Monday’s Mtg: What should U.S. school children be taught about history?

I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.

History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on (900-page California) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days has a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.

Second, and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.

Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.

But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them.  Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.

Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.

So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.

I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.

Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?

We have new topics, Oct – Jan

Thanks to Linda and Aaron (Bruce’s son Aaron), we have new topics.  See sidebar or “Upcoming mtg Schedule” tab.  The first few mtgs are:

Oct 3:  What should U.S. school kids be taught about history   [last of old schedule]
Oct 10, 2016: Is the death penalty in American on the way out?
Oct 17: November ballot propositions.
Oct 24: Fox News at 20:  How has it changed America?
Oct 31: Our Franken-future? Will Transhumanism improve our species genetically?

Hard copies will be available next mtg.

Next Mtg Postponed: No CivCon On Sept. 26

Since Sept. 26 is the night of the Clinton/Trump debate, we are postponing our great topic, “How do progressives view the Constitution,’ until next schedule.  See you on Oct. 3 for, “What should U.S. school kids be taught about history?”

Monday’s Mtg: Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?

I had this idea for us to do a series of meetings in the run-up to November that highlighted the starkest policy differences between the two presidential candidates. Oops. Donald Trump’s candidacy and Media’s obsession with horserace trivia make that pretty hard to do. Trump’s policy platform involves him basically riffing a stream of consciousness on whatever topic an interviewer brings up, hoping to run out the clock before anyone notices he has no policy ideas at all nor a rudimentary grasp of the issue.  No one seems to know exactly what Trump’s position on the minimum wage is, much less what it might be tomorrow or in a face-to-face debate with Clinton.

But, I’m not sure it really matters. As I keep hammering away at week after week, we are electing a political party to govern us more than an individual. And, the Dems and GOP at all levels hold irreconcilably-opposite views on the minimum wage. The Republican Party is wholly opposed to raising the minimum wage at all. Period. Many conservatives would prefer it be abolished or reduced, although I doubt they would take the political risk of trying it at the federal level. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz oppose any federal minimum wage.

In stark contrast, Democrats really, really want to raise the minimum wage, either nationally or in as many states as possible. Hillary Clinton campaigned on raising it by 60%, from $7.25 to $12 per hour, to be phased in over several years. This would be the largest such increase in history. Under pressure from Bernie Sanders, Clinton stated she would sign a $15 minimum wage bill if a Democratic Congress sent one to her. This would double it.  This November 8, minimum wage increases are on the ballot in five states.  Democrats want to make this a wedge issue – one that motivates base voters to turn out – like Republicans did with same sex marriage bans in 2004.

Luckily for us, the debate over what would happen if the minimum wage were raised significantly is not all theoretical. The current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour, one-third lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in the late 1960s. However, 29 states have a higher minimum wage, 12 of which are over $9.00 per hour. California’s is $10 – the nation’s second-highest –and Brown just signed a law to raise it to $15 in 2022. This means that lots of studies have been done comparing places that have raised the minimum wage to those that have not raised it. The results are generally encouraging to the liberal economic case for raising the wage. Yet, as I will explain, it’s not quite that simple.

On Monday I will open with a brief tutorial on the minimum wage and the types of questions we should be asking about what might happen if we raised it to various levels. I don’t think lowering the minimum wage is really on the table right now as a viable policy option, although if Trump wins, all bets are off.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Current policy:
    1. How high are U.S. minimum wages now and how high are they due to rise in some states?
    2. What else does govt do to support working poor? How important a policy tool is the minimum wage in comparison?
  2. Arguments: What arguments are used to support and oppose raising/lowering/ending the minimum wage
  3. Evidence: Based on history what affects would raising min. wage have on:
    1. Helping people: Raising incomes of the working poor, reducing poverty and reliance on govt transfer programs.
    2. Hurting business: Killing jobs, raising prices, other business decisions (like replacing workers with machines).
    3. Would more spending on other govt programs (EITC, etc.) do more to help the working poor than raising the min. wage?
    4. Can we predict what would happen if we abolished the min. wage?
  4. Fairness:
    1. Will raising min. wage really put a dent in inequality?
    2. Will it make low-wage pay more “fair?” What’s fair?
    3. Does the minimum wage subsidize big corporations more than it helps the poor (they can keep paying low wages)?
  5. Politics: Is this a winning issue for Democrats or Republicans? How big a winning issue?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Sept 26):  Progressives’ Constitutional Philosophy.

