Should the Kids Watch the Political Conventions?

My biggest job as a father is to prepare the kids for the adult world and that means exposing them to a wide variety of real world experiences.  Partner that with the civic responsibility to vote and the upshot is that it’s also my responsibility to also provide a real world perspective on the American political system.  There will be conversations about the candidates through the Autumn – especially with Middle’s enrollment in an Honors Government/Civics course – and I’ll take one of the kids into the polling booth with me to see how it functions.  But should I make sure that they’re able to see the purely Americana phenomenon of a quadrennial political convention?  Is there value in letting them see the process – and spectacle – of a political party nominate the candidate?

The process is historic, reaching back beyond Lincoln to the now-defunct Whigs and Federalists whose barbs and newspaper attacks make Fox/CNN look like child’s play in comparison.  It’s also grueling for the candidates as well as the rest of us.  Kissed babies, deep fried oreos and calloused hands combine with breathless coverage of the candidates’ personal lives and policy wonkery make for a truly odd experience.  The Republican nominee is offsetting his Cayman/Swiss accounts with his wife’s comments on Fox News that she purchases his clothing for him at Costco while the incumbent president is trying desperately to keep his vice-president from blaming the start of the Second World War on the Latvians – yes, it’s absurd but no more absurd than some of the other things that he’s said.  But through all of the mess, the highlight of the process is the political convention, where the delegates are allocated and counted to determine the party’s choice for nominee.  It’s hoopla and entertainment and if fortunate, some actual policy might be adopted and decisions made in the limelight, but that’s only if someone somewhere has screwed up royally.

Any history buff can tell you that this is nothing new and that backroom deals have been made since the earliest days of the nation.  There have always been political brokers and bosses but with the absence of a pervasive 24/7 newsmedia, many Americans actually believed that the system worked and they had a say in the process.  But I look at the system and process now and am wildly unimpressed and cynical about the entire circus; what is the value of watching it with the kids when I believe that it exists solely as a Potemkin facade for a corrupted political process?  Am I doing my children a disservice by giving time to a political sideshow that’s as rigged as the 1950’s gameshow, The $64,000 Question?  On the one hand, they desperately need to understand how the process of democratic elections work and they also need to understand how each person’s input should matter.  But that isn’t the same thing as getting sucked into a slick sideshow designed and programmed to generate a mindless, manipulable enthusiasm. 

Why the disgust?

  • The legislative branch of government utterly disregards the overwhelming opposition of the public and bails out a single sector from it’s own self-inflicted wounds – yes, I’m still on this kick.
  • Two branches of government are thoroughly unable to provide even such a basic tenet of stewardship as a functional budget.
  • The government continues to fund prisons – via the private sector – but is unwilling or incapable of pursuing major financial fraud; there is now a de facto dual system of justice dependent solely upon one’s economic status.
  • The Chief Executive believes that he has the right and power to determine when an American citizen can be assassinated.
  • Politicians of both sides decry spending out of one side of their mouths while promising continuing goodies out of the other side.
  • Our tax code is so complex and opaque that even tax attorneys can obtain different results from the same set of financial data.
  • Debate is reduced to soundbites and nastiness so that a real exchange of ideas is rendered almost impossible.

Do you want me to continue? 

Children and teens are wildly susceptible to sensational claims and comments; we’ve allowed them to become so cocooned in their own electronic world that they might possess a diploma or degree but are poorly prepared for the workings of the real world.  If it’s ultimately my responsibility to teach them about the world, I want to do it without having to compete with the programmed glitz and asshatery of the political parties which are designed purely for smoke and mirrors.  There will be conversations about the election and candidates, as there have been already and along with taking them to vote, we’ll follow the election night coverage.

One convention – the Republican – is now in the record books and none of us turned it on.  When Romney was nominated and spoke, we watched the Food Network’s Chopped.  Even though the President will speak during the Democratic convention, I guarantee that the set will either be off or turned to something else.  When the smoke has cleared, then we can have some discussions about what all of this means without the nonsense.


