Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Reading

TV Goes to the Dogs:

Human beings are hard to love. They say insensitive things. They get in the way. They wear dumb shoes. They talk too loudly. They repeat themselves. They roll their eyes and hog the remote. They drive like assholes. They fail to see how much unnecessary space they take up. They fail to shower you with the affection and admiration you deserve.

Dogs, on the other hand, are impossible not to love. They’re cute. They have lots of energy. They greet you with spontaneous outbursts of genuine feeling. They know how to relax. They look funny when you dress them in stupid outfits. They’ll gleefully rip the nards off the UPS man if you deem it necessary. Even when they’re depressed, they cheer up instantly when they hear the word “squirrel.”

Humans slouch and make excuses while dogs will happily follow you anywhere. Humans snicker and harrumph, while dogs wag and pant and lick your elbows. Humans worry and kvetch while dogs mindlessly chase flies. Humans stare at their computers and make boring phone calls while dogs listen closely to every word you say, particularly when you’re eating a ham sandwich.

Dogs are such good companions that they make humans look like sluggish, neurotic, self-involved, ungainly sad sacks by comparison.

It’s no wonder we Americans are so taken with dogs, particularly during these trying times. They feed our needy egos while (perversely) reinforcing our inferiority complexes as we plummet from global supremacy to lives of mediocrity and struggle.

Plus, unlike, say, the French, we Americans try to emulate dogs’ loving, enthusiastic natures — how else to explain Mario Lopez? — but we usually come up short. We can’t lick our family’s feet quite so enthusiastically. We’re not as fiercely suspicious of DHL representatives. It makes us feel self-conscious to have our bellies rubbed. We can’t draw elaborate conclusions about the personalities of strangers just by sniffing their butts.

These shortcomings lie at the heart of “Greatest American Dog” (8 p.m. EDT Thursdays on CBS), a reality show that’s ostensibly aimed at finding the most talented, lovable doggie in America, but is mostly focused on highlighting the bad habits and dysfunctional tics of dog owners along the way. “Freakiest Dog People in America” or “Scariest Dog-Obsessed Lunatics” might be a more appropriate title — but then a nation full of scary dog-obsessed lunatics might feel insulted. Better to locate the most disturbingly codependent dog owners and force them all to live together under the auspices of celebrating the soul and spirit of our favorite pet.

What Works: Leonard Pitts concludes his series on what works.

I reserve the right to occasionally report on any program I run across that shows results in saving the lives and futures of African-American kids. But this is the last in the series I started 19 months ago to spotlight such programs.

Let me begin by thanking you for your overwhelming response to my request for nominations, and to thank everyone from every program who allowed me to peek behind the scenes. From the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York to SEI (Self-Enhancement, Inc.) in Portland, Ore., I have been privileged and uplifted to see dedicated people doing amazing work.

I am often asked whether I’ve found common denominators in all these successful programs, anything we can use in helping kids at risk. The short answer is, yes. You want to know what works?

Longer school days and longer school years work. Giving principals the power to hire good teachers and fire bad ones works. High expectations work. Giving a teacher freedom to hug a child who needs hugging works. Parental involvement works. Counseling for troubled students and families works. Consistency of effort works. Incentives work. Field trips that expose kids to possibilities you can’t see from their broken neighborhoods, work.

Indeed, the most important thing I’ve learned is that none of this is rocket science. We already know what works. What we lack is the will to do it. Instead, we have a hit-and-miss patchwork of programs achieving stellar results out on the fringes of the larger, failing, system. Why are they the exception and not the rule?

If we know what works, why don’t we simply do it?

Nineteen months ago when I started, I asked Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone why anyone should pay to help him help poor kids in crumbling neighborhoods. He told me, ‘Someone’s yelling at me because I’m spending $3,500 a year on ‘Alfred.’ Alfred is 8. OK, Alfred turns 18. No one thinks anything about locking him up for 10 years at $60,000 a year.”