Monday’s Mtg: Are Religion and Science Compatible?

We last did a version of this topic in 2014, led by Carl and Jim Z. If I recall correctly, we talked about the “New Atheism.” This is a moniker given to a group of scientists and public intellectuals that, starting in the late 1990s I think, took a very hard line in opposition to all religious faith. In books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others declared that science and religion are simply incompatible.

The New Atheists – and most atheists I know –  say that religion is irrational and un-empirical, a remnant from a pre-scientific time and the source of way too many human miseries. I think the conventional wisdom is that this movement was spurred to action by Islamic extremism and/or the U.S. religious Right. I have included in this week’s optional readings an article by Harris (“Science Must Destroy Religion” – Tell us what you really think), and a debate between Dawkins and another scientist who is a Christian and advocates mutual respect.

I’m not so sure that faith and science are incompatible.  But, I’m also not sure how best for Civilized Conversation to approach the matter. Not my area of expertise.  I’ve got lots of questions though.  Do science and religion inhabit two different realms? Are they answering different types of questions – or is there only one type of question or evidence, that of materialism and natural phenomena?  Is religion inherently magical; i.e., supernatural and thus only accessible by faith? Is science the only way to truly know the world – or our fellow humans?  Really?  If faith is irrelevant, why has it lasted long past the emergence of a scientific age?

Deep. I’ll skip the opening lecture thing on Monday evening and just ask for people to open our discussion with whatever is on their minds. Just remember the “Civilized” part.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

  • Some good links at our 2014 mtg on this subject (none are repeated below).

Are Religion and Science Compatible, Y/N?

Next Week (Sept 19): Raise/Don’t Raise the Minimum Wage.

 

Any topic ideas for the rest of the year?

If you have any topics you want CivCon to do from Oct 10 to end-2016, please put them in comments or let me know some other way.  Suggesting one does not entail any obligation to give a presentation or anything.

I figure we should devote an Oct mtg to the ridiculously-long November CA election ballot, maybe do a post-debate wrap up and other election-related topics, a 20th anniversary of Fox News topic, etc.

Politics, public policy, religion, philosophy, history, science…Your ideas?

 

 

Monday’s Mtg: Which Of President Obama’s Achievements Will Endure?

Between now and next January a lot of retrospectives on the Obama Administration will be penned. I thought it would be helpful for us to get a head start on the debate, since Obama has achieved so much (for good or ill, YMMV) and since Hillary Clinton must run on his record and, if elected, govern with its consequences.

As we’ve discussed in meetings on other presidents (e.g., LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Wilson), it can take decades for a president’s true legacy to become fully visible. Even then, reputations are colored by the politics of whoever is doing the judging and wax and wane as new events shed new light on old decisions. I think our assessment of Obama has to be especially tentative because so much of what he accomplished has been incremental. At practically every juncture (health care, financial reform), Obama chose to achieve what he could, rather than go down in a blaze of ideological purity. Many of his accomplishments also were done via executive actions (immigration, civil rights enforcement), so they are easily reversible by a Republican president.

Still, when taken together, Obama’s eight years of incremental and contingent changes have added up to…a big f***ing deal, as VP Biden likes to say. No matter your political POV, the scale and breadth of the sum of those achievements are simply stunning. Obama entered office with a collapsing economy, two failing wars, and a political opposition dedicated to his destruction. Yet, he managed to affect major changes in almost every area of national government policy, including in

  • heath care;
  • energy, climate, and environmental policy;
  • education (K-12 + college);
  • financial market regulation and consumer protection;
  • labor law and civil rights enforcement;
  • immigration;
  • criminal justice reform; and
  • tax policy.

His foreign policy was not as, let’s say, action-packed and transformational as his immediate predecessor’s. But, Obama

  • continued the struggle against Al Qaeda;
  • wound down the Iraq and Afghan wars (and now shares responsibility for their aftermath);
  • negotiated a global climate treaty, historic nuclear agreements with Iran and India, and several major trade agreements; and
  • pivoted (kind of) U.S. foreign policy towards Asia.

Shocking disclosure: I’m a big fan.

