Monday, December 28, 2009

Decade with no name? Says who?

   And so we say farewell to the Decade of Levi Johnston, he who impregnated a vice presidential candidate's teen daughter, paraded before the nation as a picture of family values, had his affections alienated, did an armpit- bearing fold-out photo session and appeared on enough talk shows to become a household face.

   That the candidate's name needs no utterance, not to mention the daughter's or even the child's, says a lot about the 10-year stretch just about done.

    It was the Decade of Jon and Kate, they who became celebrities because a cable channel pronounced them and their eight children as much. Then they split viciously and became more celebrated.

    It was the Decade of the Dramatic Squirrel, an emotive rodent which had drawn 1,240,046 online hits when I checked YouTube. You can add to the number. Go ahead.

     Or it was Paris Hilton Decade, or the Elizabeth Lambert Decade, named in either case for people whose charms, or lack of them, were broadcast for all to see via the World Wide Web — the first by a sex tape, the second by images of the University of New Mexico soccer player pulling an opponent to the ground by her hair.

      We wish we could say farewell to them, but they're still there and will be far into the next, yet-to-be-named decade.

       Now, you're saying that the decade we hereby depart never got a name, either. Aughts? Trendily trite. Oh-Ohs? Well, not bad, if your name is Mark Sanford, or Elliott Spitzer, or John Edwards.

       Fact is, the decade has lots of great names. For instance, it was the Decade of The Family. Not the biological unit venerated by scoundrels for political gain. No. During this decade, a secretive group of Republican politicians liked to quote the Bible and convene at the secretive "C Street House" in the nation's capital — for prayer, of course. In 2009, the secretive C-street fellows were wracked by a string of sex scandals, headed by Sanford, and including Sen. John Ensign and former Congressman Charles "Chip" Pickering.

       But if you think it was a decade for mea culpas, no. It was the They-A Culpa Decade. "Scooter" Libby took the rap for a campaign waged by Dick Cheney to go after a former envoy who knew too much about the false pretexts for invading Iraq.

      In case after case, people who sought to speak truth to power relative to a war built on lies, truth tellers like Cindy Sheehan, or former terrorism czar Richard Clarke or former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, each became the issue, amazingly.

      Yes, it was their credibility we were to examine, not that of the incredible band of schemers and storytellers prosecuting a war that never would have happened had truth been known or Congress or a cowed media been receptive thereto.

       George W. Bush strode away from it all with a wink.

       It was the Outsourcing Decade, the Privatizing Decade, the Government Run as a Business Decade, and we were all shown how well that worked when Katrina was the storm of the decade.

       It was a decade so full of insults to the collective intelligence that 10 years wasn't enough to make anyone pay for them, except suddenly to hear that Barack Obama was to blame for a bad economy, for dollars spent without accountability, and for "dithering" on wars he didn't start.

         So, in a way, it was a public service that we had Levi Johnston, Paris Hilton,  "Dancing With the Stars," YouTube, Facebook and sex scandals galore to distract us. Otherwise, we might not have anything to complain about as we enter another decade in search of a name.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Monday, December 21, 2009

'And on Earth . . .'

   It was March 20, 2003. After "shock and awe," American forces had rolled tanks into Iraq. I drove by a church whose marquee read, "Pray for peace." I shook my head. Maybe some worshippers inside wanted that. The rest didn't mean it at all. They wanted to crush perceived enemies.

   Now it's December 2009. The church marquees read, "Good will to men." Some mean it. Some don't at all. The news pages tell us that churches that really model the phrase can end up being pariahs.

   Like the congregation in Denver that announced it would "live without labels" and welcome homosexuals. It lost half its congregation.

   Or the Baptist preacher in Fort Worth who decided to portray gay couples as couples in the church directory. The simple act of inclusiveness became a headline-grabbing tempest.

   I know of a church in Waco that can advertise "good will" without disclaimers. It has modeled grace and inclusiveness from the start. And yet it's a good bet that another new year will find it encountering recriminations at the hands of believers.

    We are all fortunate that we live in a land where Charley Garrison can have his congregation, Waco's Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church, and not have to hide from billy clubs or flames, like, say, in Uganda, now pondering criminalizing homosexuality. Garrison's church is a place for gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals to feel Christian love without holy asterisks.

    That doesn't mean the church can't just go about its business without someone asserting it is doing the devil's work.

     Awhile back, a group picked out Waco's "seven gates of hell" and stood before them and prayed. Garrison's church was one. (Oddly, I guess because it also serves all kinds without judgment, the high school that my kids attended was another. Isn't that special?)

     At least it was peaceful. And, as Garrison said with a smile, "one can never receive enough prayers on one's behalf."

      In Uganda, militant bigotry has sought and derived sustenance from believers on these shores, such as a certain almost-psychologist who gets a lot of cable TV face time convincing people that gays and lesbians can be changed.

      High-profile evangelist Rick Warren, who had been linked by association with a key proponent in Uganda, took his time getting around to denouncing the legislation, ultimately pronouncing it in near-parliamentary terms as a "terrible bill." So doing, he added his assertion that homosexuality is against Jesus' teachings. That's something many believe, although little Jesus actually said would ever intimate it.

