Tag Archives: Chicago

A Strong and Belated Opinion About the Lucas Museum

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Urbs in horto

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art isn’t coming to Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is very angry about this. Rahm wants you to think he’s angry because Chicago lost a great opportunity for a new public cultural attraction. He also wants you to think that a small group of killjoys ruined Chicago’s chances to accept a very generous gift from George Lucas, the very same man who very generously gave the world Jar Jar Binks.

I love this story. I love that our bullying mayor and the billionaire behind Howard the Duck  could line up the Chicago City Council, the Illinois Legislature, and the Park District, and then get whupped by a troubled advocacy organization, Friends of the Parks. Score a win for the little guys!

mayor1percent-600Or..the little guys didn’t win, and nobody got beat.  Rahm isn’t angry about missed opportunities. Rahm is angry because he needed a win, and he lost. There is one thing our racially divided city agrees on: Rahm sucks. The only thing interrupting news stories about the dire state of our schools are news stories about gun violence and police brutality. He invested his last two ounces of prestige for a legacy project and blew it.

Worse for Rahm, he sided with a raging egomaniac who likes to take his toys and go home. Here’s what got overshadowed in the coverage of the museum: George Lucas, the chinless former wunderkind writer of Willow, quit. Was there a lawsuit to stop the museum? Yes, but it never actually went to trial.  All of the legal action in the case was the city trying to get the case dismissed, and a federal judge allowing it to proceed. The city tried to get the case thrown out twice, and then engaged in some extravagant legal tricks to argue that the case shouldn’t be in court in the first place. Chicago is pretty good about keeping things out of court, usually by paying huge settlements to people brutalized by cops. So I guess you could see why Rahm thought this would work.

The mayor and the writer of Captain Eo insist that the case was about Friends of the Parks preserving a parking lot. Who would want to do that? Surprising answer: no one. The mayor wanted to get his 9.5 fingers into lakefront property that is protected as a public trust. Friends of the Parks argued, and the judge agreed, that building the museum would primarily benefit a private entity, namely George Lucas’ Death Star-sized ego in edificial form. It’s not about a parking lot – it’s about preserving the lakefront for public use. And Friends of the Parks hoped that the parking lot could be returned to public use sometime before the 297 year lease on the museum ran out.

Let’s talk about the ego of the man who brought us Strange Magic.  Who offers a museum with the huge condition that it be built on a waterfront? Even if you think it was dumb to preserve a parking lot, is it any less dumb to offer to build a museum and be completely inflexible on the location?   As the Tribune pointed out “We wonder whether Lucas appreciates the irony that he could hold his 2013 wedding on Promontory Point only because Chicago for nearly two centuries had protected that stretch of lakefront from the kind of development he now demands for himself at another lakefront site.” Not surprisingly, San Francisco rejected this sort of ultimatum, which is why Lucas brought his toys to us in the first place.

Yes, three other museums make up the “campus” on the lakefront, and when the Bears play at home Soldier Field becomes the Museum of Minorities Concussing Themselves. Tiny Dancer said, “museums belong on a museum campus,” apparently forgetting about the non-campused Museum of Science and Industry. And the Art Institute. And the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. He really wants to forget about the Chicago Children’s Museum. That museum caused all sorts of controversy when it wanted to move onto public land in Grant Park until – wait for it – it was quashed by Mayor Emanuel in 2012. At the time, he reasoned that it was better to keep the museum in Navy Pier “as a strong pillar in the redevelopment vision” for Chicago’s best place to get shit on by seagulls.

Perhaps Rahm could’ve stuck with this idea for redevelopment when the genius who brought you Tucker: The Man and His Dream came knocking. The mayor could have suggested building the museum on the Michael Reese Hospital site. There are two big advantages there: it’s not far from Lucas’ fantasy site, and the city has owned it for seven years. Just look what we’ve done with it:

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The property was bought when Chicago’s previous petit autocrate, Mayor Daley, decided that we really needed the 2016 Summer Olympics. We dodged that bullet, but taxpayers are left holding the bag for the original $91 million plus another $43 million in interest if isn’t sold soon. Instead, Mayor Emanuel came up with a different plan to build the museum on the site of the current McCormick Place. This plan would have required $1.2 billion in state funds. In Illinois. In case you haven’t noticed, state funds in Illinois aren’t easy to come by. And oddly enough, this violated one of the rules of the original site selection committee: that it not cost any money to Chicago taxpayers. 

Let’s pretend that Father Michael Pfleger forgot about the $200,000 George Lucas gave his church in 2014 when he questioned the motives of Friends of the Parks.  Why not move the museum to a site the city already owns and give a boost to development in area south of downtown for a change? It can’t just be because the idea man behind Red Tails had his heart set on being near the water, can it?

Now that the project is dead, we’re supposed to bow our heads at the lost tourists, tax dollars, and jobs the museum would’ve brought. Boosting tourism, taxes, and jobs sounds a lot like the argument Daley used to hype the Olympics and the one used to build sports stadiums, both of which rarely work out well for cities.  First, people have a finite amount WattoHSof money. The dollars spent buying a replica Hayden Christensen Oscar at the Lucas Museum can’t also be spent on whatever the hell it is you buy at Navy Pier. Second, all the traffic caused by the whimsical Phantom Menace: Racist Alien Caricatures exhibit will probably keep other people from going to the Shedd Aquarium. This is already true: visiting the museum campus is a nightmare during a Bears game. But Soldier Field is a Park District building, and the Bears lease it for $6 million a year. The Park District can use it or lease it out for other things the rest of the time. Chicago could wait until 2313 for the same access to the Lucas Museum.

I’m not the sort of creative genius who could bring you Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like George Lucas, and 70% of Black Chicagoans don’t think I suck. But I have an idea: what if Rahm redirected all of his docile allies and the cajoling, bullying, and lawyers, into repairing Chicago’s infrastructure and making people less afraid of being shot? I bet tourists would like that. You know who else would like that? Chicagoans. We could also go for having enough police on the streets and having a reasonable expectation that they were accountable. A new museum would be nice; nicer still would be families not fleeing to the cultural desolation of the suburbs because our schools might not open in the fall. It wouldn’t be as visible a legacy as a new museum, but it would be a great story about the failing Mayor who fixed Chicago – the guy I voted for twice. Maybe Rahm could get George Lucas to chip in – the guy wrote an ok story long, long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These Clowns Totally Prepared Our Kids. Just Not How We Wanted.

When my eldest son was pre-school age, my wife and I went on a tour of the University of Chicago’s Lab School. It was a formative experience. Here’s what we learned from the mom hosting the tour:

(a)arts classes don’t matter
(b) there is no homework and no grades in the elementary program
(c) the food of  Asian children smells funny
(d) that children with physical disabilities often “feel more comfortable somewhere else”.

