The “Look At Me” Generation

 In a 1976 issue of New York Magazine, famed writer and novelist Tom Wolfe famously coined the moniker “Me Generation” to describe the evolution of the post-World War II progeny (of which I am a member) that has been commonly referred to as “Baby Boomers”.

  The members of this cohort—not all, to be sure, but enough to influence an age and entire society—seemed to throw tradition and convention aside during the Vietnam War years, eschewing the values of self-sacrifice and trust in institutions their elders from the Greatest Generation had embraced.

  Once the Vietnam War ended, it was as if a cloud lifted and suddenly the focus turned inward as people began to search for the meaning of life even as they were enjoying the fruits of what was the end of a 30-year economic boom created by three different wars and the government spending they engendered.

  Synanon and est seminars (remember those?), and a panoply of communes sprouting up offered new pathways to self-absorption. The message was clear: “Me” is what’s important.

  Our digital age has visited upon us many wonders: Smartphones now have computing power that exceeds that of the capsules that sent men to the moon; the miniaturization of computer chips and other electronic peripherals had made possible cameras and microphones that can easily be held in one hand; and of course, the Internet and players on it like Facebook, Google, and others, make it possible for people to communicate globally with a keystroke.

  This has led to the advent of what I call the “Look At Me” Generation. No longer content with contemplating one’s navel, today’s narcissist instead, with the assistance of Twitter, Facebook, etc., feels compelled to share with the world every detail of their life: what they eat, wear, drive, and so on.

  The truly dedicated, often athletic, sometimes pathetic, Look At Me (LAM for short) will take the extra step of acquiring a video camera like a GoPro that can be attached to a skateboard, snowboard, helmet, etc., to record their derring-do, sometimes with disastrous consequences then post it on YouTube.

  The real dimwits are the ones who commit crimes on video they record and post (no joke, this has been done often). I’m sure they think it’s a real good idea at the time. I wonder whether any thought is ever given to the possible long term consequences. Nah, who am I trying to kid?

  It’s like the trend in tattoos and piercing. Mostly of the full-sleeve, neck variety, and the ear gages that require plastic surgery if you ever want to reverse the damage they do. I’ve really tried to maintain an open mind on this. I tell myself it is the decision of the individual and times are changing. But, times have a way of changing back, too. What seemed like a cool idea at the time when you were twenty or even thirty might not be such a good idea at forty or fifty.

  I do think it’s a bit disingenuous of the wearers who, if you happen to look just a bit too long, give you the “What are you looking at?” stare when you know that’s exactly what they were going for in the first place.

  So there you have it. No more Generation X or Y. You are LAMs—the “Look At Me” Generation. Wear it with pride…just stop posting every wardrobe decision, OK? I really don’t care.

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Thoughts on public education

  Recent controversies in San Marcos over school attendance boundary changes, the installation of a former school principal as the latest superintendent of the nation’s nineteenth largest school district, and the roiling debate over the efficacy of charter schools versus traditional public schools has left me to ponder the state of public education in our land.

  There are no easy answers and I am not the one to provide them, if there were. Experts of every stripe, and those who would be, might tell a different story but if there is any consistent theme to the saga of the decline of public schooling in America, it’s that little tried in the name of fixing things has worked.

  I am in my middle sixties and can remember vividly going through a period during my elementary schooling where new methodologies of teaching were introduced to my classrooms. The things that were tried out on me are no longer used, at least not in the classrooms where my own children attended some thirty and forty years later.

  Attempts at teaching reading by abandoning phonics during my daughter’s formative years in favor of “whole language learning” gave way to a return to a modified form of teaching phonics by the time her younger brother passed through school.

  For decades we were told by teachers and—once they were allowed to unionize—their unions, that if we paid them better, we would attract more people into the profession and consequently raise the bar on teacher quality. Well, while some will argue the pay isn’t commensurate with the educational requirements, in many districts in California, especially here in San Diego, it isn’t bad, and there are plenty of college graduates who would gladly accept the starting salary offered today’s new teacher.

  Has the teaching gotten any better? That’s a matter for conjecture. The real question is: Has the learning gotten any better?

