Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Back in the sixties, a piece of business jargon became current and made its way into respected dictionaries: incentivize. We encounter this odious word nowadays in two national discussions: ( 1) whether cutting taxes will motivate employers to hire, and (2) whether offering bonuses to teachers will raise students' test scores. The first is one of many issues upon which economists will forever divide. The second is an argument that I hope will soon be put to bed .

A major study was released last week by Vanderbilt University and the Rand Corporation that concluded teacher bonuses don't raise children's test scores. The study was conducted in Nashville over a three year period, using randomization and control groups, and offering bonuses of up to 37.5% of salary to math teachers in grades five through eight. The only measurable improvement was among fifth graders, but it disappeared by the sixth grade.

The Washington Post observed: " The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction."


The Obama administration has quadrupled funds available for "incentivizing" teachers in its Race to the Top program. Education Department officials often talk about changing the "culture of teaching," but never about the "culture of students."

Incentives work, provided they're directed at the variable that needs to be motivated.

Augustinian Nun by Piero della Francesca, 15th Century. I remember liking this artist when I first encountered his work in college because I saw, or projected, a deadpan humor in his portraiture. This painting is a good example. I bet it gives every former parochial school student a case of the willies. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement
A poem without a stopping point by this blogger.

Is it the day that atones,
Or those who observe it?

The day.

Is fasting a penance,
(just two lousy meals; might be good for you),
Or a reminder of how easy we have it?

How easy.

Should we feel guilty when it's over,
Or absolved?


Do we need to spend this day in a stale synagogue,
Droning prayers.
Or can we atone by ourselves?

Good question.

Can we honor God
and deal treacherously with our fellow man and woman?

Answers itself.

In most religions, God rewards an ethical life with redemption. In Judaism the reward for a good deed, a mitzvah, is the mitzvah itself. It sort of works. I still k'vell (feel good) about every decent thing I've ever done, just as I suffer for all my bullshit.

Can God sit it out while I strive with my conscience?

He usually does.

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938. He painted this in France, Vichy to be exact, before he knew the danger he was in from the Nazis. By surrounding a crucified Jesus, clad in a prayer shawl loin cloth, with images of Jewish persecution, his intention seems to have been to find the universality of hope and redemption that arises from suffering.

Do such sentiments inspire you, or make you feel very old?

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Then and Now

A steady voice in support of fiscal stimuli has been Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. He recently compared our present stalled recovery with that of 1938, when President Roosevelt heeded those calling for a balanced budget, in an election year that boded ill for the Democrats, and cut the legs out from under his program. Krugman wrote: "I had hoped that we would do better this time. But it turns out that politicians and economists alike have spent decades unlearning the lessons of the 1930s, and are determined to repeat all the old mistakes."

As everyone should know, the Great Depression was ended by World War II. America not only swung to full employment, but added massive numbers of new jobs that were filled by women and by immigrants, while millions of young men swelled the ranks of the military. Our factories worked at full capacity to produce the armaments, uniforms, vehicles, equipment and supplies needed for war. With auto plants suddenly converted to the making of jeeps and tanks, passenger cars were unavailable--not that it mattered since gasoline was rationed, along with food and fabric for clothing. People couldn't even find a pack of cigarettes in those days. The result was that workers were piling up dollars that they couldn't spend. So when the boys came home, their pockets stuffed with cash and the GI Bill available for college, while Europe's factories lay in ruins, America enjoyed a post war boom the likes of which the world may never see again.

I'm woefully unqualified to debate Mr. Krugman, but I can point out two disparities between then and now: we have largely abandoned manufacturing and we don't save a dime. As much as I want the Obama administration to prevail, I can't see how stimulating consumption of goods that are made abroad can possibly restore our domestic economy to health.

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, 1943; (above). I love the contrast between the exalted symbolism of the backdrop and the homely details of this strapping but ordinary young woman with her ham sandwich. Her pose was borrowed from Michelangelo's Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel; (right). Click on the picture for a closer look, and see what is beneath her feet.