I remember that last line clearly. One thing was emphasized over and over again on the tour: : students at Lab were constantly “evaluated for fit” during their careers to make sure they could continue on. Fitting in is important. And you can only do that if you eat appropriately fragrant food, learned piano on your own time, and please – don’t limp. I

You would think this would remove all sorts of kids from consideration at Lab. Heck no. Each person from the school took pains to say how diverse the school was. Mayor Emanuel sends his kids there, as does recently resigned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Diversity: when kids of local and federal officials are at your school. At one point on our tour, I asked our host if “diversity” meant actual economic diversity, or just racial diversity. All I got was a blank stare. And an elbow from my wife. It was a dumb question: the diverse student body at Lab is filtered through a screen of eye-watering tuition: more than $30k a year, plus an expectation that you’ll “donate” more to the school. If a Potemkin village had a school, it would be like Lab.

clowns

The Potemkin Village might also choose Gems World Academy, a school so fancy that it exists in a residential area of Chicago I didn’t know existed – because there’s only one road in and out. I found myself in the lobby a few months ago. On a table near the giant touchscreens was a brochure extolling the diversity of the school, and focusing on their “core values,” which include “global citizenship.” Gems and Lab’s competitor, the Latin School, also wants to “shape leaders” for a diverse world. Francis Parker seeks to create “citizens and leaders…in a global community.” Francis Parker is also where the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Forrest Claypool, sends his kids – though he tries not to talk about it. I don’t know why it’s a big deal, it’s totally ok to run a public school system without actually having kids in public schools.

These elite private schools have tuitions higher than the per capita national income of all but 20 countries (I checked). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the global community. Just not the whole global community. The good parts. The parts without smelly food, limping weird kids, and poor people. And the students they’re turning out are absolutely prepared for a global community. But it’s a gated community.

For schools that make such strong claims about diversity, it’s awfully hard to get data on their demographics. And it seems to be impossible to get information on their expulsion, suspension, and attrition rates -their filters. Of course, if they published it, it might cause a minor scandal, like the when data from Chicago’s charter schools went public. That was especially embarrassing, because even while filtering out the difficult kids, they still didn’t do much better than the traditional schools – the very places where those filtered-out kids land. Charter schools. For parents who want choice. But not informed choice.

All of this makes me feel incredibly smug, since my kids go to a Chicago public school. No filtering here! Well, except for the fact that it’s a magnet school. Getting into a magnet school lottery required some work: a year before my son was to enter kindergarten, we attended information sessions, did research at the library, and filled out a bunch of forms. It was pretty confusing, and I’m a native English speaker used to dealing with public bureaucracy. And the end result is that my kids’ school is much wealthier and whiter than nearly any Chicago neighborhood school.

Nevertheless, our school is facing cuts like every other publically funded school, including the charters. Forrest Claypool, former Cook County Board member, head of the park district, and the CTA, appointee of our angry little Democratic mayor, is asking parents to to lobby the Democratically-controlled state legislature for education funding. You would think a veteran Democrat serving as CEO of the largest school system in the state would take the lead on that. But why should our leaders lead? This is Chicago. Claypool’s predecessor is going to jail, so he’s actually an improvement.  Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Illinois House, who has been in power almost non-stop since 1983, and the Governor, still test driving the office he bought last year, are in an epic pissing match. So this seems unlikely to end well.

Meanwhile, my sons get to ride the listing ship of public education. Nothing is the same year to year. Programs start and then are eliminated. Same with staff. Young teachers have kids and leave for the suburbs, because there’s no guarantee they can get their kids through the lottery process. Oh, and there was that teacher’s strike.

My wife and I sent our kids to public schools for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was this: we knew it was going to be a bit rough navigating the system, and we knew they’d meet people who weren’t like them. We thought that going through CPS would prepare them for adult life in the actual global community – tremendously diverse and more than a little challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding if you pay attention and invest some effort.

It turns out we were right about preparing them for adult life, but we had the context all wrong. In Chicago, a fair amount of money can buy you a gleaming existence free of the systemic failure, difficult people, and occasional unpleasantness everyone else contends with daily. Those without the means do their best to play within the system, selecting among bad choices and watching the value of their efforts steadily decline.

When I think about it that way, I figure that we probably didn’t do a great job preparing kids for the world, but we did a stupendous job of preparing them for America.

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How to Die, the Chicago Way

Everyone knows that Chicago has a murder problem. Gun violence and my city are practically synonymous. More importantly, we have a problem talking about Chicago’s murder problem. The Tribune starts out each week with a murders-per-hour recap of the weekend. What insight does this provide? None. Most shootings and homicides happen over the weekend – it’s like mowing the lawn. The Tribune also makes sure to compare the current pace of shootings and killings year-on-year. So does the Sun Times.  What do you do with this data? I don’t know, but I like numbers in my news. Murder: it’s like following the Dow Jones!

Being shot is how you die in Chicago, right? Nope. Chicago’s murder rate doesn’t even put us in the top 10 of murders per capita in America. In your face, Kansas City! Of course, the Daily Beast points out that it might be that our paramedics are getting better, or our gunmen are getting worse. So that’s encouraging.

At 407 murders (2014) for a city of 2.7 million, killing in Chicago is a more popular thing to talk about it than it is to actually do (even if you accept that the numbers are cooked). Murder happened to just .015% of Chicagoans in 2014. Put another way: the Cubs have won the World Series twice in their 112 year history. That’s about 2% – 133 times as much. If I threatened to kill you if the Cubs win the World Series this year, would you worry? Of course not! Because you know the Cubs are a tourist trap, not a baseball team, and tourist traps have no reason to win the World Series.

Murder is the Chicago way to die, but it’s not the way most Chicagoans actually kick the bucket. So what is? I wanted to know, so I poked around on the Department of Public Health’s mortality statistics page. You want to die like a Chicagoan? Here’s how:

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Watch a ballgame, drink a bunch, and enjoy some deep dish pizza.

Well, maybe not those exact things, but the combination of alcohol, a low fiber diet, and the three hours of inactivity associated with watching baseball are excellent indicators for colo-rectal cancer, which kills more Chicagoans per year than homicide. My three part investigative series Your Ass: The Killer Behind You, will be published in the Trib this fall.

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Act like wanna-be academic, short-term US Senator and former Chicagoan Barack Obama.

Lung cancer killed almost 6,000 Chicagoans in a four-year period. Obama has had a hard time giving up the habit, even though one cigarette takes 11 minutes off your life. Of course, if those 11 minutes were to be spent at a Cubs game, you might choose to smoke.

Combine numbers 1 and 2, and give yourself nearly every behavioral risk factor for a stroke.

