What’s Up with College Kids These Days?

I want to discuss an incident that happened recently at Middlebury College. What happened was a group of conservative students invited Charles Murray, author of the controversial book “The Bell Curve”, to speak on campus. When he arrived, student protesters gathered en masse to shout him down and prevented him from speaking at all. It got pretty ugly with students pulling fire alarms and banging on windows.

Frank Bruni at the New York Times wrote about this incident in editorial yesterday and talked about the “emotional coddling” that seems to be taking hold of university students today. And, on a certain level, this appears somewhat true. The whole point of college is to encourage an open debate of ideas and that clearly did not happen here.

This issue is a little personal for me and runs counter to the household where I was raised. My father was a lawyer who read three newspapers a day—the left leaning one, the moderate one, and the conservative one. When I asked him why he did this, he told me, “It’s important to get the full spectrum of viewpoints so you can make the best decisions on what is right for you.”

Also, he was a lawyer, so he had to know his opponent’s position if he wanted to argue against them successfully. As Sun Tzu said, “Know yourself, know your enemy, a thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

Unfortunately, today’s students seem to want to do the opposite—only read the newspaper that confirms their views and scream at anyone disagree with it.That is very bad and usually leads to disastrous consequences.

But the point of this speech is not to say “Those damn kids!” and whine about political correctness. What I really want to look at is what created this horrible dynamic.

Now, does anyone here know the current cost of tuition at Middlebury? I looked it up online to find out and, according to their website, it is $61,000. Over four years that calculates to a  little under a quarter of a million dollars.

That’s a lot of money and indicates a big rise since I went to school, admittedly a hundred years ago and at the state university. But when I went to school, college tuition was $6,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $10,000 annually. That’s one-sixth of the cost of Middlebury’s current rate. Now, lest you think this is a public-private school thing, the current tuition at UNH, my alma mater, is now 32K a year. So over the course of 25 years, the price tripled.

This, I think, is the underlying cause behind students’ unbearable self-righteousness.  Because when students are forced to pay a quarter of a million dollars to get a shot at a decent job, they stop being students and become customers. If you are familiar with business practices at all, you know the guiding idea is “The customer is always right.” If I pay $60K for anything, you’re damn right I don’t want to be challenged. I want everything done in a way that pleases me, the customer. I expect service, not challenge.

These high tuition rates run counter to the whole premise of education. Customers don’t want to learn, they don’t want to be educated. They want service and they want it fast. So I don’t think students are wrong at all for feeling the way they do. Because when colleges became a requirement for a good job, they stopped being places of learning and were reduced to becoming certification programs, and extremely profitable ones at that.

Because, over the years, university administrators and government officials have colluded  to bleed students dry. It’s basically a racket. According to the most recent analysis (in 2015) by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), over the past 10 years, the government has made $135 billion in profit on student loans. The level of student debt in this country is now one trillion dollars and $100 billion of that in default.

What’s the cure for this? Is there a way to bust up this racket? I would offer a solution that has worked in Germany, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France—that is, making college free. And this is not some radical idea either, it’s what we used to do.

According to the U.S. Education Department, average undergraduate tuition and fees — excluding room and board — in the 1965-66 school year was $607 per year for a four-year college (public and private). That’s right, college tuition used to be something pretty everyone could buy with a couple weeks pay. Many of the best colleges – including the City University of New York and the University of California system – did not charge any tuition at all.

I can hear the protests already – this will be way too expensive. Not really. The total price of making college free is estimated to cost about $75 billion annually. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to other government programs. For purposes of comparison, I’d like to throw out the F-35 fighter jet out there. The total cost of F-35 program, which my brother actually works on, is $1.45 trillion, which could have provided free college to every student in the U.S. for the past 20 years.

Now I want to ask you—what would be more useful to you, a fighter jet that America can use to bomb another Middle Eastern country, or to have no student debt at all? I’ve got two little girls, ages 6 and 9, and it’s clear to me which would be more useful to them. If you’ve got kids or are drowning in student debt, I think the answer will be pretty clear to you too. Basically anyone who is sick of American kids being cheated out of a good education should feel the same way. And I hope you’ll join me in pursuing the matter. Thank you.

Telling Stories

Did you ever hear the story of how dangerous animals once escaped from the Central Park zoo? I’ll forgive you if you haven’t because it happened a long time ago and is a story long forgotten.

The tragedy, according to the written account in the largest and most influential newspaper at the time, the New York Herald, happened late on a Sunday in November, 1890. It was then, according to the Herald that, around closing time, a rhinoceros somehow managed to escape from its cage and killed one of the zookeepers.

