Luigi Explains Capitalism For Da People!

Get ready, this is a really long one . . . I just finished A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity and it's one of my favorite books . . . not just because it's written by a guy named Luigi Zingales and I'm an Italian-American hailing from North Brunswick (home a da Carnivale Italiano! you gotta getta some zeppole) although Zingales' perspective, as an expatriate Italian, is essential to his critique of the current American Italian system-- he's like Tocqueville in that he can see things we take for granted . . . here are a dozen things I took away from his analysis and his solutions:

1) the thesis of the book is that the US free-market system has degenerated into crony capitalism, and Zingales uses Silvio Berlusconi as the paragon of this model; Berlusconi ran an insulated system of business and government corruption and comparisons between Berlusconi, who essentially ran Italy like his own private business, and Trump are inevitable and easy to make, so while the book was published pre-Trump, in 2012, Zingales does make the Berlusconi/Trump analogy in this episode of Conversations with Tyler . . .Trump succeeded in the real estate business, where it is more important to have strong relationships with government entities rather than creating something new in the market (and he's always relied on bankruptcy and the kindness of that system) and like Berlusconi, Trump has rewritten what is appropriate for a politician and member of the government;

2) Zingales starts with the proposition that fair markets are hard to manipulate and markets- while not perfect-- establish more efficient and accurate measure of value than say, an academic committee creating tenure requirements or statist regime doling out consumer products;

3) the problem is when large institutions, corporations, conglomerates and firms become "too big to fail" and both politicians and institutions recognize this because politicians, who aren't in office forever, would rather quell the chaos during their term-- avoid Armageddon, even if it's only a five percent chance of Armageddon-- with a bail-out, rather than be the person who lets the economy tank . . . but this doesn't allow the markets to do their job and accurately measure value;

4) he then explains how institutions that get "too big to fail" and understand this decimate the system-- he explains this with an analogy: if you play roulette yourself, you've got the same pay-out odds and vigorish whether you bet red/black or bet on a single number . . . for every hundred dollars you play, over time, you are likely to collect back $94.73-- the $5.27 is the amount the 0 and 00 extract . . . but if you pay an agent to play for you and promise him 20% of the winnings, but he doesn't have to pay anything if he loses, that agent is going to take risks and hope for a big payout . . . if he bets red with the $100 dollars, he only makes twenty bucks, but if he bets a single number, he stands to $700 . . . and if he loses, he loses nothing; so managers of funds take big risks, and the big investment banks encourage this because they know that either the lenders will lose out, as they are over-leveraged, or the taxpayers will bail the entire mess out;

5) lobbying is a monkey wrench in keeping markets fair and keeping large financial institutions and the government from becoming inexplicably intertwined-- and Zingales proposes something scary-- since the government controls trillions of dollars in subsidies and monies, the 3.5 billion spent by companies to lobby Congress and the 2.5 billion spent in political contributions may grow larger and larger, as business learns just how important it is to control the government . . . and this political climate of winner-take-all and fuck the other party isn't helping things;

6) with all this lobbying and bailing out and government/business intertwinement, we're not getting the beneficial long-term consequences of markets-- the accurate measurement of value and the benefits of competition . . . imagine that any time your kids are acting up and there's a conflict in the family, grandma and grandpa rescue the kids from any discipline . . . in the short term, these interventions lead to harmony and happiness, but in the long-term, you end up with spoiled kids and unhappy parents . . . Zingales uses another analogy to explain this analogy-- you gotta love all dese metaphors!-- he says that at the Grand Canyon, there is a sign warning people not to feed the wild animals, as if you do they lose their instincts and their ability to feed themselves . . . now the animals would love if people fed them but we need to "protect" them from the corruption of free food, for their own good . . . Zingales has seen this go down in Italy, and he sees America headed down the same road;

7) cronyism and unfair markets lead to winner-take-all scenarios, instead of healthy diversity and competition, and this is especially prevalent in the race to get into college-- while the number of people attending colleges in the US has skyrocketed, the size and amount of colleges has not . . . so there's winner-take-all competition to get admitted to the best schools and parents are spending much more time and resources on their children in order to get them in . . . this hasn't happened in Canada, where the admissions process isn't as competitive; so a tiny head-start when you are young can be very very important and wealth ensures this; Zingales uses a sports analogy-- if you allow professional teams to spend as much as possible, the riches teams will amass the best players and defeat everyone handily, which is great for one team but not particularly fun as a spectator or participant, so a salary cap-- which sounds non-competitive-- actually preserves competition . . . this is true for education and for lobbying, if money can buy success, then lots of money will be spent to ensure success and rules and social norms must be enacted to prevent this and encourage competition;

