The Great Reversion

Follow the economic and financial news and you’ll hear a significant number of economic terms to describe this economic environment after the Financial Crisis of 2007: Great Recession; Depression; Jobless Recovery; Deflation; Inflation; Stagflation.  A post at Jesse’s Crossroads Cafe notes a recent column by Paul Krugman and while I understand that Krugman is at heart an academic, I marvel at how the terminology and wording obscures the truth of where we as Americans are at.  The economists can argue all that they want about what they perceive from the evidence, like three blind men feeling an elephant and pronouncing it as one thing or another.  But the terminology can’t obscure the fact that the elephant in the American Room today is a great reversion from the past sixty years of American economic dominance to a society of greater, choking debt, constrained resources and fewer opportunities for our young people.

Continuing to cloud the circumstances with the same economic terms implies that what we’re undergoing is cyclical and that with just the right magic combination of interest rate cuts/rises, monetary supply targets and maybe, just maybe budgetary choices, we can once again regain our footing and right our ship.  The simple reality that we have to grasp is that this is a true reversion to a previous level of standard of living and one that’s most reminiscent of our great-grandparents.  There is no return to what we remember as the glory days, whether we deem them as the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or even 1990s.

Part of what I do – simply part of what makes me tick – is to pay attention to what’s going on the world around me and the real-life economic data just reflects that old line and the hits just keep on coming.  If you’ve got any notion of what’s happening in the real world, you know that more Americans are going on food stamps than ever before and that jobs with livable wages and benefits are fewer and farther between.  But there were two recent reports that caught my attention.  The first was that the median American family wealth declined by more than a third between 2003 and 2013.  The idea that the median family lost more than a full third in one decade is stunning and given that more and more jobs created are part-time and/or without the benefits with which we’re familiar, it’s well-nigh impossible to see how this is going to be reversed and that level of wealth reclaimed.  The second report was that the amount of student debt carried by young adult graduates was impacting their long-term financial health, as high school graduates with no debt had a higher net worth than college graduates with debt.  The system is now terminally booby-trapped as American society propounds the necessity of a college degree, yet the attainment of that degree leaves the graduate so indebted that their long-term financial health is crippled.  In a new environment in which the individual and family are going to have to pay greater attention than before to their own well-being, this is a set-up for failure.

There is so much that parents are supposed to do for their children – feed, house, love, discipline, raise – but the core goal of parenthood is not to raise a happy child, it is to raise a child who will be able to make his or her way in the world as a moral and productive adult.  But parents have to understand that what’s happening is not your previously-typical ebb and flow recession; these are serious structural changes to the economy that will necessarily flow into so many other facets of our lives – food and cooking, housing, education, medicine, child-rearing.  If we do not move beyond the economics jargon and wrap our heads around what’s actually occurring, then we won’t be able to adjust accordingly and more importantly, we will be raising our children to live in an outmoded world for which they’ll be ill-prepared to function as the goal – moral and productive adults.

The model with which we were raised ourselves is gone.  Dead.  Finished.  It’s time to recognize the reversion and move on accordingly.

When Does the Academic Push Become Too Much?

We’re old enough to remember the academically over-achieving character from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, played by Anthony Michael Hall.  As the various stereotypes spend the Saturday detention together, he responds to the razzing by breaking down about the pressure that he’s under to perform academically and gain the grades.  I’ve seen similar – but less dramatic – scenarios first hand as the local state university permits qualifying high school students to take college level courses; these grades are included in the calculation of the student Grade Point Averages as the courses carry a higher weight than the standard high school class.  The upshot is that there are kids who take the courses knowing that not only can they earn transferrable college credits, but are able to pad the GPA so that they can graduate with a number higher than the previously perfect 4.0 of earlier generations.  Eldest was a student in this category as she took college courses during her junior year of high school.  But is there a point at which the academic push becomes too much and is actually detrimental to the child?

This was the situation faced by several children in Youngest’s elementary school.  Each of the kids had been identified in second grade as having advanced math skills and were accordingly allowed to take math with the class at the next grade level, so that when in third grade, they took fourth grade math and so on.  But the group is now entering sixth grade – the last year of elementary school in our district – and have already completed the elementary school math curriculum; what’s to be done for these kids?  The true sixth graders who are moving on to middle school are required to take a placement test during the spring of their year to ascertain at what level of math they’re to be placed in seventh grade: some will move on to Algebra I while others take the basic Math 7; the majority will wind up in Pre-Algebra.  The school district understood that these kids were in a different category and the decision was made that they should also take the placement test for middle school with the understanding that simply repeating that sixth grade math curriculum wasn’t an option in anybody’s best interest.  If the child scored high enough, then the placement would be made as though they were rising seventh-graders with the option to attend the middle-school for the first period with a bus returning them to elementary school for the remainder of the day.