Kids and Pot:  Discussing the Long-Term Effects

Listen to the kids and teens today and one of the arguments in favor of pot smoking is that it is supposedly a harmless drug, even less damaging than alcohol.  I’ve heard kids point to the medicinal uses for which pot is now legal in California – with a doctor’s script, I point out – and the political/budgetary arguments that we simply can’t afford to keep spending resources on the enforcement of marijuana control laws.  Frankly, they do have a point there and I’ve told the older kids that at some point in the next decade, at least one state will probably legalize marijuana – and then move to tax the living hell out of it.  But I’m a child of the 70s and knew more than a few guys who’d rather score a high than a decent grade and my sense was that it did have a long-term impact on their ambition and IQ, even if I couldn’t prove it.  Now there’s a long-term study that links IQ loss amongst adults to marijuana usage in their teens.  While it’s not anywhere close to certain that the information would have an effect – the teen battle cry is what could go wrong? – it’s worth a shot at sharing the information with them.

The study was a collaborative effort between Duke University and King’s College London and actually began with interviews with teens back in the early 1970s in New Zealand.  Through the ensuing years, the study team kept contact with the participants and at intervals, administered IQ tests; to further evaluate the participants, they interviewed family or friends that the participants themselves suggested.  The upshot is that participants who began to regularly smoke weed in their teens suffered an eight point loss in their IQ levels by their adulthood; those who began later also suffered loss but there was some recovery in their adult years.  Given some of the kids that I knew in high school and college, this isn’t a surprise.

So what to do with the information?  Short of locking teens in their rooms or homeschooling them and rigidly controlling their outside access, they’ll spend considerable time out of your sight and control and you can only hope that you’ve given enough information – and helped build enough character – that they make the right choice.

  • Obviously, mention the study and show the article.  In my household, the information came via the laptop on the kitchen island during the morning kitchen routine prior to school. 
  • As always, make a values statement and offer some moral component.  Yes, it’s factual information but some kids need to have it placed in the context of our values; you don’t have to beat them over the head and chant it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad!!! but some quiet commentary can be helpful.
  • I don’t know of any public schools that don’t do random drug testing of athletes and kids involved in activities, so remind them that one blown drug test can have major repercussions on their favorite activities.
  • Stay on message and be prepared to go back to it again and again and again, even when they roll their eyes at the old fart who just won’t shut up about it.  Work to find new avenues to raise the issue instead of simply preaching but understand that they’re actually listening.

Like many other aspects of being a parent, there are no simple and straightforward rules.  But what is necessary is the willingness to go back and revisit the issue whenever possible.  Pay attention to the media for anything that supports your stance so that it doesn’t appear that it’s just the old man back on the soapbox for another fun episode of meaningless redundancy.  But hang in there and keep with it, because it’s certain that elements of the popular media – and their peers – are pushing the other side of the argument.


I’m a Helicopter Parent or a Shelter Parent?

This past weekend was Eldest’s college check-in, a week earlier than most other students because she’ll be playing soccer; while everything was abbreviated because of the tight schedule, the Dean of Student Life gave a brief talk to those few of us parents there, shortened from the fuller speech that he’ll give next weekend at regular orientation.  While he gave out a few informational tidbits, he also spent a fair period talking about the need for parents to step back from the kids and let them find their way.  What caught my attention was that by his definition, I fit the definition of a helicopter parent.  Seriously?

The Dean’s comments were that our generation of parents are reputed to be helicopter parents, who "hover" over the kids.  But in his description, our generation made it a point of attending all – or most – of the kids’ events, whether musical, theatric or sport.  He commented that his own father made it to perhaps one of his games when he himself played sports four decades ago.  But now it was time for us to step back and let the kids to care of the institution in their next phase of growing into adulthood.  While I might have misconstrued his comments – doubtful – what struck me was his narrow, misplaced definition of a helicopter parent.  Is it hovering to attend as many games, concerts and plays as possible or is that just part of being an engaged and active parent?  Are we actually smothering the kids by showing up consistently and repeatedly?

