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Archive for September, 2012

How Paying Students for Good Grades is the Best Worst Idea Ever

So I just read a really interesting article about how kids are actually willing to get better grades if they are paid for them.  A study by Harvard University showed that when schools paid kids for good grades, test scores noticeably improved.

The idea is that kids are not great at long-term goals (which proves I am perpetually nine years old) and thus are not academically motivated by the thought of a decent job and a maybe a fishing boat twenty years from now.  Promise them twenty bucks of cold, hard cash if they bring their C to an A, however, and suddenly they’ve caught algebra fever.


Which can turn into the Calculus Shakes if you don’t catch it early.

All right, sounds pretty good.  So rather than paying welfare to a bunch of schlubs on the back end, we invest at the beginning to help craft a productive utopia of happy capitalists.

And yet there’s something about this premise that needles at me.  I played it out as a sort of mental experiment and this is what I got.  Tell me where I’m wrong:

Year one:

Schools across the country implement a pay-for-grades program, rewarding those who achieve a B average with cold hard moolah.  Amazingly, it works.  Test scores rise by, oh, let’s say a modest twenty percent.  Not ground-breaking, but statistically significant.

Year two:

More kids make it into college because of their improved test scores, thanks in no small part to the grade-money they earned and subsequently spent on top forty ring tones and Family Guy episodes on iTunes.

ImageIf only they taught a class in Stewie-economics, I could kill two birds with one stone.

Year three:

MSNBC does a primetime special on the kids at an inner city school whose grades aren’t high enough to earn any academic dough.  Cameras follow them around, showing how hard it is for them to study in their broken homes and interviewing them about how much they really, really need that extra cash.  Subsequent shots show their more fortunate classmates studying in comfortably affluent homes, probably eating caviar off of Townhouse crackers (because Ritz are for people who shop at Walmart).

ImageNabisco named them “Ritz”. They’re just mocking us now, aren’t they?

Year four:

A growing movement of students’ rights activists complain that it isn’t fair that grade money only goes to the achievers.  They insist that the system gives an unfair boost to the fortunate while punishing those who are already disadvantaged by their environment.  Eventually these activists win the public debate.  The system is altered so that money is now granted merely for attending class, regardless of resulting grades.

Year five:

A teacher’s strike occurs, closing schools for three weeks while unions battle states about collective bargaining rights and free tater tots in teachers’ lounges.  Several news stories cover the plight of students who, because of school closings, have temporarily lost the attendance money they have come to rely on.  An outcry leads to the institution of attendance payments regardless of whether or not class is actually in session.

ImageTruly, they are our unsung heroes.

Year six:

Democrat politicians loudly lament the stinginess of Republicans who refuse to pay students their much-needed attendance money just because school is out for summer break.  A bill is passed requiring states to pay interim attendance payments to students year round.

Year seven:

Attendance payments are increased due to economic inflation.  Students’ rights activists picket school offices claiming loudly that the increase is not sufficient.  For the first time in seven years, test scores drop by a small percentage.

Year eight:

The advent of intentional failure becomes a known phenomenon.  Students in economically depressed areas are willingly failing classes in order to be held back, thus increasing their time in school and their overall attendance income.  Fox news runs a story on this and is roundly condemned as racist, even though four of the six kids shown in the story are white.

ImageStephen Colbert is officially named Ambassador of Redundancy

Year nine:

The original program’s title is changed from “the Monetary Grade Incentivization Initiative” to the “Children Are Our Future Won’t Somebody Think of the Children” act.  Despite being egregiously over budget, pay-outs to students are increased by twenty-five percent, including payments to parents as part of the “Homework Assistance Credit”.  Somehow, there are six hundred times more students receiving benefits than there were in year one.


“This isn’t even a classroom! It’s the teacher’s lounge! Go home already!”