8) Zingales is certainly more conservative than me, and he's in favor of school voucher systems-- which I am not, for various reasons-- but I understand the logic of why he is in favor of the system, he brings up Finland, which has a much more rigorous method of selecting teachers-- in essence,  they have to be smarter than American teachers-- and this means you're going to have to pay teachers more to attract smarter people; I do agree with him on this account-- if we could just get rid of the worst teachers, the bottom ten percent, that would help things enormously; I think it's hard to measure the difference between fairly good and good teachers, because it depends on the metric . . . some teachers are better at improving test scores, others at making kids passionate about a subject, others at letting kids learn on their own . . . but there's no question that some teachers are just terrible and probably get too much protection from the union, and it's also true that the best teachers tend to be in richer schools, so vouchers can change this balance and create a "salary cap" situation that makes things more fair and competitive for more students;

9) if you can wrap your request for subsidies and protection in a noble cause, you'll really screw up the market . . . Zingales uses student loans and Pell grants as an example-- government-backed subsidies that have helped make the price of college double, as there is more demand, space constraints at elite colleges and a high cost and difficulty in starting new institutions;

10) the SEC and other regulators have had trouble enforcing inside trading, and Zingales sees the onus of responsibility for stamping out this on business schools and alumni networks: they need to publicly shame and disavow people who participate in these practices, instead of only celebrating whoever makes the most money . . . it's tough because those are the people that donate;

11) Zingales is in favor of fewer regulations and simpler regulations-- but not the Trumpian dismantling of all regulations without a counter-balance; the way to offset the removal of regulations is with Pigouvian taxes . . . so instead of having insanely complex environmental codes, which leads to employment for lobbyists and lawyers, and costs the taxpayers money in the form of the government agency and all the market distortions caused by the big-business lobbying . . . instead, tax pollutants, tax the amount of harm a factory does, and you are much more likely to capture revenue (or curb pollution) so this is a compelling example of a conservative thinker proposing a "good" tax . . . as opposed to a bad subsidy; subsidizing ethanol enriches ethanol producers, but a tax on gas could curb driving, could lessen greenhouse gases, could capture revenue, and could incentivize the electric car industry . . . without redistributing wealth and enriching the ethanol producers for doing nothing more vital than having a noble idea . . . I'm sure no conservative thinker has made it this far in the post, but this is a really important concept which Trump and his lackeys seem to be totally ignorant;

12) while it is in a voter's best interest to remain uneducated in most political forums-- it's not worth the time and effort-- Zingales does illustrate how shame, muck-raking, and a little bit of knowledge can go a long way in affecting policy and political outcomes . . . and deep into the book, he acknowledges that some people have an interest in public affairs, or they wouldn't have read his book, which tackles a complex subject in a detailed manner . . . anyway, these ideas are really important to understand; we need to harness the power of markets in America, often by separating big business and government; as anyone involved in sports knows, making things fair and competitive means more than simply removing all the rules . . . it takes thought, creativity, flexibility, and rigor; Zingales makes a fantastic case for a market-based ethic and hopes that breaches of this, in the form of cronyism and incestuous relationships between business and the government, will someday be stigmatized the way smoking is today . . . I hope he's right.

A Sentence Wherein Dave Preserves His Retinas



The sentence is canceled today: I used up my allotted screen time during exams.

LA Fitness: The Nexus of the Vector

My son Ian got braces this morning, and while they were being installed, I went to the gym . . . otherwise known as "the place where we all agree to get together and efficiently spread the flu."

The Test 105: Stacey's Songs #5



This week on The Test, another one of Stacey's inscrutable song quizzes: listen to the seven audio clips, identify the artists, contemplate the lyrics, and then endure the haphazard, illogical guesses that Cunningham and I make about the overarching theme . . . when you hear the answer, you'll kick yourself, as it makes perfect sense.

