Capable Kids

When I first started going to elementary school in Akron, Ohio in the early 1960s, I walked to school with my brother. The next year, when my sister was old enough to go to school, she walked with us, too. It was a journey of about 10 blocks, and we knew the route by heart. When we got to the area around the school, we would encounter groups of kids who had walked to school from other parts of the neighborhood, and an older kid wearing a Safety Patrol belt would let us know when to cross the street to get to the school itself.

This sounds like one of those “I walked three miles to school in the snow” codgerdom tales, but it’s not. Having grade school age kids walk unaccompanied to school in those days was an entirely normal activity, and no one gave it a second thought. We had been taught the route, we knew the street names and the turns we had to take, we had memorized our phone number, and we knew to talk to a policeman or to an adult if there were some kind of problem. But there never was a problem, and our walks to and from school were entirely uneventful. Everyone did it, and it was no big deal.

At some point between then and now, things changed. An interesting article in Psychology Today looks at those changing views. The shift in parenting concepts were captured in a book written several years ago called Adult Supervision Required by Markella Rutherford, who analyzed 565 articles and advice columns about parenting that appeared in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Parents. A 1966 article in Good Housekeeping, for example, captured the view that prevailed among the parents in my neighborhood in Akron: ““A six- to eight-year-old can be expected to follow simple routes to school, be able to find a telephone or report to a policeman if he is lost, and to know he must call home if he is going to be late. A nine- to eleven-year-old should be able to travel on public buses and streetcars, apply some simple first aid, and exercise reasonable judgment in many unfamiliar situations.”

Rutherford’s book shows that, by the 1980s, the notion of child capability and the presumed value of child independence that were generally accepted in the 1960s had been replaced by the view that children need to be monitored and protected, pretty much at all times. Rutherford describes the significant change in approach as follows: “For example, children walked unaccompanied to school, roamed around and played in neighborhoods alone and in groups, rode their bikes all over town, hitch-hiked around town, and ran errands for their parents, such as going to the corner store or post office. These descriptions of freedoms to roam have disappeared from contemporary advice. Instead, parents today are admonished to make sure that their children are adequately supervised by an adult at all times, whether at home or away from home.”

The “helicopter parent” concept of constant monitoring when a kid is outside hasn’t been the only change. Rutherford found that parents are now advised to be much more permissive about kid choice in the home, about things like what to eat and when to go to bed, and that the messaging to parents also changed about the value and expectations of children helping out around the house and doing chores.

The key question in this analysis is: has the change in messaging about approaches to parenting been good for children, or not? Does increased adult supervision affect development of children’s sense of their own capabilities, ability to think and act independently, and personal responsibility? The author of the Psychology Today article linked above thinks the trend is a negative one, and has helped to produce increased mental health problems for kids and declines in creative thinking.

Determining causal connections is always difficult, and debatable–but it is interesting to see how core concepts of parenting have changed dramatically over only a few decades. And you do wonder: if you treat children as capable at an earlier age, and let them exercise some personal responsibility, does that help to build a core sense of capability that will serve children well as they age and assume increasing control over their own lives?

Bridging The Great Soccer Divide

Today the U.S. Men’s National Team plays a crucial match against Iran in the 2022 World Cup. If the Americans win, they advance beyond the group stage into the knockout stage and keep their long-shot hopes for the World Cup alive. If they lose or tie, they are out. Since the U.S. team has played to two draws in its first two games, they face a significant challenge, and because their opponent is Iran there are obvious geopolitical overtones.

I’m not a soccer fan, but I am a fan of my country, so I watched the U.S. game against England that ended in a scoreless tie. After the match, some loudmouth commentator on another channel said that the 0-0 tie (“nil-nil” in soccer lingo) was boring, and that’s why more Americans don’t pay much attention to soccer. The guy’s comments were part of a weird dynamic that has bedeviled the U.S. soccer scene for as long as I can remember: non-soccer fans make fun of the injury-faking and the low scores and argue that the sport is a total snoozer, and soccer fans respond that the non-soccer fans are basically knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing cretins who can’t appreciate the subtleties and strategies of a game that, incidentally, the rest of the world absolutely loves.

