Thursday, September 11, 2014

Critical Thinking in our Education System.

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I had originally wanted to write about this some weeks ago, but I got side tracked with other posts and homework. Now I'm circling back to it because I still think it's an important discussion. I follow some people that I find rather interesting on my Facebook page; Neil Degrasse Tyson, Dr. Michio Kaku, and others. Dr. Kaku posted a link with a comment advocating that we should stop trying to teach critical thinking in our education system. At first I was taken aback. I respect Dr. Kaku a great deal, and I've long held the belief that we need to teach more critical thinking in the classroom. How could he say such a thing?
Then I read the article and I understood and I agree with him.
The main point that the article was making is that in too many classrooms across the country the concept of "critical thinking" is often mislabled and passed along under as a guise for political or policy reform. Teachers bemoan certain policies or political views that they dislike and present their side of the argument to the children under the guise of "Critical Thinking". Some Science teachers will publicly lament that they are not allowed to teach their religious beliefs about creation to the students but are instead forced to teach concepts such as the Big Bang and Evolution. This is not critical thinking.

Far too often many of us are victims of our own minds, trapped inside of our firmly held beliefs and ideologies that we succumb to psychological traps like confirmation bias. We're all guilty of it from time to time, but some of us are worse than others. I pride myself on being a truly critical thinker. I enjoy debating with people who have a different opinion than I do, not because I want be right and win the debate, but because that I'm hoping beyond hope that they can articulate why they believe what they believe with logic and reason and possibly support their position with facts. This forces me to re-evaluate what I believe; do I believe what I believe because it's the right thing to believe, or do I believe if because someone once told me that I should and I've never questioned it? Many of my friends have acknowledged this trait about me and some of them have managed to convince me to change my mind on certain topics. I have many friends whom I respect a great deal and yet we have vastly different opinions on certain topics. That's perfectly okay.

But sadly that's not commonplace. And it's not what happens in many classrooms either. If I am not capable of actually critically analyzing a situation, how can I teach others to be that way as well? If I physically don't understand the concept of critical thinking or I refuse to participate in it, how can I realistically expect others to do it?

The one thing that is clear from this article is that the concept of critical thinking in a classroom setting needs to come from a complete revamp and overhaul of the curriculum and instructional methodology that is being used in schools today. I promote critical thinking in my son all of the time. He will often ask me: "Dad, how does X work?" Instead of just telling him what I want him to know or to think, I ask him what does he know about X, and based on what he knows about X, what does he think? How does he think X works? And, where can he learn more about X? This is a process that I will always continue. I will never presume to push my religious or political beliefs onto my children. If they have a different view than I do, great. If not, that's great too. Either way they should arrive at their own conclusions in their own way.

When it comes to conversations of "critical thinking" that take place in most places today I'm reminded of Inigo Montaya again..."you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means". And since any explanation I might give would invariably miss some of the finer points of this conversation, I encourage you to read the article in the link below.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Minimum Wage vs Liveable Wage

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Today there were protests in 150 cities across the country from fast food workers who are demanding that the $7.25/hour minimum wage be raised, more than doubled, to $15/hour. The basis of their argument is that it is not possible in today's economy to support a family on minimum wage. While I may be empathetic to their argument, I am not sympathetic to their cause. Raising the minimum wage would be a terrible idea, for a number of reasons that I will try to illustrate.

In the United States the legalization and establishment of a minimum wage occurred in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was originally $0.25/hour when the law was first enacted. Adjusting for inflation, that would have been approximately $4.08/hour by today's standards. In 1939 the Federal Minimum Wage was increased to $0.30/hour, or $4.97/hour after inflation. By 1950 Minimum Wage had risen to $0.75/hour, which is $7.16 after inflation adjustments. The rate has been fairly consistent since then. The primary reason that the Federal Minimum Wage Act was passed was to prevent people who were desperate for work coming off the heels of the Great Depression from being unfairly exploited by business owners looking to save some cash. (You can see historical minimum wage rates here). 16 US States currently have minimum wage laws higher than the Federal standard.

Let's take a moment to talk about how economics work. In the most basic sense there is a production of goods or services, then those goods or services are exchanged to consumers who trade them for monetary units. This has been the basic rule of economics for centuries. Keeping this in mind, people can only spend what they earn, and much of their income goes to things like food, shelter, transportation, personal insurance, and healthcare. According to the US Wage and Labor Department, the median household income in the US is $51,000. In fact, according to an analysis by CNN Money the average spending for households in this median bracket is 69% of their budget on those items. That leaves only 30% of their budge for discretionary spending on items such as entertainment, clothing, and miscellaneous items.

Before I continue further, let's talk a moment about how the wealth is distributed within the US. By now everyone has heard of the "Occupy Movement" and the unfair distribution of wealth among the "1%". The chart below illustrates that concept, but it also illustrates something more important to this discussion. The Median Income, as I mentioned, is $51,000. This means that half of all US Households make less than that annually. As you can see from the chart, the distribution of wealth does not follow a bell curve. In fact, the vast majority of the population is clustered near the bottom end of the spectrum; less than $33,000 annually.