Dave Spends $5 Dollars on Future Human Capital

I recently showed my college writing class The Big Short-- we just finished a paper on Karen Ho's illuminating (but rather long and repetitive) essay on Wall Street culture in the aughts: "Biographies of Hegemony: The Culture of Smartness and the Recruitment and Construction of Investment Bankers" and I wanted to show them what happened to this insulated system that Karen Ho critiques-- and my son Alex saw the cover of the DVD and decided he wanted to watch it . . . I told him it was a great movie, but long and complicated, and he said, "My favorite movie is Inception, Dad, I think I can handle it" so  I sweetened the deal and told him if he endured a short lecture from me before the film started-- on mortgages and subprimes loans and stocks and bonds-- and then, at the end of the film, if he could explain the systemic failure and how the financial crash of 2008 actually happened, I would give him five dollars, and-- withour irony and in the spirit of the movie, he agreed to this; Ian also watched and endured several of my financial asides, but when it was all over (and they watched the entire thing last night) Ian declined to try to explain it for five dollars (though he claimed to understand the plot) and also declined to make a sidebet on whether Alex would be able to successfully explain the origins and nature of the crash, but Alex rose to the challenge and gave me a fairly accurate portrayal of the crisis, including mortgage backed securities, CDOs, credit default swaps, fraudulent ratings, how to short the market, premiums eating into your account, the big pay-out and the bail-out . . . the only thing he had trouble with (which the movies glosses over) is the idea that the banks were unloading toxic securities they had created onto investors before they accurately marked the price, then shorting those same investments in order to attempt to balance their books -- creating a crazy conflict of interest feedback loop . . . you can learn about it in this special episode of This American Life, "Inside Job," which details the arbitrage, fraud, and corrupt strategies and tactics that Magnetar used during the crash-- and Alex was suitably annoyed with the result, a taxpayer bailout that funded the very institutions that created the crash and paid big bonuses to many of the engineers of the bubble, a bailout that so enormous that it might be incalculable and probably resulted in the election, oddly, of Donald Trump . . . because, as Jared Vennett clairvoyantly explains at the end:

In the years that followed, hundreds of bankers and rating-agency executives went to jail . . . the SEC was completely overhauled, and Congress had no choice but to break up the big banks and regulate the mortgage and derivative industries . . . just kidding! . . . banks took the money the American people gave them, and used it to pay themselves huge bonuses, and lobby the Congress to kill big reform . . . and then they blamed immigrants and poor people, and this time even teachers . . .

the end of that little bait and switch speech surprised both my students and my children-- but it makes sense, as it too boring and complicated to completely understand the forces tearing apart our economy-- so it's much easier to blame the other, the barbarians at the gate and the freeloaders within; anyway, I'm proud of both my kids for making it all the way through-- Ian could have defaulted to The Walking Dead and Alex has decided he's going to read the book . . . maybe if enough youngsters understand what went wrong, they'll vote some people into office that will enact some policy to prevent this kind of thing . . . or maybe they'll blow all their savings on cryptocurrency and we'll all have another great movie to watch.



 

Two Hipster Recs

There are two kinds of people, those who listen to my hipster recommendations and those who don't . . . here are two for the weekend:

1) the comic book series Saga . . . here are ten reasons to read it . . . my kids love it (and so do I) but it's probably not appropriate for them;

2) the jazz trio The Bad Plus . . . if you don't like jazz with piano, give these guys a try and see if it that changes things.

 

Dave Beseeches the Millenials to Fix This Shithole Country

One of the strangest things about the political divisiveness of our times is that amidst the misinformation and the acceptance of idiocy, amidst the low standards of morality, veracity, accountability and the ignorance of facts and the denial of science-- amidst all this gross unfiltered miasma of shit, there is so much intelligent debate and discussion and so much astounding art and literature that grapple with these very same issues in a non-partisan, intelligent fashion . . . I'm not sure if I find hope and solace in this duality, or if it's a phenomenon like the Weimar Cabaret . . . art, satire, and intellectual freedom didn't stop Hitler-- but that was before the Internet . . . so if you need a refuge from Trump America and the 24 hour stupidity cycle and if  you want to actually think about some of the issues and the logic behind them-- which apparently plenty of people do-- here are three things:

1) The new Sam Harris episode (#114 Politics and Sanity) is excellent, mainly because Sam Harris doesn't talk much-- he mediates a debate and discussion between two logical, well-spoken, reasonable conservative thinkers (David Frum: senior editor at the Atlantic and speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Andrew Sullivan: who edited The New Republic and founded The Daily Dish) and they discuss topics as various as Trump, hyper-partisanship, Henry Kissinger, religion, and the legalization of marijuana . . . listening to the quality of this thought and discourse among folks with different political persuasions and the fact that Harris's podcast is quite popular will give you some hope for America (Conversations with Tyler is another hopeful indicator);