Year ten:

Test grades are now officially lower than they were before the program began.  Congress passes a law legally allowing anyone under thirty to call themselves a student and receive benefits as such.  The “Students of Life” PAC insists that senior citizens are doubly owed academic remuneration, both as lifetime learners and as one-time students who did not receive a single red cent for their good grades and/or attendance.

Those who oppose the program as a bloated entitlement and a budgetary apocalypse are branded child-haters and anti-education.  Academic remuneration officially replaces social security as the dreaded “third rail” of politics, ensuring nothing is ever done to rein in, alter, or fix the program in any way.

And that is how, in a mere ten years, a relatively cheap program for encouraging good study habits would devolve into a bloated entitlement program, devastate academic achievement, and send all of western civilization into a doom spiral of Greece-style economic collapse.

ImageLet’s not even talk about the zombie economists.

Am I wrong?  Seriously, has there so far been any attempt to externally manipulate society for the betterment of all that did not end in crushing bureaucracy, flaming class warfare, and a hurricane of unintended consequences?  Central planning is simply one of those idyllic fantasies that can never, ever work in a society full of humans, humans being so easily corrupted by even the most benign power and misplaced good intentions.

And that’s a shame.  Because I really could have used that Homework Assistance credit.


6 Things Pro-Choice People Should Probably Stop Saying

I’ve avoided discussing the A-word ever since I started this blog.  Not because I don’t care about it or because it is a bombastic topic, but because the arguments on both sides often seem so very– please forgive me for saying this– weak.  With a few exceptions, people who are strongly pro-choice or pro-life do not have opinions about it: they have emotions.  They do not offer reasons, they blare slogans.

The thing is, abortion is a very serious issue that deserves very serious debate.  That’s why those that care the most about it need to stop saying so many really inane things.

Now granted, I admittedly fall on the “maybe we should not kill things we don’t know for sure aren’t baby humans, eh?” side of the issue, thus I tend to pay the most attention to the rather weak arguments offered by pro-choice people.  I am interested in hearing a thoughtful and reasonable response from the other side.  But in the interests of pushing forward the debate in general, allow me to submit the following Six Things Pro-Choice People Should Porbably Stop Saying:

6) Get Your Laws Off My Body!

I should quickly point out that I am not trying to win an argument here.  I am trying to appeal to my pro-choice friends, offering an explanation about why some of the most pervasive pro-choice arguments fall so horribly flat.  If you are interested in actually changing minds, I suspect this will be very helpful to you in tailoring a new argument.

If, on the other hand, you think people who oppose abortion are evil, mean, anti-woman demon-spawn, this article will do you no good.  I hear Doonesbury is really good today!  Why don’t you go check it out?  Er, they still print Doonesbury, right?

Still here?  Woot.

You’ll notice, throughout the following, that I won’t be referring to any Bible verses (surely that would go on a list of things Pro-Life people should stop doing, since Bible verses only carry weight if one believes the Bible to begin with, or agrees with a particular interpretation).  In fact, I won’t be offering any specifically theological or moral arguments, but will instead appeal to basic critical thinking and logic, since these are languages that we can all more-or-less agree on.

I call it the Reverse Babel Effect.  Get it?  Damn, I used a Bible reference!!

A great starting point for logical problems is the “Get your laws off my body” pro-choice argument.  Basically, the claim is that since pregnancy occurs within a woman’s body, no law can be considered to have jurisdiction over it.

The problem here is that pregnancy, unlike any other thing that may happen with or inside a woman’s body, uniquely involves another human’s body.

As a pro-choice person, you may not agree that the thing bulging in a woman’s belly is a person, but it behooves you to accept that pro-life people very much do.  Try this thought experiment: imagine that someone claims it’s A-OK to kill a certain group of people because– relax!— they’re on the killer’s property, and that property is his to do with as he pleases.  How would you feel?  Horrified?  Incensed?  Militantly indignant?

“Keep your laws offa my trigger finger.”