  It isn’t necessarily that the teachers are any worse, or that teachers in the days of low pay were any better. There could be something much more fundamental going on here. Government involvement in the teaching process, union featherbedding and demographics have all played a part in complicating a process already of Brobdingnagian size and complexity.

  Teachers and the rest of the education establishment have also lobbied hard for more money on a regular basis. While you’ll get no argument from me that you often get what you pay for, there is scant evidence that increased budgets have resulted in a commensurate or proportionate increase in educational attainment.

  Again, political meddling into the teaching process in an attempt, vainly for the most part, to cure any manner of societal ills, is often to blame for the increased cost and decreased benefit associated with public education.

  Much is being made these days about the use of standardized testing to measure teaching efficacy. I believe in accountability as much as the next person, but I also believe that it is virtually—no, make that literally—impossible to devise a “standardized” test that will comprehensively determine whether a given student in a certain life situation, who may have there own challenges in how they learn, sitting in a classroom with thirty other children is being taught effectively or not.

  If we have discovered anything by now in our studies of what it takes to educate, it’s that different people learn differently. Different people will also gravitate to, and learn best, those subjects which hold their interest.

  So the key, then, is to identify in each student both how they learn, and how best to keep their interest—no mean feat when dealing with a classroom of thirty or more very different public school children from virtually every social strata and background.

  Charter schools have become the latest trend of educational salvation to ride in on a wave of public support for the supposed innovative manner students are being taught and the success that they seem to enjoy.

  The success of charters in the inner city in places like Chicago and New York has been well documented in the media, but they are low-hanging fruit. Operating in cities with failed school systems, and filled with minority children eager for a chance to learn these charters were a ray of sunlight.

  Some parents in San Elijo Hills suggested the new K-8 being proposed in their community be a charter school so that only San Elijo children could attend. Besides the fact that the school is being built and paid for by the San Marcos Unified School District and its taxpayers, the notion that any school in a public school district could or should be built for the private and exclusive use of a particular community is ludicrous, not to mention elitist. It would also result in de facto segregation as the demographics of the neighborhood are vastly different (whiter) than the district as a whole.

  Too often, it seems, charter schools in suburban communities are seen as a way to escape the minorities that have been so poorly served in urban school districts. Many charters will say they have a blind policy for admissions, but transportation issues alone in many cases make attendance of the poorest a virtual impossibility. This results in segregation of the haves from the have-nots.

  Some school districts are doing a better job than others, to be sure. San Marcos Unified is one. This is the result of a confluence of factors, including involved parents from the district’s earliest days to now, inspired leadership from both elected leaders and district administrators, a growing community with the money to build new schools, and demographics that, although still heavily weighted toward what are usually considered “disadvantaged” subgroups, are trending toward greater affluence—a factor that cannot be ignored in academic performance when evaluating large groups. (This also helps to explain the earlier successes of the Poway Unified School District during the 1980s and 1990s.)

  What to do? As I have said earlier, I do not propose to have the answers. What I do suggest is we must admit the solutions are not easy, but necessary. Public education is in trouble, but necessary. Critical thought about every aspect—testing, funding, charter schools vs. traditional, teacher’s unions, more local control, whether there is such a thing as a school district that is too large—is necessary.

  This should not be a political debate—right vs. left, conservative vs. progressive. This should be a conversation about our children’s and grandchildren’s future and our future as a nation. Because that’s what’s at stake.

Is that helicopters I hear?

I cannot say that I have ever subscribed to the anti-government paranoia of the black helicopter crowd.

I will admit to harboring deep-seated suspicions about the Internal Revenue Service and the way it conducts its affairs in the name of our federal government. The fact that bureaucrats are left to navigate and interpret the thicket of arcane tax codes and laws promulgated by a Congress that most often is more interested in how it will affect re-election prospects rather than whether it is good policy is, in and of itself, a recipe for disaster.

While it should not be all that surprising to many that some within the IRS abuse their authority—after all, stories of this type have been around for decades—the fact that they are finally getting the airing they deserve is heartening. One has to assume Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee currently investigating IRS abuses, has had his own tax returns thoroughly vetted to ensure he isn’t a target of a tit-for-tat vendetta by the famously aggressive auditors of the agency.