2) but not too much hope . . . I just finished Brian Alexander's new book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town and I'll be honest, I thought this was going to be an easy and clear read that would give me some insight into Middle America, like Sam Quinones' Dreamland and J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy . . . but while Alexander's book has elements of those texts, it does something that's less fun to read and probably way more important to understand-- it details the exact reasons that the town of Lancaster was decimated and went from one of the most desirable places to live in America (as long as you were white) to an underfunded town with a rampant drug problem, lack of jobs and human capital, and a sharp and vast divide between the haves and the have-nots . . . he delineates the entire Anchor-Hocking glass factory story in inglorious detail: the investment from private equity, the battles with the unions, the leverages, the buyouts, the lack of maintenance, the safety issues, the methods used to turn a piece of a conglomerate around and make a quick profit, the detached executives from companies like Cerberus and Global Home Products, the debt, the gutting of salaries and pensions, and the effect of global economics on an American factory; the change from factory that could make great ware for far less than it cost to sell it, things like Pyrex bakeware and auto headlight glass, and then share that profit with skilled workers in the form of salaries and pensions, into a entity in a weird conglomerate, bought by corporate raiders, put on the books in any number of ways . . . and all this for the American pursuit of cheap stuff, something of which we are all guilty-- Americans have been shopping harder and harder for the cheapest stuff-- and though apparently, if things are working well, we can make glass products in the United States and sell them here-- mainly because glass is heavy and breakable, so it's tougher to ship from overseas-- but not with the global race to the bottom fueling things, the nadir of prices, wages, and detachment; there's a short version of this story in The Atlantic, with the reminder at the end that it's not about making a product any more, it's about making money-- I'd probably recommend reading the article over the book, which was a bear-- but there is a poignant moment at the end of the book that's worth checking out:

"Corporate elites said they needed free trade agreements so they got them . . . manufactures said they needed tax breaks and public money incentives to keep their plants operating in the United States,  so they got them . . . banks and financiers said they needed looser regulations, so they got them . . . employers said they needed weaker unions-- or no unions at all-- so they got them . . . private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them . . . everybody, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them . . . what did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs . . ."

and so you had the lawyers and consultants plotting the sale and break-up of the Anchor-Hocking plant and getting paid one hundred times more an hour than the lowly $12 and $14 dollar an hour glass-workers, in a town where at one time everyone rubbed elbows, the factory workers, the company board, the doctors, the lawyers, and they weren't separated by a vast economic chasm . . .

3) which brings me to The Big Short-- you should read the book, of course, but Mark Baum's speech near the end of the film really sums this up; Baum is based on a real person (Steve Eisman) and played brilliantly by Steve Carell . . . he says:

"For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked . . . not once; eventually you get caught, things go south . . . when the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did"

and that is the final reminder: we did all this to ourselves, we created these systems, and it does not have to be like this . . . we are in control of how we run our government and our economy, we are in control of how we treat our workers and our citizens, and while it might be too late for my generation to fix things, perhaps if enough of the Millennials take advantage of all this clear, logical, and quite profound art, thought, and discourse that is readily available, they will change things.

Conjunction or Preposition?

The ladies were making a posterboard sign for the Elective Fair (because I was incapable) so that we could inform the students in attendance about the various English Electives available and we needed to include my friend Kevin's class but we weren't sure on the name: I insisted the class was called Sports in Literature but the ladies thought it might be Sports and Literature . . . but I convinced them that the middle word was "in" because Sports and Literature is a class where each day you read a bit and then play some kind of sport; perhaps Monday you tackle a passage from Brothers Karamazov and hit around a shuttlecock, Tuesday might be "The Wasteland" and flag football . . . and Sports in Literature is the class Kevin teaches, a class about books like Friday Night Lights and Moneyball, literary works that contain sports (and though I convinced them with my vivid and logical argument, I was totally wrong-- the name of the course is Sports and Literature . . . absurd).



Sergeant Powell Gets Back in the Saddle Again



We watched Die Hard the other night with the kids, and while the movie totally holds up-- it's perfectly plotted and everything detail is important: the foot exercises, the tipped photo, the Rolex watch-- there's a celebratory moment at the end that indicates just how much times have changed; Hans Gruber's henchman Karl (who seemed to expire when John Mclane wrapped a chain around his neck and threw him over a railing) emerges from the building with an automatic rifle, and just as he is setting his sights on McLane, Sergeant Powell-- the African-American cop who trusted and believed McClane-- pulls out his gun and shoots Karl before he can fire a round . . . and we're supposed to be especially ecstatic that Powell kills Karl not just because he saves McClane, but also because Powell has been hiding behind a desk for years, as he lost his mojo when he accidentally shot a thirteen year old kid who was carrying a toy ray-gun . . . and this quick draw and execution of Karl indicates that he's back on the horse, once again confident with the gun and ready for unbridled street action.

This Makes More Sense Than the Whole Dipping A Baby in the River Styx Theory

Last week, I was discussing heel pain with my friend Greek friend Argiris-- we were both lamenting the fact that we couldn't play Friday morning basketball due to foot pain-- and he came up with an interesting theory: perhaps Achilles legendary heel wasn't metaphysical at all, perhaps he simply had plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis, this would explain why he did all that melancholic brooding in his tent during the siege of Troy . . . I can certainly attest to the fact that heel pain leads to brooding, as I played indoor soccer yesterday and aggravated my plantar fasciitis and I've been depressed and brooding since then, as you can't do anything with any kind of alacrity or good spirits when every step you take hurts; as a bonus, both of these ailments are due to tightness in the calf and Achilles tendon . . . so maybe the legend about the bum heel that laid a great hero low was a simple (and very common, especially if you're wearing footwear without support . . . sandals!)  physical ailment which gained mythical status after many years had passed.