      Said Garrison, "Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality. Nothing at all. But he had a lot to say about judging others. . . If we spent less time trying to figure out what's right or wrong for everyone else and more time working on the right and wrong in our own lives, I think the world would be a lot better place to live," he said. "And I think God would be happier, too."

       Garrison, who is gay himself, is the last one to dwell on the hateful vibes that some people who call themselves Christian seek to send his way. He takes pains to point out how supportive most of his community's clergy have been toward him and his congregation.

       "Their love and prayers on my behalf and on the behalf of our church are like cathedral bells that toll many times louder and more powerfully than the tinkle of the dinner bells of hatred, bigotry and prejudice."

        Peace. On Earth, good will to men.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:




Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Testing that serves students? Nah

    They're getting it, but they still don't get it.

    States are figuring out that it's not good policy to put so much emphasis on a single standardized test.

    Not only does it result in miscarriages of assessment, even when students get more than one try. It also warps and crimps the learning experience as schools focus on a thunderous drum-roll moment.

    Someone recently shared with me the picture of a child's wrist, red and almost bloody. The child had been gnawing on it as a state standardized test approached. This rat-in-a-cage angst is our creation, and our shame.

    But such pressure-cooker treatment of our children and their teachers is only one concern. A more significant, though barely ever discussed, problem is that the tests themselves hardly ever help identify learning problems when they could make a difference.

     It is sickening how much communal energy we invest in such pitiful diagnostic tools.

     Back during the 2001 debate over No Child Left Behind, Congressman Ted Strickland, D-Ohio,  committed the heresy of one who had looked through the platitudes about high-stakes testing.

     "In my judgment, educational testing should be used diagnostically to determine what learning impediments might exist and prescriptively to determine what methods might be best . . . (it) is not intended to be a measure of accountability or a factor in decisions about how much money a school district wins as a bonus or loses as a sanction." That kind of wisdom went in one collective ear and out the other. Congress signed on to the notion pioneered in George W. Bush's Texas about the end-all significance of standardized high-stakes tests.

      Texas since has wised up a little. This year the legislature took key steps to de-emphasize the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. For one, it jettisoned the high-school exit test in favor of end-of-course exams. For another, it authorized a shift from "gotcha" snapshot moments using TAKS to a "growth model" to measure how students were progressing.

        Last year Colorado lawmakers ordered a revision of state standards, and with it a new state test. Colorado State Board of Education last week said it would pull the plug on the Colorado Student Assessment Program — CSAP — in favor of a new test focused more on critical thinking. This sounds like progress. Or it sounds like new and improved reasons for gnawing on wrists.

         The problem remains that these tests aren't meant to help children. They are meant to catch teachers in the act of not delivering what the state wants. Unlike Congressman Strickland's idea of using assessments to help children, these tests, coming at the consummation of pressurized quests, are simply designed to ding those who don't measure up, student or educator.

         What's the alternative? The alternative is testing that is truly diagnostic: ongoing online assessments. What do I mean? I mean that instead of having everything stop at every school in the spring to test everyone, we design ways that see what children are learning as they learn it, or don't. If the state wants children to learn X or Y, it should have online exercises that, on an ongoing basis, and not just in April or March, ask the pertinent questions, and show children the error of their ways if they don't get them right.

     That way — heresy — instead of slapping the hand that is gnawed, the state would have a tool by which a child is actually learning from an assessment, and the teacher is seeing what the child's weakness is before the Big Test documents it. 

      Wait, you say; that sounds like a recipe for cheating. Well, we need to get beyond the notion that state testing is just for playing sheriff in a village of pre-adults. Testing should be designed to help them, not to ingratiate the man with the badge.

      Don't say we can't do this. Of course we can. This nation spends billions of dollars on standardized tests, toward the filling of bubbles on mountains of sheets of paper. It's just this side of the stone age. It's time to see how the state can facilitate learning and enthusiasm, rather than standing over children and teachers with a whip and a bass drum.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cost-of-fighting index

    Make that $1 million a soldier, $1 million a Marine.

    Or, one sixth of an elementary school. Or one rural fire station. That's what it will cost to deploy someone to combat in Afghanistan for a year.

     Time flies. According to White House estimates in the New York Times, three whole years ago the cost was $390,000.

     That puts the cost of Barack Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 combat personnel to Afghanistan at $30 billion. Or more than the annual budgets of the Interior and Commerce departments combined, with the Environmental Protection Agency thrown in.

    Credit Obam for not obfuscating this. He used the figure in his West Point speech — leveling with us, unlike the purveyors of cotton-candy assurances of costs and consequences when Iraq was in our cross-hairs.

    Obama said that he would work with Congress to lessen the effect on the federal deficit. That's one bit of leveling for which none should hold his or her breath.

     Yes, a few members of Congress are acting and talking responsibly about the matter. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are among a small group calling for a war tax. Talk about outrageous: To spend $30 billion, we cough up money to pay for it. Off with their heads.

      We await word from the new generation of Republican "deficit hawks" on to how to pay for the Afghan surge: Maybe by nuking the Interior Department and the EPA?

