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Grading on the Progressive Curve

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

It used to be a joke.

Tom Lehrer made it about his military experience. “One of the many fine things (one has to admit) is the way that the Army has carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion … not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on the grounds of ability.”

Now it’s becoming reality. At least at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

A fairly recent set of directives from the august institution’s faculty senate called for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

We’re told that these goals were buried in a huge document, and the academics who approved it may not have known what they were approving, exactly.

Sounds like they’re ready for Washington, DC, where lack of reading skills can be compensated for by spin skills.

The idea that the thing to be achieved is some sort of demographic microcosm of the social macrocosm, proportioned at all levels, doesn’t hold water. Apparently, if 5 percent of the population were Lower Slobovian, the institution simply must mirror that five percent in its ranks.

Including a proportion of Slobovians getting high grades.

Whether this “proportionality” means what Katherine Timpf says it means — “good grades should be distributed equally among students of different races” — I don’t know.

But I do know the standards being scuttled here: ability, achievement, merit.

It’s obvious: trendy, “progressive-minded” academics and activists have so little sense of proportion (and so little sense of humor) that they can’t tell when their earnest efforts are themselves nothing more than jokes.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Legal, Shmegal

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Lots of unanswered questions about the prisoner swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

Will negotiating this swap cause more Americans to be taken prisoner?

Did Sgt. Bergdahl desert his unit five years ago? Was he responsible for the deaths of other soldiers who had to search for him in dangerous terrain?

“[Bergdahl] served with honor and distinction,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the media.

How dangerous are the five released prisoners? Can we be confident they won’t return to the battlefield?

Only one question has been clearly answered: the Administration broke the law.

By law, the president must notify Congress 30 days before the release of anyone held at Gitmo. Obama didn’t do so.

“Oh I think he clearly broke the law,” said CNN Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “The law says 30 days notice. He didn’t give 30 days notice.”

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley concurred, telling CNN, “I don’t think there’s much debate that they’re in violation of the law.”

Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), a former Ambassador to the United Nations, admitted as much, but called the law “impractical,” asking, “What is [Obama] supposed to do, give them 30 days?”

Well, yes.

The law, after all, was passed by a Republican House and Democratic Senate, and signed by Obama himself.

The president added a signing statement, at the time, expressing his view that Congress didn’t have the power to so limit him. Obama, like his predecessor, ignores the law, pretending that a president’s signing statement is an all-powerful pocket veto.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Cold Contempt for Common Sense

Friday, March 7th, 2014

It began when a science experiment at a Minnesota high school set off a fire alarm. One of the students, Kayona Tietz, was swimming at the time. Her clothes were in her locker.

Because the alarm was unplanned, a teacher ushered Kayona outside without letting her retrieve her clothes. All she had between her wet swimsuit and the five-below-zero weather was a towel.

Once outside, to be protected ASAP from the cold the 14-year-old could simply have sat in one of the faculty-owned cars. Everyone knew this. Nevertheless, ten minutes passed before she was allowed to do so, by which time she was suffering frostbite. A teacher felt it necessary to first acquire permission from school administrators for an exception to rules obviously inapplicable to the circumstances. Eventually, also, a teacher lent Kayona a jacket . . . but not immediately.

What happened immediately is that her classmates huddled around to keep her as warm as they could. Apparently they lacked the training to blindly follow rules intended to protect students as morally superior to, well, actually protecting their classmate.

A girl got frostbitten because school personnel were complicit in a bizarre and dramatic loss of common sense. One needn’t “review procedures” to prevent such things. One need only use common sense (and be free to use it!) The inane regulations may have originated in some bureaucrat’s cubicle. But those on the spot were responsible for their own judgment.

Or lack of it.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Turnabout Is Fairer Play

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Microsoft recently announced that it was finally ditching a much-maligned “stack ranking” system.

Last summer, Vanity Fair did much to publicize how demoralizing the system was. The magazine learned that managers had for years been obliged to rank team members on a curve — such that some employees in each team had to be lowest-ranked, even if every team member excelled. Much like getting an F in math for scoring “only” 98 percent on an exam when everybody else manages 99 or 100 percent.

One consequence: Microsoft employees proved reluctant to transfer to crews where their ranking might slip no matter how consistently stellar their performance. “Better,” however galling, to clutch to a top rank on a marginal team than risk a low rank on a powerhouse team. Thus, what counted as “better” in the stack ranking clashed with what was in fact better with respect both to individual achievement and the company’s overall achievement.

Clearly, even the most successful private firms can make pretty big, pretty dumb mistakes. Yet when officers do realize how bad a policy is, they also can often make a 180-degree course change, fast.

How different when it comes to politics-stultified government (or quasi-government) outfits like FDA, USPS, Amtrak, and the growing agglomeration of health-care agencies. Year after year, decade after decade, the same blunders persist, the same red ink spills. In the political realm, political incentives set the terms. And nobody is free to simply discontinue all the glaringly bad incentives.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Owls to Spare?

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Since 1990, the federal government has placed a stranglehold on the forest industry in Oregon and Washington and California in order to save a species of bird, Strix occidentalis caurina, better known as the Northern spotted owl.

The program has not been successful, experts tell us, with spotted owls declining 40 percent over the last 25 years. Meanwhile, the common striped barred owl, Strix varia, has horned in on the spotted owl territory. It’s a more aggressive bird.

What to do?owls

Why, call the barred owl an “invasive species” and shoot the interlopers, of course!

The slaughter, approved over a year ago, is now going forward, at the cost of a million dollars per year.

Though the government and reporters like to call the two species of owl “distant cousins,” they apparently interbreed, and their offspring — called “sparred owls” — look just like spotted owls. You might think that this is a problem that takes care of itself, but no. On with the slaughter!

Meanwhile, as Teresa Platts of the Property and Environment Research Center notes, vast sectors of national forest remain unlogged and unmanaged, while wildfire suppression continues . . . which leads, of course, to mega-fires. Coming soon.

The ways of animal flourishing, in the wild, are not the ways of the governments that aim to protect the wild. Both are cruel, but at least one can understand the processes of nature.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Borrow It Forward

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The consequences of borrowing to fund welfare states have been getting more obviously destructive. In the European Union, the fates of governments with still a few years to go to pay the piper are tethered to the fates of even more wildly profligate states.

Yet the solution most EU officials propose, aside from more tax hikes, is to lend and borrow even more. Whole governments go on the welfare roll. The countries delivering the loans in turn “borrow” from their own unwilling citizens.

When will it end?

Maybe never, if the precedent being pondered by the innovative government of Portugal is implemented and gains traction.

A court there has ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Portugal to save money by cutting the salaries of government employees. (Perfectly all right to hike taxes, though.) So the government is thinking of end-running the decision by paying workers part of their salaries in treasury bills instead of the usual funny money.

The logic is stunning. Obviously, we can pay everything we owe just by issuing IOUs! Not since Rumpelstiltskin wove straw into more straw has anybody fashioned something this magical.

Nobody need ever go bankrupt again so long as we all keep issuing IOUs to vendors and creditors. All the bad consequences of bad practices will maybe just disappear through this expedient! Incredible!!!

Maybe I’ll call up my credit-card company to explain how this works. Once I figure it out myself, that is.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Video: Bernanke, the Most Dangerous Man

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

David Stockman has always sported a rather strict and gloomy view of the world. But even if you have not agreed with him in the past, the world may have caught up with him. Could it be that his vision of the near future is more likely than ever?