The Test 104: Vitamin D+


This week on The Test you'll get your daily dose of Vitamin Cunningham . . . and though she's a little short on information, she makes up for it with attitude; bonuses: a much-needed cameo from God, Stacey cleans up dog vomit, and Dave uses the plural of the word "piranha."

People: Obstacles to Obesity

The new episode of Plant Money delves into the Beige Book-- the Federal Reserve's treasure trove of economic anecdotes that offer a more human report on current economic conditions-- and one snippet of information from Cleveland is that when people ordered fast food at an electronic kiosk, rather than from a human cashier, they ordered (on average) more food . . . so perhaps when people are ordering on a screen, they are less embarrassed to supersize their meal, or order three bags of fries, or add bacon, because they don't have to confess their gluttony to an actual person . . . nearly twenty years ago-- long before automated kiosks-- my friend Whitney solved this problem; after a late night at the Corner Tavern, we were waiting in line at Giovanelli's and Whitney-- a native of Virginia-- couldn't decide which Jersey specialty in which to indulge, the cheesesteak-with-egg or the fatcat, and so when he got to the front of the line, he said, "We'll have the cheesesteak and egg and the fatcat," a brilliant maneuver to disguise his decadent order . . . unfortunately, the next person in line was our friend Rob, who caught his use of the "royal we" as a tactic to order two sandwiches without the shame and publicly called him out on it: "We? Who the fuck is we? You! You are having two sandwiches . . . there's no we."

Duh Dad . . .

I was unloading the dishwasher and listening to Conversations with Tyler, a podcast where brilliant libertarian/conservative economist Tyler Cowen asks very smart guests profoundly long, allusion laden questions and then actually gives these very smart guests time to answer, without interrupting or interjecting very much at all-- if your upset about Trump and the Republicans and all that, it's a good reminder that not all conservatives are insane . . . and my son Alex came into the kitchen while I was listening and he asked me what I was listening to and I gave him the previous explanation, pretty much word for word and this was his reply:

"That sounds interesting,"

and I said, "It is interesting,"

and he said, "I was being sarcastic, dad,"

and so I told him I recognized that he was being sarcastic (and then I won't transcribe the rest of what I said to him, in case DYFS reads this blog).

I'd Rather an Oscar

This afternoon my acupuncturist happily awarded me the "point" of the week, which means when she stuck a needle into the anterior ligament on the inside of my left foot, I jumped, my foot jumped and she jumped . . . because my foot reacted so strongly to the stimulus . . . I accepted this honor as graciously as I could (not very . ..  it hurt, but my foot feels a lot better now).

A Miracle of Biblical (and Logical) Proportions

I gave it the ol' college try (actually more like the ol' middle school try) but Pulitzer prize winner Frances Fitgerald's book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is just too comprehensive and detailed for a dilettante like me-- she really gets into the weeds about the fundamentalist-modern conflict in religion . . . I made it about 100 pages in and I certainly learned a lot; the main lesson, which always astounds me, is that people seem to wholeheartedly and sincerely believe in God and the Bible and Jesus, not in an abstract "this is a good way to live and prosper" kind of way, but as a serious discipline, to be debated and and delineated, point-by-point, in a logical matter, which strikes me as absolutely insane . . . the best example of this in the book (from the pages I read) is a piece of impenetrably brilliant specious logic conceived by the Princeton scholars in the late 1800s: they determined that "the doctrine of inerrancy" in the Bible refers only to the original autograph-- the "manuscripts that came from the hands of the prophets were infallible" but since those original documents don't exist, there may be errors in translation . . . so while this hypothetical primary source Bible is the Word of God, since it has been translated, there are certainly errors . . . this is a genius strategic move because then you get to have your Eucharist and eat it too, as you can claim the Bible might be fundamental and infallible but if someone does point out a contradiction or logical conundrum, then you can blame the human translators for that particular bit.

Robinsons Crusoe: The Ocean is Half Full

I was inspired to read Daniel Defoe's early novel Robinson Crusoe by the stubbornly lovable steward from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins . . . and while I recognize that it is odd to get literary recommendations from a fictitious narrator, I'm glad I read the book; Crusoe is the eternal optimist, he's happy with his original station in life-- the middle state, or what "might be called the upper station of low life"-- but he's not so content that he stays at home, instead he disobeys his father and goes adventuring at sea; he makes the best of things when he is captured into slavery; he does even better for himself on his deserted island, which he tames with his patient capability in all the skills of survival, agriculture, husbandry, and good living and where he realizes that "the fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself" and ends up befriending the ex-cannibal Friday and that's where I thought the story would end, but then there are a surprising number of action-packed adventures after Crusoe is rescued from the island, in Brazil and Northern Spain, involving guns, powder, explosions, cannibals, bears and wolves and when Crusoe finally returns to England most everyone he knew is dead, he is rewarded financially by various investments and could possibly live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility, but instead-- in a move reminiscent of when Huck Finn decides he's going to light out for the territories-- Crusoe blithely mentions the death of his wife as the reason he goes back to sea with his nephew and revisits his island in order to see the progress the natives have made since he was gone.