      It is more than fascinating to hear the GOP and the Tea Party megaphonies with their so-late-in-the-game bluster about deficits. Under the previous regime, deficits were just the price of doing business.

     So-called deficit hawk Phil Gramm, in an interview years ago in which I impertinently probed about Reagan-era deficits, said that what we did then to spend the Soviets under the table was "worth every penny." So, if it was worth spending, why wasn't it worth assessing Americans what it cost? Why instead assess future generations with interest added?

    Americans have got to start paying for the amount of government they are buying. That includes every American, regardless of income. Obey's proposal is most responsible:  a graduated tax increment on all income, starting at 1 percent for low-income earners, rising to 5 percent for high-income earners. A surtax, he calls it, because it would be a tax on income that is already taxed. 

     You can't do this, of course because (a) it will hurt the fragile economy; (b) it's a "jobs killer"; (c) Americans already pay "too much" in taxes. These pat responses have held reason in check for nearly three decades.

     Recall how the GOP assailed the tax hike on the wealthy implemented by Bill Clinton. It was going to destroy the economy. In fact, Clinton rode out of office on a wave of economic fitness we've not seen since, and with a federal surplus. Remember? Time flies.

     Economist Robert J. Samuelson could never be accused of anything but pure fiscal conservatism. But under the heading in Newsweek, "We want more government: Just don't ask us to pay for it," Samuelson suggests gradual increases in energy taxes, along with fiscal austerity measures like raising the Social Security retirement age, to confront a future in which, unless we start paying for the amount of government we buy, we could be in a Brazil-style situation, in which "default" — on our global debts — no longer is an unutterable word.

      Energy taxes? Oh, no. That would cost every American.

      Oh, yes. That's the point. And do we assume war costs no one?

      Do you realize that at the current course, annual interest payments on the national debt, an already-staggering $170 billion, will be approaching a trillion dollars — $799 billion — in 10 years?

       Yes, raise energy taxes. Gasoline taxes mean everyone shoulders the nation's escalating burdens, and all use oil more, um, conservatively.

       Yes, impose a war tax of the mold proposed by Obey.

       While we're at it, let's establish a mechanism that is the reverse of Social Security's cost-of-living index. It would be the cost-of-fighting index. As the cost goes up, so will our taxes, steadily, uniformly, until we decide we have fought enough, or paid too much for what the fighting achieves.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brown snow, browning evergreens

    What American researchers were finding up in the Rockies over the summer put a new twist on "purple mountains' majesty."

   Try, pink, or tan, or just brown where it should have been white — white as snow.

    That's what they were examining: snow with an ominous glaze of dust that had blown across time zones and oceans. It was dust that is one more signal of a planet in distress. And the thing is, the migrating dust itself is contributing to that distress.

       Climatologists call it a very troubling sign of desiccation — a long word for two short ones: "drying up." The dirt has been carried in winds from as far away as China, they say. It's not a condition confined to our own snow fields. Seasonally, increasing amounts of dust have accumulated on snow fields in the Andes, the Himalayas and China's Tian Shan range.

        Significance? The darkening of the snow from dirt and dust increases its conductivity of solar heat, causing it to melt faster. It also makes a major contribution to global heating.

      This sounds very exotic and not exactly germane to must of our earthly travails, until you hear someone who analyzes water supplies for a network of farms discuss it. Recently, a researcher for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Southern Colorado, which divvies up water rights from the Rio Grande, used terms like "Martian winter" and "dramatic" to describe the sped-up snow melt in the San Juan Mountains. That doesn't mean the farms won't get what they need. It does mean that a very real climatological phenomenon is happening.

       Snow isn't the only thing browning when it should be gleaming in the summer months. Massive stands of lodgepole pines are browning, not because of dust but because of a merciless pine beetle infestation sweeping across the Rockies.

        You probably don't want to hear that this has a lot to do with global warming, too. Sorry, it does.

         Longer summers, shorter periods of killing frost, give the pine beetles more time to survive, thrive and work their misery as they migrate north. As it is, the killing of the pines in some of the Rockies' most stunning forests is a slow-motion inferno that doesn't give off the billows of smoke that get people running.

         A stark projection issued by state and federal foresters in January was that every large lodgepoll pine forest in Colorado and southern Wyoming will be dead within five years. And guess what: These endangered forests are crucial carbon sinkholes that moderate greenhouse gases.

         A recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds that just as indicators of global distress continue to mount, Americans' concern about the matter is declining.

        Pew found that the number of people saying there is strong scientific evidence that the Earth has gotten warmer over the past few decades is down from 71 percent a year ago to 57 percent this year. Only 36 percent believe man-made pollution has anything to do with the warming conditions, down from 47 percent last year.

      Andrew Kohut of the research center suggested that the strains faced in the American economy are the key reasons for this.

      What? You mean evidence of global warming is contingent on Dow Jones and the unemployment rate? Apparently so.

      Even with Pew's troubling numbers, one can find encouragement in the fact that a majority of those polled — 56 percent — feel the United States should join other countries in setting standards to address global climate change.

      Maybe there is still hope down here in the fruited plain.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.