Anyone who knows the history of J. Edgar Hoover’s long reign at the FBI surely is aware that one of the keys to that longevity was the leverage he gained by (usually illegally) investigating and thus knowing the darkest secrets of our nation’s leaders. It is likely the impunity with which IRS bureaucrats have been able to exact punishment on taxpayers who find themselves guilty until proven innocent—often with assets seized without court action—is the threat that has surely hung over any prior investigation by Congress into their behavior.

Their pattern of seizures of the assets of those least able to defend themselves is the stuff of legend. As is their inability to collect anything more than cents-on-the-dollar from the major league tax cheats who surround themselves with hired-gun accountants, lawyers, and politicians.

That IRS employees abused their authority to harass small-fry taxpayers is one thing; abusing taxpayers by wasting the revenue they raise is another altogether. There has been plenty of documented evidence the IRS hasn’t done a particularly good job of collecting taxes owed, despite their constant harassing of small-potatoes delinquents. But as recent revelations clearly show, that hasn’t stopped them from elaborate spending on conferences, “motivational” videos, etc. at taxpayer expense.

It kind of begs the question: Are they aggressively collecting taxes because it’s “their” money, or ours?

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently decided his aggressive investigation into the leaking of information sensitive to “national security” entitled his Justice Department to seize phone records of legitimate news gathering agencies and conduct criminal investigations into reporter’s activities. Now his boss wants him to investigate his department for executing his decision to seize the phone records. Really?

Ever wonder if the same kind of sharp minds that decided targeting groups that had “Tea Party”, or “Constitution” in their names was a good idea had a hand in deciding what constitutes a national security threat? Or that investigating reporters doing their job was a really swell idea?

Today we get word that at least one major communications company has been providing unlimited access to subscriber data to the National Security Agency. The government assures us this is all perfectly legal, perfectly safe.

There’s no question national security is and should remain a top priority. In fact, it is one of the few jobs the federal government should really undertake (but that’s for another day). However, it is a slippery slope when the government starts peeking into news reporter’s goodie bags of sources to find leaks or private citizens’ emails and data transmissions for unspecified “threats”.

As will become all too apparent at our local level as time goes by, if reporters cannot or will not cover stories about government then no one pays attention. While trying not to sound unduly alarmist, this truly is how totalitarian governments gain power.

It doesn’t matter which political philosophy you happen to adhere to, if no one is watching the people in charge and holding them accountable—bad things can and will happen.

So far, this presidential administration has taken on the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment, and as has every administration, Republican or Democrat, since the creation of the agency, allows the IRS to regularly ride roughshod over the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh.

Is that helicopters I hear?

Politicians are just people

The sudden departure of Randy Horton from the board of directors of the Tri-City Healthcare District is but the latest in a series of bizarre twists and turns that have befallen the benighted district. That Horton would give in so easily this time to accusations of misconduct leads one to believe that he finally found that last straw that would fracture the Dromedary’s posterior.

Horton’s apparent misbehavior was similar to earlier actions where he felt it was his right and duty to divulge information from closed-door discussions in executive session board meetings—a strict procedural no-no. This time he supposedly went off the reservation as a board member and, acting independently, contacted a lender with whom the district had been negotiating over the financing of a medical office building Tri-City wanted to purchase.

He claims his contact was after the loan had already been denied. That may well be but, he still should not have done it.

I sympathize with Horton’s frustration with the board’s historical incompetence. That said, taking a go-it-alone approach has proven to be wildly ineffective and with three new members on the board, shows a lack of trust in his new colleagues that is unseemly and, I believe, unfounded. It strikes me as impossibly arrogant for him to suggest that only he possesses acumen necessary to ferret out the truth.

I know Horton and his defenders will say that the board acted at the will of CEO Larry Anderson and are under his Svengali-like spell. I admit to not being one of Anderson’s biggest fans and distrust the judgment of some of the longer serving members of the Tri-City board, however I do believe the three newest members are not under his spell and especially trust the savvy Ramona Finnila to be able to sense when staff is trying to pull a fast one.