Let's revisit that financial analysis again, but this time with a household in that $33,000 income bracket. Looking at Food, Housing, Transportation, Personal Insurance, and Health expenses this income bracket expends 80% of their budget on these items. That only leaves 20% of their budge for discretionary spending.

Now that we have that background out of the way, let's talk about this $15 minimum wage push. One of the biggest mistakes of this logic is what it will do the economy itself. The logic seems to benefit the individual at the expense of the economy as a whole. While more than doubling the worker's income would certainly do more to increase their discretionary spending, it actually will hurt businesses. In order for restaurants to be successful they have to maintain certain budgetary ratios. For Fast food the employee wages should typically not exceed 25% of the overall budget, for sit-down restaurants it should not exceed 35%. Assuming that they keep the same amount of staff, this means that an increase in wages by 200% would push their employee costs up to around 50% of their overall budget, which would sink even fine dining establishments. Some businesses are already legally challenging this decision in Seattle by filing a lawsuit claiming that impedes their ability to compete in a free market economy. In the meantime some businesses are trying to offset this increase in cost by taking measures such as doing away with company sponsored benefits such as sick time, pensions, retirement, and medical insurance. Some companies have even taken to charging their employees for previously-free conveniences such as parking on the property. In the end though the business owners are left with only two main options; reduce the number of staff or increase the prices of their goods.

If companies reduce the number of staff then there will be fewer people working and spending money, which means that businesses as a whole make less money and are forced to take cost-saving measures such as layoffs of price hikes. Some McDonalds stores have already floated the idea of eliminating cashiers and replacing them with kiosks in the lobby. This would spill over into retail establishments who would soon be forced to follow suit with either price hikes or layoffs, or both. The Self-Checkout lanes would almost completely replace cashiers.

If companies try to offset the cost by increasing the cost of items, effectively passing that cost on to the consumers directly, then that means that people will not be able to spend as much money, they will spend less, buy less and companies will lose their profit margins. This will result in either staff layoffs or price hikes to compensate, which further exasperates the issue. In either case, the end result is the same; a Kobyashi Maru that serves no purpose other than to destroy the base level of the economy.

Let's examine another less obvious side effect; what this does to non-minimum wage jobs. Increasing minimum wage to $15/hour would make their annual salary $31,200. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics people with an Associates Degree earn an average of $40,820 annually. Bachelor's Degree holders earn an average of $53,000 annually. To put this into a different perspective, a teacher needs to have a 4 year degree plus certifications in order teach in any state in the US. In Arizona the average starting salary is $31,689. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour doesn't automatically increase the wages of everyone else. So this devalues the educated middle class. We would essentially be saying that a job that requires no skill and just a few hours of training that literally anyone could do is worth the same value as someone who requires a minimum of 4 years of training to do their job. This logic is folly.

Going back to the main part of the argument; that people cannot support a family on minimum wage salary; it is not intended for that. Minimum wage jobs are intended for students and unskilled or barely skilled workers to fill the entry-level positions in the job market. This push for a higher minimum wage, more than anything, smacks of the lack of ambition and determination that seems to permeate our society of late. If you don't like how much money you make, improve your situation; go to school, get a different skill set, move up in your company. Don't be content with doing nothing with your life and then complain that you can't support yourself. Anyone can improve their situation with enough drive and desire to do so.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Love or Fear: A Look at Abuse

[Johnathan Clayborn]

This is an issue that has come up several times for me in the last month. Some of my friends have been in this situation in the past, including some people that I care about very much. Some of the my other friends have brought it up in discussion both seriously and casually.

A guy I once worked with posted to Facebook:  "Some women boggle me. Listen, if your tired of being battered, used and abused... Stop dating thug types with no morals. And you wonder why nobody cares when you come crying that you been wronged. -just sayin [sic]'"

Both as a psych major and as someone who worked in the behavioral health field I've studied abuse. Its ugly. Its deplorable. Its very rarely simple. These women who date thug types often do so because the thug reminds them of their fathers. Most of those women either have dysfunctional relationships with their fathers or their fathers are not in their lives anymore. They seek these men out as surrogates for the father they want to have a relationship with. Fathers are especially important in the lives of young girls because they look to their father's behaviors to imprint upon them how they should expect men to behave in the future. If their father was an abusive drunkard, they will expect that this is normal behavior. Even learning later in life that this is not normal, it will be difficult to override that impression.

