Archive for October, 2013

Education 101

Understanding education involves knowing something about human development and something about our social and economic system. We have been pushed from one best idea to another over the years all promising to provide the best, equal education to all youngsters.  But, all have fallen short because each has dealt with a limited part of the people and world we live in.

In the first place human beings are different, a statement everyone would agree with.  But, we are also alike. Physically we all have the same ten fingers and toes, a brain, and so forth. However, Albert Einstein, Mohammed Ali, Frank Sinatra and Mother Theresa are all very different.  While these are extreme examples, we all do have different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Throughout the centuries abilities have changed as the world has become more technologically complex. In the late 1800’s a farmer followed a horse and plow all day to get his ground ready for planting. He determined what the weather would be by the way some of his body parts felt. Today, a farmer can ride a tractor that pulls enormous equipment, listen to his radio for a reasonably accurate weather forecast and talk on the cell phone to get commodities futures.  In the early and mid twentieth century manufacturing required physical skill in doing a limited job. Today, robots do much of that work with limited human control, and we are in the beginnings of 3D and 4D manufacturing-building by layering.  (So far I can’t go much beyond that.)  The nature of work continues to change without common understanding of what skills are useful.

This brings us directly to the economy which has been based on manufacturing goods that enter the selling and buying part of the economy. As noted above, not only can we produce more with less human labor, but we also produce more than we can consume, despite the ever increasing blizzard of advertisements. Are we now in a period of changing to different ways of determining meaning and importance to human life that will lead to a change in the direction of our economy?

Finally, we come to the social aspect of what we are talking about: national development. How can we bring a sense of unity to such a diverse population living in an environment of major change. Adults used to entertain neighbors, fellow members of social organizations and friends from employment in their homes. This kind of community has mostly disappeared to be replaced, if at all, by associations at work and, for singles, evening and weekend gatherings at cafes and bars. One thing that is largely lost is the ability to discuss children and their education experiences with people who are known and trusted. An example of the desire to share what is going on with children and their lives is the gathering of parents in some neighborhoods at morning bus stops for elementary children.

The concern of parents about the information and behavior to which their children are subjected is raised increasingly by the electronic media.  The principal instruments, cell phones and computer tablets, continue to widen the opening to the world for their possessors.  There is really no way to control any aspect of life to which youngsters of any age have access. Thus, direction of children’s education has largely escaped their parents.

This brings us to schools; public, private, religious. What can we expect from them? Most Americans vest their support and participation in public school. Expectations are high, critiques are rabid, books and articles are written espousing and criticizing this or that method and arguments rage over standards and accountability. More about schools next.


Jefferson Wasn’t Kidding

The blog below can be taken as simply amusing. However, in today’s New York Times (Oct 22) there are two articles that pick up on Jefferson’s judgment. The first is an article by Jeremy W. Peters  Special PACs Spent Money At Resorts. It is about a book, Extortion, by Peter Schweizer, that details the way members of congress and presidents are able to solicit and spend money with few restrictions. The second is by the book author himself on the Op Ed page, Politicians’ Extortion Racket, in which he elaborates on tactics. Mr. Schweizer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the subtitle of his book is How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes and Line Their Own Pockets.  





Seeing into the future of human behavior

Thomas Jefferson made a prediction to James Madison in a letter dated March 6, 1796, challenging Madison’s proposition for improvements to roads used in a system of national mail delivery.  Jefferson wrote: “Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads?  I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money.  You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are meanest.”

From such small seeds great oaks grow.  In 1803, as President Jefferson amidst sharp political divisions and without any other approval, signed a treaty purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France which the Senate speedily approved and the House appropriated money for the purchase.

 We were off and running.

 (Please look at comments and respond or leave your own for everyone’s enjoyment.)

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Reality Check


This reply by Jonathan Elliott is a reality check about working in huge bureaucratic organizations whether public or private.  It is worth being shown with the blog that generated it.


First of all, Dr. Boswell I want to thank you for all that you taught me during our class (Group 17). I have a number of memories of that class but one statement you made which continues to be a guiding model for me nowadays is that “It’s more important to ask the right question than providing answers.” It makes a great deal of sense, doesn’t it? If I’m answering a wrong or trivial question, what good is the answer?

