Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reposting an oldie, in honor of the day...

The advantages of size and might, as revealed by the Easter Egg Hunt

A large crowd clusters near the glass doors. All are gathered together on this morning via the annual ritual known as the Easter brunch, celebrating the epic Christian holiday that commemorates resurrection and rebirth.

Outside, it is a sunny but chilly spring morning. Inside, the room is full of people preparing for the Easter egg hunt. Little girls dressed in pretty dresses. Boys wearing button down shirts and khaki pants. Adults happy with the knowledge that spring has (hopefully) arrived.

All of the children are eager for the impending hunt. They cluster near the door for easy access to the patio outside. They see bright plastic eggs splash vibrant color on the beautiful green lawn. The excitement builds. You can hear the murmur of children wondering when it will start.

And finally, the moment all the children have been waiting for arrives. The doors open - and the crowd spills out past the patio and onto the well manicured lawn where the eggs lay in plain view.

Only the eagerness has turned into a frenzy. Younger children are getting pushed around by the bigger children. In the adults who watch, a worry tickles the mind - that the race for the eggs may get ugly. The stampede may result in a trampled child. That the lovely Easter morning may turn tragic.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On teaching at the university...

Harry B over at Crooked Timber has a post called "Paying for the Party" and it's about a book of the same name, which, according to the Amazon synopsis, is about "how college maintains inequality." The book follows a group women at a flagship public university in the Midwest (apparently, it's Indiana University in beautiful Bloomington) and showcases how the "party pathway" is detrimental to lower-income female students. 

Here's a bit of Harry's synopsis of the book:
"The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds."
He continues:
"The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low GPAs that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up."
 I have not read the book yet, but hope to soon (after the semester ends). I am new to the university setting - I have worked for many years in the private sector (freelance writer in the communications field in the 3rd largest market in the country.) A couple years ago, I became what's known as a "trailing spouse" and landed in the university setting, and I am teaching (for now.)

I have enjoyed teaching. It has been quite an interesting experience - what I love most is working with the students. 

However, in some students, there is a lack of responsibility that I find surprising - a tendency to blame others for their failure - to care only about the grade, but not about the work required to make the grade they want to make. I have other students who are ill-prepared for the rigors of university life - they are like deer in the headlights when I assign "critical thinking" assignments. These are not stupid students - they're bright and engaged, but trained to be the passive repository of information that they will spit out onto a test later in the semester. A lifetime of boiling all facts down to bubble tests makes them terrified of the task of wrangling data, facts, etc. into a coherent paper or presentation. Few know how to use commas, apostrophes or spell check (I go mad when grading papers - or in student language: paper's.)

I've had first generation students, extremely rich students, out-of-state students, students who take six courses while working 30 hours a week (how can they possibly put the required time into their studies? They can't - it's a joke - they simply cannot do the academic work they need to do - but they need to do this in order to graduate with as little debt as possible.)

I've had students who start the semester late because it's taken too long to figure out financial aid. I've had students get into serious, serious trouble and drop out. Many - too many - students are on medications to handle stress, anxiety, attention deficits, etc.

I DO wonder why college (and high school) students feel compelled to obliterate themselves by drinking. But that's not new - certainly that's not new at Indiana University, where both my siblings attended some years ago.

This book, "Paying for the Party" faults the university for the inequality that is maintained by the "party pathway." I have to say, I don't know how much a university can do to overcome a culture of teaching to the test, a culture that looks to pharmaceutical solutions for things like stress (which, surprise surprise, is a big issue around finals and midterms), a national culture (not isolated to the university) that makes it almost imperative to bear no responsibility for one's actions. Drinking so much that one cannot attend classes - that's a choice students make. According to the synopsis of this book (which again, I have not read), this flawed approach to college is detrimental ONLY to lower income students, who don't have connections that will pull them out of this black hole. What happens to the successful, non-drinking lower income students? Or are they all lost?

Though this book blames the university's blind eye to undergraduate binge drinking issues, it really seems to point to inequality as the problem, not necessarily the culture of drinking. And so I have questions prompted by Harry's post...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Upsetting the system"

Joe Nocera's column takes a look at Jamie Dimon's "very long day."