When a pro-choice person insist that abortion is fine because it occurs in a woman’s body and is therefore her domain, you look just like the person in the above thought experiment.  You may be convinced that the pro-life person is wrong, but arguing from this perspective only makes you look like the most horrifyingly callous person imaginable.  If your interest is to actually engage in the debate and change minds, this will not be a helpful tactic.

5) If You Don’t Believe in Abortion, Don’t Have One.

Again, appealing to simple logic, apply this argument to any other moral debate:

“If you don’t believe in capital punishment, don’t let your jury vote for one!”

“If you don’t like cigarettes, don’t smoke one!”

“If you hate genocide, don’t wage one!”

“If you think murder is wrong, don’t commit one!”

That last example may seem purely bombastic, but remember, pro-life people believe that abortion is murder.  Understanding that, even if you disagree, will go a long way toward explaining why slogans like this seem so inane and even vicious.

Because in reality there are endless moral convictions that require more from us than simple inaction.  For example, no one calls it a virtue to simply resist the urge to, say, enslave children.  We consider it a duty, in the name of basic human rights, to overcome child slavery wherever and however we encounter it.  If you encountered such a thing, you could not feel content simply knowing that you, personally, did not enslave children.  You would feel compelled to prevent it wherever it occurred.

That is why, despite the popular pro-choice slogan, pro-life advocates cannot be content simply not to have abortions.  Their conviction– that abortion is murder– compels them to do more.  You may disagree with the basis of their conviction, but you simply cannot blame them for acting on that conviction.  How could you respect anyone who did not act if they believed innocent lives were at stake?

“For you, I’ll abandon my deepest convictions.  If, you know, it’ll make you respect me.”

4) You’re Not Pro-Life!  You’re Just Pro-Birth.

There is a quote that’s been going around for awhile now, attributed to Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun.  It goes as follows:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

This is surely a popular quote among pro-choice advocates because it comes from a Catholic source (Catholics historically being the most vocally opposed to abortion).  This quote only makes sense, however, if you view abortion as a merely politically controversial issue that conservative people make a big stink about.  How dare you (it seems to say) object to abortion when you are so woefully Republican about the really important social issues?

The face of modern feminism

Again, realize that to most people who oppose abortion, the crux of their conviction is based in the belief that abortion is the killing of a human being.  Looked at from that viewpoint, Sister Chittister’s quote sounds more like this:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to stabbing people to death in alleys, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a person not stabbed to death but not a person fed, not a person educated, not a person housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-people-not-being-stabbed-to-death. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

In short, I suspect most of us would agree that murder is not the moral equivalent of being a cartoon Republican.

Saying that one cannot oppose abortion if they oppose unlimited welfare is similar to saying that one cannot oppose child slavery if they are unwilling to adopt ten thousand freed child slaves.  Better the children should just be killed than be freed to a world where their liberator doesn’t care for them in every way, right?

Does that seriously make sense?  If it doesn’t make sense in another morally demanding situation, then it doesn’t make sense when applied to abortion.

3) If the Fetus Can’t Survive on it’s Own, it isn’t a Baby.

Babies can’t survive on their own for quite a while after they’re born, either.  Sure, they can breath and sleep and technically not immediately and totally die outright once they pop out of their mother’s wombs, but no baby is going to survive long without someone to feed it, clothe it, and generally keep it alive until it gets old enough to start sneaking Pop-Tarts out of the cupboard when Mom isn’t looking.

“Screw this.  I’m hitch-hiking to Vegas.”

“But,” you might be saying, “we’re talking about embryos that rely completely on the mother’s womb to keep them alive.  They are functionally a part of the mother’s body, and therefore not a separate human life.”

To which the pro-lifer would say: “I don’t think you understand what the word ‘pregnancy’ means.”

Mammals bear live young.  By necessity, therefore, for at least some of their development, the babies live inside the bodies of their mothers.  The question everyone– both for and against abortion– must ask is: when does the child stop being part of the mother’s body and entirely its own, unique self?