I didn’t think the U.S.-England match was boring. The U.S. has a very young team, and the fact that they played heavily favored England to a draw and kept their chances of advancing alive was a great result for them. They don’t seem to go in for the ridiculous play-acting on the injury front, either, which I appreciate.

I clearly don’t get all of the nuances of world-class soccer, but it doesn’t take much watching to appreciate concepts like reversing the field and trying to clear things out for breakaway runs and passes. I’m still working on the penalties, what results in corner kicks, and other elements of the game, but I can watch a soccer match without understanding those issues just like I can watch a hockey game without knowing what “offsides” is or the significance of the red line and blue line. A low-scoring soccer match involves its own special brand of tension where you know one mistake could be fatal–just like in a low-scoring baseball game. And you can’t help but admire the energy, athleticism, and skill of elite players, who run hard throughout the match, can bend and place a ball with amazing precision, and then can mash it with astonishing force. Soccer may not feature crushing hits or thunderous dunks, but it definitely offers a lot to admire.

I’ll be at work today and won’t get a chance to watch the U.S. match against Iran, but I’m definitely hoping that the U.S. finds a way to win and advance. I’m also hoping that, if they do so, we can put this perversely American argument about soccer to bed, once and for all. Both sides of the great soccer divide need to understand that not every sport needs to appeal to every person, and there’s no value in denigrating either soccer or those people who just don’t enjoy it. Live and let live, sports fans!

Go U.S.A.!

The Disturbed Among Us

Recently I was walking home from work when I was approached by a street person. We have some “regulars” in our part of downtown, and over time you get to know them, but this person was unfamiliar. I immediately noticed that she had that kind of distracted, fidgety appearance that suggested that she was disturbed, or drugged up, or perhaps both. In any case, I kept my distance, and listened as she said she was a TikTok celebrity and asked for money to make a new video. (At least, I think that’s what she said.) When I demurred, she started fumbling in her pockets and dropped an unopened soda can, which started spraying all over. At that point the light changed, and I crossed the street and was on my way.

It was one random encounter on one early evening, and nothing came of it, but it got me to thinking all the same. If you live or work in a downtown area in America, you’ve no doubt had similar experiences. We’ve lived with street people in our midst since the U.S. adopted a deinstitutionalization policy decades ago, but lately it seems that a new layer of concern has been added to the interaction between the housed and the homeless. What used to be predictable panhandling has become more uncertain, and many of us have heard or read of encounters that have turned violent. The son of a coworker, for example, was attacked and stabbed with a screwdriver by a deranged street person in Denver. I’m not familiar with any such incidents in Columbus, where the homeless population seems to be smaller than in many other cities, but you don’t need to hear many such stories to be on your guard.

It’s difficult to get precise data about crime committed by the homeless, although there seems to be a consensus that it is underreported, because many such crimes are committed against other homeless people who don’t want to involve the authorities. Data from Los Angeles indicates that the substantial homeless population in that city accounts for about eight percent of the total amount of crime in that city, but 60 percent of that crime is classified as violent crime. Also concerning is the fact that many of the homeless among us are people who formerly were incarcerated; according to a recent study, people released from prison are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population. Drug use among the homeless population just adds to the volatility.

The issue of homelessness obviously is a complicated one, but the failure to address it has produced a culture in urban America where a street person seeking money might become suddenly aggressive, and a random encounter with a total stranger might become violent. That’s obviously not good for our cities, for people who live and work in them, or for the homeless people themselves.

Spanking The Rankings

An interesting movement is underway among some of America’s most prominent law schools. One by one, they have begun deciding not to participate in the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. Yale and Harvard led the way earlier this month; my law school alma mater, the Georgetown University Law Center, followed two days later. You can see a list of the law schools that have eschewed the U.S. News rankings here.

