Monthly Archives: May 2011

Trumping the News Media

Gee. That was quick. Donald Trump is out before he was ever really in. And without question, Trump is a smart, talented business executive who knows how to leverage his celebrity. He also has strong views on issues that resonate with many Americans — or at least those who still answer the phone during dinner hour so they can participate in political polls.

But was Trump ever really a serious candidate for the White House?

The national news media pundits — representing traditional media, new media and everything in between — sure gave him that status, especially the TV Talking Heads on the cable networks.

Any lessons here about the state of politics — and the news media?

Here’s from the NYT, “Trump Bows Out, but Spotlight Barely Dims“:

Donald J. Trump announced on Monday that he would not seek the presidency, a development less important for the Republican field or his national political future — if he ever had one — than for what it said about a media culture that increasingly seems to give the spotlight to the loudest, most outrageous voices.

Mr. Trump spent months earnestly portraying himself as a potential nominee for a party whose coalition includes family values activists, antigambling religious leaders and deficit hawks, some of whom might just have blanched at his two divorces, casino holdings, penchant for debt financing and formerly liberal positions on some issues.

To some degree he succeeded, using a combination of attributes that made him uniquely qualified to capitalize on the times: Near-universal name recognition (enhanced by his prime-time berth on NBC as the host of “Celebrity Apprentice”), gobs of cash and two decades of experience putting his outsize personality to use in the service of headline creation, starting in the pre-Internet era with the New York City tabloids.

“The media made him, the media kept him, the media kept promoting him,” said Stuart Spencer, a former political strategist for Ronald Reagan. Speaking of the proliferation of news outlets interested in politics, Mr. Spencer, 84 and admittedly fascinated by the new landscape, lamented, “There’s no referee anymore to evaluate what are serious issues and what are serious candidates.”

And here’s E.J. Dionne writing in WaPo, “Donald Trump: I’m Fired“:

So Donald Trump fired himself. Before he even tried to get the job. And he is laughing all the way to the several score banks he must do business with — and perhaps also to higher ratings.

Who wins out of this deal? Trump. Lord knows the monetary value of all the publicity he got as the media (including, briefly, yours truly) took seriously the possibility that he would run for president. Cable television especially hung on his every outlandish charge, and turned him, briefly, into the political-analyst-in-chief.  Heck, even his fiercest critics helped him by giving him even more publicity. Trump mainly cared about whether his name was spelled right – and it is an easy name to spell.

Who has a lot to answer for? Members of the media. Why, exactly, was Trump allowed to revive the nonsensical stories about President Obama’s birth certificate? Why did so many media people fall all over themselves (okay, ourselves) to “cover” him?

There is now a strange symbiosis where self-promotion, goosing ratings, selling books, kicking off a new TV season, winning more page-views and upping speaking fees all get masked together and the resulting porridge gets labeled as “politics.” Mike Huckabee (for whom I confess to having a soft spot) and Sarah Palin (for whom I do not have a comparable soft spot) have all used the political media to enhance their market value. Now Trump – in a much shorter time — has done the same. And the Republican contest for the presidency has been reduced to one big marketing exercise.

Think of it as the privatization of American politics. Issues, schmissues. Celebrity rules.

OK. I agree with Dionne. Sarah Palin has used the political media to enhance her market value. No doubt. But I expect that if Palin decides to run in 2012, she’ll be more of a serious candidate than Trump could ever have been. Saying that, I don’t think she’ll run. She’s a celebrity now.

And “celebrity rules” — although not necessarily when voters get in the queue on election day.

By then, I hope we have candidates who are serious — and who have engaged in a serious discussion of the big issues facing this country.

Pittsburgh Marathon: Running in the City of Champions

I enjoyed the 13.1-mile run through the City of Champions yesterday during the marathon and half marathon in Pittsburgh. And even with the pebble that has managed to replace the nerve in my left foot, I finished strong and could have made it another two or three miles.

Note to self: Don’t even think about the marathon next year.

And that had been my plan, actually. I was going to use yesterday’s half marathon as a test to see if I had one last marathon in me, next year. Can’t see that happening next year, or ever.

