Friday, October 26, 2012

Campus Event: Professor Heckman on "The Skills Problem"

This event is part of the Convocation Series at Berea College. The event took place on October 25, 2012. The nice thing about the series is that most of them take place in the daytime, so I am able to go during the work day when I can take a moment from my work. In fact, it is approved by the powers that be for me to go to campus events here when I can. I have been to others and taken notes, and I hope to post some of those notes over time on the blog. The topic for Professor Heckman's lecture seems very relevant for this election cycle, so I wanted to get it in a bit sooner. Besides, it is not very often I can say I listened in person to one of the ten most influential economists in the world. I am posting about it here instead of at The Gypsy Librarian because this content does have some political significance. Some of what Dr. Heckman says may go along with the remarks Cheri Honkala delivered on campus recently. As my four readers know, politics is something I leave for this blog here.

As I said, these are just my notes as I listened:

  • The upcoming election is about inequality. The concepts of the 1% and the 99% are very real. The inequality creates instability. 
  • The housing market is not really discussed in the election campaigns. Neither major party has addressed this. 
  • Skills are important to success and to do well in the new economies. This is understood, yet we've seen a pathological phenomenon of society producing less skilled people as demand for skilled people goes up. 
  • A myth: we [in the United States] live in a society of great opportunity and social mobility. The reality is one of income persistence in the disadvantaged across generations. 
  • We need to think broadly. The skills problem is crucial. So is a lack of thinking broadly, not just one remedial tactic to solve social ills, but what we need are strategies to address a larger picture. We need policies of predistribution, prevention, not just remediation. We need skills education at key points in life. 
  • Personality and other so-called "soft skills" are crucial, along with cognitive skills. The gap in the skills opens early, and schools do contribute to enlarging the skills gap. We must note also that family influence is crucial. Policy planners have to recognize the role of family in providing skills to children. 
  • To promote equality, society needs to engage the family from the early life of the child. Economically, this does have a high rate of return, and the strategies are socially fair [sadly, he really did not mention or offer any of those specific strategies]. 
  • Family life is a major determiner of inequality in schools. 
  • Higher levels of cognitive and personality skills, together, predict positive behaviors. 
  • Being smart is not enough. People who get a GED can be as smart as high graduates, yet studies reveal that the earnings of people with a GED are closer to the earnings of school dropouts. They may be missing non-cognitive life skills. Promoting these skills promotes social mobility. 
  • The argument: family life matters. 
  • The skills, cognitive and life skills, interact in dynamic ways. Personality and social skills enhance cognitive skills. 
  • You can address some problems in adolescence. Personality skills are still malleable in youth. However, early life factors determine education outcomes We get higher returns with investing at early ages, so then things get better. It creates a base that pays off later. 
  • Otherwise, skill deficits early on contribute to problems later. 
  • Parenting quality is a measure of advantage, not just income and money. 
Overall, the lecture was interesting. I did wish he would have gone into some specifics on how to do the things he describes to move from the lofty "we ought to do this and here is why" to "and we can do it by doing this, this, and that."

He did write a book a while back that seems to explain some of this better, so I may look it up down the road. The book is  Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policy? (link to WorldCat record).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Booknote: Broke USA

"Behind every great fortune there is a great crime." --Attributed to Honoré de Balzac

This is my review of the book as I posted it on my GoodReads profile. It is a book that, while a bit exhausting at times, due to the exhaustiveness of coverage in the topic, it is one worth reading. I think it is also a relevant book for this election season. When you think of the "1%," keep in mind they are not all high finance tycoons. Many of them made their fortunes exploiting the poor one small predatory loan at a time. Poverty is a big business in the United States for those with little to no conscience willing to exploit the poor. By the way, the epigraph, which has gained some fame from The Godfather using it as epigraph too, seems appropriate given how the merchants of poverty have made their fortunes. It may not have been illegal, but it was still a crime.

The review: 

Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. - How the Working Poor Became Big BusinessBroke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. - How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I did like this book, but I am not rating it higher because, well, "I liked it" but I did not "really like it." It is not because the book is bad. Far from it. If a list is ever compiled of the books that must be read to understand the 2008 financial meltdown, this book has to be among the top two or three. Also, the book is required reading to understand why the poverty industry-- those who profit from the plight of the poor-- are thriving in the United States. So, why only rate it "three stars"? Because the book is exhaustive, but it is also exhausting.

Rivlin takes us on a gran tour of Poverty Inc. He covers just about every player: payday loans, rent-to-own, those tax refund loans, pawn shops, subprime mortgages and a few others I cannot recall at this moment. He delivers human interest stories, interviewing a lot of victims, but he also sits down with some of the tycoons of these companies. Though Rivlin strives to be fair, in the end, the tycoons pretty much hang themselves. As we read, it is clear that what they do is far from noble, and we are reading a tale of greed gone awry. The damage these companies caused is such that it will be felt for years. And even if you are tempted to feel bad about one of these tycoons, once you learn of their trade conventions, where they trade secrets on how to squeeze the poor even more, their lobbyists, and their underhanded tactics, you won't be left feeling too much sympathy for them.