We’ll come back to this shortly because it’s super important.

2) Abortion Isn’t Your Business Because You’re a MAN.

This one is so patently ridiculous, from a logical perspective, that it disappoints me even to have to address it.  Do people really think this is a valid argument?  Amazingly, incredibly, some seem to.  So okay.  Just to get it out of the way:

“Wife-beating isn’t your business because you aren’t a husband!”

“Spanking children isn’t your business because you aren’t a parent!”

“Genocide in Rwanda isn’t your business because you aren’t from Rwanda!”

Is it necessary to debunk this any further?  If an issue is one of human rights– and like it or not, to pro-life people, abortion certainly is– then one does not need to have a racial, gender, familial or cultural connections to the issue to justify having valid opinions about it.  This “argument” is intellectually lazy and woefully classless.

Because men have penises.  And no uteruses.  And are stinky-butts loser-heads.

1) No One Knows When Life Really Begins.

I told you we’d get back to this one.

President Barack Obama, back when he was just Senator Obama and running for the Presidency, was famously asked when life begins– at conception or sometime after.  His answer was politically perfect: “that’s above my pay grade”.

Pro-choice advocates are famously cagy about when human life begins.  This ambiguousness– the uncertainty of when a mass of tissue in a woman’s uterus becomes a live human being– is central to their philosophy.  Whenever it happens, it is undeniable (they proclaim) that there is a point at which the embryo is not a human being at all, but is still simply a part of the woman’s body and therefore hers to do with as she wishes.

But… when?

The president himself, famously pro-choice, called such a question above his pay-grade.  He doesn’t know the answer.  Doctors debate the topic, with wildly disparate answers.  The spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Sean Tipton, is careful to be vague about answering when “personhood” occurs:  “A fertilized egg has to continue to grow, attach itself to a woman’s uterine wall and gestate for nine months before it is born, and there are many potential missteps along the way.”

In other words, according to the doctors at the ASRM, personhood happens somewhere between conception and birth.

Dr. House says you still aren’t a person and he’ll abort you if he damn well feels like it.

So again: when?

Regardless of which side of this issue you fall on, this is obviously a hugely, monumentally important question, isn’t it?  Because, by definition, this question dictates the difference between a simple removal of tissue mass and the ending of a human life.  Seems like a pretty big question– the biggest question of all, in fact.

And yet, no one is really sure of the answer?

For my reasonable, thoughtful pro-choice friends, let me offer another thought experiment.  Say you take your young children to an archery range (and say, for the sake of the experiment, that you are way into archery).  It’s a small range, it’s dark, and only the targets are lit.  You are not an excellent shot.

Now, just as you are drawing back the string and notching your arrow, imagine that your children have gone missing.

You know they are nearby.  They’ve probably wandered off into the shadows, doing whatever toddlers do.  But where are they?  Are they behind you?  Or did they wander into the line of fire?  You can’t really be sure.

Maybe you’ll let fly with your arrow and it will accidentally strike one of your own children.

But maybe not.  Probably not, in fact.

But then again…

Do you loose the arrow?  Is it good enough not to know for sure if your child is wandering in the line of fire?  Do you feel all right shooting deadly weapons if there is any chance at all, no matter how slim, that it might hit your child?

Sincerely, I do not begin to understand how, considering what is at stake, any of us ever take the risk that an aborted fetus might actually have been a living human being.  Truly, in the face of the uncertainty about when personhood truly begins, how does one justify not erring on the side of caution?

Perhaps there is a very good answer to this.  I am very willing– eager, even– to hear it.

But for all my reasonable, thoughtful pro-choice friends, it would very much behoove you to realize that, under the best of circumstances, what you look like to people like us… is someone willing to allow arrows to be fired into a dark range that might contain a living child.

But regardless of what we think: how do you know you aren’t?