There is a practical and economic side to the increased attendance of today’s generation versus the grandparent’s generation that the Dean referenced.  Forty years ago, kids didn’t have the plethora of choices available for sporting and other activities that our own children have today.  There might have been a non-school related baseball or football organization, but there simply weren’t the options otherwise.  There’s also a fear amongst today’s parents that options must be made available to the kids; on the one hand, it permits them to grow and experience new activities that weren’t available to us when we were younger, and there’s a concern that if a kid isn’t kept busy, he or she will be more likely to fall prey to the scarier aspects of unsupervised life.  So parents willingly sign the kids up.  Now comes the economic aspect – with gas at high levels, the money being spent isn’t going to be wasted so the folks will assure that the kids make it where they need to be and then will stay because it doesn’t make sense to waste gas by leaving and then returning later.  The time spent on the road to and from the activity is literally wasted, so the thought is to make the best of things by bringing a novel, a laptop or in my case, the occasional notebook for ideas and thoughts.

What do the kids themselves want?  As I sat and made notes for this article yesterday, Youngest wandered in and asked what I was doing.  He listened and cocked his head, puzzled at the term helicopter parent; after I explained, he stated that he actually referred to them as shelter parents because their intent was to shelter their kids from any and all possible harm.  We discussed it from the standpoint of baseball – his first love – since his practices had started the previous evening.  Did he actually want me there and did he want me at his games?  The practice is a moot point because the field is located far enough into the countryside that I take a passport before leaving, but the games were a legitimate question.  He emphatically stated yeah, I like it when you see me play with the proviso that I not behave like a shelter parent.  To him, a shelter parent was one who interceded with the coach and referee when something went against the kid and when I asked about when he might be getting chewed out by the coach, he simply shook his head and commented that that was all part of it.  He referenced an incident at a ball game last year when a teammate’s irate father yelled at his coach and publicly pulled the teammate from the team and dugout because the coach had reprimanded him for poking a teammate in the eye with his finger and that would certainly qualify as a shelter parent.

Youngest’s term – shelter parent – is actually a better description than that which is commonly used.  It more accurately describes the issue of parent and child relations and also points out that the kids aren’t stupid, they really do understand there’s going to be a time when they have to take a place in the world and that we won’t be there, so they need to learn to deal with it.

Your kids want to have you there as much as possible.  They want to impress you and earn your respect and approval, so don’t worry about what others might think about your attendance.  It might be beneficial, if they’re old enough to understand, to have a talk with them about what does and doesn’t embarrass them so that there are some ground rules with which both kids and parents are comfortable.  Before that point, simply accept that they want you there.

Eldest is now going to play college soccer in another state and of about 14 games on her roster, her mother and I will only be able to attend two games.  We’ll follow the results on the college website and via updates from her, but we won’t be able to see her play as before.  So it’s guaranteed that in the next decade, I’ll attend every baseball and volleyball game, every concert and play that is practicable because it really does come to an end and when it does, I will miss it.  And the kids will miss us if we’re not there.  This isn’t hovering, it’s simply being a responsible and engaged parent.


Managing the Stuff:  Lessons for the Kids

Life is supposed to be less hectic as the kids grow, but even with Eldest on the cusp of college, the summer passed quickly and busily.  The changes brought home – with startling clarity – one of the more disturbing articles read during the break, the mass of material possessions for the typical American family.  I thought, had hoped, that I was atypical but apparently I’m not.

July article in pertains to a recent book published by UCLA sociologists, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century (  I first became aware of the study several years ago when researching a previous article about electronics; at that time, the sociologists were reported to be spending time in 32 different  households to study how the families interacted with one another as well as the impact of technology.  Indeed, the thrust of the article was that while parents were concerned about the kids’ use of technology, they were ceding that ground to them because they were intimidated by it.  But what also caught their eye was the impact of the sheer amount of stuff that these families had accumulated and that finally became the basis of the linked book.

