Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Roundtable, Volume 2, Part 5

As we come off the heels of our most successful Roundtable yet, with 10 of 11 possible Gentlemen responding, I was very much looking forward to the next installment. Not only was the question being posed one of nation-wide change, but it was, for the first time, open to the general public to respond. My anticipation for this being an even greater Roundtable than the one prior was high.

I won't call the reality exactly unfortunate. The responses tendered were, for the most part, very well thought out and obviously a reflection of passion for the subject by the author. However, this week I am sorry to say we received only 5 entries from Gentlemen, supplemented by 2 very well-written Guest Gentlemen. Far from lackluster, but below expectations.

Thus, I will have to strive in the following week to bring about even greater success in our weekly conversation. However, in this week's edition, our 7 contributors examine what they would do given the power to eliminate whatever they see as America's greatest problem. While not as numerous as I had hoped, These Gentlemen nonetheless continue to impress. Continue to read and debate the points of the Roundtable, and look forward to more of our brain trust next week, when the Roundtable returns yet again.

Bombay Graham

Education. Forget Healthcare, the recession, the war in Iraq, the war on drugs, the war on poverty. I would put every cent/man/company I could into public education.

Renovating schools, training teachers, modernizing classrooms, raising salaries, instituting the arts, redrawing district lines to reflect population as opposed to money vs. not money, standardizing expectations (ie. only teachers who are trained in a subject can teach it), funding AP classes and tests, funding and staffing after-school activities so parents don't have to pay for them, instituting child care programs for teachers and students, training teachers and programs for special-needs students, rehauling tenure, funding equipment for science, the arts, and physical education, filling libraries, and funding and staffing both college prep and career oriented classes.

I would do everything I could to make school a haven, and a way up and out of whatever situations students find themselves in across the country. Most of what the system needs is pure money, but a lot of it is politics, too. But you said unlimited, and that's what I would do.

Max Nova

So the easy way out would be to say Universal Health Care. Obviously the lack of Universal Health Care in the states is a big deal, and there are various technical ways to correct things. But we've had a bit of that discussion before, so instead I'd like to suggest passing a law forcing all goods and services to take into account all reasonable externalities and reflect those in the cost. This would level the playing field against polluters or those businesses who make short sighted decisions to save a buck in production costs now. The execution would be tough, I admit, but we could employ a lot more economists and policy wonks, so that would be good for the economy. Here's an example. When you buy a soda, there's a lot of things going on. First of all you're slowly contributing to your own poor health, which over time will take it's toll on society's bottom line. You are also consuming corn syrup, and that corn is grown in huge monocultures on the midwest. These "farms" are environmentally and biologically dangerous in the long run. Large amounts of pestisides are needed to keep the corn from being destroyed by insects. The repeated use of the same land drains the soil of the complex nutrients that should be making plants better for us. And this list goes on. These and other externalities need to start being reflected in the costs of what we consume.

David Pratt

I admit to a slightly unfair advantage when it comes to the Roundtable. I am able to read everybody else's response well before composing my own. Sometimes this can influence my own decisions in what I post or how I phrase things. In this situation, I'm happy to say, I am a lone voice in the crowd.

If I could do one thing to get rid of America's greatest problem, I would break our addiction to corn. That's right, corn. It's the most insidious tangle in the complicated knot of our system, and I will gladly tell you why.

Corn products are in everything. Corn starch, corn meal, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup; it goes into practically every mass-produced food item on the line. Not just our snacks and sweets, either. Here's where it gets nasty. Livestock in this country is fed corn meal instead of grass. The stomach of a cow is designed to process grass; by eating corn they can easily become sick. To combat this, powerful antibiotics are injected into the cows. As time passes, the cows need stronger and stronger antibodies, and so they're given increased doses or more intense medicines. They then transfer them into humans upon consumption. As we consume the cow antibiotics, we too then require stronger medicine the next time we get sick.

The reason we feed cows corn instead of grass is that we just grow so much of the stuff that we've got to do something with it. So, we profit from it. We take up all the extra corn grown on crop-based farms and sell them to livestock-based farms. This means the corn is not going towards other uses, such as providing foreign aid for third-world countries or domestic help for our own starving citizens. It's not going towards being converted into fuel for ethanol, creating a gas alternative and helping keep oil prices down. No, corn is being used to keep cows fat and sick.

As they would say in ancient Rome or Earth-3, Cui Bono?

Factory farms. Pharmaceutical corporations. Big oil.

Given boundless time and resources, I would eliminate corn from the top of the food chain. Cows would be fed a diet of natural grass. Excessive corn grown would go towards feeding hungry humans or gas substtutes. We'd start putting natural sugar in our food and taking out preservatives altogether. As our food becomes healthier and our need for stronger antibiotics decreases, the price of medication would plummet. Americans would be healthier. With more money to spend as health care becomes affordable, they rejuvenate the economy. This is also driven by the fact that foreign oil is no longer preventing them from being able to afford trips out. The money farmers make selling the corn abroad or to the government, or tax write-offs they receive from donating it to aid programs more than makes up for anything they lose by poisoning the country with it.