This Sentence Indicates That I Am Old

On the way to the nursing home (to visit my 95-year-old grandmother) my son Ian explained the complexity of the new dice system in the Star Wars RPG game they were playing later in the day-- the dice are 8 and 12 sided and have odd symbols on them; during the course of the discussion, I asked him if he knew the percentage of a side coming up on an eight-sided die and a twelve-sided die, respectively, and while he knew how to figure this out and eventually arrived at the correct answers, his mental math was fairly slow and shoddy, and then later in the day (after I took a nap) I went to the hipster coffee joint up the street and pulled out my gift certificate, an envelope sized piece of cardboard with a ledger on the back, and I bought a medium coffee for $2.94 . . . there was $11.26 left on the certificate and the barista-- a college dude-- was struggling to do the math so I quickly did it for him and said, "$8.32" and he said, "Ok . . . but let me make sure" and he took out a calculator and checked my work, pronounced it correct and then laughed and said, "the crazy thing is . . . I'm a math major" and so I told him I was giving my own kid a hard time about mental math earlier in the day and then he told me that while he couldn't subtract in his head, he could do proofs and could program a computer to do math, which I admitted was pretty impressive . . . certainly more impressive than subtracting three dollars from $11.26 and then adding the six cents back, which is what I did . . . and knowing how to do that is like knowing how to program a VCR or recall a friend's phone number and dial it on a pay phone or play Dragon's Lair, a skill that has lost its value and only indicates that you are from a previous generation.

Sisyphus Blues Contains No Profanity


Just finished a new song, Sisyphus Blues . . . it's smooth and easy listening the whole family can enjoy.


The Test 103: New Year, Same Cunningham


The Test is back on the air . . . Stacey finally moved house and we have a recording space once again; this episode in a nutshell: I baffle the ladies with a 2017 wrap-up quiz, Stacey confesses why she can't join the gym, and Cunningham tells everyone exactly where they can put their New Year's Resolutions.

Breaking (Peanut Butter) News!


After my friend and podcasting partner Stacey read my candid peanut butter based confession, she went and checked her cupboard and she found five open containers of peanut butter-- check out the photo-- and although only one jar was completely empty (in comparison to the three jars I had emptied) she attributes that to the fact that she does the grocery shopping and when she thinks some of the jars are getting low, then she simply buys a fresh one . . . she cites the same reason as me for this irresponsible and wasteful behavior: she doesn't like to scrape out the jar because you inevitably get peanut butter on your hands . . . it's so much more fun to take a scoop from the smooth buttery surface of a freshly opened jar; after some discussion, we decided we're not horrible people (though our respective spouses might think otherwise) and there either needs to be a tool that can efficiently scrape a peanut-butter jar or-- and this would be even better-- peanut butter should be sold in squat truncated-cone shaped containers, which would be much easier to scrape with standard cutlery (perhaps this is a big peanut butter conspiracy, and the containers are shaped this way so people buy far more jars than they need . . . because so much peanut butter is in an "overhang" state in nearly empty jars, cached in cupboards across the nation).

One Is Obnoxious But Three Makes It Funny

My wife called me into the kitchen and presented me with exhibits A, B, and C . . .

three jars of peanut butter, in a line, on the counter;

she said, "I wanted to have an apple with peanut butter and this is what I found"

I replied "Hmm" because I wasn't sure what was going on and I didn't want to commit to a position;

she said, "open them"

and so I opened the first one--

it was empty;

I opened the second jar,

and it was empty as well;

so was the third . . .

I had put three empty jars of peanut butter back in the cabinet:

I don't like scraping peanut butter out of the jar-- you always end up getting peanut butter on your hands-- and so I'll often open a new jar . . . it's fun and easy to take those first scoops;

obviously, I did this a few times . . .

but I was saved by the fact that three empty jars goes so far beyond the pale of bad etiquette that it's hysterically funny (or at least I thought so).

Which Child is Smarter?

My entrepreneurial (and acquisitive) twelve year old son Ian and his buddy Ben went out after the storm last week to earn some cash shoveling snow, but my thirteen year old son Alex stayed home; when I asked him why he didn't go with Ian and Ben, he said, "I don't need any money, you guys pay for everything . . . I'm going upstairs to read a comic book."