There was an eerie sense that these folks were in my own home, taping my own family as it wended through life and the myriad projects, the most disruptive of which was the room swap.  With Eldest leaving for college, she offered to swap bedrooms with Youngest; hers was the largest of the kids’ rooms and his was the smallest although it’s become apparent that within three years, he’ll physically dwarf her.  My wife’s input was that along with the physical shift, each could repaint the room in a color scheme of their choice to which my thought was crap, no fourth grader is gonna paint his own room in two tones and her schedule won’t permit her to paint his as well as hers…so I’m on the hook for his.  Repainting a room is disruptive but controllable as furniture can be shifted to the center and covered with tarps but to actually change rooms means that at least one room of furniture is coming out to the hallway and that’s what happened; however, when the furniture began to stay in the hallway, I pressed Eldest and she admitted that culling through all of her accumulated stuff was a bit overwhelming and it was after that admission that the process began to move along.  The painting on Youngest’s room – which would become Eldest’s – was complete and while her furniture was moved in, Youngest’s furniture remained in the hallway until I painted his new room; even then, some items that were not going in stayed in the hallway until this morning when I finally caved in and removed them.  Furniture will stay in storage for when the kids start their own places, but the rest has gone to Goodwill or the trash. 

There any multiple reasons for the massive accumulative of kitsch, crap and stuff. 

  • We’ve been literally programmed and conditioned by decades of advertising that consumption is good.  After the end of the Second World War, business and political leaders made a conscious choice to push advertising that condoned and encouraged consumption.  Why?  Because with the end of the war and the move by government to once again balance the books and pay off the debt – quaint, isn’t it? – there would be no driver for business and capital investment unless the American consumer took up the slack; but they also remembered that many citizens would need a strong nudge since the collapse of the banks during the Great Depression left many literally squirreling away their cash in mattresses and under rocks across the country.  So go ahead and spend, it will demonstrate how well off you are.
  • Bad news sells and an ongoing proliferation of disaster/war/collapse scenarios creates a mindset among people that they have to be prepared.  But prepared, how?  We consequently stock up on food and consumer staples that take up space and expend cash but is that really necessary?  Is it realistic to hoard tampons in anticipation of becoming a feminine products broker The Day After?  Likewise, the spectre of inflation means that people stock up now because they’re conditioned that they’ll have to pay more in the future.  The ongoing debate in this household is whether the number of toilet paper rolls should be in the three digit range.
  • As more mothers returned to the workforce in the 1970s and afterwards, the stress on the American family rose accordingly.  The housework, laundry and cooking continues despite the job and as parents – or parent, as it were – stretched to perform those tasks, there was a greater willingness to buy stuff to occupy the kids so the parents could proceed accordingly; the impulse to purchase was also nudged by parental guilt for having to spend greater time away either because of work or simple exhaustion.  We allowed the kids to anesthetize themselves so that we could anesthetize ourselves from the daily stress of living. 

The issue matters for economic and moral reasons.  Economically, the tide is turning against the American family as incomes drop for the large majority of families.  There simply isn’t going to be the funding available to pay for all of these niceties and still keep a roof over the head and food on the table and if the kids don’t see conscious decisions and sacrifices made, many won’t be able to adjust when they enter the adult world.  Morally, the chronic consumption is oriented inwards and discourages empathy and the building of character; that requires an ability to see and live beyond oneself and if a kid is obsessed with their stuff, they won’t develop that empathy and character.  The teen years are, in a sense, a time of cocooning when the child becomes an adult.  While we can’t protect them from everything, we can and should try to assure that the most egregious is absent and abject materialism would certainly count as egregious.

Over the past several years, my better half has occasionally wondered why I’m so into downsizing and I have to point out that it isn’t downsizing, but simply trying to control the crap that’s coming in and through the household.  The process will continue but I’ll have to make a more concerted – better – effort to manage and eliminate the stuff so that the kids understand that we should be able to control it and not have it control us.  Likewise, the lesson will be repeated again and again that these things require money that could be better used elsewhere instead of enriching some retailer.

I fear that our society’s children will be faced with choices that we never had to make.  While I can’t protect them from those choices, I can work now to lessen the pain of the repercussions when that time arrives.