But I may go for the half marathon again.

Like most big city marathons these days the event is as much a public spectacle as a self-directed tour on both feet of the city. The downtown hotels, bars and restaurants were jammed Saturday night. And some 18,000 runners jammed together up and down Liberty Avenue as the run started at 7 a.m.

When I ran the marathon in Pittsburgh in 1988 there was no half marathon. So I really can’t compare the courses. But yesterday the running tour took us through several neighborhoods — including the lower North Side close to the hospital where I made my world debut nearly 64 years ago.

And we finished running down the road that joins the baseball and football stadiums. Hey, I watched the first Steelers game in Three Rivers Stadium — now defunct — more than 30 years ago. And yesterday’s shuffle to the finish line was the closest I’ve been to the replacement Heinz Field. Times change.

And if for some reason my friend and college roommate Tom Kollar is reading this post, the half marathon course at mile six went right by the Shamrock Inn. We spent many a Sunday morning there in the 70s drinking Iron City and preparing our strategy for the Steelers game that followed at Three Rivers. I’ll admit to enjoying the Iron City more than the Gatorade I sipped at three or four stops from a paper cup on the run yesterday. But I would much rather be on the streets running these days than watching sports on TV or in person. Times change.

OK. I was fretting during the past few days about the weather in Pittsburgh for the run Sunday. It turned out great for me: cloudy and a modest drizzle throughout. But the weather forecasts leading up to Sunday urged runners and spectators to begin constructing an ark and load the animals. Go figure.

So with the weather top-of-mind, I’ll admit I’ve lost the thread of the big stories: the battle Inside the Beltway over the debt ceiling, the dawning — or not — of the Arab Spring, Pippa’s underwear — or not — and so on.

But I’m back now focused on the big fish in the skillet both foreign and domestic — and with great memories of my days in the City of Champions, including the half marathon Sunday.

Pittsburgh Marathon: Running to the Finish Line

Well, as Dutch Reagan might say, “There you go again.” And I’m going this weekend to run the half marathon in Pittsburgh. A year ago I considered that impossible, but Sunday I’ll give it a shot. We’ll see.

And I have a number of friends who are running either the half marathon or marathon — some for the first time — in Cleveland Sunday. Good luck for what should be a great experience.

Here’s my back story.

For those who visit here regularly or even occasionally you most likely know that I’m a runner. Not a fast runner. Not a competitive runner. But someone who for the past 30 years has gotten up while most everyone else is asleep (or maybe just going to bed, especially on the weekends) and laced up the shoes and headed out the door. Or for many years met friends near at a gym in South Akron — or on one of the towpath trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Then two years ago while running in South Carolina I suddenly had a sharp pain in my foot, figuring I had a pebble in my left shoe. No pebble, it turns out. But a mutant nerve adjacent to the toes — that can’t be fixed. So the pebble in my shoe remains a constant companion — and it bothered me enough that I pretty much gave up on running, switching to the elliptical trainer and riding my bike. Sigh.

Then I was in Budapest for several weeks late last summer. And while stuck in traffic on a Sunday afternoon runners in the city’s half marathon passed by on the other side the the street. I wanted very much to jump out of the car to tag along.

And then the following week — maybe two — I was on a flight from Budapest to Rome, sitting next to a young woman from Canada who had just completed the triathlon in Budapest that is held each year for the world’s elite competitors.

And talking to her — someone who was so full of life and enthusiasm — and someone who trained so hard, worked so hard — well, shit. It’s only a pebble.

So here we go. And I’ve been thumping along on the concrete now for the past few months thinking about the fantastic runs I used to have at this time of the year — as the bad weather turned to good and as we started in the darkness only to finish in the orange glow of a spring sunrise — with my friends Walter, Jerry, Matt and a host of others through the years.

