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Tidbits Political Quotations
To Accompany the September 27, 2018 edition of Tidbits          
Bob Jensen at
Trinity University

USA Debt Clock --- ubl

In September 2017 the USA National Debt exceeded $20 trillion for the first time ---

Human Population Over Time on Earth --- 

State Income Taxes Ranked From Highest to Lowest

The Federal budget for 2017 ---

Jensen Comment
Note that even before the 2018 corporate tax cuts the corporate income tax has been a shrinking part of the Federal budget of the most recent decades. I've long been an advocate of replacing it with a VAT tax but liberals and conservatives alike hate that idea.

Medicare and Medicaid are the least sustainable entitlements predicted for the future.

Interest on government debt is a huge worry since foreign interests (think China and the oil-rich nations of the Middle East) own so much of it with the threat that one day these large investors will stop rolling over their investments in USA debt.

To Whom Does the USA Federal Government Owe Money (the booked obligation of $20+ trillion) ---
The US Debt Clock in Real Time --- 
In 2018 Foreigners (think Asia and the Middle East) May Be Losing Interest in USA Treasuries ---
Remember the Jane Fonda Movie called "Rollover" ---
One worry is that nations holding trillions of dollars invested in USA debt are dependent upon sales of oil and gas to sustain those investments.

To Whom Does the USA Federal Government Owe Money (the unbooked obligation of $100+ trillion and unknown more in contracted entitlements) ---
The biggest worry of the entitlements obligations is enormous obligation for the future under the Medicare and Medicaid programs that are now deemed totally unsustainable ---

How Americans Get Health Insurance ---

This is an interesting 2017 graph of the USA's trading partner performances ---
It's easy to get distracted my big amounts, but look at the imbalances of trade with nations like Japan, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. Add to this what we spend helping to defend nations like Japan, Canada, Germany, and Italy?

The enemy is fear
We think it's hate
But, it's fear



13 of the (alleged) most famous last words in history ---


Here are the Ten Best Pieces of Advice from 2018 Commencement Speakers ---
Click Here


The Best Advice from 2018's Celebrity Commencement Speakers ---


Countries With the Highest Household Wealth on Average ---


California Evidence:  What Happens When States Decide to Really, Really Soak the Rich With Taxes ---
Jensen Comment
This overlooks other tactics taken by the rich. For example, portfolios of very people are heavy into tax exempt bonds which may have to be municipal bonds issued in the state of residence in order to be exempt from state income taxes. More commonly, rich people invest for capital gains that are not taxed until realized (think common stocks and art work). Really rich people use off shore tax havens that reduce both federal and state taxes. In other words it's very difficult to soak the rich with taxes if they are astute enough to defer or avoid those taxes. And sometimes they move to more tax-friendly states like the nine states states that have no general state income tax ---
However, it appears that only a small proportion of really rich folks in California headed for Nevada, Texas, Florida, or some other state having no income tax. In part this is due to the many magnets that hold people to their long-time homes such as nearness to family and close friends and jobs. More important is the impact of high taxes that prevent many wealthy people from moving/retiring into California. California also has another barrier to inflows --- the astronomical price of real estate. You have to be really, really, really rich to consider buying even a modest home in San Francisco or other parts of the Silicon Valley. When high real estate prices combine with high upper tax rates you really don't need to build a physical wall at the border to keep rich people from moving into a state like California.  And some rich folks don't like the fact that la la land politicians control all branches of government in cities, counties, and the entire la la state of California.


Eight Science Quotations from Commencement Speeches


Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side because it's been fertilized with more bullshit.


The Lucretius Problem is a mental defect where we assume the worst case event that has happened is the worst case event that can happen ---


The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.


The Economic Ignorance of Bernie Sanders ---


How many times have we heard ‘free tuition,’ ‘free health care,’ and free you-name-it? If a particular good or service is truly free, we can have as much of it as we want without the sacrifice of other goods or services. Take a ‘free’ library; is it really free? The answer is no. Had the library not been built, that $50 million could have purchased something else. That something else sacrificed is the cost of the library. While users of the library might pay a zero price, zero price and free are not one and the same. So when politicians talk about providing something free, ask them to identify the beneficent Santa Claus or tooth fairy.
Walter Williams


Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.
Eric Hoffer.