Each law school that has withdrawn from the rankings process has released a statement explaining its reasons. You can read the statement of Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor here. In a nutshell, he contends that the rankings reflect priorities that are at variance with the public service orientation of the law school and do not adequately account for efforts to help students attend law school. He writes:

“Rankings formulas that over-emphasize GPA/LSAT scores, that refuse to credit public interest lawyers who are subsidized by school-sponsored fellowships as fully employed, that treat need-based financial aid as a disfavored use of resources, and that penalize schools that admit students who have to borrow to fund their legal educations are not rewarding quality education and are not advancing our profession’s high ideals.”

U.S. News and World Report is pretty transparent about its methodology in compiling the rankings. You can see a description of the methodology here. The publication summarizes its approach as “evaluat[ing] institutions on their successful placement of graduates, faculty resources, academic achievements of entering students, and opinions by law schools, lawyers and judges on overall program quality.” Among the data it analyzes are LSAT and GRE scores, acceptance rates, median undergraduate grade point average, bar exam passage rates, and post-graduation employment rates. The decisions of Georgetown and other law schools to not participate in the rankings presumably means that U.S. News won’t be able to collect at least some of the data it would use to evaluate the withdrawing schools against the same standards applied to participating schools.

So, are the decisions of law schools to withdraw from the rankings a good thing? Of course, academic institutions are free to choose whether to participate or not, and if they feel that the ranking algorithm is fundamentally contrary to their values, as Georgetown does, then withdrawal makes sense. It will leave incoming students with less information–but some have questioned the credibility of the rankings and whether schools have goosed the data they provide to inflate their ultimate ranking. A whistleblower recently raised issues about the accuracy of data supplied by Columbia University, and last year a dean at Temple University was convicted for fraud offenses for falsifying data.

I’ve always had a basic objection to the U.S. News rankings. I think they are both absurd, because an education simply can’t be reduced to a mathematical equation, and distortive, because institutions inevitably end up making changes in hopes of increasing their ranking–even if those changes alter the character of the school and its goals. If the law school withdrawals, coupled with the issues about the validity of the data underlying the rankings, cause the rankings to go the way of the dodo, I think that would be a good thing. Schools should get back to focusing on delivering what they consider to be the best approach to education, and stop the mindless competition to be “top ranked” on some list or another.

A Day After Thanksgiving Vocabulary Builder

It’s the day after Thanksgiving in America. If, like most Americans, you went a bit overboard in the food and drink departmentyesterday, you are undoubtedly feeling the after-effects today. But how to adequately capture the curious mix of sensations that you are feeling today–that unique combination of a desperately overworked digestive system that has been shoved into once-a-year overdrive by your gluttonous consumption of proteins, starches, carbohydrates, and sugars, washed down with more than a few of the adult beverages of your choice?

Bloated is always an apt description on the day after Thanksgiving, but if you want to sound more sophisticated, tumid or tumefied are good words for describing that still lingering stuffed-to-the-gills sensation.

If your overindulgence is leaving you feeling foggy and cotton-mouthed, katzenjammer is a useful synonym for a hangover.

And if you are feeling a deep sense of regret at your failure to celebrate Thanksgiving in moderation–again–or your inability to adhere to your vow to avoid a pointless political discussion with a family member, note that remorseful might well capture your mood, as would compunctious, penitent, and contrite.

As for your likely sense that today you need to refrain in order to make up for yesterday’s wretched excess, abstinence is a pretty good word. Willpower is going to factor in as well, since there are bound to be leftover pieces of pie ready to provide temptation.

The Three-Day Thanksgiving

Most of us are generally familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, as the Pilgrims and the Native People in the region–called the Wampamoag–gathered to feast and celebrate the bountiful harvest that, with the assistance of the helpful Wampamoag, ended a period of severe want and deprivation and helped to save the Pilgrims from starvation.