Horton and his acolytes are the embodiment of a phenomenon that is too common in our political scene—wanting to believe the very best of their chosen candidate, voters too often imbue them with intellectual qualities and capacities for discernment they simply do not posses. Many imagine their favorite candidate is likely the smartest person in the room—any room. This is, more often than not, not the case.

In this country people can still rise to the highest elected office in the land without the benefit of being from the “right” family, or having great wealth, or even a great mind.

There are smart and capable people toiling in elective office at every level, be it city council, school board, state legislature, Congress. However, there are also many who rise to a level beyond their capabilities and through the magic of incumbency merely fill space and quite possibly present a real danger to the constituencies they were elected to serve.

I often tell people of my first, brief encounter with then-U.S. Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham. I had, of course, already been fully briefed on his exploits as a Navy “Top Gun” fighter pilot and his reputation as a pugnacious politician. What I was not prepared for was how completely oblivious he was to the people around him and how vacant he seemed. I was, to put it mildly, stunned.

My impression after that meeting was that I had been in the presence of one of the dumbest human beings I had ever met. A sitting U.S. Congressman. Of course as subsequent events were to show some years later, he just may have been—if not the dumbest, certainly the most clueless.

Time Magazine recently ran an article about the fact Vice President Joe Biden had to borrow money against his house to pay for a wedding for his daughter. While I am not a fan of his politics, I gained a new respect for him as a person because he’s one of the few politicians on the national stage that apparently hasn’t used his position in government to enrich himself. That says something about the character of the man in my book.

In our representative government it’s good to remember we aren’t necessarily voting for the smartest person in the room. That’s hard to quantify anyway. What we should be trying to discern is who displays the best judgment. That won’t be easy, either.

One thing I can tell you, though—voting for someone who thinks they’re the smartest person in the room and then nullifies their worth by acting independently isn’t picking the right one.

Podunk cities need love, too

Readers of my former U-T column who emailed Editor Jeff Light expressing their desire that I be kept on were responded to with a fairly lengthy reply, which was nice of him.

The content of the email, however, contained language that was frankly dismissive of the desires of former North County Times readers and makes one wonder whether the ownership of the U-T ever sincerely intended to incorporate that newspaper’s philosophy or, as many had feared, simply wanted to eliminate a competitor.

Particularly concerning to me and those of us who have been regular readers of the North County Times or its predecessors, Light’s statements regarding the U-T’s intentions in covering local government is troubling. In his email he says, “No, we are not trying to be the North County Times. Our goal is not to cover every action of every political subdivision.”

Of course, the NCT didn’t “cover every action of every political subdivision”, either. But it certainly covered a lot more than is being covered right now.

Light says, “I think you all can appreciate that we are caught somewhat between the majority of our readers, who want broad regional coverage, and a smaller group that wants a very local approach in the style of the North County Times. Both groups are important – but of course it is hard to please everyone.” The “smaller group” he’s talking about is the approximately 70,000 former readers of the North County Times who expected to continue to get the coverage they had always gotten.

When U-T management complains that the North County Times model is broken, I have to laugh. When they bought the newspaper, they completely ignored the input of the senior managers they kept on during the transition about how to run the operation. They apparently disregarded the obvious fact that many of the subscribers to the NCT also had U-T subscriptions and would consequently cancel one or the other. They ignored the negative impact the owner’s editorial philosophy would have on readers who were not of the same political persuasion. They cut back on coverage of North County then raised subscription rates by over fifty percent.

Why—do you suppose—did subscription revenue fall?

The people who want that broad regional coverage might be like the letter to the editor that sticks in my mind from a particularly condescending reader from the coast who complained they only wanted news about the coast and the big city to the south and didn’t care to hear about what was going on in the “Podunk cities“inland. Be careful what you wish for.

It is impossibly narrow-minded, and even simple-minded, to think that what goes on in the communities around you doesn’t matter to you. It is also dangerous.

Consider for one moment the possibility that the current mayor or city council member of one of those Podunk cities becomes a candidate for higher office, one which affects your jurisdiction. If you lived in the state of perpetual blissful ignorance—such as the one now being imposed on North County by the U-T—you might have no idea how that individual performs in office.