The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.
Winston Churchill


Shoot for the space in between, because that's where the real mystery lies.
Vera Rubin


Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
T.S. Eliot

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

In honor of his centennial, the Top 10 Feynman quotations ---

Thomas Sowell (controversial conservative black economist) ---
The 30 Best Thomas Sowell Quotes ---

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Margaret Wheatley
Even conversations that are not politically correct.

That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.
Thomas Jefferson

Why, we grow rusty and you catch us at the very point of decadence --- by this time tomorrow we may have forgotten everything we ever knew. That's a thought isn't it? We'd be back to where we started --- improvising.
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Act I)

It's hard to beat a person who never gives up.

Babe Ruth, Historic Home Run Hitter
What's sad is to witness what Syria has become because nobody gave up earlier.


And "because they're nonstate actors, it's hard for us to get the satisfaction of [Gen.] MacArthur and the [Japanese] Emperor [Hirohito] meeting and the war officially being over," Obama observed, referencing the end of World War II. 
President Barack Obama when asked if the USA of the future will be perpetually engaged in war.

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. 
Joseph Campbell

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking. 
George S. Patton

And many writers have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation: for a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good.
Niccolo Machiavelli

If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there.
Yogi Berra

Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.
Henry David Thoreau

You can get a lot farther with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile.
Al Capone

Ten Years After Lehman: The Solution Was "More Lehmans" ---

Why Education Became a Top Issue in the 2018 Midterms ---
Click Here

Why Is Public Employee Disability Claim Data Being Kept Secret?

Universal Savings Accounts a Silver Lining in GOP Tax Reform ---

Stanford University:  A study finds that companies have come up with a new variant on backdating stock options to reap windfall profits---
Click Here

How much would the iPhone cost if it were made in America? \

An increasing number of police are being saved by armed citizens as more and more citizens are regularily carrying defensive firearms ---
The major networks tend not to report such incidents because it's not politically correct

A Primer On The Folly (And Evil) Of Socialism ---
Advocates of socialism generally assume that government workers have more integrity and humanitarian concern than workers in the public sector. History time and time again refutes this assumption. Hitler's Nazi's were socialists. The Kremlin's corrupt workers were socialists. Dictatorships time and time again expounded the virtues of socialism while exploiting it for their own ends. Most nations that tried it like India are backing away in favor of capitalism. I repeat that the Nordic countries like Denmark are capitalism proponents, not socialism proponents. When has there ever been a successful and enduring socialist economy? There's corruption in every economy. Socialism merely makes for more scandals and leads to corrupt dictatorships.

France:  Who paid the 75% tax on millionaires?

Machines will soon outwork humanity ---
Humanity performs about 71% of the work in 2018. By 2015 that will drop to 50% and not stop dropping in the foreseeable future.

The CEO of Denmark's biggest bank is out after a $235 billion money laundering scandal ---

Putin backs off Russia's threats against Israel, and calls Syria downing a Russian plane a 'tragic' accident ---

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won't Say How She'll Pay for $40 Trillion Medicare-for-All Platform CNN's Jake Tapper kept asking the socialist candidate where the money would come from. Eventually, he gave up ---

A record $6.2 billion settlement won’t be enough to end Visa and Mastercard’s long-running feud with the U.S.’s biggest retailers ---
There’s a separate class of merchants fighting for changes to Visa and Mastercard’s business practices.

Colombia's cocaine production has never been higher ---

Hackers are illegally generating Monero, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies by exploiting a software flaw that was leaked from the U.S. government ---

MIT:  How to hack an election—and what states should do to prevent fake votes ---
Click Here

Harvard University:  Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and comedian Dave Chappelle are among eight people being honored by Harvard University for their contributions to black history and culture ---

Jim Bovard on the Terrible Politicization of America ---

The Atlantic:  As participation in civic life has dwindled, so has public faith in the country’s system of government ---

We're clearly better off than our grandparents in many ways. But now we have to be sure not destroy the progress that's been made ---

New bill would finally tear down federal judiciary’s ridiculous paywall ---

NYT: Kavanaugh Has No Right to Presumption of Innocence, ‘Politics’ Should Decide His Guilt Instead ---
In fairness politics will not send him to prison. Politics can only decide whether he will ever be employed again and force him to wear a scarlet letter around his neck the remainder of his life. There is no forgiveness when placing lifetime scarlet letters around people who never have their moment in court to adjudicate guilt or innocence.
Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (free online) ---
It seems a bit odd that Kavanaugh's accuser has asked to be shielded from perjury laws in her Congressional testimony after hanging a red letter on Judge Kavanaugh.

