Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.

Not Just a Test

Maybe we have so many problems right now that we’re simply at overload, so much so that there is practically no bad news headline that can hold our attention for very long.  We don’t have enough jobs, we’re stuck in two wars, contractors are fleecing our government when they are supposed to be helping with the wars, we are at internal political gridlock, our tax code is horribly broken, our roads and bridges and pipes are giving out, home prices are going in the wrong direction and too many people are stuck underwater with bad mortgages, and mother nature has been serving up an unusual amount of natural disaster pounding.  That’s not all of it, but it’s a lot.  It’s a wonder we aren’t in a worse mood.

So when yet another negative headline comes at us, it is any wonder it’s a one day wonder, if that, and we just don’t have any appetite to deal with it?  No, human nature at a certain point just shuts down, so it’s understandable.  But I think this one is core, and we can’t let it go:

Last week we learned that U.S. SAT scores for reading and writing hit a new low, with math scores also declining.  Here’s a quick summary as noted in the Wall Street Journal:

The results from the college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students, also revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam. Students had to score a 1550 out of a possible 2400 to meet that benchmark, which would indicate a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average in the first year of college, the Board calculated.

Okay, so not everyone does great on tests, it’s an acquired skill, and not everyone is college bound.  What’s the big deal?  Quoting further:

“At the precise time the importance of a college degree is increasing, the ability of the U.S. to compete in a global economy is decreasing,” said Jim Montoya, vice president of the College Board. “We, as a nation, have to do a better job preparing our kids for college.”

Let’s go back to the litany of problems, starting with the one about which President Obama recently gave a special speech to a joint session of Congress and the American People.  In that speech, the President said that right now, Job #1 is Jobs.  Barring some untold natural or unnatural crisis on the horizon, I am guessing that Job #1 doesn’t change through the next Presidential election.  After that, Jobs will probably remain Job #1 until unemployment is below 7% or so, which could be a long, long time — and there is no guarantee that it will ever be corrected, we have no natural entitlement to Jobs.  We have to create them.

Is there not a little irony here?  Is it possible we are trying to solve a problem in the short-term that was created in the long-term and can only be solved in the long-term?  Do we not see a link between falling test scores and an inability to compete?  Perhaps it’s fair to say that’s a little abstract, even obtuse — we all know plenty of well-educated, intelligent people who are out of work, so maybe that’s not the problem.  But let’s try to roll the clock forward a generation or two, at which time it is likely yours truly and many of you will be but particles of dust and memories.  Is there anyone who believes if a lot more than 43% of our kids can’t do better than 1550 out of 2400 that we are going to be the first stop on the investment train?  I’m not talking goosing the scores through prep programs and gaming strategies, I’m talking read the paragraph and answer the question, add the numbers in a column, writing a few coherently linked sentences that make a point.  That can’t be too much to ask for a high majority of the citizens of the #1 economy in the world, unless that doesn’t matter to us anymore either.

How did we slip?  Well, just when we got a little too distracted by so many consumer options created by our magnificent economy, as Thomas L. Friedman told us, the World Got Flat.  Competition for jobs become global.  Demand for commodities became global.  The internet and telecom made easy information exchange global.  Industrial contracts are up for bid regardless of geography.  Lots more people are attending many more years of school in places like India and China — and they are taking school very seriously, as an opportunity and a privilege, a gift that lets them advance the way we thought about education when our middle class was emerging over 100 years ago.

If we don’t think of education as a gift but instead a legal mandate to be tolerated, how do we compete in a world that is flat?  If we don’t use the time we have to be here with each other to absorb the knowledge collective, how much of life have we missed?  If our kids don’t learn math and science and history and language, what kind of leaders will they fall prey to electing?  Learning is at the core of prosperity, fulfillment, and public safety.  Why aren’t we treating it that way?

We can’t afford to let this be just another piece of bad news, another negative headline that just goes by because we are overwhelmed.  If we want to fix the problem at its core, we need to think long-term.  This isn’t unemployment, this isn’t terrorism, this isn’t social security or Medicare, this isn’t the banking system, this isn’t GNP, this isn’t an emergency brought on by the ground shaking or the winds howling or the rivers flooding.  It isn’t even global warming or protecting our precious planet.  I get it, we have a lot of priorities, too much to fix and not enough dough to fix it all.

I would still make our education system our #1 priority — because if we don’t fix that, the other stuff is just going to stay broken.

It’s not just a test.  It’s an evaluation, a form of measurement, a benchmark, an early warning system.  We’re getting bad grades.  We need to do better.  Shame on us for letting it slip to this level.  We either get on it now, or we don’t.

I say hit the books — make that Job #1.