History Rhymes:  A Reading List for Economic Change (TakeTwo)

PracticalDad Note:  There’s a reason that I don’t do much writing when the kids are around and things are hopping.  In this instance, I looked up as everyone cheered for an American Olympic gymnast and bang! I’d inadvertantly hit the key that posted the previous incomplete article to the site and RSS…so here’s the second effort at the article.  My apologies.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

                    – Mark Twain

It’s been five years since the start of the global credit crisis, which has morphed and metastisized from a bunch of over-leveraged homebuilders and mortgage lenders to nations seeking bailouts and the potential collapse of a multinational political union and currency.  We’ve witnessed multiple scandals that don’t seem to scandalize and an alphabet soup of European acronyms; but while there are excellent websites to keep tabs on the ongoing trainwreck, it’s difficult to understand events in any kind of historical context.

Historical context?  Seriously?

Fiat currency, regulatory capture, gold standard, widespread corruption…these are not new instances and their reoccurrence simply gives the lie to the nonsensical notion that history ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Twain was correct when he noted that history might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  Consequently, it’s helpful to have a sense of where we’ve been before to gain an insight to where we might have to go again.  If you have some time for reading, I’d suggest the following series of books that would provide a good overview of that particular topic.

The Money Men (H.W. Brand, 2006) – This is a good overview and relatively easy read for the start as it touches upon five Americans who were intimately involved in the finances of the country through its first hundred and fifty years.  Commencing with Alexander Hamilton, it examines the roles of the trailblazer (Jay Cooke), the crooked (Jay Gould), the rescuer (J.P. Morgan) and the power-hungry (Nicholas Biddle).  It’s particularly the conflict that arose between Jackson and Biddle’s Bank of the United States that highlights the ongoing tension between and a democracy and the monied interests.  The present day upshot of that story, which culminated in the Panic and Depression of 1837, is that resolutions are sometimes painful with much collateral damage.

The Robber Barons (Matthew Josephson, 1973) – Josephson’s book looks at the usual cluster of industrialists and financiers from the legally unfettered Gilded Age of the late 19th century (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Jay Cooke) and introduces you to others, such as Daniel Drew, who was a master at manipulating the stock market and particularly enjoyed taking advantage of economic upheaval (There’s good fishing in troubled waters).  What’s interesting as you read is to consider how many of these names are also now the names of colleges and universities.

The Panic of 1907 (Robert Bruner and Sean Carr, 2009) – As economic chaos goes, this wasn’t a particularly terrible blow to the entire economy and scarring was contained to the financial and banking sector as it arose from bank overleveraging and speculation.  What’s notable about this event however, is that it set the stage for the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 as politicians and bankers realized that there really was a need for a central bank to act as the lender of last resorts for the national banking system.  In this particular instance, the banker of last resorts was J Pierpoint Morgan (you’ll remember him from The Robber Barons).  In a series of episodes akin to what we’d consider a situation comedy, Morgan provided nighttime wagon loads of cash to meet the demand of panicking depositors when the doors of selected institutions opened the next morning.  How did he decide what banks were worthy of the money?  By sending in his trusted lieutenant, Benjamin Strong, to evaluate the banks’ books through the night before and if Strong gave the thumbs up to Morgan, the wagons would be dispatched.  Thumbs down?  Those institutions died like defeated gladiators.  Had Morgan not acted, the episode would have left a much greater dent in the economy.

The Lords of Finance (Liaquat Ahamed, 2009) – This centers upon the four principal central bankers – French, American, British and German – of the tumultuous first quarter of the 20th century.  It examines the personalities of the four, including American Benjamin Strong (from The Panic of 1907) and the efforts of the four to manage their respective currencies through the chaos of that period.  There are two topics of particular interest to today: first, the role of gold as a backing to a particular currency and the effect of managing a currency without having a solid standard of value to anchor it; second is the tragedy of Weimar Germany, which opted to devalue the Deutschmark as a means of addressing a crushing national debt.  This doesn’t mean that our own period is bound for hyperinflation, but it’s certainly instructive in the lessons.

The Big Short (Michael Lewis, 2010) – Michael Lewis has a gift for telling a story, for getting to the essence of something and making it understandable to a layperson and that’s precisely what he’s done with the heart of the financial crisis.  This is the book that explains how the financial crisis of 2008 was born, and borne, within an obscure, opaque financial product that was marketed to the global community.  It lays out the collapse of ethical standards and the unbelievable myopia of a financial community that truly drank it’s own Kool Aid before hitting the skids in late 2007.  This is the one book that I’ve both given and suggested to others because it’s the keystone to understanding the mechanism in layman’s terms. 

