Climate change: One little problem with the “they’re in it for the money” argument

I’m always surprised to see climate-change deniers resort to the argument that scientists who warn about global warming are “only in it for the money.” Do they not realize the tiny amount of money that goes into climate change research compared to the vast sums reaped by the fossil fuel industry?

Then it occurred to me: Maybe they actually have no idea what it’s like to be a scholarly researcher, and how little money this research earns for them. So I decided to look up the numbers myself. Here’s what I found:


The fossil fuel industry in the US brings in about 100 times more revenue than the government spends on climate change research. So if you’re going to argue, “they’re in it for the money,” you probably want to take this into account. The fossil fuel industry has much more to gain by “proving” that global climate change isn’t caused by their products than publicly-funded scientists do by showing that fossil fuels do cause climate change.

Or consider another way of looking at the problem. How much can an individual with a PhD earn working on climate change research in academia versus working for the fossil fuel industry?


Once again, if you’re just in it for the money, you and your PhD are much better off working for industry than in a university research position.

This is something that is mind-blowingly obvious to anyone who works in or around academia (but perhaps not so much for the general public). The people who do this work aren’t in it for the money. If they were just interested in making a lot of money, for someone with their level of education, there are many, many other, easier ways to do it.

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Apple’s new MacBook is perfect…except for one (not so) little thing

I’m typing this on my brand-new, ultra-slick, ultra-light Apple MacBook. Some folks have complained that it is woefully underpowered, that the keyboard doesn’t have the same, easy action as the previous models, that there is only one port, which is used both to charge the computer and connect to devices.

I can live with all that. This computer isn’t my primary machine (and it still vastly outpowers my 2010 MacBook Air), so I’m not bothered by compromises in speed. I love the crisp “retina” display, the amazing taptic trackpad, and the gorgeous, individually backlit keys. It’s even got better speakers than my 11-inch MacBook Air, and double the battery life, in a device that is thinner and lighter.

But there’s one place that Apple screwed up on this one. For years, all the way back to my 2001 titanium PowerBook G4, I’ve enjoyed one of the best-designed power supplies of any computer, ever. The plug flips conveniently out of the way, and two little clips flip out to allow you to wrap the cord neatly around the brick itself. No muss, no fuss. For nearly 15 years, Apple has maintained this elegant design for all its laptops. Now, inexplicably, for the new MacBook, they’ve abandoned it. Instead of providing handy folding tabs that must add all of 30 cents to the manufacturing cost of the power supply, they leave them out completely. This photo shows you the difference:

Which power supply would you prefer? I’d take the “old” one on the left even though it’s considerably larger.

I’m not going to return the computer, which is beautiful in every other way, but every time I look at that power supply, I will think about how it could have been. What were you thinking, Jony Ive?

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Are liberals really just as deluded about GW as conservatives?

This article has been making the rounds lately: Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question.

It’s a fascinating piece, which seems to somehow equate the people who want to do something about global warming with the people who want to continue with business as usual. I’m really not sure what the point is, so let’s just take the “myths” one by one:

Myth #1: Liberals Are Not In Denial

The thrust of this argument seems to be that since liberals try to sell global warming solutions as not terribly painful, then liberals themselves have no clue how tough global warming will be to stop. It’s as if the article’s author, Eric Lindberg, thinks that if only conservatives were told that they would not only have to give up their SUVs, but also give up their guns and submit their daughters to forced abortions, they’d suddenly wake up and support reforms that would help slow global warming.

I think most liberals who are paying attention understand that global warming is a super-tough problem, and that it will require serious changes to be made. But they also understand that the changes have to be made by everyone, together. If half the planet gets serious about fighting global warming, the other half will have no problem negating those efforts.

Myth #2: Republicans are Still More to Blame

Everyone burns fossil fuels, including Democrats, therefore Democrats are just as much to blame as Republicans for global warming.

Right. Because Republicans are so on board with emissions caps, or carbon taxes, or efficiency standards for light bulbs and appliances. So since liberals don’t think we can all just hold hands and magically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, they’re just as much to blame for lack of political progress on global warming as conservatives? There’s a myth at work here, but I think it’s going on in the minds of idealists like Lindberg than in todays “liberals.”

Myth #3: Renewable Energy Can Replace Fossil Fuels

Now we may be getting to the heart of Lindeman’s argument. Here he’s essentially claiming that there is no technological solution to global warming. The human way of life is what is causing it, and creating more solar panels and wind farms will only stoke demand. The very act of building these things consumes energy, and the cycle will be impossible to escape.

I suppose if this argument is true then Lindeman does have a point… a point that, what, we need to undergo mass sterilization to reduce human population? I would submit that the jury is still out on whether there is a technological solution, that human innovation has done incredible things in the past 100 years and voluntarily returning the world to the stone age is infinitely less plausible than using our amazing talents to find another way out of this dilemma. Of course the ultimate solution will probably require us to change, but these changes might take the form of using more public transportation, building denser housing, and requiring more stringent efficiency standards for all of our favorite vehicles and appliances, not tearing down all the factories.