It was a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day" (LOVE that book!) for Dimon because it included fines of more than $1 billion - $920 million to appease for overwhelming splash of the London Whale, and $389 in fines and restitution for "selling bogus services" to its credit card customers.

FINALLY, a bank is forced to pay for its criminally foolishness behavior! But it's 2013 - banks have long been acting criminally foolish - why have there been no real fines up to now? (I simply cannot accept the $550 million fine $GS had to pay for the fraudulent Abacus deal as being a serious and significant fine for a company with $13.4 billion in profit that very same year.)

So why so long before seeing a relatively serious fine for extremely serious infractions? Nocera attributes this to "unfortunate timing." Had the Whale flopped in 2009, the government would have bent over backward to accommodate Chase. According to reporting done by American Banker newspaper, timing is everything:
“The reason is simple,” said the newspaper. “The government then was more worried about harming the system and did not want to potentially upset markets by assessing large fines.”
I see. In a system that had harmed itself in ways that dramatically brought down the global economy, people in power firmly believed holding those responsible would "harm the system." That it has taken five terrible, horrible, no good, very bad years to begin to hold bankers accountable for fraudulent and damaging behaviors is five years too long. And that's a terrible legacy for Obama to leave....

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hoarders: the update

Guess what! After news reports focused attention on the company's unnecessary hoarding practices of metal, Goldman Sachs now pledges a way to make the delays disappear.

The news is too late for at least one institution that decided to change a key business practice due to the recent high costs of metal.  

I wonder how this will change Goldman's strategic outlook on metals. Perhaps metals are not so lucrative now that the artificial shortage is alleviated?  

Metals are not the only market Goldman likes to manipulate. Goldman's sacrificial lamb has been found liable in the massive CDO fraud case that lost one of its clients $1 billion as the same deal gained another client an equal sum.

And there are other recent stories about the damage inflicted by Goldman in other areas:

At some point, someone, somewhere is going to have to halt the predatory practices of this company. What's good for Goldman is NOT good for the rest of us.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Seems I moved to Oceania...

Two years ago, I moved from Illinois to North Carolina. It was a jarring move - I'm a life-time resident of the Land of Lincoln, a state where politics are considered a true sporting event. Yet despite the state-wide passion for political sport, governance of that state is at an all-time low. Governors tend to end up in jail. Illinois is facing a terrible fiscal crisis caused by unfunded pensions. Pat Quinn, Illinois' current governor, is now withholding legislator salaries until the passage of pension reform; House Speaker Mike Madigan, the most powerful man in the state, has filed suit because he wants his paycheck regardless of whether or not a significant, long-term problem is solved for the state.

Because of the serious and ongoing political issues of Illinois, I was, to be frank, looking forward to a change of pace. 

And the Tar Heel state CERTAINLY has provided that for me... in spades! The GOP has taken charge - and as a colleague told me the other day, the state today is vastly different than the state I moved to two years ago.

What is the Tar Heel State?
North Carolina is a fascinating state; very rural in many places, but with an extraordinary focus on innovation in the Research triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill). According to the US Census, the median family income is about $46,000, ranking it in the bottom half of the United States. Poverty is a significant issue - about 16 percent of the state's residents live in poverty.

Geographically, it's the widest state in the nation; bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the beautiful Outerbanks, and on the west, it holds the magnificent beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains. This is a state with historical significance - North Carolina is one of the 13 original colonies; home of some of the first English colonial settlements. 

The Wright brothers first took flight here in this state, at Kitty Hawk. Sometimes, what happens in North Carolina can transform the world. 

Education long a priority
North Carolina has been known for its focus on education. My children are in the local schools; I've been exceptionally happy with their teachers, with their principal, with their supplementary teachers in band and art. I love my school; I appreciate the local businesses who support our fundraisers. 

It seems, however, that North Carolina is in a transformational moment right now. And not for the better. The 2013 legislative session was one that seized (for a moment or two) the attention of the nation, with stories by the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, among others.