House of Cards (William Cohan, 2010) – Before Lehman Brothers went down in 2008, the financial community got a foretaste of what was to come with the collapse of Wall Street firm Bear Stearns.  It starts with the events of the firm’s last several days before it’s purchase by JP Morgan Chase for $2 a share (at one point within the previous two years, it had traded at over $170/share) and then shifts backwards to explain how it got to that point.  The ultimate lessons are (1) what happens when a firm is too highly levered by debt as it chases performance, and (2) what happens when the assets (as explained in Lewis’ The Big Short) are so opaque and illiquid that they are almost impossible to value and sell. 

Econned (Yves Smith, 2010) – Yves Smith is the nom de blog for a retired Wall Street executive who began chronicling the absurdities and excesses of the financial system in her website Naked Capitalism.  Smith lays out the changes in the Economics field and how the practitioners and academicians successfully managed to sell a soft science (psychology based) center wrapped in a hard science shell starting in the middle of the 20th century so that they became the priests of the financial and monetary field.  When they became the unchallenged priests by the end of the 20th century, the stage was set for decisions that fit well into a theoretical realm but horribly in the actual world in which we live.lin

With kids, who has the time to read this stuff anyway?  If I’m going to be a good father, I can’t spend my time engrossed in reading unless it’s with Junior and Goodnight Moon or Peter Pan, right? 

The truth is that these are books that I’ve read over the course of late nights for the past several years and they’ve gone a far way to helping gain a grasp on what all of this means.  My recommendation for the best start is to attack Lewis’ The Big Short for a synopsis of the product and spread throughout the global community.  Then go back to Brand’s The Money Men with special emphasis upon the section for Nicholas Biddle, who led the Second Bank of the United States when it clashed with Andrew Jackson in the 1830s; this is a foretaste of the same issue that we face today as the monied interests line up to control the political system in which the rest of us live.

I would say happy reading, but there’s nothing happy about it. 

PracticalDad Price Index:  August 2012

With the drought continuing across the US and affecting the corn and – probably – soy supplies, the word is out to expect an increase of about 3% in food prices in the next year.  While I’m not certain, it sounds as though they assume that there will be no other food increases apart from what’s happening to the national crop because of the drought.  That unfortunately isn’t the case as food continues to rise.

The results of the August 2012 basket pricing of 47 items showed that the full index declined slightly to 106.68 from July’s level of 106.77 (November 2010 = 100).  When you strip out the ten non-food components of the grocery basket however, the food-only index rose from July’s 110.32 to August’s 110.88 (November 2010 = 100). 

While there’s always some give and take, especially due to seasonality, amongst the food prices, what was notable was an 8.8% rise in the cost of Red Delicious Apples (3# bag) and and a 10% rise in the cost of a can of Dark Red Kidney Beans.  In each case, one of the three stores suddenly showed a price spike which drove the average cost upwards and I anticipate that there will be some followup amongst at least one of the other two stores in the next several months.  This is indeed the case for the stealth inflationary packaging of sugar, which has now had a second store decrease the standard size bag from 5 to 4 pounds.  While there’s a nominal price decrease, the real effect is an increase in the cost of sugar as the consumer will have to purchase more or cut back use accordingly to make a bag of sugar last the same time span.

The results of the non-food/food indices at three month intervals are shown below.

Month/Year          Regular Index          Food-only Index

11/10                    100                            100    

2/11                      100.63                       100.46

5/11                      102.08                       103.76

8/11                      104.85                       106.52

11/11                    105.56                       106.38

2/12                      104.90                       107.67

5/12                      106.49                       109.65

8/12                      106.68                       110.88

PracticalDad Note:  The summer has been busy with projects, activity and preparation for college and yes, I have written less accordingly.  Please excuse this and know that after a coming week off-line, the thoughts and articles will return in volume.  Until then, continue to have a good summer and thanks for reading!