Harvard Law School should investigate the "credible allegation" of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh before he is allowed to teach a winter-term course there, four law students write

Female blogger is ordered to pay US Army colonel she accused of rape $8.4million in damages after he claimed the false allegations cost him a sparkling military career ---

There’s a nearly 40 percent chance you’ll get away with murder in America ---
The police’s solve rate is even worse for other crimes.

NYT:  EU Ends Inquiry Into Luxembourg’s Tax Deal With McDonald’s ---

Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get” ---
Jensen Comment
This begs the question of how Milton Friedman would've reviewed Flannery O'Connor's fiction. I suspect Ayn Rand's fiction is cited a whole lot more on both sides of the aisle in the 21st Century because it is so controversial.

First Days Project (stories of immigrants first days) ---

Wearing Gay History  ---


How to Mislead With Statistics
GDP Growth Is Not the Same Thing as Real Economic Growth ---

How to Mislead With Statistics
A World With Fewer Babies Spells Economic Trouble ---

. . .

The United Nations calculated the world’s population as of 2017 at 7.6 billion people, a number it projects will grow to 11.2 billion at the end of this century, after which it could begin to fall. But a lot of countries are going to shrink before then. With a fertility rate of only 1.6, China’s population will drop 28 percent by 2100, ceding the title of world’s most-populous nation to India, the UN predicts. With a fertility rate of 1.4, Japan’s population will plunge 34 percent by 2100. The U.S.’s headcount is expected to keep growing, despite a low fertility rate of 1.8, because of large numbers of immigrants, though government policies could change that.

Continued in article

Jensen Comment
It's unbelievable that Bloomberg published such a misleading article that the encourages increased birth rates at a time when climate change impacts on food and water shortages are so dire for the next few decades while we await dramatic and technologies to feed and water the existing world populace. The problem is just not climate change. Before climate change was on everybody's mind agricultural aquifers (think Nebraska and Oklahoma) were drying up from over use.

It's unbelievable that Bloomberg would publish such a misleading article when it's known that robotics and artificial intelligence advances threaten so many labor markets, especially the unskilled labor markets and even quite a few of the skilled labor markets where robots are even doing complicated surgeries these days. Sure the birth rate in Japan is down, but a high tech nation like Japan could lead the way in robotics and artificial intelligence.

It's like Bloomberg merely wanted to paint a gloomy picture of declining birthrates in some industrial nations while overlooking the enormous problem of the ever-onward growth in world population amidst growing resource shortages to meet that steady growth in global population. And we really cannot rely on that growth leveling out in Year 2100 so far ahead in time. The Mad Max era may have come and gone by then ---

It's certain that there will be ever- increasing numbers of immigrants in the USA and Europe because nothing, certainly not walls, will stem the flow of undocumented immigration thru all borders while health care, education, and higher incomes in the USA and Europe serve as magnets for the sick and the poor.

How to Mislead With Statistics
American Life Expectancy vs. Europe: It's Not About "Socialized Medicine" ----

Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong ---

From a Chronicle of Higher Education newsletter on September 27, 2018

Harvard Law School should investigate the "credible allegation" of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh before he is allowed to teach a winter-term course there, four law students write

Jensen Comment
if that's the case, Harvard should investigate the K-12 behavior of every one of its faculty just to be fair all the way around.

NYT: Kavanaugh Has No Right to Presumption of Innocence, ‘Politics’ Should Decide His Guilt Instead ---
In fairness politics will not send him to prison. Politics can only decide whether he will ever be employed again and force him to wear a scarlet letter around his neck the remainder of his life. There is no forgiveness when placing lifetime scarlet letters around people who never have their moment in court to adjudicate guilt or innocence.
Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (free online) ---

What's to prevent porn stars from placing huge bets on professional sporting games and then accusing selected players of attempted rape?
Isn't it a little strange that Stormy's attorney forbids her from future comments about Ben? This might be because it is a false claim. Or it might be that he himself placed a bet before her revelation. Or the best bet is that since her attorney now considers himself a Presidential candidate that he knows pissing off NFL fans will cost him votes.