Death by stroke has been a celebrated Chicago tradition since it provided the demise of Al Capone, Chicago’s most famous criminal never elected to public office. It doesn’t seem like a particularly tough way to die for the guy behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but neither does going insane from syphilis, which also happened to him.

capone

Close the garage door, leave the car running.

You know what’s weird? Spike Lee has rejected my script about people in Chicago dying in poorly ventilated garages.   Unintentional injury kills thousands of people, and the leading cause is accidental poisoning. I suspected the popularity of Italian Beef might have something to with this, but it turns out it’s just boring old carbon monoxide poisoning and drug overdoses.

Eat more salt. Eat more of everything. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most distinctive way to die in Illinois is kidney disease. If you combine kidney disease with the number one cause of kidney disease, diabetes, then you kill a whole lot of Chicagoans.

Ok, fine. Be a male gang member and get involved with the local drug trade.

Why fight the stereotype? If you want to get offed, this is the way to do it. Half the homicides in Chicago in 2014 were gang-related, and 350 of the 393 victims were men. An awful lot of them involved narcotics. After reviewing this information, I have a bold public policy recommendation: limited legalization of drugs, provided they’re bought by women and sold through street gangs, which must be all-female. I bet a lot of things would change if every punk had to give his girlfriend the money to score some smack.

Choose your friends poorly and fight with your family.  

Lots of people in Chicago are killed by their partners, and about half of all people murdered were killed by someone they knew or were related to. This Thanksgiving, look around the table and think about which of those people will kill you when shit gets real. Oh – and if one of your nearest and dearest gets offed, you’re going to want to lay low for a while. A connection to a murder victim increases your chances of being murdered by 900%.

The Chicago Police are worried about who you spend time with. In their characteristically poorly thought-out and tone-deaf way, they suggest that you “be smart about with whom you hang out.” CPD knows that formal grammar really speaks to the kids. The cops also suggest that “before allowing someone in your car, ask if they have illegal drugs or guns with them.” Good idea.  The little jerks in our soccer carpool better fess up.

There’s one other way. 

Be a young Black man. Murder victims in Chicago are overwhelmingly a very small subset of the population:  Black men ages 15-34. It’s the leading cause of death for that cohort.

I’m not saying that we cover homicide and gun violence in Chicago like sports scores and stock market averages because it happens to Black people. Oh yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. There were 52 homicides in Chicago last month, and I can’t name the victim or the perpetrator of one them. But I knew there were 52!

I can, however, name the perpetrators of a number of recent rampage shootings. This essay from NPR points out that if those 52 Chicagoans were killed all at once, the story would be covered as a mass shooting and get full national press coverage complete with profiles of the victims and perpetrator.  We have a “homicide problem” in Chicago, though, and so a few dozen killings a month aren’t a surprise. Mass shootings, though. Those are terrifying and darkly fascinating aberrations.

Unless, of course, you understand “aberration” to mean diverging from normal. Because mass shootings happen all the time, and they’re getting more frequent. Early this summer, mass shootings were averaging one a day. Makes you shudder to think about what normal might be, doesn’t it?

Thanks to the chaos in Mexico, America has only the second highest homicide rate among wealthy, developed countries. But it seems pretty clear that lots more people are going to die the Chicago way.

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I’m Happy to Pay Chicago’s Surcharge on Stupidity

I’m a Chicagoan, and I’m about to face an increase in property taxes, while the city prepares to make $200 million in cuts to the very public schools my kids are enrolled in. Also, on January 1, 2016 it seems pretty likely that my sales tax will be increased by 1% to 10.25%, which means I will start the new year with the satisfaction of paying the highest sales tax in the nation.  As of July 1, I’m already paying a tax on Netflix. The city raised hundreds of millions of dollars from me and my neighbors by shortening yellow lights and entrapping us with otherwise useless red light cameras.  Illinois has the highest state and local tax obligations, the second-highest real estate taxes in the nation, and among the least fair tax systems. Fun fact: Illinois is called the Land of Lincoln not for the president, but for Lincoln Smith, who made a killing running three card monte at Rush and Division back in the day.

You’d think I’d be outraged about all of this., but I’m not. Like everyone else in my city and state, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and given the choice between paying attention to all of this and paying higher costs for worse public services, I chose the latter. It’s like an ignorance surcharge. I’m a stupid person, and it’s not worth it to make myself smarter. Thinking and learning make my brain hurt!

You. Fork it over.

You. Fork it over.

One of the things I would rather not think about is the property tax increase. It’s coming because the city, abetted by the state, completely mismanaged the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. The cock-up didn’t start recently. If I were paying attention, I would’ve noticed that they’ve been mismanaging it for 20 years. Here’s an article from three years ago, describing what was then already a celebrated mess. I didn’t read it, though. It has numbers and graphs. I also don’t want to ponder the broader fuster cluck of public pensions in Chicago or Mayor Rahm’s plan to save the city with a giant casino, so I’m not going to. All of this math and finance is interminably boring and depressing. I’m a Chicagoan. It’s July. I’ve got the Sox and Cubs for interminably boring and depressing – and they have the upside of the opportunity for public drunkenness.

I’m a big dummy, and I’m sort of a racist. You know what numbers I pay attention to? The numbers of shootings that take place over the Fourth of July weekend. Shootings of minorities, that is. They’re overwhelmingly the people who get shot in Chicago, and I join my neighbors in comparing how many of them are shot this year vs. previous years. You know, like they were batting averages. We’re not following shootings because we’re scared. We’re following it so we can advance our armchair sociological theories about poor minorities! Don’t believe me? Read the comments section on this article.  Or my neighborhood discussion board. We’re stupid, and worried when the depravity we associate with the (Black) South Side seems to be happening on the (White) North Side. This raises the biggest fear we morons have: declining property values. What will happen if our neighbors flee to the unlimited breadsticks of the suburbs and minorities move in next door?

I've got a theory about this.

I’ve got a theory about this.

I’m too stupid to trouble myself about big picture social problems in Chicago – things like gross inequality, segregation, or failing public education. I’m also too dumb to be worried about aggravating factors like the lack of funding for infrastructure, public transportation, mental health facilities, etc. Smart people might look at these things and think that they’re precisely the sort of thing that our public officials should deal with. But we’re not smart people. When we consider someone for public office in Chicago, the most important question to ask is “are they related to another elected official?”  There’s only one other enterprise in Chicago so tied up with family connections: the mob. If I were smarter, I’d probably make something of that.

