It’s a good news/bad news Friday

The good news comes from the Supreme Court of the United States, which has decided that it will hear arguments on whether or not same-sex couples have a right to marry. This New York Times story summarizes the cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky that are at the heart of an appeal of a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which the High Nine have now agreed to consider.

The court said it will hear two and a half hours of argument, probably in the last week of April. The first 90 minutes will be devoted to the question of whether the Constitution requires states “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.”

The last hour will concern a question that will be moot if the answer to the The first one is yes: whether states must “recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.”

This is very exciting: within just a few months we’ll have a ruling from the country’s highest court on whether same-sex marriage is to be permitted in all 50 states, not just the 36 states and the District of Columbia where it is legal now.

Now, the bad news: the Southern Education Foundation believes that “For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.”  The Washington Post has a good summary of the report.

Half of all public school students in America are poor?  Half?!  (More than half in 21 states; Mississippi at 71% has the highest percentage.)  I find myself surprised by this confirmation of how far the abandonment of our public schools has gone by those who can afford other options.  (Full disclosure: although most of my education was in public schools, I attended and graduated from a private high school.)  A free public education for all was a great example of America’s commitment to a society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.  We all paid our share for public schools, even those who sent their kids to private school or whose kids had finished school or who never had any kids at all, because it meant a better-educated society and that was a benefit for all of us.

But more and more, people became unhappy with their public school systems.  When the quality of the education declined people got upset that their kids were being cheated out of their futures; in some cases it was court-ordered desegregation that made people unhappy with their public schools.  Many of those who could afford to moved to suburban school districts and took their tax money with them, leaving the city schools with less and less money to spend on teachers and books and buildings.  Which meant even poorer quality education, which prompted more parents to flee, and the cycle continued.

Today people are trying to get voucher laws passed that will in effect allow their school tax money to pay for their kid’s education in private schools, taking even more money out of the system that is the only resort for the poor, the students whose families can’t afford private schools or charter schools or anything other than the old school down the street.

I understand that parents want the best for their children; I get it that despite recent improvements our economy isn’t as strong as it once was and a lot of people don’t have the jobs and income they want and deserve.  Still, I’m saddened at how many people seem to feel that abandoning the greater good for American society—the education of everyone else’s children—is the best way for them to take care of their own.

Dear Pat Ryan,

I just thought I’d check in to see how things are going with you.  Some of us have gotten a little curious because we haven’t heard much of anything from you in a while now and we started to wonder what was going on.  I mean, if you say you’re going to write a blog, it is customary to actually write something from time to time.  You know, something to make the customers realize that you’re not stone dead, or ignoring them, or “too busy with work and other things” to be bothered keeping up with your commitments.  C’mon, just six damn posts in the last four months?  What’s the deal?

I mean, fercryingoutloud, in just the last few months you’ve passed up the chance to say something about:

You’ve sort of led people to believe that you cared about civil liberties and the whole gay marriage thing, or were at least interested in the subject, but when

you observe radio silence.  I mean, you gotta understand why the people would at least wonder if you’ve given up, or converted or something.

You even let this great picture on Twitter go by without any acknowledgement!


So anyway, I’d just like to say I hope you get your shit together and try to be a little more regular contributor in this space, or the owners may start thinking seriously about changing the name up there at the top of the page.

Watch Cosmos, be less dumb

I wouldn’t be much of a television professional if I didn’t watch a lot of TV, have an opinion on all of it, and insist on sharing that opinion even when you don’t ask.  But I do; I do; and even though you didn’t, here goes.

I hope you’re watching Cosmos.  If you’re not, you can catch it online here as well as on Fox and a few of the Fox-affiliated networks; next new episode is Sunday night.  Astronomer/rock star Neil deGrasse Tyson is an engaging if slightly self-absorbed host for a journey of the imagination that’s not only exploring out in space, but back in time.  This version takes full advantage of the capabilities of the medium in the modern day and tells a great story.  I don’t find it as enthralling as the original with astronomer/rock star Carl Sagan back in 1980, but it’s not fair to compare the two, not for people like me who saw the Sagan series when we were young and the things he talked about were actually new and unknown to us.  For me, it had the advantage of provoking wonderment in a way the current version just can’t; I hope it does for the kids of today.