And while I was noodling over it, I figured I might as well recycle this list of my top runs — listed on this blog previously in 2008 or so:

  • Pittsburgh Marathon – 1988. At mile 25, we turned onto Forbes Avenue and there was the skyline of the Steel City straight ahead – and slightly downhill. Dorothy couldn’t have been happier when she made it to the Emerald City to see the Wizard. The women’s Olympic marathon trials were held at the same time – and I had just turned 40 the previous November.
  • Hyde Park – London – 2004. A perfect early Saturday morning. Started at one end of the park – near Kensington Gardens — and made my way to Speakers’ Corner and back.
  • Columbus Marathon – 1985. My first marathon – and it wasn’t pretty. At that time the race was held in October and it was extremely hot and humid. There is a saying that there are two parts to a marathon: the first 20 miles and the last 6.2. I was dehydrated and struggling toward the end – but I made it. Mary opined that I should probably put to rest any dreams of Olympic glory at this distance (or any other).
  • Buckeye Half-Marathon – 1987. This was just a great run on a perfect autumn day. We started at the Richfield Coliseum (not defunct) and worked our way – mostly downhill – to Weathervane Lane in Akron. Ran with Walter, Jerry and Lydia, and we talked and laughed so much that it was disappointing to see the finish line.
  • South Beach, Florida – Easter Sunday – 1992 – I usually don’t like running on the sand. But when in South Beach, well — do as the natives do. Then – and maybe still – it was OK for both men and women to be topless. So about a mile or two into the run, two young women approached from the opposite direction. And they had freed the twins. Hallelujah.
  • Manchester Field – April 1982. My son, Brian, was born earlier that morning. And after I left the hospital I went to the track where we used to live. And I ran five miles with the high school track team. Yeah. Mary said it was OK.
  • Marine Corps Marathon – November 1986. Just a great way to see the city – touring all the monuments and other venues on foot. Almost finished under four hours – but not quite. And let’s face it folks. The Marines know how to organize things.
  • Boston – April 1993. Went to Boston with associates from Wyse Advertising to conduct focus groups for a Goodrich advertising campaign. We ran for about two hours through the city and along the Charles River on what was just an absolutely perfect afternoon. And from what I can tell we went a similar route to what the women will run later this month during the Olympic marathon trials. Terrific run. Terrible ad campaign.
  • Main Street 10 –  My friend Walter and I were training for a marathon, and we would run a few mornings a week 10 miles on Main Street in Akron, starting at around 4 a.m. One day it was raining and a truck turned directly into us. And just missed. I’m sure the nightmares will end soon; it’s been 20 or more years.
  • And finally – my run yesterday morning around my neighborhood. Totally quiet – clear sky – no cars. And the best thing about it – I’m still out there almost every morning.

I expect I’ll do OK in Pittsburgh, although I’m fretting about possible thunderstorms. Hey, you have to worry about something. Right? And I can’t swim. So I’m sunk if this thing turns into a triathlon.

And I expect I’ll come back next week and hit the concrete again early a.m. I’m determined to keep running — right to the finish line.

Can We Create Enough Jobs?

I opined yesterday about the possibility that the USA will become a country of McWorkers. And even my gratuitous reference to Pippa didn’t create a firestorm among readers. Maybe we’ve given up on the notion of significantly reducing unemployment. And maybe we can’t create enough jobs — especially ones that provide some measure of security, benefits and adequate pay.

This just isn’t the early morning rant of a pajama-clad citizen journalist. Two writers with big megaphones — Arianna Huffington and Katrina Vanden Heuvel — shouted about the same issue in separate opinion pieces yesterday and this morning.

Here’s from Heuvel’s WaPo article, “Why aren’t the powers that be tackling the job crisis?“:

Washington is the only city in America where housing values are going up. That may help explain why the political class is so divorced from the nation’s agonies. Sure, the entire nation celebrated the dispatch of Osama bin Laden, but when it comes to the economy, the Beltway is a world unto itself.

Two years from the official beginning of the “recovery,” America continues to suffer a deep and punishing jobs crisis. One in six Americans of working age is unemployed or underemployed. College students, laden with record levels of debt, are graduating into the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. Long-term unemployment is at unprecedented levels. At current rates of job growth, we won’t return to pre-recession employment levels until 2016. And the jobs that are being created — largely in the service industry — tend to have lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost.

