Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not a Passing Mark

The debate over the California exit exams continues to rage, now making its way up the court levels to another appeal. At the heart of the matter is whether or not 20,000 students who flunked the exam, but otherwise fulfilled graduation requirements, should be awarded diplomas. The plaintiffs say the case is unfair, and not all students had an equal chance at learning the material necessary to pass.

This is definitely a sticky subject, as it touches on some fundamental problems in our educational system, especially in good ole California. However, the thought of exams to help assess our children’s academic acuity is appealing to me, especially as there are gross differences in the “grades” that different schools hand out. As such, and as much as people will claim there are biases and differences, I think the results should stand and the people should fail.

These tests have been coming for years now. There has been ample time for schools, and students, to prepare for them. For several years these tests were taken, but not mandatory for graduation. This is the first year it is required to graduate. The students knew it was coming; this was not a last-minute pop quiz given to them. If they felt they were behind, and their school wasn’t cutting it, they should have sought help elsewhere. That is what students have been doing for eons – you need help, you find a tutor.

Secondly, this is a state curriculum mandate. The board has said you need to know xyz to be considered graduated from high school. Yes there are inequalities associated with it. That happens with all things, and it is an indication for the schools to improve. You could make a similar argument with college acceptances. All students are not equally prepared to apply to Harvard, and they don’t have the same chances to get in. Does this mean therefore that all students should be accepted to Harvard carte blanche? No. While schools should be prepared to improve, to offer more services to their students, to better prepare and educate them, the fact is that there is a set of standards now set before the students, and they did not pass the test. Literally.

And they should hold themselves accountable for that in some part. That may sound harsh, but it is their responsibility to pass the test, just like it is ultimately their responsibility to go to school, apply to college, get a job, etc. If they don’t have what it takes, it is not the fault of the test to point out their deficiencies. It is not 100% fair, and it should be remedied for the future, but these students need to realize they don’t have what it takes. We need qualified students moving into our businesses, our government, and our colleges. It is the quality of this education that keeps us going as a country, and this is a dire sign we need to improve. But for the future of American sciences, economics, and our status as an innovative society, they should fail.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Divestment Rewards?

There is a reason why there is antitrust legislation on the books of our nation’s laws. Many decades ago, as the industrial revolution was peaking, there was a lot of wealth and power concentrated in few people. This is the era of huge fortunes and names like Rockefeller, Getty, Carnegie, and Morgan. It was creating a monopoly of power in key United States industries, like steel, oil, transportation, and communications. So the government, in a magnanimous sign of socialism, enacted these laws in order to help keep the American dream alive for the majority of the people. Some people have claimed that it merely puts capital into inefficient hands, thus hampering the progress of an industrial nation, but I would argue that by lifting up the bottom of the economic sectors, we can only better ourselves in the long run. That is still up to debate.

Fast forward nearly 70 years, to the 1984 divestment of AT&T, aka Ma Bell. At the order of the government seven spin-offs were generated to handle local telephone service. They included Pacific Bell, Bellsouth, Bell Atlantic, NYNEX, USWest, Ameritech, and Southwestern Bell. AT&T held on to its long-distance services, which were immediately faced with competition from companies like Sprint and MC
I. Good for competition, right? But the wheels of capitalism move in much more subtle ways. Over the years, the “baby bells” have been slowly merging, re-grouping, enlarging their holdings. In the late 1990s, Southwest Bell purchases Pacific Telesis (PacBell), Southern New England Telecommunications and then Ameritech. Under the name SBC, the group now consists of 3 of the original 7 spin-offs. Then SBC joins cellular plans with BellSouth in a 60/40 split. By 2004 it has merged with AT&T Wireless into one unit. It is not done yet. In 2005, SBC reaches an agreement to merge with AT&T, its former parent company. It is approved, and rebrands to AT&T for unity sake.

And now we come to the present. It was announced today that BellSouth shareholders ok a merger with AT&T (the one-time SBC). Should the SEC approve the merger, this would mean that the wireless company would finally come home to roost under one management structure. And it would mean that 4 of the 7 baby bells have regrouped with the parent company and added the major wireless network to its holdings. All in under 24 years. What was the original divestment for, if it was only to buy two decades of “competition” before allowing them to consolidate once more? Talk about inefficiency in economics.

Should the merger go through, AT&T (blue) would be merged with BellSouth (yellow). Image courtesy of

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The World with US Blinders

The war on terrorism that the United States has been waging since September 11, 2001 has taken a great many guises. The multinational invasion and “liberation” of Afghanistan in late 2001/2002, the unilateral “pre-emptive” strike against Saddam Hussein in 2003, new priorities in both domestic and foreign relation programs in the United States. However, one wonders if we have strayed too far in that direction. After all, while the loss of life was regrettable and abhorrent, and there certainly is at least one faction of radicals in the world who are determined to see the United States fall by any means necessary, there are far more pressing, and relevant, issues at hand in the world today. And the United States, by making the war on terror our #1 utmost priority, we have given way in many other areas, and one could make the case that we are losing our dominant edge in the influence over the future direction of the world.

The examples are evident enough. It was reported in this blog in May 2006 of the movements of many Latin American countries to the socialist left, headed by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. While Peru and (for now) Mexico have stalled his agenda, it remains that he is a strong, central influence in the regions politics and economies. This is a region the United States spent decades, and billions of dollars, to help grow to its own desire, as some bonsai that needed constant pruning, shaping, and feeding. It didn’t work out as we had planned, as the repressive tactics that were utilized merely succeeded in spreading corruption and a widening poverty disparity. Coupled with our new apathy towards the region, as it is not a hotbed of terrorism, the people have responded by veering in a new direction, completely independent of America’s recommendations.

The same sort of independence is being seen in Asia. As our collective vision lies elsewhere, China, Russia, and India look to create a regional dominance in politics and economics, becoming the major influences in that part of the world. China and Russia have already asserted themselves in the cases of North Korea and Iran, two arguments that the United States wishes it had more solidarity on. The United States has been the dominant power in that region since the conclusion of WWII, and is now slipping in the face of new self-confident giants of regional policy.

While this is not inherently a bad thing, as the United States makes up a small portion of the world, it is certainly something to take note of. We would do well to build strong, multi-governmental bodies where we can work as a part of a team to help direct policies in these regions of the world. Not as a majority voice, nor as a major deciding factor, but playing as one of the team. That has not always been our strongest suit as a nation, and it would not be easy now to shift from strong-man in the group to team player. But this kind of shift is becoming increasingly necessary as we are so distracted in our own pursuit of physical stability against these “terrorists.” We have sought strictly bilateral agreements with select partners, in lieu of other stronger, more central treaties. A prime example is our vacillation over the nuclear proliferation with India versus with other nations, most notably the more unstable, but also “strategic” partner of Pakistan. A more inclusive solution, which might also help foster better relations between the two, would have been a preferred solution. But we chose not to.

We are not popular in the world, not by any means. Our policies, mostly generated by this administration, but not exclusively, have set a tone that many of the world perceives as unilateral, super-capitalist, and uncaring of more social concerns. If more regional bodies begin to exclude the United States out of negotiations, trade agreements, political disputes, then one can only wonder where the United States will lie in the final judgment. Would American businesses be cut out of the loop of new trade agreements? Could we stop a war when our voice is not considered relevant to the argument or region at hand? Would we be asked to help in times of need, or congratulated in times of prosperity? Life with the blinders on, as we have pursued recently, has its consequences. The beginning of which is only now starting to play out.