Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rich Man, Poor Man

It has been a frequent asseveration here at VP that American poverty is like nothing else the world has ever seen in that our poor are unimaginably better off in economic terms than not only the poor elsewhere in the world but even better off than the world's wealthy throughout almost all of history. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, those who cannot, or will not, work are better provided for in this country by those who do work than are most people who have ever lived.

Bill Whittle illustrates the point in this video:
When we hear politicians and others talk about the need to tax us more so that we can spend more on the poor we should show them Whittle's charts and ask them, who, exactly they're talking about and how much more we should give them.

There is poverty in America that needs our attention, to be sure, but, for the most part, the poverty is spiritual and moral, often exacerbated by the very programs designed to relieve economic poverty. Chronic economic impoverishment - if measured by the possession of life's goods and access to things like food, shelter, medical care, and education - is relatively rare in the United States.

The Problem With American Education

Mark Twain once said that there are thousands of people hacking at the branches of evil but very few hacking at the roots. He could have been talking about the state of American public education rather than evil.

The root of the poor performance of so many of our kids is not inadequate buildings or equipment or teachers. Kids don't need more computers or extravagant campuses or even top-notch teachers in order to learn. Those things, especially the last, are certainly helpful, but their lack is not the real problem.

The real problem is that too many kids come from homes where the parent, and there's usually only one, is either too harried or otherwise unable or unwilling to instil in the child the value of learning. Children who come to school without the discipline it takes to benefit from the opportunity they've been given will not learn, will hamper the learning of others, and will suck up a disproportionate share of the school district's resources in the attempt to discipline and remediate them. When such children reach a critical mass of the school population the entire school becomes dysfunctional.

James Barham, writing at The Best Schools blog, has a fine piece on this that everyone who cares about education should read even though teachers, unlike politicians, have known this stuff for years. Barham opens with a discussion of the inadequacies of two recent education articles in the New York Times and then says this:
That the heart of the problem with our educational system is not just cognitive deficit, but virtue deficit, is a nearly unthinkable thought in our culture. That is because it contravenes the most cherished axiom of the liberal educational establishment—moral and cultural relativism. I am not saying that correcting this sitution will be easy. In a pluralistic society like ours, introducing virtue explicitly into the classroom is bound to be contentious and messy. But until we begin to incorporate the most important missing ingredient into education reform, nothing else is likely to change very much.

Acknowledging that if a child is to succeed in school, it needs to be read to by its parents and it needs to hear a rich vocabulary used in its environment — all of this is finally becoming sayable among education professionals. And that is surely a step in the right direction. But it does not go nearly far enough.

If a child is to succeed in school, it also needs to be loved and encouraged and corrected and disciplined by its parents, not left to sit in front of the television set for hours on end, at one extreme, or to run wild, at the other. It needs to learn the bourgeois virtues of cleanliness and politeness and punctuality, and the universal virtues of truth-telling and promise-keeping and duty and responsibility. Above all, it needs to know that its success in school, and learning for its own sake, are things that its parents value.

In a word, a child needs discipline. Because self-discipline can only be acquired through loving parental discipline, and every child must acquire self-discipline if it is to have any chance at a decent life, in this or any other society.

Where these things are missing in the home, of course, there is only so much that the school can do to compensate. Perhaps a more comprehensive approach will ultimately be required that holds parents responsible to society as parents. I don’t know. But this is a conversation we must begin to have. And the focus of the conversation must be what it means for a human being to lead a flourishing life.
Until we begin to address the state of the American family, and see that state as a result of moral, not economic, poverty, no amount of cash infusion into our schools is going to make any difference. Spending ever greater amounts of money on public schools is simply a waste of resources if nothing is done to change the homes failing kids come from.

Teachers on the front lines have known this for decades, but the bureaucrats in our state capitals and the federal Department of Education aren't interested in what mere teachers think. They have their degrees in education and sociology, they know the research, and they have their ideological presuppositions. What they don't have are workable answers to the problem.

How They Did It

In an exclusive story in the Christian Science Monitor an Iranian engineer explains how the Iranians managed to hijack a top-secret American surveillance drone and land it in Iran.

Here's the lede:
Iran guided the CIA's "lost" stealth drone to an intact landing inside hostile territory by exploiting a navigational weakness long-known to the US military, according to an Iranian engineer now working on the captured drone's systems inside Iran.

Iranian electronic warfare specialists were able to cut off communications links of the American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel, says the engineer, who works for one of many Iranian military and civilian teams currently trying to unravel the drone’s stealth and intelligence secrets, and who could not be named for his safety.

Using knowledge gleaned from previous downed American drones and a technique proudly claimed by Iranian commanders in September, the Iranian specialists then reconfigured the drone's GPS coordinates to make it land in Iran at what the drone thought was its actual home base in Afghanistan.

"The GPS navigation is the weakest point," the Iranian engineer told the Monitor, giving the most detailed description yet published of Iran's "electronic ambush" of the highly classified US drone. "By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain."

The “spoofing” technique that the Iranians used – which took into account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data – made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center, says the engineer.
This is an intelligence coup for the Iranians who will now be able to enlist the Russians and the Chinese to develop other countermeasures for the drones. It's also an embarrassment to have our president decline to destroy the drone while it was on the ground and instead abjectly ask the Iranians, who doubtless found the request an occasion for merriment, to give it back.

Perhaps if he had publicly bowed to Ahmadinejad like he did to other Middle East and Asian leaders the obeisance would have softened Iranian hearts and persuaded them to return the drone instead of selling access to it to the Russians and Chinese. I'm surprised he didn't try it.