We tend to visualize the event as a kind of stodgy sit-down dinner, but the only surviving account of the actual first Thanksgiving suggests that it was a slightly different and far more relaxed affair. The account was written by Edward Winslow in the fall of 1621 in a letter later delivered back to a friend in England. Winslow described the event as follows:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

In short, the first Thanksgiving was at least a three-day feast that featured hunting, other forms of entertainment, eating five deer and a variety of wildfowl (including, in all likelihood, wild turkey as well as duck, geese, and swans) thanks to the efforts of the Wampamoag and the Pilgrims, and enjoying the company of the entire Pilgrim settlement and more than 90 members of the Wampamoag, too. Other records of the Plymouth Colony suggest that the feast also would have included a variety of vegetables, maize supplied by the Wampamoag, fruits, and nuts.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for good health and prosperity among my family members, friends, and colleagues, and for many other things–including the generous spirit shown by the Pilgrims and the Wampamoag (who you can read about here) in sharing the bounty of the land just over 500 years ago. I’m also grateful, frankly, that while we have maintained the tradition of a Thanksgiving celebration, we’ve shortened it from three days of revelry to just one. I’m not sure my waistline could endure three full days of feasting.

Starbucks On Strike

Some Starbucks workers went on strike today. About 2,000 workers in more than 100 stores in 25 states (out of more than 9,000 (!) Starbucks-owned locations nationwide) walked out. The strike is part of an effort to unionize Starbucks that began last year. The advocates for unionization are seeking higher wages and better working conditions, which would include Starbucks hiring more staff people in its many stores. Strikers say they also walked out to protest anti-union retaliation.

The savvy strikers timed their walkout to occur on “Red Cup Day,” when Starbucks apparently gives customers a red cup that allows them to get free refills of the sugary holiday concoctions that pass for coffee at Starbucks. Workers say it is one of the busiest days of the year at the coffee giant. (I wouldn’t know this because I haven’t been to a Starbucks to buy “coffee” or other pumpkin spice-flavored drinks since, well, ever.)

I have belonged to multiple unions during my working career, and I think unionization efforts and concerted action are important parts of the freedoms (such as freedom of speech) that we enjoy as Americans. I also think such activities help to set the real market price for labor. Sometimes strikes cause employers to recognize that workers really are more valuable than the pay they have received; other times (as in the ill-fated Air Traffic Controllers strike back in the early ’80s) the union advocates realize that they have overplayed their hand.

It will be interesting to see how the Starbucks unionization effort plays out. There is no better way to find out how much those baristas are really worth.

Designing And Decorating For Dementia

Many people are familiar with the concept of “child-proofing” a house. When a baby is on the way, the parents-to-be will go through their home to try to make it as baby-safe as possible. That means doing things like putting inserts into electrical outlets, moving breakable items out of reach of curious toddler hands, and locking cabinets or drawers that contain cleaning supplies, sharp items, or other things that little kids shouldn’t touch.

Now, many Americans are putting the same concepts into play in another context: caring for elderly parents or spouses that are dealing with dementia. The goal is to design and decorate your home in a way that is as safe, helpful, calming, and supportive as possible.

For example, experts in the field note that people with Alzheimer’s often experience anxiety, so decorating in soothing colors, like shades of blue, can help. Because forgetfulness and confusion are symptoms, labeling things like dresser drawers to identify the contents can help the individual feel more self-sufficient. And safety devices, like smoke alarms that can detect when a stovetop burner has been left on by a forgetful senior, are a must.

Vision and spatial orientation issues also can be a problem, so creating color contrasts will allow the person to, say, find the handle to a cabinet more quickly. Picking out plates that make it easier for a vision-challenged person to see the food is useful, too. Other ideas include adopting lighting the helps with alertness during the day and calmness at night and putting out family photos that might trigger happy memories. There also are products that use spoken-word technology designed to help people who are struggling to read.

