St. Mary’s College unfairly maligned

Letter to the Baltimore Sun on June 4, 2013.

I was shocked by what Anne Neal wrote about St. Mary’s College in a recent commentary (“Campus cautionary tale,” May 30). This is a school with a wonderful community environment.

Ms. Neal writes that “higher education is a bloated wastrel,” part of a bubble that’s about to burst, and she implies private funding is needed. Maybe she should have talked about a real bubble, like rising student loan debt.

She claims that tuition at St. Mary’s has been rising for a decade, forgetting that it was frozen this year and for years to come out of the board of trustees concern for students.

Yes, austerity is coming to St. Mary’s — but it’s coming everywhere else, too, thanks to the sequester put in place by both political parties.

Ms. Neal claims that St. Mary’s has the “highest tuition of any public university in Maryland” when this is actually incorrect. The University of Maryland is more expensive, according to College Prowler.

The most offensive part of the article was Ms. Neal’s statement that students get little from an education at St. Mary’s, and that one can “graduate without exposure to literature, American history or government, foreign language, or composition” under the school’s “anything goes” educational policy.

These are all falsehoods. Students are required to take a core curriculum covering all the areas she noted. They do choose a seminar their first year, but those are classes that help lay the groundwork for later in their education.

There is no policy of “anything goes” but rather one that makes students think critically and expose themselves to subjects they otherwise might not have known about. St. Mary’s President Joseph Urgo’s passionate op-ed earlier this year (“Why we need the liberal arts,” March 3) argued strongly for the importance of the liberal arts in higher education.

While a college education is becoming more expensive, St. Mary’s is cheaper than many private universities. We don’t need Ms. Neal, who heads an organization whose board members belong to the privileged few, telling us to privatize education. Instead we should be doing the opposite: Making education free and available to everyone, paid for with public funds, so that student debt doesn’t continue to rise.

Increased class sizes in Balto. Co. high schools: A student’s view

I wrote this letter to the Baltimore Sun on May 16, 2012.

I have attended Towson High School for four years, and the change in class size this year was a dramatic shift. Your recent article made clear how cutting 200 high school teachers in the Baltimore County School System has negatively affected students and teachers (“Baltimore County high schools see class sizes grow,” May 12).

Thirty-two percent of classes have more than 30 students this year, a 22 percent increase in one year. This will not only make it hard for students to get individualized attention, but the classes will also become more challenging for teachers.

Teachers already have to deal with preparing their students for all the standardized tests — such as the HSAs, the SATs and the PSATs — but now more students are entering their classes. A perfect example is my nutrition and foods class, which has more than 36 students.

We usually work in groups of six in the kitchens at the back of the classroom. Six people in each kitchen means that a few people do most of the work while everyone else stands around with nothing to do. This does not make for a good learning environment.

The same thing happened in my math class and my English class. Baltimore County Public Schools motto is “Focused on Quality; Committed to Excellence,” but the staff cuts mean these classes don’t live up tot hat promise.

Why is austerity making its way into the classroom? More than a year ago, more than 60 students rallied in front of the Old Courthouse in Towson to protest the proposal to cut teaching positions. The unelected and unaccountable school board and Superintendent Joe Hairston turned a deaf ear to our voices.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who promised in his 2010 campaign to improve education, approved the cuts. It was assumed that cuts to high-performing schools could be maintained because they are already high-performing, and that low-performing schools shouldn’t have cuts in teachers.

I have seen the cuts first-hand, and I know that cuts to the high-performing schools do cause those schools to perform less well. While I agree that low-performing schools should not have cuts in their number of teachers, neither should high-performing schools. I don’t know how we can wage war on the students of this county when the economy is in trouble.

BGE’s monopoly isn’t the only way to meet our energy needs

A letter I wrote to the Baltimore Sun on July 16, 2012

Though state policy allows BGE to levy a small fee on consumers even when they don’t have electricity (officially called a “bill stabilization adjustment”), it’s easy to see why Marylanders are frustrated by it (“For frustrated BGE customers, even small bills too much,” July 13th).

Supposedly it is used to pay for the electricity grid. But in reality it is probably just another way for BGE to get money.

Still, the Public Services Commission, under pressure from the consumer lobby, has limited such fees to the first day of a “major storm event.” After than, BGE is required to absorb the cost of storm cleanup. But I believe something more comprehensive is needed.

Since 1999, the Maryland energy market has been deregulated, thanks to lobbying by Constellation Energy and BGE. As a result, the state government has accepted BGE’s monopoly status of the market. Granted, there are other providers, but BGE wields major influence and power and recently Exelon merged with Constellation Energy to create the largest non-utility energy provider in the United States.

But the Public Service Commission’s current regulation of BGE is inadequate. BGE should be broken up, and there are a number of different options that could be put into place instead. The utility could become a publicly-controlled utility or jointly controlled by the public and private sector. Red tape could be reduced and customers would have more control over their power needs.

Community ownership has worked around the world. WindShare of Canada, a for-profit co-op, develops sustainable power projects for the community.Germany’sNorth Frisia district has more than 60 successful wind farms, many of which are 90 percent community-owned.

In Australia, the Hepburn Wind Project, the country’s first community-owned wind farm, produces enough power for more than 2,000 households. And in the U.S., National Wind, OwnEnergy and Goodhue Wind LLC are either community energy companies or allow communities to have partial ownership of energy.

Marylanders should remember that there alternative solutions to our energy problems, even if our politicians are afraid to say so.

Science of analytics

This picture is courtesy of Silver Creative Group LLc.

This post will argue that the science of analytics has altered the face of political campaigns and what we believe about voter decisions.