I get the stupid politicians that stupid people deserve. Our recent mayoral election was between a dissembling bully and Santa Claus’ slightly less munificent little brother. I’ve got the low expectations of a moron, and my public officials sometimes even fail to meet those. Chicago has the most corrupt politicians in the country. The federal judicial district for northern Illinois has more public corruption convictions than any other in the country – and this is a nation that still includes New Orleans and Albany. In 2013 alone, there were 45 corruption convictions. From 1976 to 2013 there were 1,642!

As a nitwit, I’d rather pay higher taxes than demand more from my public officials. It’s a convenient arrangement, because all of this corruption is expensive as hell. A couple of political scientists figure that it costs Illinois about $500 million a year. The hired truck scandal cost Chicagoans $15 million a year over 10 years. Illinois could potentially knock 5.2% off its budget if it weren’t for all the patronage hiring and bogus contracts. The number I don’t want to think about most is this: in the decade to 2014, the city of Chicago paid half a billion dollars to settle misconduct lawsuits against our police. That’s apparently enough to build “five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, (and) repave 500 miles of arterial streets.” Schools? Libraries? That sounds like stuff for smart people.

I don’t want to know about this, and luckily, our news doesn’t tell us. Like most Americans, I get my news from TV. Less reading. And our local news does a terrible job of covering local politics and government. In a typical 30 minute broadcast, one study found that exactly one minute was dedicated to politics. And thank God, too. Covering stuff that’s going to cost me money and impact my quality of life might cut into the seven minutes of sports and weather coverage. Here’s what I want in my news: information I could get by guessing that tomorrow will be like today. The weather will probably be within a few degrees and the Cubs probably choked in the 6th. Once that’s covered fill in the rest with ads for storm windows and coverage of people who got shot. Done and done.

Given the choice between paying more attention and paying a few extra dollars a year, I’m taking the latter. People say that you get what you pay for. I pay for not having to pay attention to any of this. Seems like a good deal to me.

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I F%&cking Love Standardized Tests. And So Do You.

This spring, Illinois and a bunch of other states rolled out a new standardized test: PARCC. PARCC and, it seems, the very idea of standardized testing has become controversial, with organizations actively organizing against them.  When I asked my son how it went, he said “fine.” This week, my son took another test, the NWEA MAP test. I also asked how it went. He said, even more anti-climatically, “fine.” He shrugged, then launched into a lengthy discourse about Fennekin, a fire-type that evolves into Braixen.

Given that my son’s feeling about testing was identical in intensity to his daily feelings about his lunch, it’s surprising how many parents choose to opt out of the exams on their child’s behalf. This is particularly curious, because -full disclosure- most people I know are privileged white people. Which means that:

(1) we likely chose our school based on the scores for tests that now we don’t want our kids to take
(2) our children will do well on these tests, since standardized test results track heavily to socioeconomic level
(3) we’re screwing the teachers we profess to love by removing our high-performing kids from the test results on which they’re evaluated
(4) we’re forcing the administrators  to find something else to do with our non-test taking kids, which won’t be classroom learning because everyone else in the classroom is taking the test.

But let’s leave all that rationality aside. We’re well-off white people. Being privileged means not having to be rational (see for example not eating bread). But I am throwing off the shackles of my socioeconomic class to say this:

I F%$CKING LOVE STANDARDIZED TESTS.

I f%$cking love standardized tests because they prepare my kids for college. We’re only seven or so years away from my third grader taking the ACT or SAT so that he can go to a college everyone has heard of. A few years after that, he will take the MCAT, the LSAT, or the GMAT so he can get a good job, drive a late model import, and fill his open floor plan house with Pottery Barn. In the evenings, he’ll be on the junior leadership board of an organization that gives food or money to adorable minority children. Or badminton lessons to the homeless. I f%$cking love standardized tests because I want what every privileged white person wants for their children: to be happy. That is, to be happy with commonly recognized symbols of prosperity. 

I f%$cking love standardized tests because they prepare my kids for life. Life is full of having to do long, stupid tasks because someone in charge tells you to. Do these opt out parents not have jobs? Have they never had a boss ask them to develop a bunch of SMART goals, then tell them to put them in a spreadsheet, not a Word document, then ask them to save it in the 97-2003 Excel format because they’re working off an old laptop at home, and then come back a day later and say they actually want SMARTER goals,because “evaluate” and “revise” are important steps as well, but not as important as the fact that she read a Lifehacker article on SMARTER goals on the elliptical that morning and thought it sounded cool? What skills learned in school will teach my kids to deal with this? Do “fact triangles” prepare you for the over-promoted? No. Does “chunking” words help you remain calm when dealing with the functionally illiterate HR person? Absolutely not. And what about dealing with the cable company, the county records office, or going to the Post Office?

I want my kids to know that life is about getting through 40 hours a week of inane, meaningless tasks for the few glorious evening hours on the weekend you get to spend farting on the couch playing Arkham Origins before you fall asleep. I f%$cking love standardized tests because there really is no better preparation for the endurance and endless humiliations required of an adult life.

I f%&cking love standardized tests because they turn your kid into a number. I read a parent’s complaint once about how standardized tests don’t tell you anything about the “real” child. That’s true. But do you really want anyone to know the “real” child? My real children, if left to their own devices, would eat cream cheese with their fingers, wash it down with Capri-Sun squirted in the direction of their face hole, wipe their hands on their shirts, and then sit pantsless on the floor staring at comic books until their eyes crusted over. The whole point of school is to keep my kids from being “real” kids! To give them a common knowledge base, something that resembles a universal set of skills, and the rules in which to live in a polite society. You know, standards. 

But mostly, I f%&cking love standardized tests because with that number, I can achieve the one thing that all parents want: to know if my kid is better than yours. Remember when we compared our kids’ birth weights?  Then we compared where they fell on the height and weight percentages. Plus, we could compare them on months to rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking. And then school started, and, what? We’re too polite to do that any more? Bullshit. Grades only tell me if they’re meeting the teachers’ expectations, and who cares about the expectations of people who took low paying jobs to be public punching bags? What do they know? Worse, I don’t know what grades your kid got. so they’re not relative. Standardized tests are. With standardized tests, I get to know that in a room of 100 peers, my kid can read better than some number of them and do math better than some other number. That is a black and white number issued by the government telling me precisely how good my kid is.  It’s parent crack. I want these numbers every day.

I f%&cking love standardized tests. And so do you.

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Should I Vote for Chuy Again?

I didn’t vote for Rahm “Tiny Dancer” Emanuel Tuesday night. I don’t like his lack of transparency, his fondness for privatizing public education, and probably dozens of other things. I generally just don’t like him. So I voted for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and made lots of jokes about throwing my vote away. Ha ha. It turns out that Tiny Dancer is going to face Chuy again in a run-off in April. Tiny Dancer failed to convince 51% of Chicagoans to vote for him. Let me say that a different way. Tiny Dancer failed to convince 51% of the 32.7% of registered voters that showed up– or ~237,000 of ~464,000 – to vote for him.