Then she criticizes leaders in both parties — Republicans first but with the Democrats taking a turn at bat as well — for doing just about everything but advancing realistic proposals to create jobs.

As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post noted, it is a measure of Washington’s remove from the country that the two plans were unveiled by the two bodies with the least power to make anything happen — the minority House Democrats and the minority Senate Republicans. Those who do have the power — the White House, the House Republican majority and the Senate Democratic majority — remain silent about jobs. Instead, they are locked in a macabre dance to the death on deficits — oblivious to the human casualties caused by mass unemployment.

This might be diversionary, at best, were America not in such dire straits. Home values are falling again. Wages aren’t keeping up with prices. States and cities are laying off more employees. The trade deficit is rising, despite the lower dollar. Masked by the statistic of 9 percent unemployment are 25 million people in need of full time work. Mass unemployment, particularly in a society like ours with such a limited safety net, is a tale of misery, one that resounds across the country and goes virtually unheard in our capital. Americans think Washington isn’t listening — and they are right.

Next up, Arianna Huffington, writing “If American Can Do Whatever We Set Our Mind To, How Come Our Leaders Won’t Set Their Minds On Jobs?

“We do big things,” President Obama said during his State of the Union speech in January. And, in fact, we do. Sometimes. Finding and dispatching Osama bin Laden certainly qualifies. “We are once again reminded,” the president said after announcing the terrorist’s death, “that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

But if that’s true, why are our leaders so accepting of a stagnant economy? If they really focused on the havoc it is wreaking on the lives of tens of millions of Americans, they would, in the memorable words of Richard Clarke, be running around with their hair on fire.

But they’re not. Instead, they express concern but resign themselves to the fact that, as White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee put it in an interview with HuffPost, the economy has “a long way to go.” Meanwhile, we’re being asked to accept years of underemployment, low growth and draconian cuts to America’s social safety nets as the “new normal.” Or, as Bill Clinton put it in a different context, the “tyranny of low expectations.”

It’s a testament to these low expectations of our leaders that we’re supposed to take recent economic figures as some kind of good news. In March, the economy added 216,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell from 8.9 percent to 8.8 percent. Not bad. But not good, either. And if you take a closer look at the numbers, you’ll want to keep that celebratory champagne on ice. Because while adding jobs is obviously better than shedding them, even if we continue to add 200,000 jobs a month, it would take until 2019 to achieve the employment level we had when the recession started. “There are still five unemployed workers per job opening,” Heidi Shierholz, economist with the Economic Policy Institute, told HuffPost, “far worse than the worst month of the early-2000s recession.”

What’s more, much of the downturn in the unemployment rate was actually caused by people giving up and leaving the workforce. As the New York Times noted, participation in the workforce fell to 64.2 percent, the lowest mark in 25 years. If you were to factor those who have stopped looking for work into the official unemployment rate, it would be 9.8 percent. If you were to include those working part-time who would rather be working full-time, it would be 15.7 percent. “Being happy with the falling unemployment rate right now,” said Wells Fargo’s Jeremy Ryan, “would be like being happy that your team won because the other team’s bus broke down on the way to the field.”

And the point?

How are these not hair on fire numbers?

Yet our leaders, who are supposed to be doing big things, seem instead to have made their peace with “the new normal.” Take the Fed: it could be doing a lot more to create jobs, but instead it’s guarding against the phantom bogeyman of inflation. “Why has Mr. Bernanke decided to accept widespread unemployment for years on end, even though he believes he has the power to reduce it?” asked David Leonhardt. “After all, does the economy feel as if it’s on the verge of overheating?” Hardly.

At the New America Foundation’s conference about the Federal Reserve, the Peterson Institute’s Joe Gagnon said that the Fed’s timidity is responsible for the loss of 1 million jobs. “Apparently,” writes Mark Thoma, “the millions and millions of people who are unemployed, some of whom won’t be reemployed until years from now if we do nothing to help, are supposed to be patient because people with power over policy are worried about inflation and higher interest rates.”