I was a Financial Advisor (GS-15) in the Federal Government and my wife Kate was a Lobbyist. So I was on the operational side of the equation; she was on the legal side. I had some very capable bosses. However, as a former General Manager in private industry I often discussed how we could make ourselves more effective and efficient. My goal was to save the taxpayer money. My friends in the Government used to remind me that Government was unlike businesses and could never be run like businesses. In fact, one said, the Government is in part a social welfare organization giving away money. To an extent that made sense. However, when I would develop activity based costing models to show executives to cost of programs, my models were often set aside as “nice to know” but rarely implemented. When my wife and I discussed my frustration at night, she compared what she saw in Congress…that the job of a Congress person was to get re-elected. From an operational stance, bosses were often looking for the next promotion and saving money is rarely rewarded in the Government. Unfortunately that brings us back to your “I’ve got mine” scenario and possibly one of the most important questions that the U.S. faces today: “What is the vehicle for moving the Government elite to help some people lead a decent life? I’m almost 66 now and I’ve been performing volunteer work since I was in my late 20s and I mentored 40 young people, many of whom still stay in touch. I know that any feelings I have of “wholeness” comes more from that work than anything else I accomplished during my career. However, that example may be a bit too anecdotal for those who feel that manipulation of people is “a better way.” Thank you for starting this blog. I look forward to reading your insights as well as others.


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Democratic Social Arrangements and Political Democracy

John Dewey described democratic social arrangements as ways people got along by understanding each other’s desires and needs.  With this start they would work out ways of providing both a voice and a solution to different human needs.  He assumed the need of a political structure and process, one in which he actively worked.

The present struggle of a political minority in the Federal Congress to overturn a law they, and some of their constituents, don’t like is a bad case of using the political process to frustrate a decision of the majority.

Ideas are shaped into bills and then made into law through the political process.  Virtually no bill becomes law without requiring some adjustment to the world it has to work in.  The give and take of the political process makes this fit.

At the very time Dewey was developing and spreading his ideas, the country was segregated between black and white; rigid in the South and less so in the rest of the country.  Through the seniority system then determining committee assignments and chairmanships, Southerners controlled Congress.  Most southern congressmen and senators supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal except when some part of it threatened segregation.  Then, if they couldn’t stop a floor vote, they mustered up a filibuster.  Using these means of political democracy they frustrated a major goal of democratic social arrangements until the Supreme Court declared illegal the use of political means to enforce segregation.

Having grown up in the depression South I remember the very strong, rigid negative opinions of many white southerners toward our black neighbors.  I certainly do not accuse opponents of our current Affordable Health Care Act of racism, but I am bothered by the similarity in rigidness and uncaring attitudes toward other people then and now.

Providing government support for medical care was a part of the Roosevelt agenda that would have undermined segregation, among other objections.  It has been on the agenda of several presidents since then.  It is not a new idea, but poor people are still unable to afford adequate medical care.  One characteristic of a civilized society is that it does not leave those who cannot help themselves without care.

“I’ve got mine” and manipulating Congress to keep other people from sharing it isn’t a basis for making democratic social arrangements work.  Whether we like it or not, government has to help some people lead a decent life and we have to deal with the complexity that generates.




 At our 25th year celebration several people (maybe just a few) wanted to know what I was doing, reading, thinking and events were too rushed to connect.  In a later conversation with a former student who has spent years bullying me into the present, he suggested a blog which I immediately dismissed.  We were driving home from lunch and by the time we arrived I was convinced and he was thinking up a name.  He now has me up and fumbling along in publishing, with his large step by step pictorial directions.

After a lifetime of sharing ideas, stirring up discussion and urging students reconsider the limits of what they know, the passage of my last class left me wondering what was useful for me to do.  I hope this blog may help me continue the conversation with former students and the occasional non alumnus  who stumbles on to this blog. Perhaps it will provide a venue for retaining the sense of collegiality we shared while we were together in the program
It will not be all serious and it will go where we take it.  I am looking forward to ambling along.


Government Cost Savings circa 1876

Appropos the current shutdown of the Defense Department, there was much arguing over the defense budget in 1966.  “News” stories appeared on bulletin boards all around the Pentagon. The Washington Post published one as shown below.


The Washington Post June 18, 1966


Large Savings Achieved by Field Commander in West

July 1, 1876


Defense officials have lauded General George Armstrong Custer, commander of the 7th Cavalry, for his decision to save money by not taking the new Gatling guns into the field during his annual campaign in the Dakota Territories against the Blackfeet and Sioux.


Custer’s decision is expected to save $1760.00 in feed for horses to pull the wheeled Gatlings as well as $48.50 additional maintenance if the new and delicate weapons were exposed to dust and field conditions.



For those whose history was not formed by western movies, Gatling guns were early machine guns and the Sioux and Blackfeet wiped out Custer and his command.