This arrangement is workable in theory and the parents are appreciative of the district’s efforts to accommodate the kids.  But good intentions run headlong into physical reality in the details of the plan.  The elementary school begins the day at 9 AM and ends at 3:30 PM while the middle school begins at 7:30 and ends at 2:30; asking the sixth graders to attend the first period of middle school means that their school day is effectively 90 minutes longer than anybody else’s.  It might sound like sour grapes but it’s not a fairness issue at all since these kids are all at the edge of puberty, a time when the body’s chemistry generally begins to also alter their sleep schedules so that the body’s natural inclination is to go to sleep later and awaken later.  It doesn’t mean that things won’t work out alright, but the stage is set for a year of crankiness and angst as the kids are propelled into an entirely different – and sometimes unpleasant – world a year earlier than their classmates and doing so on less sleep than they’re probably going to need.  On an aggregate basis, the extra 90 minutes means that they’ll be attending an additional full day of school each week or about 36 days per year.  That’s an additional seven weeks of school.

Because I was familiar with the situation, I spoke independently with my older two kids – Eldest and Middle – who’ve already been through that level and their comments were identical: it’s just not worth it since taking Algebra I a year early isn’t worth the lost sleep.  That was something that I hadn’t considered either; Algebra I was – when I was in school – not something that was even considered until at least the eighth grade.  In our desire to push the kids, at least those who are willing to be pushed, we’ve made more available at an earlier age with the expectations that following this track will challenge the kids and help them play the GPA game, setting themselves up for college and potential scholarships.  It’s an understandable goal but we have to continuously try to balance that against the physical realities of childhood growth and development.

I don’t know how it went for all of the kids, but I do know that the school district has made arrangements for a gifted education instructor to provide a specific Pre-Algebra course at the elementary school for the students in question.  It’s an interim measure but one that’s greatly appreciated, reflective of the lengths to which this particular district will go to accommodate the kids.  It also means that even if the student did qualify for the middle-school Algebra I course, the parents have an additional option that makes their child’s life far more bearable for the coming year.  We want our kids to succeed and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for the great, wide world; but it’s also our responsibility to understand that they’re also still children with the physical parameters of a growing, changing body.

When Dad Screws Up

 It’s easy when the kids are little and look upon Dad as being someone omnipotent and omniscient, but there does come a day when the bloom comes off of the rose and they recognize that Dad is as fallible as anyone else.  And then there are the instances when the screw-up is sufficiently embarrassing that Dad has to wonder how it’s going to really appear.  Such was the occasion a week ago when the website’s domain name registration expired because this Dad wrote the wrong date on the calendar.

This website has existed for five years and now holds approximately 600 essays and articles, all original, and the kids know that I try to find time to get away and write; it’s now my outlet.  So I was severely non-plussed to go to the site over a week ago and find that it had been deactivated, the homepage pasted over with some stock page that listed other terms involving the word practical.  After the initial shock and a momentary fear that five years of writing had gone down the proverbial tubes, I slowed myself down and walked through what had happened.  The articles and site were still there, but it was as though a shutter had been thrown across the storefront.  The next thought was a simple question:  how do I explain this screwup to the kids?  My wife is an adult with enough experience to recognize that occasional gaffes occur and that when they do, we fix them and move on.  The kids are also old enough to recognize this, but it was pointedly embarrassing on this front since I actively promote awareness of what’s going on around them.  What is your schedule and when is something happening or due?  What’s your deadline?  What are the consequences when something doesn’t happen that should?  This screwup played right to the heart of what I actively try to teach.

So what to do? 

Instead of hiding it, I frankly admitted that I’d screwed up royally.  It was painfully embarrassing to admit to the kids that I’d blown it, making an error as simple as getting the date wrong.  But if my principal job is to prepare the kids for living in the great wide world, then it’s my responsibility to share both positive and negative lessons.  What are the consequences of this goof?  Are they permanent or is it fixable?  What are the lessons for this particular and what can I illustrate with them?  Each will take something different away than another.  For Youngest, it was a lesson in global business as the server is housed with an Australian firm that years ago purchased the American company that had granted the original domain name; not only that, but my subsequent actions were taken with their operations center, which the Australians had outsourced to the Philippines.  Yeah son, it’s kind of like that show that NBC cancelled about a call center in India, "Outsourced".  For the older two, it’s been more of a question of managing to not panic and working the problem, walking through the issues.  How far ahead is Manila from here in terms of time?  Do I need to contact my credit card company in advance to verify that the charge coming through is legitimate and not fraud?  By the way, the answers to the two respective questions are 13 hours and yes. 

The conversations haven’t been extensive and filled with angst; they’re already well aware that Dad goofs.  But there’s no sense in hiding the error, either.  Because any corrective actions should it have been a fatal error – website relaunch, et cetera – would have required coming up with cover stories that would’ve been impossible to keep straight. 