Our elected leaders aren’t any better — less focused on the job crisis than on arguing about how to best divvy up harsh cuts to the social safety net and programs that benefit the middle class. Meanwhile, profits for the Fortune 500 jumped by 81 percent in 2010, to $318 billion. Clearly big things aren’t out of reach for everybody.

OK. I know that we have a number of important issues — none with easy answers — that we have to deal with: federal debt and spending, taxes, health care, education, immigration, and the threat to our nation’s security at home and abroad among them.

But I hope the elites Inside the Beltway and elsewhere haven’t given up on the need to create enough jobs to get our country back working again.

McJobs and the Fading Middle Class

I know it’s difficult — for a pajama-clad citizen journalist and others — to concentrate on more than one story or issue at a time. So for the past few weeks we’ve been fretting mostly about Osama bin Laden and Pippa. (Note: Mention of Pippa is a gratuitous reference to wake up the search engines in the early a.m.)

Anyway, back to jobs — and what’s happening to the middle class, or what’s left of it, in the USA.

First, I’m glad McDonald’s is hiring. And good for those — young, old and in between — who want or need to work there. But what’s this say about our economy? And about the disappearing middle class?

Here’s from an interesting article on The Huffington Post by Andy Kroll, a staff writer at Mother Jones, “How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker: The Hollowing Out of the Middle Class“:

Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2% acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a million souls flocked to McDonald’s hoping for a steady paycheck, when nearly 14 million Americans are out of work and nearly a million more are too discouraged even to look for a job. At this point, it apparently made no difference to them that the fast-food industry pays some of the lowest wages around: on average, $8.89 an hour, or barely half the $15.95 hourly average across all American industries.

On an annual basis, the average fast-food worker takes home $20,800, less than half the national average of $43,400. McDonald’s appears to pay even worse, at least with its newest hires. In the press release for its national hiring day, the multibillion-dollar company said it would spend $518 million on the newest round of hires, or $8,354 a head. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “McJob” as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

Then Kroll opines about the “rise of the McWorker”:

The evidence points to the latter. According to a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the biggest growth in private-sector job creation in the past year occurred in positions in the low-wage retail, administrative, and food service sectors of the economy. While 23% of the jobs lost in the Great Recession that followed the economic meltdown of 2008 were “low-wage” (those paying $9-$13 an hour), 49% of new jobs added in the sluggish “recovery” are in those same low-wage industries. On the other end of the spectrum, 40% of the jobs lost paid high wages ($19-$31 an hour), while a mere 14% of new jobs pay similarly high wages.

As a point of comparison, that’s much worse than in the recession of 2001 after the high-tech bubble burst.  Then, higher wage jobs made up almost a third of all new jobs in the first year after the crisis.

The hardest hit industries in terms of employment now are finance, manufacturing, and especially construction, which was decimated when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and has yet to recover. Meanwhile, NELP found that hiring for temporary administrative and waste-management jobs, health-care jobs, and of course those fast-food restaurants has surged.

Indeed in 2010, one in four jobs added by private employers was a temporary job, which usually provides workers with few benefits and even less job security. It’s not surprising that employers would first rely on temporary hires as they regained their footing after a colossal financial crisis. But this time around, companies have taken on temp workers in far greater numbers than after previous downturns.  Where 26% of hires in 2010 were temporary, the figure was 11% after the early-1990s recession and only 7% after the downturn of 2001.

As many labor economists have begun to point out, we’re witnessing an increasing polarization of the U.S. economy over the past three decades. More and more, we’re seeing labor growth largely at opposite ends of the skills-and-wages spectrum — among, that is, the best and the worst kinds of jobs.

At one end of job growth, you have increasing numbers of people flipping burgers, answering telephones, engaged in child care, mopping hallways, and in other low-wage lines of work. At the other end, you have increasing numbers of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and people in high-wage “creative” careers. What’s disappearing is the middle, the decent-paying jobs that helped expand the American middle class in the mid-twentieth century and that, if the present lopsided recovery is any indication, are now going the way of typewriters and landline telephones.