He usually only extends one finger

He usually only extends one finger

Here’s one thing the voters did agree on: Chicago should have an elected school board. Close to 90% of voters supported the idea. Well, 90% of the voters in the 37 of 50 wards that had the issue on the ballot. Not all of them did, because the Chicago City Council prevented the issue from appearing across the city.  Nevertheless, surveys show that the idea is popular among Chicagoans.

Let’s set aside the fact that changing the nature of school board is a matter of state law. And we should set aside the fact that Bruce Rauner, who is enjoying  the Governor’s seat he bought last year, is against it. Let’s also set aside that this is Chicago, home of the Cubs. We like hopeless wastes of time. Oh, also: the irony of wanting to vote for another local office when we’re barely bothering to turn out to vote for the current offices in the first place.

I get the idea: an elected school board would put a check on the power of the Tiny Dancer.  We need an elected body in Chicago that could reign in his autocratic ways and give a voice to the people! Time for a civics lesson, neighbors. We have an elected body. It’s called the City Council. It has 50 aldermen, each of whom are elected every four years. It’s a giant rubber stamp for the mayor. In the first two years of Tiny Dancer’s term, the council voted with him 93% of the time. From April 2013 until November 2014, this slipped – to 89%! At the time, his approval rating among Chicagoans who weren’t aldermen was at around 35%. Does the City Council know something we don’t?

My former alderman, confused about what “tabling” meant

No, they don’t. Let me explain. Have you ever met a Chicago alderman or seen them speak in public? I have. These aren’t the most articulate people in the world. They’re not the smartest. They’re not the people you’d want setting economic or fiscal policy. Probably wouldn’t want them working on issues of criminal or social justice. They’re also not strong on issues of ethics, leadership, or vision. If they walk and chew gum, they might trip. What are they good at? Inheriting their father’s seat. Also, if there’s an abandoned car in front of your house or the muffler shop on the corner didn’t shovel the sidewalk, they can help with that. Oh, collecting big pensions. They’re great at that.

Mostly, though, they’re good at getting re-elected. Even with Tuesday’s record number of run-offs, I’d bet that most of the incumbents will win. Because, you know, there’s an abandoned car. Why would anyone think that another elected body in Chicago would behave differently than the one we currently have? Are candidates for elected office suddenly not going to need to raise money, be subject to the influence of special interests, or not need a job (or lawyer) for their kid? Since we’re going to have to change the state law anyway, can we mandate that candidates for the school board not be dissembling, mendacious, pocket-lining windbags?

I’m going to guess not. So why did the guy I did vote for, Chuy Garcia, support the idea? Because it’s what a city that increasingly dislikes its current mayor wants to hear. It’s what the teachers’ union wants. And it’s an easy position for Chuy to take, because it’s a state issue. You know what else is an easy position for Chuy to take? He supports keeping the city council at its current size. Chicago has one of the country’s largest city councils, and we could save millions if we cut it in half. But Chuy isn’t going to say that, because to do so might threaten the jobs of Chicago aldermen, and if he becomes mayor, he’s going to want some of that hot, hot, rubber-stamp action. Chuy told the Sun Times that the current size is important to the body “functioning” as a legislative body. I don’t know what one has to do with the other, nor if the guy with an outside chance of being our next mayor knows what “functioning” means.

You know what else is an easy position for Chuy to take? He wants to hire 1,000 more police. Tiny Dancer said the same thing in 2011, but didn’t do it. Chuy hasn’t said how he’s going to pay for it. But it’s what many in the city that’s suffered an appalling number of shootings wants to hear. And it’s what the police union wants. Chicagoans probably don’t want to hear — as this article points out – that more police not only means more money, it also means more arrests. Neither mayoral candidate wants to talk about measures that also might reduce crime: more intrusive policing and more people ratting out their friends, neighbors, and family members.

Then I go like this and $35 billion appears

Then I go like this and $35 billion appears

I voted for Chuy. But here’s the thing: Chicago has an unfunded pension obligation of $35 billion, or as I like to think of it, a per capita obligation of almost $13,0000 per person. I spent two days looking, and I can’t find anything concrete about Chuy’s plan to fix it  – to say nothing of how he plans to pay for the Christmas morning he’s planning for Chicago if he gets elected.

This matters — not because I’m some conservative that thinks government should run like a business – but because I’m a parent and a property owner in Chicago with two kids in public schools. I want lower crime, more jobs, better schools and infrastructure that moves better than an old man’s urethra. I want them for today, and I want them 20 years from now. But more than anything else, I want to live in a city that realizes these things cost money. A giant debt and an abysmal credit rating threaten our future. Being billions of dollars in the hole means life as a taxpayer is going to get even more expensive and we’re going to experience fewer city services, not more. The pension problem is there precisely because let elected officials make promises they couldn’t fulfill based on math they didn’t (or more likely, couldn’t) do.

I guess what I’m asking for our is that our candidates be realistic. But then I realize, why bother? Our citizens aren’t interested in being realistic. Go Cubs.

 

*thanks for reading this blog. I hope you’ll subscribe and use the comments section below to tell me why I’m wrong about Chuy. Because I hope I am. 

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*This* Is the Thing That Chicago Public Schools Is Doing Equitably?!

My wife and I are very proud of the fact that our two kids go to a Chicago Public School. Chicago has one of the best public school systems in the country. Or it will once the city secedes from the rest of the United States. We were super excited for this school year to get underway, without the threat of an imminent strike or lingering ill will and uncertainty about massive school closings.

Maybe there wasn’t one big story that overshadowed this school year in the way that we enjoyed in 2012 and 2013. Or perhaps we’re just in a lull before Rahm privatizes or closes every neighborhood school in 2016. Or maybe it’s that we’ve overlooked the big story of this year: every CPS student now gets a free school lunch.

This is classic nanny state garbage. Who is the school to try and feed my kid a pre-packaged mass-produced lunch? I demand choice! I demand the right to feed my kid whatever pre-packaged mass produced lunch *I* choose, not what some bureaucrat tells me. I know what’s best for my boys. And what’s best is that they sport at least a B-cup by 6th grade. I don’t want my sons to know the agony of being appointed to the committee for itty bitty…oh, it’s too painful. It’s hard having boys.

How do I know the school is going to take into account my children’s many food-related allergies, religious beliefs, cultural taboos, and special needs? My wife and I carefully planned their regimen of homeopathic vaccines, raw milk, dried tiger penis (and not the fake stuff), and kombucha colonics. I’ll be damned if CPS bureaucrats are going to ruin all of our hard work.