So, are we just going to spend Monday evening listing our most (or least) favorite Obama accomplishment?  No, I hope not. In my opening I will briefly remind us of some of, IMO, Obama’s most important but less well-known accomplishments, like in energy and climate actions, education, and civil rights enforcement. But, with Republicans are committed to what they have told their supporters for almost a decade: All of Obama’s policies are disasters and they will reverse as many of them as they can, as soon as they get the chance.  So, my real idea behind this meeting is for us to explore this question:

  • What is it that makes a president’s achievements endure rather than be reversed and forgotten?

Do the policies have to “work;” i.e., solve the problems they’re intended to solve? Must they be popular? When do future leaders feel free to roll back what a predecessors did and when do they feel constrained?

Anyway, enough rambling. I don’t have time to add a lot of links this week. But, here are some assessments of the Obama presidency and related matters. I’ll keep my opening remarks short, especially if we have a big crowd like last week’s 22 souls.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Lists of accomplishments –

Assessments –

Conservative POV –

Next Week:   Are science and religion inherently in conflict?

Monday’s Mtg: Do Government Anti-Poverty Programs Work?

This month marks the 20th anniversary of federal welfare reform. The 1996 law drastically limited assistance under the U.S. govt’s largest welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Since then, a lot of other changes have been made to our anti-poverty safety net. Yes, TANF was gutted, but other programs have been created or expanded to make up the slack, and the whole system is now better targeted to incentive work and to reach the truly needy.

Still, perhaps welfare reform’s main accomplishment was political. It de-weaponized welfare as a high-profile, partisan issue in American politics. Rising poverty and inequality levels may bring it back, but it hasn’t yet. And if it ever does, most Americans will be just as easy to manipulate as before because few of us know anything at all about this part of government. For example, did you know that

  • The biggest and most effective ant-poverty programs by far are Social Security and Medicare?
  • Govt spending per poor American has gone up in recent years – not down as most progressives think?
  • Benefit levels are pretty paltry, and the biggest poverty programs do incentive work – contrary to what most conservatives think?

Given these and many more public misconceptions, I thought it might behoove us to devote an evening to taking a big picture look at how the government combats poverty in America and how effective it is.

I am a bit pressed for time this week (inc. finding you good, analytical links). Here are some discussion questions I will use to guide our meeting on Monday, and some background readings on anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness. My opening remarks will describe the largest federal and state govt anti-poverty programs and make a few points on the issue of effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the main federal/state anti-poverty programs? How much do they spend and who gets benefits?
  2. What is their purpose? How is aid targeted and conditioned? Temporary v. permanent help? Cash v. non-cash benefits?   “Making work pay” v. helping non-working poor?
  3. (BTW: Why are there so many poor Americans, anyway?)
  4. Effectiveness at…
    1. Reducing poverty and helping the helpless?
    2. Targeting the “right” people.
    3. Incentivizing work?
    4. Keeping social cohesion.
  5. Problems with…
    1. High program costs.
    2. Dis-incentivizing work.
    3. Subsidizing low-wage employers, like Wal-Mart.
    4. Minimizing fraud and abuse.
  6. Past and future:
    1. Did welfare reform “work?” For whom?
    2. Future alternatives to / expansions of poverty programs.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

How much do we actually spend reducing poverty?

  • It depends what you count as “welfare” and exaggeration is common. Recommended.
  • A conservative group counts up the total.
  • [Update: Is entitlement spending for lazy people growing out of control?  No, it is not: 91% of entitlement spending goes to the elderly (50%), the disabled (20%), or the working poor (20%).  Only 9% goes to non-working, non-disabled adults.]

Impact of anti-poverty programs –

Conservative POV –

20 years after welfare reform:

Worldwide Poverty –

Next Week (Sept 5):  Will President Obama’s Achievements Endure?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Why Has Economic Productivity Slowed?

It is Econ 101 that ever rising labor productivity is the key driver of modern economies. When the amount of output per worker is higher every year than the year before all of the good stuff that Americans have come to expect is possible. The economy grows steadily with room for higher wages/benefits and consumer spending, business profits, savings and investment, and enough tax revenue for government to meet public investment and social needs. Without rising productivity, the economic pie stops getting bigger and we are all left fighting over the size of the slices. A zero-sum economy begets zero-sum politics, and we all look around for someone to blame.

