Archive

November 26th, 2015

The Gift of Reading

    The list of what a child needs in order to flourish is short but nonnegotiable.

    Food. Shelter. Play. Love.

    Something else, too, and it’s meted out in even less equal measure.

    Words. A child needs a forest of words to wander through, a sea of words to splash in. A child needs to be read to, and a child needs to read.

    Reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination, and if they don’t blaze well before elementary school, a child’s education — a child’s life — may be an endless game of catch-up.

    That’s a truth at the core of the indispensable organization Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit group that provides hundreds of thousands of free books annually to children age 8 or younger, in particular those from economically disadvantaged homes, where books are a greater luxury and in shorter supply.

    I shine a light on Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF, for several reasons.

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Memories

    It isn't the holiday season that calls back my memories at this time of year, but that "day of infamy." As the years pass there are fewer and fewer of us who actually lived through it but we must never allow it to be forgotten: December 7, 1941.

    I was no where near the actual bombing when this nation was awakened by an event as no other had ever done. Long before the day of television, and certainly, no such communication of phones in every hand, radio was the voice of news.

    We had been picked up from school on a Friday afternoon for a trip to a small town just below Jacksonville, Florida. It was only the second trip outside the boundaries of Georgia for us children and turned out to be memorable in unexpected ways. We were not to find the sunny Florida that we had expected.

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Letter From Saudi Arabia

    Saudi Arabia is a country that is easier to write about from afar, where you can just tee off on the place as a source of the most austere, anti-pluralistic version of Islam — the most extreme versions of which have been embraced by the Islamic State, or ISIS. What messes me up is when I go there and meet people I really like and I see intriguing countertrends.

    Last week I came here looking for clues about the roots of the Islamic State, which has drawn some 1,000 Saudi youths to its ranks. I won’t pretend to have penetrated the mosques of bearded young men, steeped in Salafist/Wahhabi Islam, who don’t speak English and whence the Islamic State draws recruits. I know, though, that the conservative clergy is still part of the ruling bargain here — some of the most popular Twitter voices are religious firebrands — and those religious leaders still run the justice system and sentence liberal bloggers to flogging, and they’re still in denial about how frustrated the world is with the ideology they’ve exported.

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Behold the energy that made America

    “I should have learned sushi.”

    So says James in a rare moment of retrospection. Most days he has no time for that. He is all forward motion.

    His goal is to be an architect. Now he’s working in food service and mastering English.

    A sushi chef makes more than what James does at the moment. He kicks himself for not learning it while working in a California restaurant in his first few months in California. “Cowleefonia” is his linguistic attempt to master everything about us, to be one of us.

    To James, every syllable counts.

    His real name is Trisnawan. Born in Indonesia, like many immigrants, he chose a name here that wouldn’t cause Americans to entangle themselves on their own tongues.

    Hannan, meanwhile, is quiet and determined – quietly determined. She is in this country because the civil war in Yemen made her home unsafe, rocked and wrecked by a bomb out on the street.

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Are You Happy, and How Would You Know?

    Like many others, I can't resist academic studies on happiness. They often come up with persuasive reasons some seem to be happier than others. I'm always on the lookout for pointers.

    That said, there's no happy-mometer to push under someone's tongue to measure contentment with scientific confidence. So some skepticism is warranted.

    Of course, the researchers are assessing what they call "subjective well-being." That's how individuals regard their happiness level, not what the rest of the world thinks it should be.

    We all know people who are happiest when they are complaining. And of course, sense of happiness is culturally influenced. One study was titled "Are Scandinavians Happier than Asians?"

    Most of us believe, at least at times, that money by itself does not buy happiness. We've seen America's most elite shopping streets -- from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to Worth Avenue in Palm Beach to Madison Avenue in New York -- populated by dissatisfied mugs, fancy shopping bags in tow.

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America doesn't have to hate itself to beat racism

    Calling on any nation to repudiate its history is asking a lot. Asking this of the United States -- a country that is animated, more than most, by its great national myths -- may be asking the impossible.