At one point, the 2013 North Carolina legislative session floated the idea of creating a state religion. This was the session that introduced "motorcyclevagina" into our cultural lexicon, shut down abortion clinics in the state and created what some call the worst voter suppression bill in the country.

And then there's education. The 2013 budget has an enormous impact on education as well.

Why I live in Oceania
If you look at the governor's website, the new budget seems like a dream come true for educators, with more money than ever before for education, allowing for investments in early childhood education, $10 million set aside for merit pay for deserving teachers, more resources for digital learning.

But people are not happy. Why is that?

Because North Carolina has become an Orwellian Oceania. Because the governor who likes to give cookies to people protesting serious issues is being disingenous with the facts.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hoarders - the Bank Holding Company version...

Americans, dragged down by a sagging economy, high unemployment and a rather astonishing number of people living at risk of poverty, have new reality show to watch: Hoarders - the bank holding company version.

Emboldened by bonuses supplied by the US taxpayer and bolstered by the lack of any oversight or consequences for reprehensible behaviors on Wall Street that led to the collapse of the economy, America's biggest "bank holding companies" are expanding their businesses. No longer content to supply loans and CDOs and synthetic CDOs, those clever Ivy-educated bankers are in the commodities storage business.

And they're hoarding these commodities like those hoarders you can watch on A&E.

What does this mean? Your cans of Pepsi, Budweiser and Heineken have just gotten pricier. And the hoarders on Wall Street have just gotten richer.

This Business Insider story quotes a Goldman Sachs "commodities strategist" on how  "for investors, the case for holding commodities as a strategic move is still clear...."

Of course a Goldman Sachs strategist will say that - they're in control of the strategy and the activity that will lead to rising prices for commodities that the bank holding companies are pushing from storage facility to storage facility. (Once the commodity reaches the actual market and is sold, the price can't go up any higher, an alarming thought for any Goldman strategist...)

John Oliver on The Daily Show refers to it as a "merry-go-round of metal," and notes that "the new version of Monopoly is actually perfect. You just move pieces of metal around and around in a circle, collecting money whenever you want, and it's guaranteed that nobody is going to jail."

New York Times has weighed in on this, noting that:
"Policy makers must thoroughly investigate the aluminum warehousing strategies to determine whether Goldman and other warehouse operators distorted prices. They should also take a fresh look at whether banks should really be in the business of owning warehouses and other physical infrastructure."
Fat chance! In 2009, Dick Durbin went on a radio show and said:
"And the banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."
So they own Congress. And now they own the storage facilities that can be used to park various commodities. And there's nothing anyone can do to stop them.

Or wait... perhaps there IS an entity that can hit back at the bankers with equal force. Not Congress... not consumers. The white knights that may come to America's rescue could be other capitalists - like those at businesses whose bottom line is being reduced by the greedy bankers who are hoarding what they need.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

North Carolina is what happens when the Tea Party is in charge

The North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) has been exceptionally busy this week. They passed a budget that trashes primary and secondary education - siphons money from public schools to charter schools, offers no raises to teachers (who've been without a raise for years), offers no incentives for teachers to get a masters degree; removes the possibility of tenure from new hires.

And that's just education. And it follows remarks McCrory made earlier in the year about higher education in North Carolina, home to the first public university in the country:
“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told host Bill Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job."

They've just passed one of the most restrictive voter ID bills in recent history (THANK YOU SCOTUS, NOT!)

They've also passed one of the most alarming gun bills in America - allowing guns in schools and on campus (in locked cars), allowing patrons to bring concealed guns into bars, and prohibiting local municipalities from regulating the presence of guns in their parks and on greenways.

More than 900 people have been arrested for peaceably assembling in front of the capital during Moral Mondays. Apparently, the constitutional rights of citizens only matter when it comes to the 2nd Amendment.

This is a state that has also made "disturbing" cuts to unemployment benefits.

Of course, the loudmouths in Raleigh keep talking about jobs... but never act to create them. 

One of the first acts of the newly elected Governor earlier this year was to give his cabinet a raise, "so they could afford to live...." 

Unfortunately, McRory and his cronies are creating a state where only he and his buddies will be able to live. 

More on the actions of NCGA here and here.