Roads don’t stop at city boundaries, and the decisions that other cities make to build or not build them affect their neighbors as much or even more.

Then there are the various regional governance issues, as well as the various obscure special districts that rarely endure much scrutiny.

I’m no Woodward or Bernstein, but in the past several years I have tried to shine a bright light on several issues of local or regional import that I felt bore closer scrutiny. Based on comments I have received over the years, my efforts have been appreciated.

Among other things I have expressed concern over governance at the Tri-City Healthcare District; I have questioned accountability at the North County Transit District; I have challenged the Escondido City Council’s attempts to rush into building a minor league ballpark without proper due diligence and it’s recent attempts to provide financing for the Escondido Chamber of Commerce to refinance their office building.

The background for those columns came from the dedicated work of reporters given the time and resources to pursue a story. The notion that you can get the same from some random blogger is absurd nonsense.

I won’t pretend every reporter is good, or even that every reporter is hard-working. But every reporter that works for a real news organization is paid, and because of that, there is a measure of accountability that is lacking from many of the so-called “free” news sources. Not only that, there is an editor somewhere hopefully making sure the story has been cross-checked.

North County needs a real news organization again. I’m willing to help find one, how about you?

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The (rapid) decline and fall of daily news in North County

Many observers predicted the day would come. I think few would admit they expected it would come as quickly as it did.

Barely eight months after the surprising acquisition of Lee Enterprise’s North County Times by would-be media titan “Papa” Doug Manchester and his partner John Lynch, virtually every last vestige of that newspaper’s presence and anything resembling news coverage of the region they claimed to so highly covet remains.

When the acquisition first came to light there was considerable angst and suspicion within and without the newspaper community. After all, since taking over the U-T the new owners had not ingratiated themselves with a large segment of their readership, and long-time North County residents have witnessed the Union-Tribune’s act plenty of times before—storm into the region with great fanfare, then abandon it a few months later.

Then there was U-T management’s reputation within the journalistic community of playing fast and loose with generally accepted standards and practices regarding ownership’s control of editorial policy. Whether deserved or not, it had everyone on edge.

The sale happened so quickly the new owners quite literally had no idea what they were going to do with their new acquisition and for weeks—months, actually—they were constantly adjusting on the fly, shedding employees along the way and confusing the ones that remained with conflicting demands and performance standards.

Supervisors in some cases never met their new employees, but then it often didn’t matter because in a matter of weeks the employees were laid off, anyway.

Salespeople were given lofty sales targets, but no prices for the product they were selling.

One day they are planning to build a television studio in the Escondido newsroom, the next they are selling the building.

Anyone who was a subscriber to the North County Times and remained with the U-T in the transition can probably see a familiar pattern in the physical newspaper they are now receiving at their doorstep each morning.

Thanks to the overreach of Lee Enterprises and their ill-advised, over-leveraged purchase of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the North County Times was allowed to slowly die while their cash was bled away to stave off the parent company’s creditors.

Similarly, management at the U-T continues its commitment to its “multi-media platform”—in other words, UTTVwhich is hemorrhaging cash at a prodigious rate, at the expense of its print media roots. The Californian and North County may have been the first to go, but they are likely not the last.

As a former freelance columnist for the newspaper and a subscriber, I have tried on more than one occasion to watch the television channel out of a sense of curiosity. I cannot. It is abysmal. Virtually everyone I have spoken with who has seen the channel agree.

As I have described it to others, it reminds me of “Wayne’s World”, only with slightly better production values. The truth is “Wayne’s World” at least had entertainment value.

If Cox Communications with all its vast resources could not make Channel 4 a more viable television station than it is, what makes Manchester and Lynch think they can, other than their outsized egos?

Speaking of which, this is why I predict even more downsizing of the print version U-T in the upcoming months. I do not believe Manchester has the ability to admit failure. He and Lynch will watch UTTV circle the porcelain bowl until there is nothing left of the newspaper, all the while maintaining they have the keys to the future of newspapering.

Given the way they are managing things, I suggest they just put the keys under the mat and remember to turn out the lights when they leave.