The Complicated Issue of "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" versus "Innocent Until Proven Guilty"
In the olden days a professor who spotted a student looking at someone else's test answers could give an F for the test or maybe even an F for the entire course. These days many universities require that the professor, student, and witnesses all to appear before some honor "court" that then recommends a punishment which can be something other than an F on a test or F for the course. Usually recommendations for suspension or expulsion from the school pass up to the school's top administration such as was the case when 60+ students were recently expelled from Harvard for cheating on a political science course homework assignment.

My point here is that there's usually no longer automatic presumption of guilt in the honor court just because the professor (or other proctor) testifies that the student was seen cheating. The student these days is given his or her day in the honor court. From a legal standpoint the school takes a risk in suspending or expelling the student without concrete evidence. Lawyers are always waiting in the wings. There can be evidence such as matching answers but this is not ipso facto hard evidence. Harvard had hard evidence in the case where 60+ students were expelled. I don't know if there were lawsuits, but I doubt it. For unknown reasons some students allegedly involved in course cheating were not expelled ---

Another instance is where faculty cheat in research and/or publication. The two most common types of cheating are data fabrication versus plagiarism. Plagiarism is solid in the sense that there's almost always indisputable evidence unless there's a dispute over who authored the original source. Fabricated data is usually suspected when nobody can replicate the results, when there's no evidence of data collection, or when insiders witness the fabrication ---

My point here is that there's no automatic presumption of guilt in the case a researcher cheating without some documented evidence. Usually the perpetrator is not terminated by the college unless it is deemed that the school's evidence will stand up in a civil lawsuit.

In the case of felony (think rape) allegations prosecutors generally collect evidence (such as DNA or other chemical evidence) and then decide is there's enough evidence to get a conviction.

What is the most difficult is where there's a serious violation (such as rape or molestation or harassment) without any evidence other than "he said versus she said" accusations. Probably the most common instance here is when there's dispute over whether sex was consensual. But there can also be related instances where the proctor reports seeing student cheat on an examination versus the student claiming there was no cheating. 

It's the "he said versus she said" situations where the presumption of guilt versus the presumption of innocence comes most into play. The #MeToo activists in the case of sexual incidents want gender bias of presumption of guilt against the male. This bias can be complicated since both the accuser and an employer/school may be sued. Jury trials become tough for the parties involved since there are often 12 members of a jury who must reach their own conclusions. Without any other evidence whatsoever cases usually don't go to court. When there is evidence they are sometimes settled by negotiation out of court.

For me the really sad situation is where an employee (such as a professor) is terminated on the basis of zero evidence other than "he said versus she said" accusations. Sure the employee has the right to sue in civil court, but suing may involve having to hire an expensive law firm and then take a chance that 12 jurors will agree on a favorable verdict. More often than not a fired professor accepts the presumption of guilt outcome and lives the remainder of life with a red letter hanging around the neck. But it's also sad when an assumption of innocence prevails such that the professor carries on and the victim has no justice. I'm not certain there can be a really just outcome without convincing evidence unless the "victim" lied and the employee was not fired.

In the a "proctor said versus student said" testing situation chances are that there's a presumption of guilt if the proctor (usually the teacher) is really experienced at proctoring. In the case of a novice proctor there may be a presumption of innocence without more evidence.

When it comes to a really, really big deal like the appointment of a Supreme Court justice it becomes much, much more complicated, because allegations of misconduct may become mere excuses just to block a candidate for political reasons other than moral reasons being used merely as excuses.

Then ultimate outcome may result in political power virtually independent of morality if there is no solid evidence to support the allegations.

My point here is political power conflicts may have very little to do with morality except when there is really indisputable evidence. Having a 100 or 1,000 unsupported or poorly supported claims of immorality are likely to become ignored in political power situations. Subsequent defamation lawsuits are not likely to prevail unless damaging evidence (such as payola) is uncovered subsequent to the decision regarding the contested appointment.

Laffer Curve ---

Remarkable OECD Study On Corporate Tax Rates, Corporate Tax Revenue, And The Laffer Curve ---
Click Here  

Last month, I revealed that even Paul Krugman agreed with the core principle of the Laffer Curve.

Today, we have another unlikely ally. Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based international bureaucracy routinely urges higher tax burdens, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

But the professional economists who work for the OECD are much better than the political appointees who push a statist agenda.