Amen. Forget the notion of a moral obligation to uplift failing children. Consider the math instead. If that investment of $3,500 per annum creates a functioning adult who pays taxes and otherwise contributes to the system, why would we pass that up in favor of creating, 10 years later, an adult who drains the system to the tune of $60,000 a year for his incarceration alone, to say nothing of the other costs he foists upon society?

How does that make sense? Nineteen months later, I have yet to find a good answer.

Chugging into History: The Model T marks its 100th year.

When Henry Ford started to manufacture his groundbreaking Model T on Sept. 27, 1908, he probably never imagined that the spindly little car would remain in production for 19 years. Nor could Ford have foreseen that his company would eventually build more than 15 million Tin Lizzies, making him a billionaire while putting the world on wheels.

But nearly as significant as the Model T’s ubiquity was its knack for performing tasks far beyond basic transportation. As quickly as customers left the dealers’ lot, they began transforming their Ts to suit their specialized needs, assisted by scores of new companies that sprang up to cater exclusively to the world’s most popular car.

Following the Model T’s skyrocketing success came mail-order catalogs and magazine advertisements filled with parts and kits to turn the humble Fords into farm tractors, mobile sawmills, snowmobiles, racy roadsters and even semi-trucks. Indeed, historians credit the Model T — which Ford first advertised as The Universal Car — with launching today’s multibillion-dollar automotive aftermarket industry.

Many of these Model T oddities are likely to surface this week at a centennial celebration in Richmond, Ind., hosted by the Model T Ford Club of America. The event is expected to draw nearly 1,000 Model Ts, the largest gathering of the cars since production ended in 1927.

Frank Rich: The Economics of John McCain.

The term flip-flopping doesn’t do justice to Mr. McCain’s self-contradictory economic pronouncements because that implies there’s some rational, if hypocritical, logic at work. What he serves up instead is plain old incoherence, as if he were compulsively consulting one of those old Magic 8 Balls. In a single 24-hour period in April, Mr. McCain went from saying there’s been “great economic progress” during the Bush presidency to saying “Americans are not better off than they were eight years ago.” He reversed his initial condemnation of mortgage bailouts in just two weeks.

In February Mr. McCain said he would balance the federal budget by the end of his first term even while extending the gargantuan Bush tax cuts. In April he said he’d accomplish this by the end of his second term. In July he’s again saying he’ll do it in his first term. Why not just say he’ll do it on Inauguration Day? It really doesn’t matter since he’s never supplied real numbers that would give this promise even a patina of credibility.

Mr. McCain’s plan for Social Security reform is “along the lines that President Bush proposed.” Or so he said in March. He came out against such “privatization” in June (though his policy descriptions still support it). Last week he indicated he isn’t completely clear on what Social Security does. He called the program’s premise — young taxpayers foot the bill for their elders (including him) — an “absolute disgrace.”

Given that Mr. McCain’s sole private-sector job was a fleeting stint in public relations at his father-in-law’s beer distributorship, he comes by his economic ignorance honestly. But there’s no A team aboard the Straight Talk Express to fill him in. His campaign economist, the former Bush adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, could be found in the June 5 issue of American Banker suggesting even at that late date that we still don’t know “the depth of the housing crisis” and proposing that “monitoring is the right thing to do in these circumstances.”


Mr. McCain reminds us every day how principled he is. That presumably means he’d risk a revolt by his party’s dwindling agents of intolerance and do everything in his power to persuade Mr. Bloomberg to join his ticket in the spirit of patriotic sacrifice. The politics could be advantageous too. A Bloomberg surprise could impress independents and keep the television audience tuned in to a G.O.P. convention that will unfold in the shadow of Mr. Obama’s address to 75,000 screaming fans in Denver.

But this is fantasy political baseball, not reality. Mr. McCain, sad to say, hung up his old maverick’s spurs the day he embraced the Bush tax cuts he had once opposed as “too tilted to the wealthy.” And Mr. Bloomberg? It’s hard to picture a titan who built his empire on computer terminals investing any capital, political or otherwise, in a chief executive who is still learning how to do, as Mr. McCain puts it, “a Google.”

Doonesbury: From one beer lover to another.

Opus: what’s worse?