I would run corn out of town. It helps that it's already yellow.

John Ozkirbas

Unlimited Time and Resources!? Boy oh boy. OH BOY.

I'm gonna be honest, I would horribly abuse this new power the President has given me. Like, "personal commercial airplane with the word 'Ozkirbas' scribed in red italics on the side, completely with its own matching aircraft carrier" abusive. And then I'd lie to the president - tell him I was on a PR tour to save American foreign policy in the Middle East and use that as a cover to dump loads of money into another project.

I would start dumping money into various accounts to fund a phantom third party to run against the two primaries in the following election, attempting to push the election focus away from the exclusive view of two behemoth parties (and a bunch of little ones no one takes seriously). This "third" would, of course, be an even handed mix of Democratic and Republican ideals and I would attempt to pull as many representatives away from these two parties as I possibly could. Ideally, they would be swayed by policy alone, but that's not likely so I'll probably have to resort to bribing people. I'll pretty much just give Congressmen money for bridges, highways, ports, and intrastate economic stimuli on the promise that they come to my new political party. And then, on the eve of whatever election, I would just sit back, disappear, and see what happens. I think it would really shake things up.

The main problem in America, from my perspective, is political and moral polarization. With the flux of persons moving to states according to political ideology, Americans have begun to drift apart into two irreconcilable halves. Left by themselves to grow to two extremes, we could, eventually, begin looking at some serious civil turmoil in the future. My plan (as hair-brained as it sounds) would effectively disrupt the status quo and call at least primary representatives to question the parties for which they stand. Hopefully, they can take some of the people they represent with them and start blurring the lines between the two big parties a little bit. It might sound crazy, yes. Stupid, slightly. But, it would address the problem of which, in all seriousness, I feel America is facing today. And, if not today, then sometime in the near or distant future.

But then again... with Unlimited Funds? I could do all that. Maybe score myself a new pool table, too.

Daniel Strauss

Every single person in the United States has GOT to have healthcare. Period. End of story. So I'd use the money for that. And I think it'd be pretty simple, you know, just nationalize healthcare. So easy

Ali Daniels

The economy received its bailout(s). The environment has Al Gore. Hilary Clinton's going to mop up the Middle East. I'd say the adults of the United States have been saved from themselves time and again, only to screw it all up once more. So I think it's time that the kids have their chance. Let's reform the American educational system. Please?

Every child in America deserves a QUALITY free education. They deserve to be able to read, write, and do math. They deserve to be taught how to think critically for themselves. They deserve teachers who know their names and can spend at least 5 minutes a day concentrating solely on their individual needs. They deserve BOOKS, dammit. With unlimited time and resources, each public school in the US would be given its own committee to ensure that new government standards were being implemented and upheld, and that the CHILDREN were being put first in each and every decision.

I would start by improving the profession of teaching. It's an exhausting and often thankless job, and yet, without it I would contend that there would be no future generations of citizens of the United States. So often, teachers that we desperately need are scared out of the classroom because they find that the intense amounts of work they have to do to reach today's youth is not anywhere close to commensurate with the pay that they're receiving. They know they can get a better salary at an easier job, so they don't find it worthwhile to stay and work in destitute classrooms with problem children, inadequate curricula, and unreasonable administrators. So I would give teachers a significant raise and allow them to have more control over their classroom's curriculum (provided, of course, that they're working with their fellow teachers to ensure that each curriculum prepares students for the next grade/class level they're approaching). These teachers would have to work harder for their students in order to receive these benefits though, and I would likely implement a series of teacher evaluations by the students to ensure that the kids are being engaged in the material.

Then I'd make sure that every single school building in America got a major overhaul. There would be enough classrooms so that students would no longer be cram-packed 50 to a room. There would be enough teachers so that students could have 15-30 person classes and each of them could get individual attention when they needed it. Every school would have technologically advanced teaching tools, instead of just the schools with the support of wealthy parents. And, to be even crazier, each student would get his or her own textbook for each class! No buying, renting, borrowing, sharing, or going without. One book for one child.
Finally, strong extra-curricular programs would be instituted in after-school programs throughout the country. Kids would be able to experience music, art, and theatre first hand, continue practical study of math or science if it interests them, and/or participate in well-funded sports programs, all with coaches who could be strong role models.
Hopefully all of this would result in children who are excited and engaged by their school experieces, leading them to pursue further studies and other "wholesome activities" rather than looking to street life or getting stuck in minimum wage jobs. Eventually, I'd hope to see an enormous new generation of college-bound intellectuals ready to learn about and tackle the earth's problems. And hopefully they'd do a hell of a lot better than we are.