So when I saw that three of them (Oguzhan Akgun, David Bartolini, and Boris Cournède) produced a study estimating the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues, I was very curious to see the results.

They start by openly acknowledging that high tax rates can backfire.

Continued in article

Amazon jumps out of nowhere into the No. 3 spot in advertising:  Google and Facebook should be alarmed ---

Jensen Comment
In one previous AECM message I related a true story of a professor almost being derailed in life because of a false claim of sexual molestation where only the student's belated admission of lying saved the future for the professor but harmed the accuser.  In a second message I pointed out where either true or false claims of sexual harassment can become suicide bombs such as how Dr. Ford's life is endangered by possibly (outcome unknown today) derailing of a Supreme Court appointment.

The posting below is another example of a disputed sexual harassment claim that will probably derail the future for both a very distinguished philosophy professor and her accuser. This is another one of those disputed claims that, due to media attention, will negatively affect both the accused and the accuser. Professor Ronell will forever wear a scarlet letter. The accuser possibly will have a more difficult time succeeding in a career because the accusation will be viewed by many as an act of vengeance.

The Overlooked Lesson of the Ronell-Reitman Case ---

It shouldn’t take a case like Avital Ronell’s to make us pay attention to graduate advising. Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University, was recently suspended from teaching for a year for the sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her former Ph.D. advisees. Reitman, who had brought a Title IX complaint against Ronell after he graduated, has further claimed that Ronell’s lukewarm recommendations have hindered his search for an academic job. Ronell disputes all the charges.

This case is strange for many reasons. One is that Ronell is female and Reitman is male — an inversion of the usual pattern for sexual-harassment cases. Further, Ronell is a prominent scholar. And the kicker: Ronell is lesbian, and Reitman is gay. The two have been flinging he said/she said barbs at each other since his accusations went public. More than 50 scholars signed an open letter of protest of NYU’s investigation, and now that the university found that he was sexually harassed, Reitman has sued NYU for damages.

"What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?" asked The New York Times."Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic," said Britain’s The Times. The public fascination is no wonder. This is bizarre stuff.

The Ronell case is also not an outlier at all. It illustrates the typical structural problems that attend graduate advising, especially of the doctoral kind. Educators don’t talk enough about those problems. Even now, when they flare into view, we join the general public in gaping at the burning tree rather than considering the dry, crackling forest it’s part of.

Graduate advising is institutional. That’s definitionally true: Students get their degrees from a university, not an adviser or a committee. Yet in practice, we treat graduate advising as personal — the private property of the individual professors who do it.

That combination of the personal and the private makes graduate advising a potential tinderbox.

Consider a deliberately unsensational scenario. Let’s say a professor is engaging in questionable advising practices — like putting a dissertation student through 18 drafts of an article that was ready to be sent out for publication months ago. If a colleague in the same department read the manuscript and saw the student losing traction, do you think that colleague would take the professor aside and offer some friendly suggestions? In practice, that conversation rarely happens. Usually the colleague decides to mind his or her own business.

But whose business is it, really? Graduate education is the responsibility of an entire department — or, to view it on an even wider scale, of the university itself. When a student chooses an adviser, it’s not as though the student is withdrawing from the department’s common culture to enter the adviser’s private world. So why do we act as though that were true?

The roots of this habit of thinking — and of the resulting practice — lie in the American university’s European past. The founders of American research universities were mainly inspired by German models. And in German universities during the 18th and 19th centuries, the learned professor radiated with power and intellectual allure, an effect that the historian William Clark calls "academic charisma." The charismatic professor was more of a master instructing acolytes than a mere teacher advising students.

American research universities imported that straitened and hierarchical worldview into the culture of graduate education here. Laurence Veysey points out in The Emergence of the American University that the rise of "cults" around "magnetic" professors in the United States coincided with their general withdrawal (along with their students) from the public sphere, to live behind the walls of the ivory tower.

The opposite is true today: Graduate students have to think about their career options outside of academe as well as inside it. Yet the insular view of doctoral advising as the personal and private realm of an individual professor has persisted. Sure, every doctoral student has a committee, but many (if not most) of its members do little, and defer to the main adviser in charge.