Even in cases where that's not true and the women aren't unintentionally seeking out surrogates for their dysfunctional father relationships, abusers have extremely high social intelligence. They are excellent at manipulating both people and the situation. They often begin slowly making you rely on them piece by piece until they take over completely. The money is almost always controlled by them. The bills and cars are only in their name, and they make it a point to be well-liked by the community. After they gain control, the physical abuse begins. People stay because they're trapped; they have no car, no money, they feel like they have no way out. And often the abuser threatens to kill them if they talk to anyone. Sometimes the abuser threatens to hurt or kill other family members if they try to leave.

Being in an abusive relationship is literally living in a personal hell that you have to hide from the world. It is generally accepted that there are 6 main types of abuse. The most common that everyone associates with is physical abuse. What most people don't realize is that this type of abuse also includes indirect physical abuse, which doesn't include hitting or physical contact. It includes things like standing over you, getting "in your face," blocking a doorway, grabbing you if you try to leave, kicking, punching, biting, slapping, choking, threatening to harm you, using weapons, throwing things, breaking things, punching walls or doors, driving recklessly, burning, cutting, pulling hair, stabbing, strangling, tying or confining you, preventing you from seeking medical care, and often escalates to murder. This type of abuse often starts slowly and gets progressively worse.

Emotional abuse is also another broad category that most people have some basic knowledge of. However, most people don't realize the extent of this abuse. Emotional abuse includes insults, put downs, intimidation, embarrassing you in public, talking down to you, not listening to or respecting your feelings, making threats, telling you you’re not “GLBTQ,” “man,” or “strong” enough, being jealous, possessive, controlling; excessive or threatening texts, wanting access to your messages, email, FaceBook/MySpace, spying, checking up on you, accusations of cheating, making you feel like you need to justify yourself, giving you no privacy, shaming you for your sexual orientation. Now, to be clear, many of the behaviors listed here are also normal human emotional responses; jealousy, for example. The distinction between a normal response and abuse is the context and frequency. If you went to a party with your partner and then ignored them all night and danced or flirted with other people, it would be a normal response to be somewhat jealous. However if your partner gets overly jealous whenever anyone so much as looks at you or says hi to you, then you have a problem.

A third broad category of abuse is Verbal Abuse. This includes behaviors like yelling, shouting, swearing, continuously arguing, interrupting, talking over you, put downs, using loud and threatening language and tone to cause fear, name calling, intimidating you, mocking you, abusive language. Again, yelling and shouting can be normal behaviors within a reasonable context (not necessarily a healthy behavior, or one conducive to building a healthy relationship, but within the realm of normal). You may also note that Verbal Abuse and Emotional Abuse overlap somewhat.

A fourth category is Economic Abuse. This is one that most people won't identify with by name, but it is one of the most important reasons that people who are abused stay in a relationship. This type of abuse includes withholding money, opening up a joint account but denying you access, forcing you to leave your job, forcing you to get fired, shaming you for how you spend your money, not allowing you to work or get an education, putting all the bills/credit cards in your name (or their name), or preventing you from using a car. This could be further expanded and summarized to say that it includes any denial or restriction of common property or assets.

A fifth category, and one that overlaps some of the others is Mental Abuse. This include behaviors such as playing mind games with you, twisting everything around so nothing is their fault and all of their behavior was caused by something you did or didn’t do, accusing you of doing things that they are doing, lying, manipulating you for control or sex, threatening to “out” you to parents, friends, classmates, distorting reality so you think you are losing your mind. They may also resort to hiding things that you've left somewhere so that you can't find it and then spend hours looking for it only to return it to the original location when you're about to give up making you doubt your sanity.

The last major category is Sexual Abuse. This includes behaviors such as rape, unwanted sexual touching, vulgar comments, pressure for sex, forcing you to have unprotected sex, forcing you to get pregnant or to have an abortion, sexting, forcing you to have sex with other people or to watch your partner have sex with someone else, forcing you to use or participate in pornography, and much worse.

If you want to know more about how to help people who are in an abusive relationship the CDC offers a free web training on it.

If you think that people living with abuse are exaggerating, they aren't. One brave woman took a photo of herself every day for a year while she was living with abuse. I will warn you, the video is not easy to watch if you have any compassion for others and if you've ever been abused, it may trigger some bad memories. With that disclaimer out of the way, you can watch it here. The sign at the end of the video says "Help me. I don't know if I'll make it until tomorrow". ...let that sink in for a minute.

You can either love someone, or you can fear them, but it can never be both. You might be tricked into thinking that you love them because they provide for you, but that's not love, that's them continuing to exert control by making you dependent on them. You might tell yourself that you love them because they give you things without asking. Again, that's not love, that's them controlling what you have and whom you communicate with. Eventually your mind becomes so blurred that you really think that you do actually love them, but it's not love, it's Stockholm Syndrome. If you live in fear of being beat or hit you cannot be in love with that person.

If you are in this situation, there is always a way out, there is always help. If you know someone in this situation, take them seriously and don't just discredit their discussion as simple complaining. Often they are in a life-threatening situation and they just don't realize it.