Caring for someone who is experiencing the early ages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can be exhausting and emotionally challenging. Anything you can do to make what is inevitably a difficult process a bit easier, for both the afflicted and the caregiver, is bound to help.

Those Annoying “Buy Your House” Texts

If you own a house–or if you formerly owned a house–you undoubtedly get them: those annoying but also unnerving texts from total strangers who address you by name and want to engage you in a conversation about selling your home. The texts are annoying because they clutter your text inbox and confirm that no form of communication is truly safe from unwanted solicitation efforts. They are unnerving because they show that, somewhere out in the internet vastness, telemarketers and potential scammers are trying to cobble together bits of information to link your name, your cell phone number, and your property holdings.

So, are these texts part of some fraudulent scheme, or are they legitimate efforts to buy a house? Apparently some house-buying texts fall into one category, and some fall into the other. The scam potential of such texts seems pretty obvious: the scammers want to knit together as much personal information about you as possible, which could be used for identity theft purposes, and hope that if they engage you in a text conversation you will divulge some personal financial information that they use to take your money. It’s hard to believe that anyone would fall for such a scam–but then who would have thought that people would fall for the Prince from Nigeria scams, either?

The article linked above, and a local report from a Columbus TV station, say that some of the texts are “legitimate” in the sense that they are from people who do in fact want to buy your house–or for that matter any house. They are flippers looking to purchase properties at bargain prices, perhaps make a few cosmetic changes, and then sell them. The texts you receive from the flippers are the modern equivalent of “cold calls,” with texts being used because no one owns land line phones any more or answers their cell phone when a strange number shows up. It’s an intrusive way to do business, which is just another reason why those texts are best ignored and immediately deleted without responding. If you want to sell your house, a local realtor who has been part of the community for years and who can give you an informed sense of fair market value is a better and safer option.

One final consideration is that, with interest rates going up and house prices going down, the “legitimate” texts about whether you are willing to sell your house are likely to stop, because no rapacious house-flipper is going to want to buy properties, spend money to fix them up, and then try to sell them at a profit in a down market. That means that, in the future, most if not all of those texts will be from fraudsters looking to cheat you in some way or another. It’s just another reason to be wary of unsolicited communications.

Risky Business

2022 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for cryptocurrency. In the spring, the crypto markets experienced a spectacular crash, and last week a leading crypto exchange platform, FTX, slid abruptly into bankruptcy amid questions about its operations, liquidity, and use of funds. The SEC and Department of Justice are reportedly investigating whether the company’s sudden collapse involved criminal activity or violations of the federal securities laws.

The demise of FTX was so quick and catastrophic that the company’s founder and CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, is reported to have lost 94 percent of his net worth in a single day. The rise and sudden fall of FTX may well rank right up there with Enron in the riches-to-rags business bust category. But there’s an even more ironic twist to the FTX failure: only a few months ago, during the 2022 Super Bowl, FTX ran a commercial where a skeptical Larry David, with a record of rejecting inventions like the wheel and the light bulb, also rejects the idea of investing with FTX, which is presented as “a safe and easy way to get into crypto.”

As is always the case when a high-flying entity suddenly crashes and burns, there are ripple effects from FTX’s spectacular failure. For example, the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, the third-largest pension plan in Canada, disclosed last week that it had invested $95 million in FTX entities. (Fortunately for Ontario teachers, the investment apparently represents only a tiny fraction of the money invested by the Plan.) Other entities also had investments in FTX. One of them, a venture capital firm called Sequoia Capital, announced that it will mark down its $214 million investment in FTX to zero. Sequoia told its investors: “We are in the business of taking risk,” and “[s]ome investments will surprise to the upside, and some will surprise to the downside.”