But the lack of choice is not the only thing bothering me. The new initiative is wholly funded by a federal program that ends individual students’ applications for the program. Instead, because so many families in CPS are low-income, the whole district will qualify for free lunches. The old system required the lunchroom staff to keep track of which kids qualified for free or reduced lunch, and I’m sure there were kids who felt stigmatized by being identified as needing the program. But no more! The children of the affluent will be treated exactly the same as those with financial difficulties. All kids will be equal in the cafeterias of the Chicago Public Schools.

And there’s my problem. We are in CHICAGO. These are kids in PUBLIC SCHOOLS in CHICAGO. Chicago, famous for being among the most segregated cities in the country. Chicago, where I can ignore appalling gun violence because it doesn’t happen near me. There are two things every Chicagoan loves: gross inequality and that other thing. Do you know the best way we’ve found to preserve inequality in Chicago? With our public schools! What’s the point of being a privileged white family in CPS if we’re going to be treated like those families whose depressing stories always lead the evening news?

Up until now, CPS was preserving inequality beautifully. Forty-one percent of CPS schools are more than ninety percent African-American. Sixty-eight percent of the system’s African American students go these homogenous schools. Close to 90% of students in CPS come from low-income families. A federal commission report noted that poor urban students “are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations.” (source for all of this) CPS wants my kids to eat lunch like kids who might as well be going to school in Somalia?! I didn’t fork over all that money for infant French literature classes and MENSA preschool for this! If I wanted my kids to grow up in some desolate isolated backwater, we would have moved to Tinley Park!

Sure, CPS already treats all kids equally in that it  does a lousy job preparing all of its students for college. But it does an especially bad job preparing the poor and African-Americans. And it does a great job of making sure white kids go to the best high schools in the city. Fewer than 10% of CPS students are white, but they took better than 40% of the spots at Walter Payton and Northside College Prep, gems of our system. That’s the kind of inequality that I expect from the City of Big Shoulders. Of course, it could be that those white kids were just better prepared – helped by the fact that when the district has some extra money to throw around, it gave it to the whiter schools on the north side.

Here’s the other crazy thing about this new free lunch program: part of the justification for the program is that it will end corruption. WHAT?! This is CHICAGO.  In COOK COUNTY.  Which, last time I checked, is in ILLINOIS. No one with any integrity holds public office here. Every so often, someone of character and rectitude wades into the waters of local government. In mere seconds, their bones are stripped clean of morality and character by the piranhas of our political culture. They vanish below the surface, their bloated corpses becoming part of the effluvia of public office, rotten and ignored until their skeletons wash up years later and engineer a cush job for their offspring.  We have a finally balanced ecosystem of corruption in Chicago. You can’t go messing with it. Take away the piranhas, you get crocs. Take away the crocs, you get sharks. Try to deal with the sharks, you get sentient liquid metal assassin robots from the year 2031 by Governor Skynet. We put one governor in prison because he was selling drivers licences and he was replaced by a governor who tried to sell EVERYTHING. People complained about Daley because he closed ONE tiny airport. Rahm closed FIFTY schools!

The previous school lunch program was only defrauded by administrators, staff, and parents. By local standards, that’s not so bad. With the relaxed standards, everyone is going to get in on this — and then how am I going to guarantee that my kids are going to get more?

 

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Waiting: The Hardest Part? Evaluating the Assertions of Petty, et al

Last week, I returned to Six Flags’ Great America with my children and their friend. The kids had once again earned “free” passes by completing a reading program at school, and we felt compelled to go by the perceived “value” of only having to pay just  $60 for my admission and another $60 for food. As with my visit last year, I thought about the cultural absurdities the park is peddling, as well as the amusement park’s role as a luxury destination for (what I perceived to be) low income families. But mostly, I thought about the lines. The ridiculous lines. The staring at the operators who moved like slowly rusting robots between rides, the inventory of garbage in the holding pools, and my constant threats of bodily harm to my sons if they didn’t keep their hands to themselves. But mostly, I thought of the work of the American philosopher poet, Tom Petty, and his major work “The Waiting.”

Tom Petty and his collaborators (Lynch, Campbell, and Tench, referred to herein as “The Heartbreakers”) assert in the chorus that waiting is “the hardest part.” But is it? For this, I turned to the abundant research on waiting. Did you know there was abundant research on this? I did, because I have unlimited access to the world’s 9th largest research library. Janakiraman, et al (2011) point out that the longer you wait in line, the more likely you are to focus on “forgone benefits of alternative activities, experience boredom, or suffer from heightened feelings of anxiety and stress.” In layman’s terms, I could be thinking about how punching myself in the face would be more exciting, counting the people in line I’d sleep with in a pinch, or helping my children envision a life free of electronic media if they don’t shut up.  Maister (2005) describes a number of general propositions about waiting, including: occupied time feels shorter; uncertain, unexplained, and unfair waits seem longer; and waiting by yourself feels longer.

Whatever the reason you’re waiting, the hardest part is the psychological stress you endure, say, as your son only stops talking long enough to put his mouth on the guardrail recently touched by the 95% of people who don’t wash their hands correctly. According Janakiraman (2011) people don’t make rational decisions about waiting – stressing themselves out as they “balance two competing psychic forces: a growing disutility for waiting that induces a desire to abandon queues…versus a growing commitment to seeing waits through to their end as the time until likely conclusion shrinks.” Here, the authors are reasserting the paradox first described by Strummer, et al (1981) wherein one debates the merits of staying versus going based on the knowledge that persisting will result in trouble (n), while departure will increase said trouble exponentially (2n). Such indecision will bug you, and may inexplicably result in people yelling things in Spanish.

The waiting is also the hardest part because people are generally terrible at accounting for their time. Soman (2001) demonstrates that we’re more concerned about the time we piss away when we assign it a monetary value – though the argument is that this irrational since pissed away time is a sunk cost, just like the money you wasted on the new kitchen for that place in Las Vegas that you’re never going to be able to sell for what you paid. Speaking of irrationality, it’s apparently pretty easy to trick us into not realizing how long we’ve been waiting. In a relevant example to my own experience, Nie (2000) points out that people regularly endured a 90 minute wait for an 3 minute ride at Disney World because they were given some sort of treasure map to figure out while they waited. Dupes, right? Nie also points out that busy restaurants make sure to put menus in your hands fast so it feels like you’re being served, even when you aren’t. Mark van Hagen and his co-authors (2009) support this research: “infotainment” and blinky signs make people less upset about waiting around for trains and such. And these are Dutch people, who stand in line while wearing wooden shoes and eating hard pretzels.