Given the inherent conservatism of American academe, we shouldn’t be surprised that this model remains in force. David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, has written: "The heart of Ph.D. training is the relationship between mentors and students." The question is how that relationship should be structured.

The Ronell-Reitman affair "may be a weird case," as one scholarly editor put it, but by omission, "it highlights the fact that the professional duty of a professor is to prepare grad students for their careers and help them get jobs."

That instrumental view makes sense, of course. For advisers to prioritize that goal, we need to work together, and in the open. Graduate advising is, after all, a form of teaching, and teaching is inherently public work.

Continued in article

How to Mislead With Statistics
Measuring human capital: a systematic analysis of 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016

Jensen Comment
Firstly, rankings can be easily distorted by denominator effects that compare highly populated and diverse nations with small nations. It's like comparing rates of growth of infants (who double their weight and height in few years) with teenagers )that rarely double their weight and height). Also racial and ethnic homogeneity coupled with small size account for a lot of Nordic country attainment in human capital. Hundreds of thousands of unhealthy and poorly educated immigrants are not pouring into Finland each year.

This study ignores the leading reasons why scholars from around the world are seeking to go to graduate school (including medical school) in the USA relative to Nordic countries, Singapore, and South Korea.

The study above is good for analyzing rates of improvement in human capital of nations. But it's also misleading in terms of identifying nations favored by immigrants if they're given a choice to live anywhere in the world. In spite of its limitations the USA is still a great land of opportunity that does not show up in the above rankings of nations. Of course that does not mean that our public education system is serving the majority as well as Finland. It does not mean that our health care system is serving the majority as well as Finland. But Finland does not face the enormous problems that the USA faces in serving its majority.

And yes Finland provides free college education. But it does so only for the top third of its people. The other two thirds are not allowed into college --- as is the case for virtually all European nations. And most of the training in Finland for skills in the trades is provided by private sector companies rather than taxpayers.

It's very easy to be mislead when comparing human capital betterments in Finland with the USA. For example Finland's K-12 education system does very well because of learning that nearly all children get in two-parent homes. Finland does not have the high proportion of single-parent homes where learning school work at home is doubly hard.

And remember that Finland is more of a capitalist nation than the USA. Singapore is more capitalist than the USA. Capitalism can be very good for attaining high human capital achievements.

American History Education:  Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle --- 

The amendment buried on Page 69 of the federal education budget for 2000 was easy to overlook. Tucked into "Repeals, Redesignation, and Amendments to Other Statutes" was a proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd to provide $50 million "to develop, implement and strengthen programs to teach American history … as a separate subject within school curricula."

The speed of the amendment’s passage on June 30, 2000, caught most observers unawares. Department of Education officials scurried to set up shop, draft specs for grant proposals, establish due dates, post notices, solicit reviewers, and put into place procedures for the disbursement of funds. Few historians saw the windfall coming, especially those who remembered the thrashing they got in the 1990s when they tried to tinker with the nation’s curriculum. The ill-fated National Standards for United States History — a collaboration among professional historians, curriculum specialists, teachers, and staff developers — hemorrhaged on the Senate floor before its death in a 99-1 censure (the lone dissenter fuming that the rebuke was insufficiently harsh).

But on this June day, history found its superhero. Senator Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, commanded respect as one of the longest-ranking members of Congress. He was admired for his stately manner, encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Roman history, and his habit of drawing a folded copy of the Constitution from his breast pocket to remind fellow senators of their sworn duty. Byrd believed that the teaching of history was in crisis, that the "civic glue" that bound the strands of a polyglot mix into a single people was losing its power. He noted that only 22 percent of seniors at America’s colleges could identify the line "government of the people, by the people, for the people" as part of the Gettysburg Address. Colleges and universities were shirking their responsibility: America’s most prestigious institutions "no longer require the study of any form of history." Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, backed him up with numbers just as bleak: 81 percent of college seniors "received a grade of D or F on history questions drawn from a basic high-school examination."

What Byrd and Lieberman didn’t mention was that American students had never been the sharpest at answering decontextualized test questions. In 1917, in the first large-scale test of historical facts, Texas high-school students conflated Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis, yanked the Articles of Confederation from the 18th century and plunked them down in the middle of the Confederacy, and stared with bafflement at 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, unaware of its significance in Texas history. "Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history," the testers admonished, "is not a record in which any high school can take great pride." A 1942 test of 7,000 college students, designed by Columbia University’s Allan Nevins and administered by The New York Times, found students "all too ignorant of American history," a finding recycled in 1976 just in time to pour down on the bicentennial parade: "Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited." Subsequent test administrations in 1987, 1994, and 2006 of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, the "Nation’s Report Card") showed scant improvement.