The 200 Million Dollar Name?

Glenn Straub claims he sold his hip ultra-modern Atlantic City casino "Revel" to Bruce Deifik because of excessive regulatory requirements and New Jersey's anti-business climate . . . and Deifik was obviously so exhausted by these rules and regulations that he had nothing left in the tank when it came time to rename the joint, so he went with the most exceedingly literal, excruciatingly generic, and extremely mundane moniker you could imagine: Ocean Resort Casino.

Dave Does NOT Bring the Hammer Down

This year, I'm teaching my students very differently than I have in years previous and this is mainly because our college writing class is now based on the notorious Rutgers Expos model; students read five long, dense and difficult non-fiction texts and write synthesis essays connecting these texts; the goal for the student is independent logical thought supported by textual evidence and the goal for the teacher is to provide activities and a framework for the students to investigate the texts; write, think, and peer-edit; and collaboratively comprehend a set of difficult ideas . . . and most importantly, the goal for the teacher is not to perform the traditional, top-down, goal oriented, template-style teaching that makes for good clean lessons, neat closure, and competent performance on tests and papers . . . instead, I've learned to pull back and let kids make a mess of things, as they actually learn to think on their own, without my meddling guidance, my schema activation, and a "big reveal" at the end of class . . . I just finished a book which exemplifies this educational spirit, and it's an easy read that might affect you profoundly; it's called The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik, and, as you might guess, the gardening and carpentry metaphor applies to different methods of teaching; the carpentry model is where you build the kid to an exacting specification-- and there is a great deal of pressure to parent in this manner in the United States . . . to make sure your kid "turns out right," but Gopnik deconstructs the actual task "to parent" and provides plenty of psychological support to her thesis: kids learn better when they are given freedom to flourish in an environment where they can explore, grow, and play . . . and while the results may be more the way a garden grows, slow, messy, and unpredictable . . . which is exactly the way human children grow up-- while we've all heard why babies are born so helpless (it's hard to get such a big head through such a small opening, so infants have mushy skulls) we also have an extended period of middle childhood and adolescence . . . time to explore and grow (unless you're under duress from standardized tests . . . one of the scariest tidbits in the book is the natural experiment with high stakes testing and ADHD . . . districts that put high stakes testing in effect earlier had more ADHD diagnoses and more students on attention-deficit disorder drugs than districts that did not put the policies into place) and teachers and parents are responsible for creating garden-like environments where kids can think on their own; there's an especially powerful experiment with a toy (described here and in this podcast) that drives the point home; the end of the book is solution-based, Gopnik first points out that we're doing all of our children a grave injustice: the children of the middle-class are over-organized, over-trained, over-tested, and feel the pull of top-down dictates . . . so their learning is often carpentry-style and static, and the poor-- because of lack of money, infrastructure, and public space-- deal more with chaos and a lack of a good place to flourish . . . and she points out that we're never going back to the anomaly of the classic 50's "nuclear family" where the father worked and the mother minded the kids; this "traditional" model of the family was actually a rare consequence of the beginning of industrialization; through most of history, both men and women worked, whether on farms or in workshops or hunting and gathering or in careers, as we do now and because you now have to make the choice of keeping a parent at home and taking major pay-cut or having both parents work and then paying people to take care of yoru kids, child-care is a very low-paid profession-- though it requires incredible skill, love, and decision-making . . . carpentry-style "preschool" and rigorous top-down training seems more productive and outcome based, but it's actually an awful way to take care of kids, and to teach kids; so I'm trying my best with my own kids and with my students to let them explore, play, and often fail . . . and I'm trying to set-up rewarding activities and experiences where they have the locus of control and I'm not suggesting how to solve the problem . . . because we're not going to be around forever and if I've learned one thing in my life it's this: when I was a kid, if an adult told me to do something, then I was going to do the opposite (or worse).

O Brave New World That Has Such (Savage) People In It

While I may have recently learned how to mop, that doesn't bely the fact that I have come a long way in terms of savagery, hygiene and cleanliness; four incidents come to mind, all from when I was twenty-one and living in the Outer Banks, in a shack across the street from the beach with a bunch of dudes . . .