Petty reminds us that “every day you see one more card/get one more yard. ” Thus, the illusion of progress is important to the perception of waiting. Again, Professor Nie’s finding support Petty’s instinctive assertions.  “…If the line is arranged with a zigzag of five aisles, it does not seem hopelessly long.” What Petty calls getting one more yard, Nie calls “managing the perception of distance.” Apparently, theme park lines are arranged in long, twisting paths because it screws with our perceptions — furthered by the fact that you usually can’t see the end of the line, so that you can figure out just how long the line is. We’re being tricked all of the time. Thanks, Professor Nie, for point out that we’re so easily duped.

1323982745tompetty_img03_hires

In the course of my research, I learned that there is one party for whom the waiting is not the hardest part: the operators of the amusement park. Reza Ahmadi (1997) includes the fascinating insight that people have a 12 ride “threshold value,” which is the number of rides they want to go on to feel as though they got their money’s worth. On a crowded day, people end up staying in the park longer to reach that threshold value. Ahmadi tells us that “operating profits are positively correlated with the duration of visitors’ in-park stay.” Longer waits for rides = more money for Six Flags. Which is good, because the rest of the company’s strategy is based mostly on being a little cheaper than Disney World.

But let us return again to the words of Tom Petty:

Well yeah i might have chased a couple women around
All it ever got me was down
Then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I’m feeling right now
Baby you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now

I believe that what Petty and the Heartbreakers are saying here is that though waiting is generally a negative experience, a positive conclusion makes it worthwhile. Again, Petty’s insight is supported by careful experimental design. Ahmadi (1997), states that “waiting may contribute to the experience…low waiting times tend to have a negative impact as well.” The implication is clear: just as Tom Petty would not feel as good as he feels having endured the wait for the right woman, all those people waiting in line for two hours to ride Goliath at Great America might have found the ride less thrilling if they hadn’t had time to let their anticipation build, and assigned value to the ride based on the visible demand for it. I think those people are nuts, because I don’t particularly enjoy roller coasters or anything that makes my stomach drop (I’ve passed out twice on airplanes, which is another story). Miller, et al (2007) find another time when long waits are beneficial: when you’re waiting for a negative experience. A longer wait time may help you develop a coping strategy – like, say, enduring the flume ride your sons want to go on so they can then go to the kiddie rides and you can stay on the ground. Ground that doesn’t whip, spin, drop, or turn upside down. I love the ground.

So, is waiting the hardest part? Standing in line at Great America, it certainly feels that way to me, but obviously not to everyone.  America apparently loves waiting. Consider another important research finding: the average NFL broadcast is 174 minutes long. Can you guess how many minutes actually show action on the field? Eleven. In this way, amusement parks and football are exactly like porno movies: based on juvenile fantasies with dumb, tacked on plots, featuring dumb characters with inhuman physiques setting up for a quick climax. When it’s over, you feel some guilt for having wasted all that time. And you desperately need to wash your hands.*

*you know, because you ate all those Doritos watching the Superbowl.

References

Managing Capacity and Flow at Theme Parks
 Reza H. Ahmadi
Operations Research, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1997), pp. 1-13
Published by: INFORMS
A Further Extension of Osuna’s Model for Psychological Stress
Henryk Gzyl and Edgar Elias Osuna
International Journal of Contemporary Mathematical Sciences, Vol. 8, No. 17 (2013), pp. 801-814
Published by: Hikari, Ltd.
The Psychology of Decisions to Abandon Waits for Service
 NARAYAN JANAKIRAMAN, ROBERT J. MEYER and STEPHEN J. HOCH
Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 48, No. 6 (December 2011), pp. 970-984
The Psychology of Waiting in Lines
David Maister, 1985
Accessed at: http://www.columbia.edu/~ww2040/4615S13/Psychology_of_Waiting_Lines.pdf
Consumer Wait Management Strategies for Negative Service Events: A Coping Approach
 Elizabeth Gelfand Miller, Barbara E. Kahn, and Mary Frances Luce
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 34, No. 5 (February 2008), pp. 635-648
Article DOI: 10.1086/521899
Waiting: Integrating Social and Psychological Perspectives in Operations Management
Winter Nie
Omega, the International Journal of Management Science,  Vol. 28 (January 2000), pp. 611-629
Published by: Elsevier
For further insights into the major works of Petty, et al, this is an excellent starting point.
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Gun Violence is No Problem in Chicago – Maps Prove It!

Fourth of July Weekend has just passed, and the big local story is the amount of gun violence that occurred over the weekend, with 13 killed and 58 wounded. There were 21 shootings on Sunday alone. Or at least as far as we know — Chicago police have a hard time with math. Or maybe vocabulary, since it’s not clear that they understand “murder” to mean an act which includes beatings, burnings, or suffocation. But why be negative? Chicago has only had 1,217 shootings this year (as of this writing), compared to 2,185 during this period last year. That’s great news – especially for the 968 people who would also have been shot if the rate stayed steady!

But the really good news is what every Chicagoan knows: if you live on the north side or are visiting as a tourist, all the parts of Chicago you’re likely to see are totally safe. Take a look at this map of where the shootings were over the 4th of July weekend:

fourth of july shooting map

 

This correlates with the general pattern of shootings in Chicago over the last few years:

ShootingsHeatMap

During the Fourth of July weekend, If you were north of Madison Avenue and east of Western, there were only three shootings. Just three! And if you click on that first map further, you’ll find that all three people were shot while sitting in their cars very late at night. Which leads me to a big safety tip: if you’re sitting in your car very late at night and someone demands to know your gang affiliation, ask them what gang they’re in then declare that very gang to be your favorite gang ever. Gang members aren’t very smart (they also have no style), and really just want affirmation that they’ve made a good choice.  But like I said, you’re not going to see any shootings. I know this because a clever guy used data from Flickr to generate this map, where red indicates areas heavily photographed – and therefore visited by – tourists:

Locals and Tourists Chicago

This shows another thing that Chicagoans know: tourists really like the Magnificent Mile, where they can photograph such cultural attractions as American Girl Place and the Apple Store that are TOTALLY different than the American Girl Places and Apple Stores in whatever God forsaken town they’re visiting from. Well, different in that their sales tax isn’t pushing 10%. Tourists also go to Navy Pier, the one place in Chicago where it is certain that you will not get shot AND not have to worry about seeing an actual Chicagoan.  Navy Pier: it’s everything you love about a cruise ship – claustrophobic, noisy, expensive, and filled with people in ugly clothes – but attached to land!