Myth 4: The Coming “Knowledge Economy” Will be a Low-Energy Economy

This is pretty much a repeat of Myth #3. See above.

Myth 5: We can Reverse Global Warming Without Changing our Current Lifestyles

This is a repeat of all of the above, with the perverse assertion that solving global warming is easy since all we need to do is stop burning fossil fuels. Also, preventing world hunger is a simple matter of everyone eating enough.

Myth 6: There is Nothing I Can Do

Ironically, if you believe the rest of Lindeman’s argument, then Myth #6 is almost certainly true. This myth seems to contradict the others. If you think we don’t have to change our lifestyles to solve global warming, then you would probably also think there is something you can do to solve global warming, right?

No, it seems to me that most liberals understand at a much more visceral level than Lindeman how difficult global warming is to solve—and how difficult the remedies are to sell. I don’t claim to have a simple solution to the problem, but I certainly believe that the solution will come from the folks who at least acknowledge the existence of a problem and are willing to consider making changes in order to solve it.

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How many iPhone 6s can fit in a 747?

A recent post in MacRumors included photos of a 747 freighter loaded to the gills with iPhone 6s:

Source: MacRumors

The obvious question: How many phones is that? Should Apple be concerned about putting so much valuable cargo in a single jet?

Well, the larger iPhone 6 is 6.2 by 3.06 inches by just over a quarter-inch thick. Let’s assume the boxes are at least a half-inch bigger on the longer dimensions, so 6.7 by 3.56 inches. They have to be big enough to fit the charger, cables, and phones, so they are probably at least 1.25 inches thick.

So each phone in its packaging takes up a minimum of just over 30 cubic inches, which means about 57 phones per cubic foot. The 747-400 freighter has a cargo volume of 26,947 cubic feet, so if you could completely fill the available space, then that would be over 1.5 million phones!

Even if the packing isn’t perfectly efficient, it appears that well over 1 million phones can fit inside a 747 freighter.

Last year, Apple sold 150 million iPhones, so assuming a 50% increase in sales over last year, Apple would need about 225 747s to transport a year’s worth of phones.

So the risk in shipping a plane full of nothing but iPhones would represent less than 0.5 percent of Apple’s annual iPhone sales.

Still, 1 million iPhones is quite a rich cargo: the base large model (unsubsidized by carriers) retails for $749.99. That means a single planeload represents three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of cargo!

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Mesa Verde

First time at Mesa Verde. Amazing place.







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The robots really are taking over this time

It’s easy to dismiss fear of automation as needless paranoia. After all, we’re nowhere near the apocalypse suggested in movies like The Terminator. Robot armies aren’t coming to conquer the world.

But might they be coming for our jobs?

In the 1980s, as robots began to start replacing humans on automobile assembly lines, there was much hand-wringing as unions wondered whether the Detroit engines of American industry would soon be powered by automatons, leaving millions of automobile workers out of jobs.

Those fears slowly ebbed as the Reagan recovery became the Clinton boom. Then September 11 happened and we all started worrying about terrorists instead of robots. In fact US automotive manufacturing employment has been relatively steady from 1980 to the present, with the exception of the current recession, which resulted in a loss of about 300,000 jobs that don’t seem to be coming back. Add to that the fact that car production has been going up without a corresponding increase in employment and we can see that robots do indeed appear to be costing American jobs, at least in automotive manufacturing.

But maybe we can make up for that with jobs producing the robots themselves, right? Not according to Andrew McAfee. He argues that we are now approaching a critical point where automation will erode jobs significantly faster than jobs can be created.

Think about technologies like the Google Car.


Last year, Lawrence D. Burns, former vice president for research and development at General Motors and now a Google consultant, led a study at the Earth Institute at Columbia University on transforming personal mobility.

The researchers found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 m.p.h., carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.

In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute. Assuming a 15 percent profit, the current cost of taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.

Take a moment to consider the employment impact of this change. Instead of 13,000 taxis in New York, there would be 9,000 Google Cars. Assuming the current fleet runs on three shifts (as I understand most of them do), we’re talking about nearly 50,000 jobs, in New York City alone. Now imagine similar workforce replacements for delivery drivers, bus drivers, limousine drivers. You could be talking about well over 100,000 jobs, in just one city, replaced by just one technology.

Now consider this: Driving isn’t the only human job that would be relatively easy to replace with technology that is either currently available or will be available in the next few years. One of the fastest-growing industries, medical care, is also ripe for similar innovations. Current robotics technology could replace 90 percent of what nurses and nurses’ assistants do. And doctors might not be far behind. How difficult would it be, even with current technology, to create a diagnostic robot with access to a vast database of medical information? Perhaps in difficult cases the robot might need to consult with a human, but for routine treatment for strep throat, flu, or other common ailments, why would a doctor be necessary at all?