OK. McDonald’s is an easy target. And that’s unfair because that company didn’t cause the crisis we are now facing as a nation when it comes to generating and maintaining well-paying jobs that allow an individual or family to be secure in the middle class. We pissed many of those jobs away during the past two or three decades mostly through faulty trade policies and tax laws that have encouraged our multinational corporations to either outsource jobs to other countries or hire in those countries where wages are lower. So it goes. And I’m told that many who join McDonald’s in what I’ll call counter jobs go on to careers with the company in management after receiving excellent training and on-the-job experience.

Let’s see what David Brooks, writing in the NYT this morning, has to say about all this:

So Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious. One of those signs comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.

According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household. Government actuaries predict that the trust fund that pays for these benefits will run out of money within seven years.

Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.

Part of the problem has to do with structural changes in the economy. Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

This is a big problem. It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.

A big problem — to say the least. But it’s not one that elected officials, policy makers and other miscreants appear to be spending much time concentrating on.

It’s the economy, stupid. And the country needs jobs — and plenty of them — that provide middle class paychecks and lifestyles.

Otherwise, we are going to be a nation of McWorkers.

Just sayin.’

And by the way, bin Laden might be a little chilly these days because Hell did freeze over this week. A national mainstream publication — The New York Times — wrote an article critical of Cisco Systems, and the Cisco Kid, CEO John Chambers.

For all of us long-suffering Cisco shareholders, enjoy.

Pippa, Lara Logan and Journalism

Well, I enjoyed the weekend. I managed to get in two long runs as I look ahead to running this Sunday the half marathon in Pittsburgh. And I’m convinced that spring will be here in Northeast Ohio in another month or so. Yesterday provided a preview. So what’s this have to do with Pippa, Lara Logan and journalism?

When I run I noodle about what I’m going to write. I’ve done that for decades. The time on the concrete — spent totally alone these days — allows me to concentrate and many times even outline on my mind’s computer a blog post, article and so on. And I chuckled yesterday about the weird nature of blogging, especially when you are doing it for no apparent career-enhancing, commercial, political or monetary reason. Note to self: Don’t tell my wife this. She’ll think I’m wasting my time.

Many days I’ll get up and either before or immediately after a run in the early a.m. try to write and post something with at least a modest amount of substance and insight on topics that I believe are important: education, jobs, the economy, civility and so on. Hey, isn’t that the role of a pajama-clad citizen journalist — and journalism in general?

Maybe.

What I do know is that when I opine about Pippa’s underwear — or lack thereof — the number of readers spike to the point that my fingers start to sweat. Gee. I might actually be attracting an audience. Then reality returns when I get back to education, jobs, the economy, civility an so on.

Anyway, if that in any way reflects the nature of journalism these days — and what readers and viewers expect of journalists — are journalism degrees useless?

Here’s Alex Alvarez in Mediate, commenting on a story in The Daily Beast that ranks the 20 most useless degrees. And the one that heads the list: journalism.

Getting into a good university, as anyone will tell you, is hard work. Harder still is mustering up the confidence that your (often all too pricey) education will be put to good use, so that one does not find oneself spending an entire semester reading The Canterbury Tales in its original middle English (True. Effing. Story.) for nothing. It’s good to know ahead of time, then, that your degree has some sort of worth, that it will eventually lead to a well-paying job rife with opportunities for advancement. Which is exactly why I will dissuade my hypothetical children from majoring in journalism, and will instead force themgently urge them to consider a more potentially lucrative career path, like as becoming a Kardashian.

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale (a salary comparison database of sorts), The Daily Beast ranked the 20 most useless degrees. Journalism comes in at number 1, just narrowly beating out “underwater basketweaving” and “fluffer.” The site paid special attention to factors such as start and mid-career salary levels for the profession most associated with said degree (“writing brochure copy for a travel agency in suburban New Jersey”), expected change in job opportunities within a decade, and the expected percentage change in available jobs within a decade.

Well, I have two degrees in journalism. And I always figured it to be a good way to get a liberal arts education — while still developing a skill that might allow you to ask questions other than: “Dude, you want fries with that?”

And maybe The Daily Beast does have it right. Journalism degrees in this age of Twitter, Facebook, smart phones and so on may be useless.