One has to wonder, then, what mix of pollen was in the air that made Byrd, Lieberman, and other senators wake up one day and fret that American memory was disintegrating. The senators, it turned out, had all read the same document, or at least its press release: Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, a report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization that Lieberman characterized as a "nonprofit group dedicated to the pursuit of academic freedom."

ACTA guards academic freedom the way foxes guard chicken coops. With the financial backing of foundations like Bradley and Olin, the council specializes in making headlines with reports such as Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It. To measure civic memory, ACTA commissioned the Center for Survey Research and Analysis, at the University of Connecticut, to create a 34-item multiple-choice test about American history. Respondents had to identify the Missouri Compromise (legislation that admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state), name the court case associated with John Marshall (Marbury v. Madison, in which the chief justice held that the Constitution did not grant the Supreme Court the right to issue writs of mandamus, effectively establishing the precedent of judicial review), and name the father of the Constitution (not Jefferson, chosen by 53 percent of respondents, but James Madison, identified by less than a quarter).

ACTA designed its survey to make students look dumb. The strategy worked. Archly sprinkled among its questions were items on popular culture (Were Beavis and Butt-Head cartoon characters or "fictional soldiers"? Was Snoop Dogg a rapper or a "jazz singer"?) that testers knew would be a cinch for any self-respecting college kid. Ninety-nine percent of students aced Beavis and Butt-Head; only a third pinned Marshall to Marbury. Nor were the 556 respondents your garden-variety undergraduates. ACTA went out of its way to bag seniors at top colleges and universities — including Harvard, Amherst, and Swarthmore — with the heftiest price tags and the most liberal faculties.

By the beginning of the new millennium, testing the young on historical facts had become a yearly ritual, a blip on the news feed gone as soon as it appeared. But Losing America’s Memory seized the attention not only of Senators Byrd and Lieberman, but also of Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Sen. Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington. The report spurred Congress to make the biggest federal commitment to history education — more than one billion dollars — in the annals of the Republic. How come?

For the launch of Losing America’s Memory, ACTA recruited some of the history profession’s biggest names, including Gordon S. Wood and John Patrick Diggins, and solicited written statements of support from luminaries like the best-selling author David McCullough. More events than available slots compete each day for space on lawmakers’ packed schedules. How, then, did a news conference assailing college students’ failure to tie John Marshall to William Marbury climb its way to the top? Hard to know for sure, but accompanying Lieberman and Gorton to the event was a colleague from the House of Representatives, Tom Petri, a Republican from Wisconsin’s Sixth District. It couldn’t have hurt that Petri had a special relationship with the lead author of Losing America’s Memory, Anne D. Neal. She was his wife.

ACTA’s target, and the original target of Byrd’s program, was the lax history requirements at the nation’s colleges. Byrd called on trustees to "review public college and university curricula in their states and promote requirements in United States history."

The senator had to know that the kind of history he championed — the portrayal of America as a "wonderful, glorious experiment in representative democracy" — wouldn’t go down easily with many professors. So he found a more tractable target: schoolteachers. Byrd redirected his criticism at the teaching of "‘multicultural’ social studies," which "shortchanges our young people who will someday be the leaders of our nation." Nothing but a return to teaching "traditional American history" in our nation’s schools would avert a crisis of civic memory. Even though the use of "traditional" and the baggage it carried didn’t sit well with college history departments, they ended up embracing it, and enriching themselves, with the teacher-training programs that resulted. Today, when Americans are bombarded by misinformation and propaganda, the missed opportunity to teach students the skills of historical analysis and interpretation is especially glaring.

Accustomed to being passed over in funding priorities, historians were initially slow to see the windfall headed their way. When the program was announced, Arnita Jones, then director of the American Historical Association, objected that university-based historians were barred from applying for the Teaching American History (TAH) dollars, their role confined to "content providers." Jones grumbled that program guidelines offered "no provisions for projects to be initiated or financed through colleges, universities, historical societies, or other such institutions." Because of this restriction, content-allergic schools, she feared, might do an end run around historical knowledge and focus on lesser goals, such as "teaching strategies or curriculum development."