Guest Gentleman: Brett Abelman

The first thought that comes to my mind when given such a hypothetical is: "No matter how much time and how many resources I might have, people still get in the way." The biggest problem in America, in my mind, is that no matter what problem you try and tackle - welfare, gay marriage, Iran, changes to Facebook - there are people who disagree with your approach, and lots of them, and they'll disagree so violently that in trying to improve things you're likely to do more harm than good, or at least cause the Internet to become plastered with 10,000 more incorrect usages of the word "fascist."

Liberal, conservative, it doesn't matter, mudslinging and fact-twisting will sink any attempt at true problem-solving. So, there's three ways for a would-be reformer to respond to the inevitable backlash. One, try and win over the masses - good luck, unless you're willing to stoop to actual brainwashing. Two, ignore the ignorant pricks who disagree - cuz after all, you know you're right, and they'll come around to your point of view as soon as they're getting cheap universal health care, right? I believe that is both overconfident and morally suspect (after all, in Bush's head, wasn't that the approach he and his administration were taking in regards to, well, everything?) and so I prefer option three, which is my actual answer to the Roundtable question now that you've read this far:

Education! (Cue confetti and noisemakers.) The answer, I believe, is to educate, educate, educate, because to do so will be to tackle the root problems of so much that plagues us today: ignorance, apathy and gullibility.

It doesn't have to be anything wildly progressive - after all, trying to teach (reasonable) stuff like sex ed can cause a major shitstorm - no, all you have to do is truly leave no child behind, teach the kids how to think critically, and eventually, given enough Time, society will enter an era when nah-nah-I-don't-hear-you, flame-throwing, straw man-and-spin doctor arguments are a thing of the past, because they won't work on all those smart young people. All that will be left to use in public debate will be facts, wit and reason. But what would it take to grab America's children by their butts and lift them up out of the mire of mediocracy? (I apologize for that imagery.) Simple: serious Resources. But since they be all, like, UNLIMITED in this here scenario, that's no trouble.

Use money and manpower to pack our schools with the best teachers - steal them back from the corporations that used good pay and crispier fries in their cafeterias to lure the good people away to office jobs. Heck, establish a 30-student-to-one-counselor ratio, and pay those counselors to follow that same small group of students from kindergarten through college, like Mr. Feeney in Boy Meets World. Teach mandatory classes in civics, conflict mediation, and how to use a credit card. If an approach isn't working at a particular school, try another, or let the kids skedaddle to a different school, offer rewards, whatever it takes. You'd have to fight dirty, in a way, but if you can (once more I apologize for the imagery) beat the under-served and disaffected youth into intellectual submission with the club of Resources, then the results will domino and in a generation or so, the public discourse will be elevated and real solutions and progress will be possible. Or, well, at the very least, when political factions do butt heads in this happy future, they'll do so with a much more refined air, like eighteenth-century British reformer John Wilkes who, when his rival the Earl of Sandwich shouted at him, "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!," responded, "That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistresses." Zing! Syllepsis ( for the win!

In conclusion: education is the root of all. I went to high school in a small, small town that let many kids slip through; learned helplessness was both real and epidemic, and these kids dropped out, went to jail, repeatedely declared themselves "stupid." Many of them I know from personal experience to be naturally bright; the main difference between myself and them is that I was lucky enough to have attentive mentors and affluent preschools early on. If they had just been given attention, not given up on, they would not only be better informed, but happier. It is a rare person who can build themselves up on their own when they've been disregarded since childhood; it merely is a lack of Resources and effort (along with some institutional prejudices) that constitute the chasm. With the President's gift, I would fill that chasm up. Everything else will follow, and I believe that with utmost sincerity.

Guest Gentleman: Alex Keiper

So I spent maybe twelve seconds trying to come up with an interesting or original problem to address, perhaps something that would allow me to be pithy and clever, but then I gave up because clearly it HAS to be education. Once you fix that, you’re well on the way to solving a myriad of other problems.

When I say ‘fix’ I’m not talking about buying new textbooks and better microscopes. With no price limit, I would raise teachers’ salaries, hire more teachers, pay college tuition for people who want to be teachers… basically do whatever it takes to get a ton of incredible teachers into our schools. Then we could actually impose rigorous standards on those teachers, since there would be plenty to replace those who were inadequate. I’m not kidding; I spent half of my sophomore year American history class listening to discussions about hunting and watching Band of Brothers. We need teachers who can actually make students want to be in class, learning.

As for those students who still don’t want to be there- I would pay them. Seriously. Give monetary incentives for turning in assignments and doing well on tests, and make it payable at the end of the semester, contingent upon attendance. Yes, I’m sure there are huge flaws in that plan, but there has to be a way to force students into classrooms, and at the moment money seems like reasonable motivation.

And, once we’re done paying the teachers and bribing the students, then sure, throw in the textbooks and microscopes.


nevie said...

oz- well said.

Brett said...

I think maybe the Gentlemen & guests should form a Coalition for Improving Education Through Bribery.

ali d said...

I have about $12 in my bank account. I'm willing to donate it to the cause. Let's do it!