    This was the thought that stayed with me after reading Ta- Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me" earlier this year. Protests at Princeton last week demanding a new name for the Woodrow Wilson School turn on the same issue, as do similar recent controversies. The charge is that the U.S. is much farther than it thinks from coming to terms with its racist past.

    According to Coates, slavery wasn't just a blemish on an otherwise grand and inspiring history. He argues that racism has been the organizing and enabling principle of the entire American project. Facing the truth about the past isn't just a matter of intellectual honesty, he says. There can be no hope of social justice today or tomorrow unless the essentially depraved character of the American enterprise is finally acknowledged. That's the claim: Denial of history perpetuates denial of justice.

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Why not draw straws? Elections are all random

    I'll cheerfully admit that until last weekend I had no idea that Mississippi decides tied elections by drawing straws -- much less that other states flip a coin. The only comparable version of planned randomness I'd heard of was the ancient Greek practice of choosing annual leaders by lottery.

    My first instinct on hearing about the Mississippi State House election that was resolved Friday in favor of the Democratic candidate was that this arbitrary practice should obviously be changed.

    On reflection, I'm not so sure.

    A strong case can be made that elections should reflect the intentions of the voters, and that deciding them by reference to luck makes a mockery of the idea that the people are choosing.

    Yet simultaneously, elections in the real world turn on a range of random factors, such as weather, traffic and the uncertainty of individual voters' whims and willingness to turn out.

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Want to boost productivity? Raise minimum wages

    I've spent some time talking about the downsides of minimum-wage laws. But there is a big possible upside that I haven't mentioned, in part because it's pretty speculative. It's the idea that minimum wages improve productivity and innovation over the long run.

    Usually, it's detractors of the minimum wage who talk about the long term. Minimum-wage hikes tend to have only small or negligible effects on employment levels, but critics of setting pay floors have said that they slow long-term employment growth. But I'm now thinking about the even longer term, and about the effect of minimum wages on productivity rather than employment.

    In the long term, productivity comes from technology. Economists often treat technology as if it just appears out of nowhere, but in fact it comes from the innovative efforts of companies and researchers.

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The government has protected your security and privacy better than you think

    After 9/11, U.S. political leaders of all stripes demanded better intelligence and a greater ability to "connect the dots." Such a terrorist attack had to be prevented from happening again. Well, it has happened again, of course, repeatedly, in Paris, as well as in London, Madrid and, indeed, in Boston and nearly in Times Square. But until the recent brutality of the Islamic State, the pendulum of our response, naturally enough, had swung back toward privacy and away from national security. We must now rethink how far we want - and need - our government to go to keep us safe from people who unequivocally want to kill as many of us as cruelly as they can.

    In hindsight, our country's handling of the putative trade-off between national security and privacy after Sept. 11 has actually been reasonably reassuring. The lesson for us now is that by overlaying aggressive privacy safeguards and rigorous oversight onto the intelligence community's aggressive electronic surveillance, we can protect our values without compromising national security.

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Senate skips town - and responsibility

    The Senate left town last week, its work unfinished. Majority leader Mitch McConnell's partial government shutdown continues. Among other things, Republicans still refuse to take up many of Barack Obama's judicial and executive-branch nominations -- a roadblock that makes it hard for the courts and the federal government to work efficiently.

    Jennifer Bendery at HuffPost describes one particularly embarrassing example: The undersecretary of the Treasury in charge of the terrorism and financial crimes division hasn't been confirmed. Adam Szubin was nominated in mid-April, more than seven months ago. Republicans don't oppose him. Bendery reports that the Banking Committee chairman, Richard Shelby, praised Szubin at his confirmation hearing. And then? Nothing.

    The numbers: The Senate has confirmed 135 Obama nominees (including both executive branch and judicial) so far this year. By contrast, in 2007, when Democrats had just won the Senate, and a Republican president was in his seventh year in office, the Senate had confirmed 234 of George W. Bush's nominees through the end of November.

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