1) my friend Rob put down a half-eaten roast beef sandwich on our filthy, garbage-strewn living room table and got up to go do something and I took a look at the sandwich and thought: This is going to be trouble down the line . . . but I didn't actually do anything about the sandwich, which was soon obscured by a section of the newspaper and two weeks later, when someone picked up that section of the newspaper, looking for the crossword, we saw the remains of the sandwich-- it was now a moldy bun and the roast beef was gone, replaced by a mass of writhing white maggots;

2) the bathroom floor was so filthy that we decided it was a lost cause, but instead of even attempting to clean it, we threw down a pair of wooden pallets so that we didn't have to walk on the filth;

3) Hightower suggested that after you use a dish, you should then wash it, but my friend John made a rebuttal, which became house policy: if you're so high class that you need cutlery and flatware, fish it out of the sink and clean it . . . once we dirtied all the dishes, we never washed them and made do with our hands;

4) a friend stayed for a few days with his mangy cat and a week later, while I was waiting tables, I noticed that my scalp was really itchy . . . it turned out that I had fleas (there's a shampoo that gets rid of them).

Today's Sentence Is Cancelled Due to Inclement Weather . . . or is it?

An ideal snow day for a misanthropic grouch like me: the conditions on the sled hill next to our house are perfect, my kids and their friends are there, and the weather and roads are bad enough that all those yahoos from Edison can't drive over here, crowd up the slope, park all over the neighborhood, and ignore the stop signs.

Forces (and Dog Vomit) Conspire Against Me

In philosophy class, we're discussing free will and determinism . . . I like to do this unit right after the New Year so we can discuss the futility of making a New Year's Resolution in a deterministic universe (I recently saw a meme that said "My New Year's Resolution last year was to lose ten pounds . . . only fifteen to go!") but while many profound thinkers believe we are not in control of our fate, they also believe that it's mentally healthy to believe we are in control of our fate, and so-- as usual-- I resolved to start the year eating healthy, drinking less, and-- most importantly-- avoiding sugar and sweets . . . which had been difficult because my son Alex won a five pound bag of Haribo gummy bears in a steal-a-gift and Haribo brand gummy products are hard to ignore but I was giving it the college try, walking past that brightly colored bag on the counter and not reaching in and grabbing any gummy bears, until last night, when the universe conspired against me, abrogating any free will that I might have thought I possessed; it went down like this: first, I let the dog out into the yard and then I busied myself doing the dishes and forgot that I had let him out (he usually goes out for a minute or two, especially when it's cold and then quickly shows up at the glass sliding door and barks until we let him in) and fifteen minutes later I realized that I had never let him back in the house, but just as I realized this he appeared at the sliding door and barked, so I let him in and thought nothing of it, then I went upstairs to put away some laundry and I heard my son Alex downstairs expressing extreme disgust and my wife was in the shower, so I ran down the stairs to see what Alex was yelling about and there was a large pile of chunky dog vomit on the throw carpet and the floor and half on the floor, the contents of the chunky pile were undigested and probably fecal in origin (although there may have been some rotting squirrel carcass in there as well) and I nearly puked while I was sopping it up with a multitude of paper towels . . . I took Sirius outside with the first batch of befouled paper towels, in case he had to vomit again, and I noticed that the back gate was open-- Sirius is a good dog and he never runs away, but he will go on an adventure if the back gate is open and we're quite close to the park and so I figured that's where he went and that's why he was gone for so long, and he obviously found some disgusting pile of feces and animal flesh and chowed it down and then came home and upchucked it all over the carpet . . . once I was done cleaning up I took him for a short walk but I couldn't get the awful smell out of my nose from the chunky undigested vomit, and the only recourse-- despite my best intentions . . . and I'm sure you'll agree that there was no amount of free will that could have circumvented these circumstances-- the sole solution was to feast on the only thing in the house that would definitely remove the stench from my throat and nose: a big colorful chewy handful of Haribo gummy bears.

2018: Year of YOG

My resolution for 2018 is to consistently involve myself in things that begin with the phoneme "yog" . . . I need to incorporate more yoga into my workouts because I'm not very flexible, I need to continue eating Greek yogurt in the morning because it has lots of protein and it's good for my microbiome, and I need to refer to my idol as often as I can, the king of the nonsensical sentence: Yogi Berra.

The Best Sentence of 2017 (That Was Never Written)



Here is my favorite moment of 2017 that I should have written a sentence about: we were doing some peer-editing in my college writing class and a sweet and lovely female student asked me my position on placing a comma after the penultimate item in a list-- she wanted to know if I was for placing this comma or against placing this comma, which is commonly known as the "serial comma" or the "Oxford comma," because it was traditionally used by editors and printers at Oxford University Press (but it was usually omitted by most newspapers, to save space and ink) and this lovely student asked me about this comma with all sincerity, as I am her teacher (and her writing teacher at that) but the projector was on and I couldn't ignore the perfect comedic set-up she had given me, so I told her I would play a short eductional video to explain what I thought on the matter (I love the "educational video" set up) and I cued up Vampire Weekend's song on this subject and let it play for 27 seconds and then we all laughed, as the matter was firmly resolved.




A New Sentence Every Day, Hand Crafted from the Finest Corinthian Leather.