Sound familiar? It’s starting to happen. Worker productivity roughly doubled in the USA from 1945 to the early 1970s, then slowed down for the rest of the 20th century. But since then it has slowed to a crawl, only growing about 0.5% annually since 2000. In 2016, productivity actually began falling.

Now, maybe the fall is temporary, an artifact of the Great Recession. Maybe it is not happening at all. There is some evidence that the way experts measure labor productivity fails to capture some important improvements in the quality of the goods and services workers produce. Maybe.

But, there I another problem independent of measurement error. Even before U.S. labor efficiency slumped, American workers were not getting paid in line with what they were producing. Since 1973, U.S. workers have become 75% more productive, but average worker compensation (pay + benefits) grew by less than 10%! When liberals say rising inequality is unfair, this is what we mean. It’s not some philosophical judgement of how much people are “worth” to society. How well do you think regular people will fare if, on top of this unfairness, the productivity slump persists and the pie stops growing altogether?

So, this is not a dry topic about formulas and equations. It is about what makes our economy healthy and innovative and how we can ensure that regular Americans share in the wealth they produce.

To keep us focused, I will start us off on Monday with a quick summary of:

  1. What is meant in plain English by labor productivity and what really drives it (opinions differ on the latter); and
  2. The main theories of why it has stagnated recently and whether we have a long term problem.

Then, we can debate any aspect of this broad topic-of-everything we want to discuss. The main driver of productivity in the long-run is technological innovation, but other things matter, too, including public policies.  I hope we can devote a good chunk of time to discussing the growing divergence between worker compensation and productivity. But, keep in mind that any public policies to close that gap need to do so by raising the former, not reducing the latter.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Measuring it: How do they measure labor productivity? Could it be growing faster than experts think?
  2. Ensuring it: What keeps U.S. labor productivity rising; e.g., healthy biz/entrepreneur climate, R&D/Universities, tech innovation, worker edu/skills, government action/inaction?
  3. Problem. Why has productivity suddenly cratered? The recession?
  4. Problem! Is something deeper afoot? Are we entering a prolonged period of “secular stagnation” like we talked about in 2013?
  5. Problem!! Why has pay not kept up with productivity for decades?
  6. Solutions: Which pubic policies might (a) goose worker productivity in the short-term and long-term, and (b) ensure American workers benefit from it? Left vs. right solutions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Productivity Puzzle –

Solutions?

Next Week: Do government anti-poverty programs really work?

Monday’s Mtg (8/15/16): Does the “Historical Jesus” Matter?

I have been reading a lot of religious history the past few years. So, I thought we could explore the relationship between what have been called the “two Jesuses:” The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. How do both secular and religious people think about and reconcile the two? Do they even try?

Seeking out the historical Jesus” has been an entire field of scholarly study for more than a century. Since there is almost no mention of the man outside of the Bible, experts analyze the text of the New Testament to try to determine which parts are more likely to be authentic and which might have been added decades later by the Bible’s many authors.

Taken far enough, this method has led some non-Christians to argue that the Historical Jesus was very different from the Christ of Faith. Thomas Jefferson was one such person (albeit he was still a Christian). He rewrote the Gospels for his own use, excising all of the supernatural stuff. No miracles. No afterlife. No resurrection. No claim by Jesus that he was divine. To Jefferson, Jesus was the world’s best ever moral philosopher, but only that. Today, secular people love this notion because they prefer their Jesus as an ethical teacher, not the risen God or Holy Spirit or whatever.

The historical Jesus can also refer to the evidence that he actually did or did not exist, based on clues pulled from non-Biblical sources like Roman historians, archeology, and one’s opinion on how likely it is that the man around whom an entire faith revolves was just made up by men writing less than 50 years after the made-up events. (One of this week’s links below summarizes the arguments against Jesus ever existing. But, FYI, my understanding is that this is a tiny minority POV.)

My interest, FWIW, is broader than just separating historical fact from Apostolic exaggeration. People have been arguing about what Jesus really meant to say for 2,000 years, obviously.  But, I wonder how do Christians and the other great ancient religions deal with the uncertainty inherent in relying on 1,000+ year old sacred texts that might or might not accurately reflect the thoughts of God/their prophets?

On Monday I won’t have much to say by way of introduction. This topic is a bit beyond me. Still, maybe read a few of the links below, or just show up and we can dig in.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (8/22):  Why has economic productivity slowed recently?  Is it permanent?