And that’s the big lesson for the kids.  Acknowledge the error, take the hit to the ego and move on.




Father(s) of the Year, 2013

With the recent announcement that Bill Clinton has been named as one of the recipients for the 2013 Father of the Year Award from the National Father’s Day Committee  I thought that it would be worthwhile to announce my own three winners.  It’s not necessarily that I dislike Bill Clinton – great politician, but like other great politicians, not someone you’d want to date your daughter – but the whole thing smells of an attempt to raise money for two charities and the bigger the names, the more the money.  The intent of the affair is to raise money for the American Diabetes Association as well as Save the Children and the efforts will raise millions of dollars for the charities, albeit by bestowing honors upon those who can deliver ticket sales and publicity; it’s just the way that the world works.

It’s honestly annoying and I know that everybody knows someone personally who’d be a great nominee.  So I’d like to nominate three men who I believe exemplify fatherhood in today’s fast-paced, economically stressed society.

Jeff is a former bank operations manager, stepfather of one son and father of two more.  When he lost his job – his bank was forced into a sale after major internal fraud – he returned to school to earn his teaching degree and proceeded to do so with all three boys still under the roof.  During that period, he worked multiple part-time and tutoring jobs to help keep food on the table and a roof over the heads and since earning that education degree, has joined the millions of college graduates in an ongoing search for permanent employment while working in temporary and substitute positions.  I’ve known him through this entire period and he’s been active in multiple volunteer roles, performed because he understands that the kids’ activities aren’t run with paid staff or by themselves and it’s not uncommon to see him at a son’s baseball game, grading student papers while he watches and cheers.

Rob is a small-town police detective with two children, a boy and a girl.  He’s been active in multiple activities apart from work and family, principally baseball, scouting and teaching Christian education at the elementary school level.  Rob’s like most fathers who are involved with the kids, running full tilt from work to activity and home, just to start up again early the next day, repeating the process.  What’s notable about the guy is that he’s fully aware that he serves as a role model, particularly for the boys, and is unceasing in his upbeat manner even when the kids’ antics might privately drive him to distraction or me to manslaughter.

Lou is a mechanic and divorced father of two boys, a guy who once told a major-league owner that his stable of pitches included a curve, a decent fastball and a beanball (if so requested).  He has custody of the boys and has to navigate the intricacies of parenting amidst divorce when ex-spouses might not see eye-to-eye.  Like the others, he stretches his time between work and activities, in this case acting as coach for both sons’ teams which might entail having to be in two places simultaneously or at the same location for the better part of an entire day as the boys share ball fields, if not teams.  Like his co-nominees, he recognizes that the events won’t occur by themselves and further acts as an umpire for other games so that the activities can move forward.

None of the three have President Clinton’s list of accomplishments, staff or peccadiloes and apart from the few who know them, none could be picked out by the masses of Americans were their photos tagged on bulletin boards.  What each does have in common – if not with the president – is an understanding that fatherhood is akin to a full contact sport that encompasses more than just putting a roof over the head and food on the table.  It requires persistence and energy, a willingness to engage the kids in more aspects of their lives than would have been thought of by fathers even two generations ago.  It is presence, conversation, education, encouragement, discipline, expectation, and yes, love.  They have family, but no paid staff, to help them and they understand that barring some weird quirk of fate, they will never gain such power or fame that their own kids will be able to rely on anything other than their own efforts to survive when they themselves become adults.  

So guys, Happy Father’s Day to you.  And to the millions of other men who quietly undertake a role that’s so much in transition from what their own fathers and grandfathers experienced, Happy Father’s Day to you as well.  There will be no audience recognition and any money for the charities will likely come from your own wallet.  But then again, raising children isn’t about ticket sales but instead, preparing them for the great wide world. 

The Warning on Privacy and Required Reading

My goal has been to maintain a sense of balance over the ongoing economic and political turmoil but the cumulative news about the IRS, the AP phone pulls and now the revelation of the extent of governmental eavesdropping strike with the force of body blows.  My principal job as a parent – a father – is to not only care for and raise the kids, but prepare them to make their way in the great wide world.  How am I supposed to raise my children to be productive, moral adults in a society which increasingly makes such traits difficult to uphold?

