Sunday, February 20, 2011

Richard Florida and Marty Nemko on How to Improve the World

Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, who is considered a significant thinker and policy wonk, and I had an hour-long conversation on my NPR San Francisco show today. Our topic: how to improve the world.

We agreed on some things, for example:
  • the need for what he calls a "New American Dream:" replacing materialism with loftier values.
  • the need to replace our schools: arcana-filled curriculum dispensed by generally well-intentioned but ineffectual, uninspiring teachers. As he said, 100 years from now, we'll shake our heads in wonderment that we forced students to spend all those years in boredom, in those prisons we call schools.
  • that we would more likely live the life well-led if, every time we contemplated doing something, we rated that action on a a scale from -100 (selling crack) to +100 (working to cure cancer.)
  • my idea of an Assistants Army. Instead of government make-work jobs, do a PR campaign to encourage citizens to hire assistants: to help in caring for their infant, a homework helper for their child, a "honey-do" assistant for themselves, and a companion for their elder relative.
  • the need to replace our electoral system, in which our votes are manipulated by a hubristic media and win-at-all-costs, richly-funded political campaigns.
Today's media's members have experienced so little life outside academia/ journalism school but are oh-so confident that they know how to fix the world and thus toss off their responsibility to present all responsible sides of an issue. Instead, they do everything in their power to manipulate the electorate into believing what they believe and voting the way they do.
Political campaigns are highly sophisticated Madison-Avenue-inspired propaganda machines paid for by special interests from unions and ethnic/gender-power groups on the left to corporations and fat cats on the right.

What chance does the poor voter have of making enlightened choices in picking their elected officials?
Richard liked both of my ideas for replacing what he called "our beyond-dysfunctional, comical electoral system:"
  • Selecting our government officials the way a mutual fund index fund (which outperforms most funds) chooses its stocks: a passively selected panel. (I've written about that HERE).Or if democracy remains the sacred cow:
  • 100% publicly-funded two-week long campaigns consisting only of televised debates, a job simulation (running a meeting) and the candidates' voting record and positions, aggregated by a neutral such as Consumers Union or C-Span, and published prominently on the Net and in print.
Alas, I found myself rolling my eyes at Florida's prescription for reducing the racial/socioeconomic achievement gap. He passionately urges us to focus yet more on early childhood. Alas, has now been well established, the billions and billions already spent on a half century of Head Start, Early Start, and even on social workers spending tremendous amounts of time in-the-home of low-income newborns has not reduced the achievement gap, let alone been cost-effective uses of taxpayer dollars.

I responded to Florida by opining that the answer is honesty: to honestly admit that despite having spent trillions (literally) of dollars in the past few decades alone to reduce the socioeconomic and racial achievement disparity (everything from Early Start to forced busing into suburban areas to welfare-to-work job training to high-quality free housing) the gap remains as wide as ever.

Instead of spending yet more trillions of ever-scarcer taxpayer dollars on programs known to be ineffective, we must redirect those dollars to a research effort to find new approaches that are more likely to work.

And, as I've argued in previous writings, yes, environment is important, but so are genetics. To fight the achievement gap only by trying to change people's environment and ignoring the genetic is like fighting Mike Tyson with one arm tied behind your back. We must not viscerally reject genetically oriented approaches to reducing the achievement gap. There are ethical approaches to doing so. I've mentioned these in previous posts but summarize them here:
  • Making free birth control widely available in high schools with high pregnancy rates. Especially valuable would be the new-generation implantables such as Jadelle, which is easy to insert and remove but which, in place, lasts at least two years and has been found extremely safe and effective by the highly respected Population Council.
  • Intelligent Choice. This would be public-service-announcement/education/media campaign to remind teenagers and young adults that in choosing the father/mother of your child, you're choosing the genes you want your child do you have. For example, "Do you really want your child to inherit the genes of that Bad Boy you find so attractive?"
  • Starting Life with No Strikes Against You: Depression, impulsivity, empathy, intelligence, etc. all are almost certainly under both environmental and genetic control. We should fund research to enable prospective parents to elect, non-coercively, to have their eggs and sperm examined to help ensure that their baby starts out without a genetic strike or two against them, and if all their sperm and eggs are defective, can elect to have a procedure to replace the defective genes with those for normal or even above-average intelligence, resistance to depression, etc. To ensure that such treatments don't increase the gap between rich and poor, MediCal or ObamaCare would cover those procedures just as they cover most other treatments.
It was an interesting hour. Again, HERE is the link to the show.


Jeffrie said...

I listened to the show this morning, and I liked the ideas that came out and the exchange. One of your stronger shows, in my opinion.

I could not agree more with the ideas for reforming the electoral system. As it is, there is no room for the average person in elected office, only career politicians who as far from average as possible. How can we really trust these people to know what's best for the average American?

Part of me wonders if perhaps every American should be required to serve in office at some level? We complain about it so much, yet most of us wouldn't dare run for office. We might take more of an interest in politics if we all had to serve for a time.

I'd like to hear your ideas for reforming the ever more complex tax system. Practically everything is taxed or taxable, and then we have to file every year or quarter to possibly pay even more taxes. (And getting a refund isn't necessarily cause for celebration. That means the government took too much from you, and is making you do the work to get it back!)

As for the comments on early education ... I have to say that I did benefit from early childhood education. But not Head Start. To my parents, "Head Start" meant having me being able to read & write by the time I went to pre-school (while I was not reading the New York Times at that age, Marty, I was still ahead of most of my peers) and music lessons starting at age 5. But they took it upon themselves to make that happen. And I don't come from a privileged, highly educated family in a great neighborhood, either.

For as long as I can remember, my father told his kids & grandkids to "get a good education." But unlike many others who say the same thing, he put his money where his mouth was, even if it meant he or my mother had to do without.

I don't know if most disadvantaged kids would benefit from constant family involvement, but I bet it would be a step up from just leaving it all up to the government.

I hope to hear more shows like this in the future, Marty.

Marty Nemko said...

Thanks, Jeffrie.

I don't want to see govt increase so I can't support the idea of everyone serving in it.

I do like your idea of my writing about reinventing taxation. will do.


Jim said...

Instant Runoff Voting (also known as Ranked Voting) is an electoral reform that is easy, and sets the way for other reforms without committing to them.

But campaign finance reform is pretty vital.

punkscience said...

"We should fund research to enable prospective parents to elect, non-coercively, to have their eggs and sperm examined to help ensure that their baby starts out without a genetic strike or two against them, and if all their sperm and eggs are defective, can elect to have a procedure to replace the defective genes with those for normal or even above-average intelligence, resistance to depression, etc."

Interesting and a good idea but there's no such things as a gene for intelligence. I would caution you to carefully word similar arguments to avoid cries of 'eugenics!'

Otherwise I am very approving of electoral reform, social justice and all those other good things people have been striving for for centuries! Good luck with that.

Marty Nemko said...

I didn't say gene, I said genes. And I didn't say we had identified them yet (although the China study I cited earlier may take us a step toward doing so). I said it made sense to do the research toward giving people ethical options. And with regard to sound bite criticisms like "Eugenics!" I can't let myself be censored for fear of knee-jerk, bumper-sticker-level thinking.

EpiphanieBloom said...

I like all those ideas, and would like to add my own: Take drastic measures to make society more open/equal to women, different racial groups, and GLBTIs. If we achieved this, there would be so much more inspiration and innovation in the world.