The thing is that there were very early warning signs, signs that many people either failed to see, or they refused to see them because the money being made was very good. In the end, the companies may be bruised, but they are not totally out yet. We can only hope more education can help the poor find better options. Because in the end, these companies thrive because society and businesses have simply enabled the erosion of a solid middle-class turning it into a working poor class with no other choice than to fall into the trap of the subprime lender or other poverty exploitation merchant. Rivlin, in addition to telling the story, raises some very good ethical and moral questions that we as a society really need to consider if we want to move forward.

The book includes a good set of notes for documentation for those who may be interested in learning more. The only catch, as I said, is that Rivlin strives to cover so much that after a while reading these tragic stories of exploited people just becomes too exhausting. Add to it you may get angry (as a decent human being) when you read about these predatory lenders and their deceptions, and you have to read this book a little at a time. However, it is an important book, and I think it is one more people should read. Plus, in an election season, it may be a relevant one as well.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Campus Event: Reception and Conversation with Cheri Honkala 2012 Green Party VP Candidate

The event took place last night at Berea College's Appalachian Center. This was a rare opportunity, so I decided to go and learn a thing or two, and I took the family along as well. I can say my daughter was impressed after the event. The following are some notes I took from the event.

  • Ms. Honkala opens her remarks by acknowledging the efforts of community organizers. 
  • She spent the day touring the mountains and hearing stories from the locals. She notes that Dr. Jill Stein, the Presidential Candidate for the Green Party, and her have made it a point to go to places that the two major parties have neglected. 
  • Things we know: poverty, short life spans, mountaintop removals, coal dust, and other environmental issues (and in the case of the mountains and coal, very significant issues here in Kentucky) as well as human issues. We need to act now and remove the blinders so we can have a future. 
  • The theater of the national debates is similar to the theater (spectacle) in the film The Hunger Games. And we are then told to vote for the lesser of two evils. As voters, we should be looking at the facts. 
  • Ms. Honkala's story is the story of a woman who was homeless, a single mother, and the last person who would ever think of running for any political office. She decided that the basic necessities of life are not negotiable.  Her mother taught her it is more important to do what is right. So, 200-plus arrests later for various acts of civil disobedience, she finds herself on the path of running on a Green Party Ticket. First, she was approached to run for sheriff in Philadelphia. She ran on a no foreclosures campaign. She was the first woman to run for his office. Later, stemming from her work with homeless people and the poor, she was asked by Dr. Jill Stein to be her running mate. Honkala's mentors all told her it was her responsibility to run, to give back.
  • Ms. Honkala says she tried hard to be a Democrat. But no one in that party was concerned about what she thought, the concerns of a poor single mother nor the concerns of people losing their homes and suffering. No one wanted to talk about poverty. 
  • Briefly mentioned the work of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.
  • The law of humanity: keep each other alive and take care of each other. 
  • Honkala will be in Danville, KY marching to protest not being included in the National Vice-Presidential Debate. (By the way, as a side note, Danville is only about 40 minutes from Berea. If I was not working the evening shift in reference, I'd be very tempted to go). There is a problem with democracy when third parties, even if they have no mathematical chance of winning the White House, are excluded from any of the national debates and effectively silenced. These voices do need to be a part of the national conversation and debate. In spite of that, the Green Party has worked collecting signatures, and they are now in the ballots of 38 states. 
  • You may want to check out some coverage at Democracy Now! For instance, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson (the presidential candidate of the Justice Party) were featured answering the same debate questions from the presidential debates. They may be doing it again for the vice-presidential debate. The Green Party has used other media, including international media, to get coverage. For instance, Dr. Stein was featured in Al-Jazeera feature on third party candidates. This is also a tactic to force the American mainstream media to cover third party candidates (which, as we know, the American media treat as a joke, a sideshow, or they just don't cover them at all). 
  • The building of an independent party should be a revolutionary act.
After the candidate delivered her remarks, which were very informal, she had time for photos and questions from the audience.

Lisa Rivera talks politics and American history with Ms. Honkala
Our daughter Lisa got to talk to Ms. Honkala, discussing how some of the candidate's ideas connected to lessons she is just learning in her social studies class (they are covering the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans). For her mother and I, experiences like this are a way to supplement her school education, plus, Lisa gets to see a good role model of a strong woman in politics and an activist.

Overall, we had a small but enthusiastic gathering of people from in and out of the college. I did wish a few more of our students would have made it for this is the kind of opportunity you do not get very often.

Caprice and Angel Rivera with Cheri Honkala
Ms. Honkala also talked a bit about issues of access to information and a bit on people using their public libraries. But there is still more to be done to bridge that digital divide. Certainly an issue close to this librarian.

You can learn more about the Green Party and its candidates from the links in this post.