Sequoia’s observation is, of course, true–if the investor understands, as Sequoia did, that cryptocurrency is a risky investment. The problem is that crypto advocates keep trying to present it as something else, as FTX tried to do with that in retrospect hilarious Larry David commercial. If the everyday investor is paying attention, the FTX collapse will make it harder to sell cryptocurrency as the next best thing to the light bulb. And we might want to check to make sure that our pension plans or mutual funds have learned that lesson, too.

Making Oxygen On Mars

Thanks to the renewed interest in space exploration and improvements in rocketry technology developed by companies like SpaceX, we’re inching closer to the point where we might actually land human beings on the surface of Mars. But if we’re going to stay there for any meaningful length of time, we’ve got another challenge that we’ll need to overcome: the human visitors will need to breathe, and that means coming up with a reliable way to create a lot of oxygen in the pointedly carbon dioxide-rich, oxygen-poor Martian environment.

Fortunately for the future explorers of Mars, it looks like the big brains at MIT have come up with a solution. They created a lunchbox-sized device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or “MOXIE,” that was taken to Mars as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and has been on the surface of Mars since the mission landed in February 2021. The underlying concept of MOXIE was to use the carbon dioxide on Mars to create oxygen–which is a lot cheaper than trying to cart oxygen all the way from Earth.

MOXIE sucks in the thin Martian air, filters and pressurizes it, then moves it through the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument created by OxEon Energy. SOXE splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide, isolates the oxygen ions, and combines them into O2, the kind of oxygen humans breathe. Once MOXIE confirms that breathable oxygen has been created, it releases the oxygen and carbon monoxide into the Martian atmosphere.

MOXIE has been powered up on multiple occasions since its arrival, during different Martian seasons and at different times of the day and night, to see whether it works in different conditions and different temperatures. So far, MOXIE has worked under all conditions except dawn and dusk, when the temperature is changing rapidly, but the MIT team believes it has a solution to that problem. The little lunchbox-sized device creates six grams of oxygen per hour, which is about the same amount as a small tree on Earth.

When we get to the point of sending a human mission to Mars, the plan would be to send much bigger versions of MOXIE to the Red Planet ahead of the human mission, power them up, and let it generate a repository of oxygen that would supply the needs of both the human visitors and the rocket that would take the humans back home to Earth. Pretty cool!

The First Democracy

It’s Election Day in America. It’s time to head to the polls, exercise our franchise, and foolishly hope that the results will be accepted by all and will quash the bitterness that seems to accumulate, election after election, at every point on the political spectrum.

We’ve got the ancient Athenians to thank for all of this, of course. To be sure, during the ancient tribal times there might have been an election or two among members of the tribe to choose a new leader–although the strongest or cleverest member of the clan might have had something to say about that–but the Greeks were the first group to institutionalize democracy as a mechanism to govern a political state, at some time during the fifth century B.C.E. The Greeks believed that all citizens (a category limited to adult males that excluded women, children, and slaves) should participate in governance of the state. The word “democracy” comes from the combination of the Greek words demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Citizens had the ability to serve in an assembly and vote on new laws.

So, were the Greek elections friendly exercises that were less negative than our modern American version? Not really. In fact, the Athenians had a formal process called ostracism–the basis for the modern word “ostracize”–that allowed voters to vote to expel leaders from the city-state for 10 years, and they could do it for dishonesty, misrule, or just general dislike. (Imagine if the modern American system had such a process!) And the Greeks (and Romans, too) weren’t shy about attempting assassination of tyrants, either.

In reality, democracy, either in its pure or republican form, has always been a bit messy, with heated feelings, negativity, and vigorous denunciations of purported tyrants and fools–but it sure is a lot better than the authoritarian alternatives. Today, I hope Americans of every political persuasion get out and vote, so the demos can kratos.

Christmas Too Soon

In this era of lurching immediately from one holiday to another–where Halloween bursts onto the scene on the first day of October–I suppose I should not be surprised to learn that, as soon as Halloween passed, one Columbus radio station promptly went forward with all-Christmas-carol programming, commercials with Christmas shopping themes have hit the airwaves, and Great Lakes Christmas Ale is in all the stores already.