I was thinking about the maps above, when I heard about a report on arts funding on Chicago Public Radio yesterday. Here’s a map of arts programs in Chicago:

Ingenuity_StateoftheArts_BaselineReport-18

 

How is it that there’s a lack of arts programs in the same neighborhoods where there’s a prevalence of gun violence? Are artists just chicken? Or does everyone get itchy trigger fingers when they can’t make murals or macrame? But wait! Where were the 53 Chicago school closings last year? Oh, yeah. Here:

school closings

Again, if you stay north of Madison and east of Western, you only saw 7 of the 53 schools that Rahm closed. Putting this all together really shows off Rahm’s genius: Chicago has been relatively free of school shootings because the Mayor closed schools in places where you’re likely to get shot. Thanks, Mayor Rahm! It was really smart to force all those Black and Latino kids to switch schools. Blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be victims of shootings, so it’s important to keep them moving around. That’s just smart thinking. I have no idea why only 8% of Blacks and 2% of Latinos say they’d vote for you again. Ingrates.

While you have a much better chance of getting shot on the south or west sides, you have a much worse chance of getting a good cup of coffee. At least according to this map, developed by a coffee fan, who could only find a half dozen decent coffee places on the entirety red, orange and green “L” lines south of the Loop:

plan_chicago_l1

I know when I need my morning cuppa and I can’t get my Intellgentsia dark roast with just a skooch of milk, I get all shooty. Who wouldn’t? Certainly not the Gangster Disciples, who control most of the south side and are known to love only to two things: coffee and homicide. And they’re all out of coffee. Worse, there’s no place to eat! That’s right. Chicago is a famous restaurant town, but on the entire south side of Chicago, there’s only two places worth eating at, according to Eater.com: one in Bridgeport and one near Calumet Park (which I’ve actually been to! Hipster cred!) Things are only slightly better on the west side: just 6 restaurants west of Western are worth visiting. You can imagine how this makes the Vice Lords feel. Who wants to lord over a place with nowhere to eat that still somehow features the most overweight people in Chicago?

All the more reason you should tell them they’re your favorite when they confront you in your car at 3 am. Poor guys. But the lack of good coffee and complete absence of restaurants just reinforces what I said at the beginning. You’re not going to going anywhere near where the shootings are, so who cares?

If you want a much more serious look at the homicide rate in Chicago, I recommend this fascinating post. I have no connection to the author. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Millennial Numbers Game

I was reading David Brooks’ column on May 5, “The Streamlined Life,” in which he reflects on the results of UCLA survey of incoming college freshmen. An hour or so after I read the column, I was in my university’s gym locker room, overhearing an older professor lamenting the manifest failures of “the current generation.” As a member of Generation X, I hate the Millennials as much as anyone. They’re entitled, inappropriately casual, poor at grammar, and don’t seem all that concerned about maintaining the legacy of Nirvana. Plus, they can type with their thumbs much, much faster than me.

Brooks’ cites the survey’s finding that “affluence…is now tied as students’ top life goal.” I think I was supposed to read that bit, wring my hands with everyone else, and wonder why kids today have such superficial concerns. But I didn’t.  What exactly did we think was going to happen? I don’t know about you, but I live in a world that worships wealthy people. In fact, I can’t think of anything else that we accept as a symbol of success other than wealth. The strength of your ideas, your contributions to society, or even your personal well-being don’t mean a thing if you don’t got that bling. If you’re entering college this year or last, you were born in the mid-90s. They’ve known nothing else but our national love affair with Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.  Innovators? Maybe. Colossal jerks? Definitely. But we celebrate them and make movies about them because they got to be disgustingly rich.

Millennials may have no real memories of the Clinton years, but I’m sure they remember the last two elections, in which nearly half the voters in the US supported a party that believes the economy should be based on the principle of “I got mine, Jack.” We expect empathy and concern from kids raised in a world where Paul Ryan and Rand Paul aren’t treated as the wild-eyed cranks they are? Since we’re mere years away from having no middle class at all, the student’s outlook is pragmatically black and white: be rich or be poor. And who the hell wants to be poor? Those people can’t even afford iPhones, much less Under Armour. I feel badly for the Millennials –  it’s going to take them a few years before they figure out that the path to wealth began at birth:  the path that led out from a wealthy uterus, on through an affluent birth canal and into prosperous arms meticulously toned by P90x.

David Brooks goes on to note that “today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important.” Well, of course. Why would you spend somewhere in the  six figures on a college education to get something as unmarketable as a “philosophy of life?” I’ve been through a lot of job interviews, and not a single person has ever asked me what my philosophy of life is. Maybe it’s enough for them to know that I went to a small liberal arts college, so they suspect I have one. Worse, I have to admit that I don’t know what good having a philosophy of life has ever done me in a professional context. Believe me, if I could get a raise by arguing in favor of rationalism, I would. For that matter, I would take being able to end a meeting with an appeal to humanism, but I can’t see that working either. I wonder if I could have gotten some incompetent colleagues fired by sharing the wisdom of Machiavellian philosophy with a previous Executive Director. 

At this point, every discussion of higher education is based around a simple transactional evaluation: get to a school with higher numbers in some ranking so you can get a job with a higher number in salary. Universities – including my own – fall over themselves trying to improve their US News rankings. Yes, ,major research institutions are worried about an index published by an otherwise defunct print magazine because of the power of their numbers. Big stories are created when some website ranks colleges with the worst return on investment, and people take this seriously. God help you if you’re a student interested in the arts or languages and literature. Those degrees don’t pay anything, dummy! Remeber when President Obama made a funny joke about Art History majors? It was especially funny coming from a guy with a BA in the lucrative area of Political Science, whose later output as an academic consisted of two books about himself.

We should push students with unprofitable interests like Art History into places like the University of Phoenix, where the transactional understanding of higher education is made explicit.  Even in the non-profit education world, everyone is excited about massively open online courses (MOOCs) because you can learn the things you need to make money without having to interact with other people who might challenge your ideas, tell you flatly that you’re wrong, or steer you in a different direction. David Brooks notes that incoming freshman “rate themselves much more highly than past generations on leadership skills, writing abilities, social self-confidence and so on.” Of course they do. They’ve never encountered anybody to tell them differently, and if they’ follow their parents careful plan, they’ll never have to. 

I’m not clear on what David Brooks or other hand-wringers think the problem is. This is what we trained these kids for. From the minute they were born, we made our decisions on where to live based on the test scores of the local schools and their presumed output. We’re abandoning public schools broadly, and urban public schools particularly. Everyone moved a few more highway exits out, where they swore they could still drive into the city, but never do because it’s so hard to parallel park the Canyonero.  Baby Boomers and GenX traded the rich culture and socio-economic diversity of urban areas for aggregate numbers in a standardized government report and wonder why Millennials have no philosophy of life? We show them and tell them that the purpose of college is solely to get a good job, and wonder why they’re more concerned with personal gain than with their philosophy of life?

They do have a philosophy of life, and it’s the one we taught them by example after example: nothing matters but higher numbers.

 

 

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