In the resulting confusion, a group of dangerous animals escaped including a polar bear, a panther, several hyenas, a lion, and a Bengal tiger. These animals, after a period of fighting amongst themselves, turned on the nearby pedestrians in the park and the results, according to the Herald, were horrific. The story was recounted under the headline “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death” and that was accurate according to their account.

At press time, many of the animals were still on the loose. The Herald read, “The hospitals are full of the wounded. The park, from end to end, is marked with injury and in its artificial forests the wild beasts lurk, to pounce at any moment on the unwary pedestrians.”

It’s a horrific story and the reason it’s not better known is because at the very end of this account in the Herald, there were two sentences at the bottom of the page, “Of course, the entire story given above is pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true.” It never happened.

I bring up this non-story that appeared in a major newspaper over a hundred years ago because of the recent debate over “the rise of fake news” and how it is “not normal.” What I think is not normal is the thought that journalism is some purely objective driven enterprise that is entirely rational and scientific. As my story about escaped zoo animals might indicate, fake news is not new at all. In fact, it’s been around since people started lying to one another and we’ve been doing that since we started talking.

Now I’ll tell you some things that are true. The publisher of the New York Herald was a man by the name of James Gordon Bennet and at the time he was the third richest person in New York City, ranking behind William B. Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But, lest you think he was just some buffoon publisher of tabloids, you should know he wasn’t completely ludicrous. Bennet hired and employed writers like Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Walt Whitman. If you are familiar with the story of Henry Stanley searching for Dr. Livingston in the Congo (the origin of the phrase, “Doctor Livingston, I presume”), that was underwritten by the Herald. It was the New York Times of its era.

That’s because, in between these ridiculous stories about fake animal attacks, Bennet produced first rate stories of real interest. As described in the book The Kingdom of Ice, “His paper was many things but it was never dull.” And a fact of life is, if you want to tell an engaging story, you’ve got to bend the truth a little. A story that is void of exaggeration is one that is boring that no one reads.

One of my favorite quotes about telling stories and lying is from the Boston-based writer Dennis Lehane, author of “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.” When asked how he tells stories, Lehane said, “I’m Irish— I’d exaggerate driving directions.”

Although the Irish have a much-deserved reputation as excellent story tellers (and exaggerators), it’s not exclusive to them. We all exaggerate, distort, embellish, gloss over some facts and emphasize others, and otherwise falsify details to make our point. Further complicating matters, our memories are faulty and our perceptions are limited. Even if we tell the same story, the way I tell it is likely to be wildly different from yours. Who is to tell who is right and who is wrong?

The debate over fake news swirls around Donald Trump who, by all accounts, is a serial confabulist. There seems no story that Trump won’t tell to further his own ends, whether it is the idea that Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim terrorist to claiming he won the greatest electoral college victory since Reagan, which is demonstrably false.

But fake news is not exclusive to Trump and, in fact, Hillary Clinton played loosey goosey with facts as well. I’d like to go back in history again but I will tell you a story that is true, as far as I know. In the election contest between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in 1939, Nazi Germany gave money to delegates at the Democratic National Convention to vote against FDR’s nomination. That is a good example of a foreign government meddling with a U.S. election, very similar to what Russia currently stands accused of doing in the election of 2016.

But, it’s also interesting to note England also played a role in the U.S. election of 1939. As detailed in an article in Politico, British agents influenced that election by covertly paying for “biased polls.”

Now I don’t know if you followed the polls in 2016 but they turned out to be pretty wrong. The New York Times Upshot was 95% certain of Hillary’s victory and I remember watching that one nosedive in real-time as the state results came in. I went to to bed that night saying, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

But let’s revisit that phrase from history, “British agents covertly paid for biased polls.” What I want to know is who paid for these highly scientific polls that FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times produced in the run-up to the 2016 election— the ones that all showed it was inevitable that Hillary Clinton would be triumphant. Because those polls sure sound like fake news to me.

Was it some catastrophic error? FDR once said, “Nothing in politics happens by accident. If it happens, then you better believe someone planned it that way.” Two things are true — the Clinton campaign was premised around her inevitability and was flush with money, she outspent Trump 2 to 1. Paying a couple of bucks to produce some polls to bolster your case seems like a good, if cynical, strategy and apparently Nate Silver was either cool with being played or was an ignoramus who got conned. Neither reflect well on him and it is a long road back to credibility for him.

But the bigger problem is if we read things that are sometimes not true, who is to be trusted? The days of turning to Cronkite as a trusted authority are long gone. Never before has so much information been widely available to humanity and a lot of it is misinformation.

My advice is to think critically, pull yourself out of the emotional response to evaluate each message. For a moment, try suspending judgment and, above all, be skeptical but not cynical. This will require you go slower. Be deliberate, use your head, and read everything with the understanding that it may or may not be true.