The steady flow of TAH grant funds, however, had a way of greasing squeaky wheels. TAH dollars plied historians with handsome summer salaries and pumped new life into moribund M.A. programs, their seats now filled with schoolteachers holding tuition waivers courtesy of the program. Historian dream teams barnstormed the land. In one rural Wisconsin project, teachers hosted the likes of Gary Nash, Eric Foner, and Mary Beth Norton in hamlets like Bayfield (population 578) and Washburn (population 2,280). Amid the rushing stream of green, historians’ ambivalence toward TAH morphed into boosterism. Arnita Jones, who in 2002 objected to TAH’s funding guidelines, exhorted America’s schoolteachers in 2009 to write their representatives, letting them know that "TAH grants are making a difference and should continue."

In the first two years of TAH, the Department of Education doled out 174 grants to local school districts. At the end of the program’s second year, the Department of Education contracted with SRI International, a nonprofit research firm headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., to evaluate what this $150-million investment had bought. SRI evaluators reviewed project proposals and work plans, interviewed program directors, surveyed teacher participants, and conducted eight case studies of individual programs. The range of projects they reviewed gave new meaning to "eclectic." Some projects were informed by guidelines set by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, funded by the conservative Bradley Foundation; others drew on Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligence theory, which encouraged teachers to exploit the full range of students’ intelligences, including "kinaesthetic," "visual-spatial," and "naturalistic." Still others used a curriculum called History Alive!, produced by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, to promote "experiential learning," which involved having students crouch under their desks as they viewed slides of World War I battles in order to "empathize with the physical discomforts of trench warfare."

SRI found that the assessment instrument of choice for teacher learning was also the least reliable: More than 90 percent of projects relied on teachers’ self-reports. Although the original legislation specified that activities with teachers should be linked to student achievement, fewer than half the projects tried to forge that link; those that did relied on teachers’ subjective reports rather than studies by outside evaluators. In a conclusion that excelled in understatement, evaluators wrote that "overall, the projects’ efforts to assess students’ or teachers’ knowledge of American history did not appear to be systematic."

Summer institutes were the activity of choice in three-quarters of the projects. Teachers convened in bucolic settings to listen to "content providers" (typically historians from the local college or historical society) deliver lectures. Scintillating or boring, the underlying logic was the same. Teachers were expected to return to classrooms with knowledge that they would then impart to 12- and 13-year-olds. Students would, presumably, go on to score higher on standardized tests.

. . .

If timidity were a mortal sin, the Department of Education would certainly have to serve penance. Rather than earmarking funds to develop assessments that could be used for cross-project comparisons, the department treated each project on its own, wasting untold resources in fruitless attempts to reinvent the wheel. Worse still, department officials ignored advice given to them back in 2002 at a meeting that included the executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies. This gathering (and another, held two months later) called on the Department of Education to abandon bubble tests in favor of assessments that examine "student understanding of historical thinking and important, in-depth, contextualized subject matter rather than discrete historical ‘facts.’" While leaders of individual projects may have heeded this advice, it never influenced the program as a whole. When evaluators in 2011 submitted their recommendations at the end of their report, the department was, yet again, urged to create tools that "could contribute both to stronger local evaluations and to potential comparisons between projects." This suggestion came too late for TAH.

By 2015, with TAH a distant memory, Stacia Kuceyeski, a historian with the Ohio History Connection, a statewide organization, wistfully recalled a time when her organization partnered in 22 TAH grants, and money flowed like water over Brandywine Falls. "Many of us at history museums and departments of history," she blogged, "were like Scrooge McDuck, sliding around giant piles of sweet [federal] money that was especially designated for American history. How Amazing!" But with the party over, she and fellow historians were left with a "massive hangover, the likes of which can’t be helped with three Advil and a bunch of Gatorade."

The history profession sure got plastered on TAH dollars. The billion-dollar bash lasted for a decade. But with sobriety comes a reckoning — in the words of the Twelve Steps, "a searching and fearless moral inventory." We’re still waiting.

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and, by courtesy, history at Stanford University. His book Why Learn History (When It Is Already on Your Phone), from which this essay was adapted, is out this month from the University of Chicago Press.


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