we have mouthpieces for the parties. Fox News isn't news. It's propaganda for the right. And MSNBC is a lame attempt to "counter" Fox News and their increasingly popular form of entertaining the bored masses.

Other news outlets are hamstrung by shrinking budgets and corporate ties that preclude them from investigating anything of meaning.

It's a brilliant scheme, if you're interested in profiting from the political machine. It's political fast food, served right to our television and computer screens. It's quick, it's simple, it's unchallenging, it's profitable, and it's very, very bad for us.

Like fast food, the discourse that passes for news in the modern world is popular because it is easy and cheap. And as much as I want to blame McDonalds, errr Fox News, for this, it's our fault, isn't it? We're the consumers. If we demanded something different, the market would deliver it to us. But there is an increasing demand for the tasteless, mass-produced, nutrition-free flavors of Fox News. Because they are creating the customers at a very young age.

Deep Fat Fried and Delicious: The Future of Education

Which brings me to my main point. Follow along as I predict the demise of public higher education...

Franklin supposedly believed that a functioning democracy relied on an educated populace. While there is some debate about what be meant by "educated," we like to translate that now as literate and thoughtful. The idea is that the individual, through education, can become knowledgeable enough to be trusted with his or her vote. Sure, the voter will decide things based primarily in his or her self-interest, but when everyone is doing this, the result is a representative impression of the citizenry.

This is why the conservative right hates education. They rely on simple thinking and need to be sure that no one pulls back the curtain to discover what is behind it all. Their message is increasingly incomprehensible to the educated and thoughtful. Worse, it is distasteful. So, like the tobacco industry before them, the GOP has to figure out how to keep creating customers in a world that should, by all measures, be trending more liberal than ever. Tobacco giants started hooking younger and younger kids on their product. Problem solved. The right is starting young, too. They're going after public education. Here's how it works.

You start by name calling. You go after the professionals in the field and engage in ad hominem attacks and a little crafty wordplay. Teachers and professors aren't professionals who have studied and worked hard. They're "liberal elites" who don't understand the "real world." You discount their accomplishments by casting aspersions on academia as a whole. Of COURSE the professor who studies politics thinks the GOP policies are flawed, he's a product of the liberal academic community!

Meanwhile, you go after the funding. But you can't just stop funding education, which in most states is the constitutional obligation of the government and is something of a sacred cow in budget development. What you do is make the bureaucracy of education so bloated and complex that it becomes unwieldy and ineffective. You demand - as a good fiscal conservative should - extensive accountability measures (which cost millions to implement) to make sure taxpayer money isn't being wasted. And you commission studies that compare other countries' education successes to the failures of our own, ignoring roughly a zillion variables that account for the differences (says someone who has conducted one such study).

And instead of funding education with hard dollars, you maintain budgets through soft money. Grants and awards from different agencies and companies. Those grants come with their own inefficiencies and often force the educational institution to steer energies and dollars in a direction they otherwise wouldn't. To get some funds, an arts school becomes a manufacturing school, for example, despite not having the student base nor the facilities for such a switch.

Now, once this is all in place, you sit and wait. While the public is flush with cash and jobs are plentiful, all is well with the world.

And now, when the economy goes in the tank, you point to the bloated bureaucracies of the schools and all the money being spent on wasteful accountability programs and middle management and you cut the hard money from the budget. All that's left are grants, gifts, and awards. But guess what, in a depressed economy, these go down too!

But you see, if you're the GOP, this is what you want. The dumber the population the better, because what you want to sell isn't good for anyone. The GOP (and to be fair, all high level politicians) is controlled by and for the causes of big corporations, and education isn't profitable (at least not in its purest form). The segment of our population that needs higher education the most (e.g. those who cannot pay for it out of pocket) will be increasingly denied access to education as the states shift the burden from the tax roles to the individual.

As our world gets more complex and global, as the issues that effect us get deeper and more difficult to understand, we need more education, not less. We need more sanity and reason, not hyperbole. The issues pundits choose to discuss are easily dichotomized (global warming, abortion, gay rights, taxes) so they are easy to yell about. But to actually think critically about any one of those issues can require time, focus, and knowledge. All of which a liberal arts education provides.

The Non Project is the new home for the random essays, thoughts, notes, and ideas that don't belong in any of my other writing projects. Topics are random and unfocused. Postings are sporadic and unpredictably timed. Follow The Non Project and share it with your friends. Comments and rants are welcomed and encouraged.