Thanks to the spot-on and hilarious rants of Jon Stewart, even Youngest is aware of the furious controversy over the use of the IRS as a political weapon.  Once the laughter was through, it served as a jumping off spot for a series of short conversations about the function of the IRS and how it’s been mishandled; the conversations have occurred as well with the older two kids.  But with the disclosure of the extent of domestic surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, there was a very brief and pointed conversation with Eldest as she reclined on the sofa after the end of her work shift.  The preface to the conversation was the question of whether or not she had heard about the NSA domestic surveillance program and when she indicated that she’d heard of it, I advised her to begin following the story at length and directed her to the English newspaper, The Guardian.  The reasonable question was why? and my response was that this particular issue was one that put her own plugged-in generation at greater risk than their elder generations.  And that’s why the warning and start of further conversations about the NSA mess; our kids’ generation – the so-called Millenials – is the most technologically savvy generation in the history of this planet and use the surveilled media for almost all of their various thoughts and plans.  Yet for the technologic erudition, they lack the common sense that dictates what should and shouldn’t be written, what should and shouldn’t be shared, and what should and shouldn’t be discussed via the various media; it’s not unknown for me to cease an electronic conversation simply because there are some things that are best done face-to-face.  That said, a previous career in Risk Management taught me that some things should never be put on paper or digitized simply because it’s potentially discoverable in the event of litigation.  Whether it’s discoverable by opposing counsel or some dink in an NSA cubicle is irrelevant, once it’s out there, it’s out there.

The word came down to Middle as well and he went to the

Backyard GMO Gardening

I live for the instances when you can make a link between a social/economic issue and what’s available right there in the household.  There are so many significant issues in the world that will impact our kids and when the bulk of their time is spent wrapped inside of an electronic cocoon, it’s easy for them to not see that there’s a true link between the local and the global.  Such is the case with the backyard garden and the issue of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) plants, which is presently an international controversy, principally for fear of the economic power that’s being given to multinational corporations such as Monsanto.  But how can I make an explicable link for the kids with a seemingly remote global issue?

First of all, what is a Genetically Modified Organism?  It is as the name implies, a seed that’s been genetically altered so that inherent traits are suppressed or enhanced; such modifications can make it impervious to certain types of insects or blights, increase yield per acre, or take on characteristics and traits of other plants.  As typically occurs in American culture, someone figures out a way to maximize profit and that way is to also create seeds that are modified to be sterile so that the seeds of the resulting plant are incapable of reproducing and an increasing percentage of the seeds sold are accordingly sterile.  If you want more seeds, then you have to go back to the supplier and purchase more of the same sterile seeds with a resulting lucrative revenue stream.

The link occurred to me as I was working in the backyard and glanced over at the two tiered garden plots built into the slope of the backyard landscaping.  With mulching and other work still unfinished, I hadn’t yet begun to turn over the dirt for the summer’s batch of tomato and pepper plants and I realized that amidst the weeds were tomato seedlings sprouting up, leftovers from the remnants of a few of last season’s tomatoes that had rotted on the ground and gone to earth.  I wondered what kind of yield these plants would put out and it then occurred to me that I’d purchased the plants at a local box store; given the source, it wouldn’t surprise me if the seeds had been genetically modified so that the customers would be forced to return to the same store for next year’s plants.  It resulted in a plan to let two of the most developed seedlings survive in the plot to see what resulted and the rest of the dirt was turned and prepped for the new crop.  Honestly, I don’t know if a seed that’s been genetically modified for sterility will result in a plant that doesn’t produce yield or if it will permit a plant to even begin to grow but the quiet experiment will determine one way or another.  When Youngest was outside later on, I pulled him aside and showed him the plants, explaining the concept of GMO – which an intelligent elementary schooler can grasp – and the summer experiment to see what resulted; I will do the same later this week to Middle and Eldest, who is now a college student with a biology minor.

The plan is to let these plants grow along with the others that are being planted and see what develops, following up with the kids later.  What matters though, is that there is some effort to not only expose them to an issue that appears in the news, but also that it can be found right there.  If the battle cry is to think globally and act locally, then they have to have a clue that these issues aren’t just intellectual exercises as sterile as the seeds.  They need to be able to see the link between the global issue and the plant growing in their backyard garden.

‘Flation Rages On:  The PracticalDad Price Index – June 2013

The results of the June 2013 PracticalDad Price Index are in and the ‘flationary battle continues to rage on.  The fact that the results show no change in the total index – May’s Total Index of 107.64 versus June’s 107.65 – and an actual drop in the Food-only Index from May’s 113.68 to June’s 113.55 – indicates that the inflationary aspirations of the global central banks are running headlong into the reality of underemployment, excessive bad debt and declining real wages.  So it’s impossible to say whether it’s inflation or deflation and we’re left with ‘flation. 

Recall that the index is composed of 47 separate items that can be purchased at any of three separate and unrelated grocery stores, and that 37 of these items comprise the Food-Only segment of the Total Index.  With the scale set at November 2010 = 100, the upshot is that the cost of the average Food-only items in the marketbasket actually declined from May 2013 to June 2013. 

The results of the past four months are:

Month/Year          Total Index          Food-Only Index          Spread

3/13                      107.24                113.35                            6.11

4/13                      107.29                113.46     nbsp;                       6.17

5/13                      107.64                113.68                            6.04

6/13                      107.65                113.55                            5.90