And maybe journalist is the wrong descriptor now for those people who aren’t just sitting around in their pajamas, but who are willing to put time and effort into gathering information, checking the facts and trying to get it correct, and then conveying the stories to readers and viewers in a variety of media.

Lara Logan talked recently with 60 minutes and other news outlets including the NYT about her being sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt while reporting about the wave that swept Mubarak from office in the early days of the Arab Spring.

And Bill Keller had an interesting and informative article in the NYT mag yesterday about the dangers facing combat photographers.

I don’t know whether Lara Logan or the combat photographers mentioned in Keller’s article have journalism degrees.

But I do know that without them — and thousands of others like them — we sure wouldn’t have much of a clue as to what is going on in the USA, let along around the world.

OK. For me, it’s back to Pippa.

Alert the search engines.

Can Teachers Ever Receive A Passing Grade?

OK. I’m back to education. Hey, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. And I haven’t been able to uncover anything new about Pippa. So let’s look at teachers and one of the big issues being kicked about these days by the education reformers and other miscreants: teacher performance and evaluation.

Can teachers ever receive a passing grade?

Not likely. At least not as long as the major component of evaluating a classroom teacher is how well students do on standardized tests. Not until we recognize and accept the fact that teachers in the classroom — even the excellent ones — can’t control everything that involves students and their families. And what happens outside the classroom influences what happens inside.

Let’s be candid about it. How many of you have ever given — or received — an honest and objective performance review on-the-job in business or elsewhere? My guess is not many. Very difficult to do for several reasons. First, nobody wants to give or receive what is considered to be bad news or a critique that in effect says, “dude, you suck.” And in business, if you spend enough time noodling over it, you can most likely come up with a few easily agreed upon yet general objectives on which to base the evaluation that causes no real damage to the company or the fragile collective egos involved.

Anyway, not as easy in education — but unlike in most businesses and in government these days — teachers are getting fired as a result of the evaluations. Go figure.

Here’s from Joe Nocera, opining in the NYT, “The Limits of School Reform“:

I find myself haunted by a 13-year-old boy named Saquan Townsend. It’s been more than two weeks since he was featured in The New York Times Magazine, yet I can’t get him out of my mind.

The article, by Jonathan Mahler, was about the heroic efforts of Ramón González, the principal of M.S. 223, a public middle school in the South Bronx, to make his school a place where his young charges can get a decent education and thus, perhaps, a better life. Surprisingly, though, González is not aligned with the public school reform movement, even though one of the movement’s leading lights, Joel Klein, was until fairly recently his boss as the head of the New York City school system.

Instead, González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

And Michelle Rhee, until recently the chancellor of the D.C. public schools and one of the heroines of the flick Waiting for Superman because of her outspoken views about teachers unions and methods to improve public education, has an interesting take on all this in her post on The Huffington Post, “In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week: Let’s Show Our Thanks to Teachers by Elevating the Profession“:

Kids are great judges when it comes to weighing in on educators charged with teaching them. A study by Harvard University professor Thomas Kane found that student evaluations were good predictors of teacher success. As adults, however, we have to do better when it comes to fairly evaluating the nation’s teachers, and fairly compensating them.

Most teachers are evaluated inconsistently, going without the feedback and professional development that can help them excel. The need for change is basic and glaring, and that’s why StudentsFirst is urging states and districts to replace outdated, weak evaluation systems with rigorous ones that can strengthen the profession.

Good evaluations must be accompanied with good pay. The average teacher salary in the United States is estimated to be around $55,000. Surely your favorite teacher is worth more than that. What’s more, teachers tend to earn minimal increases in lockstep with each other and without regard to how well they are actually doing. Excellence goes unrewarded. We should instead value teachers by better compensating them for helping kids make gains and for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.

OK. Teachers — like everyone else who collects a paycheck — should be responsible and held accountable for results.

But we are in an era now where evaluations and other measures can make a big difference — might, in fact, be the only difference — as to whether a teacher keeps his or her job or not. In those circumstances, we need some standards and common sense to apply that guarantees that teachers who deserve it can receive a passing grade.

Just sayin’.