Possibly the most important thing to ask yourself when confronted with story is to ask yourself, “Why is this person telling me this, what are their aims in telling me this.” Doing so will allow you to evaluate situations better, make wiser decisions, and avoid potential catastrophe.

Healthcare Rally in Boston

rally for healthcare - warrenI attended the #OurFirstStand rally to save healthcare in Boston this past Sunday, put on by Bernie Sanders group Our Revolution featuring Mayor Marty Walsh, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. That’s a photo of Senator Warren speaking to the crowd, one of the two pictures I took before my camera died.

Some quick notes:

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 3.56.32 PM

The view from above

– As the photo might indicate, turnout was strong especially considering how cold it was. I was also impressed with how well run it was – everything went off on time and with good support in place. I’ve worked campaign events before and they can be so chaotic. This one was totally professional.

– The overall mood of the crowd was subdued, not so much angry as looking for answers and direction. The question seemed to be, “What should we do?”

– Warren is effective as a litigator and a fighter. Senator Markey described her well when he said, “When Republicans see Elizabeth coming for them, they usually hide under their desk.” That said, I am not wowed with her public speaking skills. She’s more a lawyer than a Martin Luther King type, inspiring people with high flying rhetoric. She probably knows this and that’s why she spoke before Markey.

She also has a lot of public recognition. In back of me passerby were saying, “Hey, that’s Elizabeth Warren” and stopping to listen.

– I was impressed with Ed Markey’s speaking. I had never seen or heard from him before. He’s forceful like Biden or Teddy Kennedy, an old school Irish Catholic Democrat. When he speaks, people stand up and cheer. He’s the emotional counterpoint to Warren’s more cerebral approach.

– Healthcare is hard to rally around as it’s so abstract. In terms of messaging, Democrats need to simplify their language. “Medicare for All” is easy to understand, “single payer” less so. Complexity is bad.

The rally featured one woman whose mother was diagnosed with cancer and was saddled with thousands of dollars of bills. Stories like that are effective because they show how healthcare polices affect people as people, not as abstract statistics. That was solid and we need more of that.

– It was uplifting was seeing Democratic leaders getting back in touch with their grassroots supporters. That way they can see what resonates with voters and create a feedback loop with them rather than relying on consultants to provide interpretation.

More rallies like this one please. It is the way forward.

Movie Reviews of Movies I Haven’t Seen – The Witch

This is a super scary movie. In fact, it is so frightening and disturbing that I will never see it.


Yup, I’m good, thanks.

The Witch is filled with deeply unsettling, haunting imagery that you will not shake for at least a week, possibly a month. Even then, some scenes probably achieve The Shining-level and you will  retain them in your head for the rest of your life.

In this movie, a lot of bad things happen to children which is upsetting but it goes up to 11 when you have kids and you already worry enough about them, thanks. I don’t need to add “Captured and killed by a demonic presence living in the woods” to my worry list.

The Witch is set during the Pilgrim times and it’s about a family that establishes a house outside of the village on the edge of the woods. The woods in the opening shot of the trailer look like where I grew up in New Hampshire so that kind of freaks me out.

photo-0050It’s a great concept for a movie. For those of you who were not raised there, the woods in New England are so dark and deep that they drove the people in Salem into madness and they started hanging each other. Later these same woods produced writers like HP Lovecraft and Stephen King. New Englanders have a long tradition of scaring the shit out of each other. So, good job, director of The Witch, who apparently hails from New Hampshire.

I couldn’t figure out why the family left the village to live on the edge of some scary woods from the trailer but, whatever. It’s a good plot device because a bunch of horrifying stuff happens afterwards. The baby disappears and the mother goes bonkers. Then some of the kids start talking to the black goat in their yard (symbolism?) and then something horrible happens to their son when he gets lost in the woods.

Then there are a bunch of clips that are extremely unsettling, again, a lot of them involving kids. This movie is an expertly made horror movie and I give it four stars and there is no need for me to see it.

Letter to the Editor

Hello, here
An excellent column today by Brian Watson! I enjoyed that one very much.

Although I agree the situation looks bleak, I think the solution lays in the one thing we can all agree on – JOBS. Imagine the headlines, “Today Tesla announced plans to open a manufacturing factory in Flint” or “Today Apple announced plans to build a factory in Cleveland.”

Both moves would turn the region blue overnight. It is ridiculous that Apple, worth half a trillion dollars with $200 billion sitting unused in overseas accounts, claims they can’t afford to build a factory in the Midwest.

Bill Clinton won two Presidential races with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” I can only hope Democrats realize the wisdom of that. When we abandon these regions economically, people revert to tribalism and we all lose.

Again, I enjoyed your column very much. As you can see, it stirred quite a bit of thought for me. I look forward to the next one.