Something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone

I’ve been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I was struck by this exchange between two war-weary friends:

“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”

“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”

“That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.

Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile: “Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

I feel this passage captures a truth that I’ve come to realize over the past couple years: people often invest so much significance in abstract ideals or concepts, and gradually load them up with so many associated ideas, that they lose all meaning. This process happens over time, and is driven by people hitching their professional ambitions or their personal identities to these causes, but it always ends the same: a lot of people fighting for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.


On Dickens’ Genius in David Copperfield

I’m beginning to understand why Dickens is so highly praised and emulated. When he is at his best, as he is in David Copperfield, he manages to precisely capture not only the variety of the human spirit in his characters, but also the the political, economic, cultural, and physical landscape that his characters occupy. By developing such memorable characters and allowing them to drive the narrative, he creates an eminently readable story that we can recognize as a mirror of our own experience. As the characters converse, and fight, and form friendships, and try to make a living, they are continually colliding with the forces that are shaping that moment of history. Indeed, this is how we all experience the historical forces of our time, and this is exactly why we can read Dickens over 150 years later and still find affinities with the characters and the dilemmas they face.
Obviously, this isn’t unique to Dickens. Yet the scope of the issue he incorporates into his landscape, his penchant for wit, and his uniquely memorable (if occasionally two-dimensional) characters set him apart from the many other excellent Victorian novelists.

Lessons in Education from South Korea

I’ve been reading ‘The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way’ by Amanda Ripley – a book that aims to discover exactly what the top-scoring education systems in the world do that helps students learn so much. Far from being a policy primer on comparative education policies from the top-scoring national school systems, this book shows us the school system of these countries in their unique cultural and historical context. Most importantly, it looks at education policies from the perspective of all those affected, but with a special emphasis on who it affects most: the young people that must live and learn within that system. It shares these perspectives in a compelling way by weaving storytelling with quantitative data, expert interviews, and telling anecdotes.

So far, I’ve only read the chapter on Eric, who went from Minnetonka over to South Korea to continue his education after high school. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chapter though, as it shows you how education works in Korea, rather than merely telling you with points of data. You can feel how comfortable students feel in their schools, because they practically live there. When you hear the gruesome story of a student stabbing their mother so they wouldn’t go to a parent-teacher conference and learn of their child’s less-than-perfect grades, you can almost join the South Korean press in feeling sympathy for both sides. This mother had pushed her child too hard and sometimes beat him if his grades weren’t good enough – she surely didn’t deserve death, but for a nation feeling the train of a hypercompetitive education system, her ‘punishment’ for pushing too hard can feel cathartic.

Despite problems with Korean students being pushed too hard though, the chapter illustrates one of South Korea’s most impressive educational accomplishments: there are high expectations for every child, and how much you learn and succeed is seen as a direct function of how hard you work. This myth of pure meritocracy in determining life success has obviously had damaging consequences (as it does in all countries where it is taken too seriously), yet its inclusivity has also pushed every young person to succeed. We could really learn something from that idea in the US, where we have a cult of meritocracy, but tragically low expectations for those coming from low-income families, and few resources to help them step onto even the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity.

Overall, I’m impressed and delighted by the book so far. Looking forward to reading more!

From Vox’s “Politics is about to destroy the Internet.” This essentially sums up the problem with our government and the industries they regulate.

Ever since I read Umair Haque’s “Betterness: Economics for Humans,” I’ve been sold on the idea that we need measures other than GDP if we want a more meaningful picture of an economy’s health. He likened GDP to a car’s speedometer – a one-dimensional measure that simply tells us how fast or how much, and nothing else. Yet we care about much more than the speed of our car: we should also be measuring our fuel efficiency, how many RPMs are needed to get us up to that speed, and if we were up-to-date on our maintenance. By creating and publishing new measures of the economy’s performance, we could begin to broaden our conception of what makes a healthy economy. This new concept would be informed my measures of things that actually mattered to human happiness: people’s reported work-life balance and job satisfaction, the rate of environmental degradation and the resulting human costs, and the stability of our economy over time. The list of measures he and other economists have proposed goes on for much longer, and this list is only my quick recollection of the ideas he mentioned. And these measures aren’t new ideas – we’ve already measured most of them for awhile; the point is that by collecting them more rigorously and publishing them more frequently and broadly, we could promote a more nuanced picture of economic success.