Issac Newton once said that “the investigation of difficult things by the method of analysis ought ever to precede the method of composition.” Today, the science of analytics has altered the  the face of political campaigns and what we currently believe about decision making by voters. This essay defines analytics, by combining the definitions of analytics and analysis from the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, as the part of logic having to do with finding the nature of something by separating out its parts or examining something in detail.

The United States has become a country where there is a $6-billion-per-year industry to “help” Americans choose their leaders, an industry which doesn’t learn from its successes or failures. [1] The use of analytics in the political arena is a new development, one which hasn’t really become fully developed, in its current form, until the 21st century. Because of the focus on who votes and why by political campaigns, there has been a focus on the individual, and a quantification of the ineffable and isolating “the moment where a behavior can be changed, or a heart won.” [2] This scary and disturbing development is not a surprise. Since by the 1980s, some companies were already tracking all of their “interactions with individual consumers” which was farmed out “to outside firms for analysis,” which was later used by political campaigns. [3] These campaigns combined information that they had gathered in their databases, to “find patterns,” which were only expanded by the Help America Vote Act, which encouraged states to “centralized their electoral data and organize their voter files in standard formats.” [4]

The machine (or movement as some falsely call it), that pushed Obama to victory in 2008, collected a staggering amount of data on 100 million Americans and it became a “perfect political corporation” since it was a “well-funded, data-driven, empirically rigorous institution” with an obsession with documenting metrics. [5] Such data collection, which ushered in a new Democratic establishment in DC, was also used by the Iowa Democratic Party, which sold voter files to candidates, and was preceded by data processing of the Kerry campaign in 2004. [6]

The science of analytics has also changed what we  believe about voter’s decision making since their information is not only in databases, but whether someone voted or not is “a matter of public record”! [7] In the end, if there isn’t a change, then politicians, regardless of party, who don’t represent the interests of the populace will continue to be elected. [8]

Notes

[1] Page 4 of Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab

[2] Ibid, 13.

[3] Ibid, 112.

[4] Ibid, 175, 245.

[5] Ibid, 246, 263. Earlier in the book, Issenberg says that the data operation of the Obama machine grew to meet the circumstances of the Presidential race (pp. 257).

[6] Ibid, 248, 250, 309

[7] Ibid, 6. I’m pretty outraged by this and feel that it should be illegal to use such information, but people can disagree with me all they want.

[8] Like Obama in 2008, who was perhaps “the most dynamic brand in the country” (273), many politicians clearly and outwardly brand themselves so they can get support of party bosses and investors (mostly big donors). It must also be noted, as Issenberg argues at the beginning of his book, that there is “an outgoing, still unsettled battle between the two parties for analytical supremacy” and that the “crucial divide within the consulting class is not between Democrats and Republicans, or the establishment and outsiders, [but] between the new empiricists and the old guard,” a divide which can be found in both parties (5).

Increasing voter turnout

Students showed their patriotic spirit while watching the live presidential election results at the election night party (November 2012, courtesy of Wikimedia)

This post will look at what the work of Green, Gerber and their colleagues suggests about increasing voter turnout, focusing specifically on their works which are explained in chapters 3 and 7 of Issenberg’s book, Victory Lab.

Since the voting franchise was fully extended to blacks (Voting Rights Act and 15th amendment), women (19th Amendment), and all people under 18 (26th amendment), voting turnout has been an issue. One could even say that this was the case before the franchise of voting was fully extended to the general population at-large by 1970s. [1] Chapters from the book by Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab, highlight this issue of voter turnout by looking at ways that different political scientists (Alan S. Gerber, Donald Green, and Todd Rodgers) think it can be increased.

Let’s start with Gerber. He assumed that people who answered polls were “more likely to be those reachable by campaigns” and that respondents “highly attuned to politics” would be more likely to  vote if contacted by campaigns. [2] This was proven to be true in further studies by Gerber and his colleague Green, which showed that the group of voters who was visited by teams of students working the campaign had a higher voter turnout rate than the sample. [3] This meant, in their view, that personal touch was missing from campaigns, so people didn’t feel inclined to vote, and it connects to Green and Gerber’s potential solution: “Maybe one way you could get people to vote was simply to have other people ask them to.” [4]

While Green & Gerber’s study supported efforts of door-knocking over calling a voter, and they were happily used by direct-mail vendors, some had different ideas. [5] Todd Rodgers resisted the idea that voting was a “self-interested choice” and he thought of it as a form of self-expression. [6] From this, it’s no surprise that Rodgers argued that campaigns should stop treat voting like it was a “temporary condition” every election  cycle, but as a “form of identity crucial to self-consciousness.”[7]

Then there’s Mark Gruber. He didn’t like Green & Gruber’s idea that you have to you can mobilize voters by making it a social activity. [8] Instead, his experiments showed that a letter which shamed nonvoters into voting by reminding them of their voting record was effective in raising turnout. [9] Still, that doesn’t mean his tactics were just.

It seems that making voting a more popular activity or better yet, a “community activity” would definitely increase turnout. [10] These ideas are needed now, along with having candidates who truly represent the people’s interests, instead elite, corporate interests.

 

Notes:

[1] Currently, voting rights are restricted for felons, people of color (Voter ID laws), and so on. One must also remember that federal law prohibits noncitizens from voting in elections, although this may happen anyway because of undocumented immigrants.

[2] Issenberg, Sasha. The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. New York: Crown, 2012. 79. Print.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Ibid, 84.

[5] Ibid, 85.

[6] Ibid, 190.

[7] Ibid, 204.

[8] Ibid, 200.

[9] Ibid, 194-7, 200.

[10] Ibid, 210.