The new series, produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, Seth McFarlane and others, is providing easy-to-follow explanations of some difficult scientific concepts.  The writers and producers have found a way to lay things out so you can understand the concept in the same way you eat an elephant (one bite at a time); it’s not scary to learn new things here.  I particularly liked Episode 2 for the explanation of evolution by natural selection.  Anyone who didn’t watch that show with a preset determination that evolution is for atheists could grasp the basics; yes, you’ve got to give up the notion that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that people and dinosaurs lived side by side, but you will understand what the scientific terms “evolution” and “natural selection” really mean.  It should be required viewing for the members of the Texas State Board of Education, that’s for sure.

If you prefer yours in a handy graphical form, here’s a swell chart from Reddit user SlipperyFish done for The Infographics Project (thumbnail image via Thinkstock).  Thanks to Upworthy for the link to this short answer to a perennial favorite dumb question:


“The relevant life”

It was Friday afternoon when I saw the headline and giggled a little to myself (no need to let everyone else in on what I was doing).  It struck me as funny that a commencement speaker told a group of graduating high school seniors that they weren’t special, that someone had gifted the graduates with a surprise package of honesty such as they likely don’t receive at home.

Today, I looked at the video of that speech and was surprised—pleasantly—when I found that the people who wrote headlines about the “buzzkill” commencement speaker had missed the whole point.

This is not some blowhard scrounged up to give a graduation day speech: he is Wellesley High School’s own veteran English teacher David McCullough, Jr., son of the historian, apparently a well-respected member of this upper class community in Wellesley, MA.  (He’s given the faculty message at graduation before, said some of the same things six years ago!)  If you watch the people in the background and listen to the other sounds, you see and hear a lot of laughter and head-nodding agreement with where he’s going in this speech—telling the students that “if everyone is special, then no one is” to shake them out of their certificate of participation-filled, everybody-gets-a-trophy world.

…we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point—and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece…


No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it; now it’s “So what does this get me?”

McCullough’s lively and humorous talk isn’t mean-spirited at all.  He is serious in telling his students that they’ve been coddled by their parents (and the school and American society, to an extent) but those days are over, but his message comes out of love for the kids, and what I think is the right-headed realization that we’ve got to wake them up and stop spoiling them if we wish them to be successful and contributing members of society.

I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize know how little you little you know now, at the moment, for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.


The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.

And without preaching, he spreads the word: do great things but don’t do them for yourself—do them for their own sake, or for the sake of others.

And then, you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself; the sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special, because everyone is.

Why we should care about income inequality

I don’t want to get into the argument of the 1% versus the 99% because I think the issue, unaddressed, will hurt 100% of us. The issue is income inequality in the United States, and the good news is I’m not asking anyone to trust my economic arguments. I’m a dope, after all—a journalism major from a state university in the South who never focused on economic theory much beyond the law of supply and demand. But I know what makes sense, and Timothy Noah’s series in Slate does.

The 10-part series on income inequality published in September 2010 has helped me understand the issues, and understand why they matter. It’s not a question of the vast majority of Americans being jealous of the terrific success of others, or of them trying to take away anything the rich have earned. In a current discussion of this subject on Slate, Noah says “Let me start by conceding a point that conservatives often make: Yes, a certain amount of income inequality is necessary in a capitalist system. You have to let the market reward effort and skill. But a system in which inequality of incomes constantly increases over time is worrisome.”

That’s what’s happening in America today: the inequality of incomes is constantly increasing (the series drills down deep into the numbers to prove that it’s more dramatic now than ever), and Noah argues that “creates alienation.”

Income earners at the median have not shared in America’s prosperity. They’ve actually seen their incomes go down (after inflation) during the past decade, and over the past three decades their increases seem pitiful compared both with people earning top incomes (and here I mean not just the top 1 percent but the top 10 and even 20 percent) and with people at the median during the postwar era. For a long time economists said: Wait until productivity rebounds. Then working families will get their share. But when productivity rebounded like crazy in the aughts, working families saw no reward.

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear—if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside.

I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together—Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.

Read the series: Noah digs through the numbers that show the historical trends of income inequality, and explores the theories for what’s responsible for today’s situation–and he doesn’t just end up blaming Congress or presidents, or Republicans or Democrats, or Wall Street or the educational system, or trade policy or labor unions or immigrants.

Income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.

Noah’s current book “The Great Divergence” grew out of the research done for the 2010 Slate series, which you can read here for free.