All of this explains why I was excited when I read the headline, “The US government could soon reshape how we measure the economy.” It also explains why I was disheartened to find that the new measure was actually Gross Output. I recommend you read the article for an explanation, as it does a much better job than I could. The key takeaway for me is that while this measure shifts the focus away from consumer spending’s effect on the economy – which I like – it also shifts the focus towards “savings, business investment, technology, and entrepreneurship.” This measure fails to broaden our view of a successful economy to include environmental and social concerns, and instead places a great emphasis on how businesses and the elites in our society are doing. That haven for job creators, the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal all but confirmed this as the author wrote: “[an emphasis on GDP] has led to the misguided Keynesian notion that consumer and government spending drive the economy rather than saving, business investment, technology and entrepreneurship.” 

Business owners, investors, corporations, people who fastidiously save their money, technology firms, wall street bankers, manufacturers – all of these groups are crucial to our economy’s success. Hell, if they get excited about Gross Output, let them have it. It’s never a bad thing to have more information about how an economy is performing. Yet our economy (and our political system) already caters to these groups’ interests and is too dominated by their whims. If we’re taking a hard look at new measures of economic prosperity, why not explore measures that help us re-balance our economic priorities, instead of driving it closer to the “growth at any cost” mentality?

Legislators won’t touch the student debt problem until it’s too late

“It’s not just about providing people with information. It’s really about creating a system where student loans aren’t overemphasized.” This article points out precisely what is wrong with how we finance higher education. I’m sick of our representatives not wanting to take on the issue of massive student debt, so instead they push for legislation that will help students make informed financial choices about college.

I’m all for informed financial decisions, but when it comes to college, students will finance their education any way they can. The alternative of not attending shuts too many doors, so they’ll take out massive debts even if they know it will burden them for years. Legislators know this, but the real problems with student debt are too politically tricky, so they won’t tackle them.

House of Cards: Enthralling but Too Bleak

House of Cards has everyone enthralled, and they can’t stop recommending it to me. Anytime I mention that I’m interested in policy, within the next minute the words, “Oh, you have to watch House of Cards,” will come out of their mouth. Everyone likes to convert people to their shows, so I can’t hold that against them. After all, how many times have I said the same thing about Game of Thrones, which has the same sort of political intrigue and infighting, but is set in a much more fantastical and violent realm? Yet after watching the first episode of House of Cards, I do feel a bit irked at everyone who told me how much I would love the show. From what I can tell, the show features top-notch acting, complex characters, and engrossing storytelling. It’s a great show. Yet now that I’ve gone three seasons deep into the political drama masterpiece that is West Wing, I can’t help but feel disappointed that everyone in my generation insists that I watch House of Cards. When I respond that, “I would, but I’m already preoccupied with West Wing,” they dismiss it.

Yet West Wing portrays what politics could be – what politics was meant to be. It may not be as realistic as House of Cards, but that’s precisely why it’s so captivating: it depicts a world that feels very real, one that could certainly be a reality, in which dedicated and brilliant public servants strive to do the best job they can for this country. In West Wing, theirs certainly backroom deal-making and political scandals, but ultimately it’s viewed as a setback to doing the real work of governing the country. House of Cards flips this on it’s head: people spend their time plotting political takeovers, and take care to step around any notions of civic responsibility or governance.

We know that Washington has plenty of selfish and power-hungry people, focused entirely on forwarding their own career. There’s ample evidence of that in our dysfunctional Congress (although gridlock and partisanship in Congress certainly isn’t due to having overly nasty people in office). However, we also know that there’s plenty of hard-working people trying to use their abilities to improve policy and the way we govern. I realize that West Wing may not be as popular with people my age because it started airing before we could comprehend or were involved in politics. Yet I also feel discouraged at how quickly it’s dismissed when I bring it up. “We don’t want a show about people in government dealing with complicated issues while striving to uphold our highest ideals about democracy and governance – we want a show full of political thuggery and utter self-absorption.” I understand it’s only television, and this isn’t an argument that people shouldn’t watch House of Cards. Hell, I might get around to it myself sometime. Yet if our most popular shows reflect prominent beliefs and cultural values of our time (and I would argue that they do), it seems that our public life is being cheapened by an over-emphasis on what’s wrong with our system and not enough conversation about how to better it.