In our headlong rush to get to Christmas and holiday sales, we give short shrift to Thanksgiving, that great, truly American holiday. Can we at least fend off the Christmas stuff until after we’ve had our fill of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie and have given a nod to the Mayflower and the Pilgrims?

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not an anti-Christmas Grinch. In fact, I bought the six-pack of Christmas ale pictured above and enjoyed quaffing some while watching college football yesterday. But I just feel like two months of Christmas songs, Christmas decorations, Christmas commercials, and Christmas TV shows and movies is about one month too much.

“This Was CNN”

During the first Gulf War, CNN was our go-to source for news. With Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett leading the way, CNN offered informed, reliable reporting of events, often with its journalists reporting live from the scene of the action. Whatever time of day or night, you knew that you could tune in to CNN and get the straight story about what was happening with Desert Storm–and you would get to hear the deep voice of James Earl Jones gravely intone “This is CNN” every so often, too. We weren’t alone in our channel selection; CNN was dominant and hit ratings records during the Gulf War crisis 30 years ago.

Those days are long gone. CNN has struggled for years, and it seems like all of the news stories about the network that you see these days are negative. First CNN closed down CNN Airport, the channel that made hearing CNN a part of every airport experience (and, incidentally, made traveling a quieter, more pleasant experience in my view). Then the network’s streaming service, CNN+, was an embarrassing flop and was shut down after only one month of operation. CNN’s ratings have been poor, it can’t seem to find prime-time programming that is competitive with other networks, and its efforts to move its high-visibility personalities to different time slots doesn’t seem to be working, either. Now the press is reporting that, with CNN profits dropping, CNN’s new leader is going to try to take the network in a different direction, significant job cuts are in the network’s future as part of a “right-sizing” effort, and network employees are bracing for layoffs.

CNN seems like a good candidate for a business school case study, to try to identify why a network that was on top of the world 30 years ago has fallen so far. Some of CNN’s struggles clearly involve big-picture things beyond its control–like the shift in consumer preferences to streaming services, which has shrunk the viewership base for traditional cable offerings like CNN–but others seem to have been more self-inflicted. Did CNN become too top-heavy, hiring administrators when it should have been hiring in-the-field reporters? Did CNN lose sight of its purpose of reporting the news–“news” is part of its name, after all–in favor of point-of-view programming that some of its viewers found off-putting? Does CNN really need high-visibility personalities to host prime-time shows, when it could just be reporting the news, period?

It will be interesting to see where CNN goes next. I wonder: is a return to the straight, old-fashioned news reporting that used to be a trademark of the network 30 years ago one of the options that has been considered?

Big Money

We can be sure of two things about every election for federal offices in America. First, politicians from both parties will tell the voters that the upcoming election is the most important election in history, with the future of the country hanging in the balance. And second, the election will be the most expensive election in history . . so far.

Both things have happened in this election cycle. The Hill reports that spending on political activities in the 2022 midterm election is projected to reach a staggering $16.7 billion, obliterating the prior record, which was established in the last midterm election. As of Tuesday, spending reported to the Federal Election Commission, which tallies the numbers for the federal side of the election, is already at $7.5 billion–surpassing the paltry $7.1 billion spent in 2018–and we’ve still got days of additional ads, commercials, and events before Election Day rolls around next Tuesday.

Spending on the contests for federal offices is projected to reach $8.9 billion this year, and state elections are expected to cost an additional $7.8 billion. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin are leading the spending boom, and congressional “super PACs” from both parties are providing a lot of the cash.

Here’s a trivia question: who did George Washington beat in the first U.S. presidential election? The answer is no one; he was unopposed and was elected unanimously. Those days are long gone. Now, we seem to have an endless appetite for “the most important election in history” and are willing to dig deeper and deeper to fund them.