With the possible exception of so-called “creative” work, it’s hard to come up with a profession that couldn’t be replaced by a robot, in whole or in part.

What jobs that remain in this new automatopia would be extremely poorly-paid, for there would be dozens of people competing for every opportunity, no matter how meager. The result would be, barring an aggressive change to our social structure, economic armageddon.

Indeed, massive social upheaval would be impossible to avoid, whether it was done deliberately in an effort to stave off the inevitable consequences of hyperautomation, or simply allowed to occur “naturally” as a result of robots replacing jobs on a scale no one imagined the need to plan for.

One possible way to avoid the worst effects of automation is something I’ve been thinking would be a good idea to start now: Provide every American with a guaranteed income. It could start small, perhaps $5,000 per person per year in addition to whatever other income they have (including other public assistance). Then as the effects of automation became larger, the guarantee could become larger too, until it was enough for anyone to live on. People would only have to work if they wanted to, and many, presumably, would choose not to. Productivity would continue to merrily increase as the robots and their programmers got better at their jobs, so there should be plenty for everyone.

It’s not such a far-fetched idea, and has even proceeded to the level of a public referendum in Switzerland. But other solutions, such as limiting the workweek or mandating more government services (provided by people, not robots), could work as well.

These technologies are not going to wait for us to dither about how to handle them on a social / governmental scale. And if you don’t believe that a technology can fundamentally alter the economy, you need only consider the impact of the automobile, or the telephone. Those devices led to massive changes in the structure of the American workplace — from the 5-day workweek to the daily commute — and there is no reason to think that the impact of robotics will be any less dramatic. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that its impact will be even greater.

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Granada, part 2

The highlight of Granada is definitely the Nazrid Palace, which includes some of the most amazing, intricate Islamic art you will ever find.

This photo comes from the baths, and shows how even the lightwells are an opportunity to dazzle:


The “wine gate” gives an even bigger hint of what is to come.


Our tickets to the palace let us enter only at night — but the dramatic lighting made for quite an experience. To me the most amazing thing about this place is the ceilings. Here’s one made of wood:


And here is a ceiling with nearly infinite arches, arches built on arches built on yet more arches:


Nora took many more photos than I did, and she has already written a post on them. But first I’m going to steal one of her photos to post here:

This is a near-perfect photo of the reflecting pool at the palace. In the distance is the throne room.

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Granada, part 1

Granada, home of the Alhambra, is in the south of Spain, a hilly town, just out of sight of the Mediterranean, but within sight of the massive Sierra Nevada mountain range. Here Nora and Greta are walking down one of the hills.


The town has some lovely, narrow streets, including this one:


More photos below!

Continue reading

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More sights in Córdoba

A few more pics from Córdoba.

This is the “Roman Bridge.” Not sure quite how much of it is original Roman manufacture, but it was fun walking across to get a view of the city.

Here’s the view from Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a neat old castle with beautiful gardens.

Here are Nora and Greta in the gardens

And here are Greta and I.

Neat view of some of the columnar-sculpted cypresses.

The best shot of the ubiquitous orange trees I’ve managed, although Nora points out that my sky is blown out in this shot.

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The Great Mosque of Córdoba

The one sight I did not want to miss in Spain was the Cordoba mosque, one the best-preserved ancient mosques in the world. Arriving on Christmas, we couldn’t go inside, but here is a taste of what is to come:

We were staying in the Jewish quarter, so decided to eat at a Jewish restaurant. Fantastic food, if not strictly kosher.

Next day we finally entered the mosque, which has been rechristened as a Catholic church. Below the fold is a set of photos that should give you an idea of how Christian and Muslim were oddly juxtaposed.

Continue reading

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Catalan coinage

Some coins from the National Museum of Catalan Art. These are some large images so I’m going to place most of them below the fold.


More photos below:

Continue reading

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We’re in Spain for the holidays, having a great time. Some photos from our time in Barcelona:


The Sagrada Familia cathedral — still unfinished, but quite impressive!


The interior of the cathedral — light pouring in through stained glass.


Some Tapas — assorted meats and an anchovy salad.


A delicious Paella. Definitely better than anything I’ve had stateside.


A view of the old cathedral.


We took this tram across the harbor.


Here we are on the tram.


The view from the tram.


This is a bit of famous Barcelona architecture, an apartment building designed by Gaudi.


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Pilot mountain summit




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Campsite 1

Near Butter Gap, Pisgah National Forest


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The journey’s first mishap

Joe shows Sam how to handle a dead battery. Sam ignores Joe.


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Food for two and a half days

I’m getting ready for a hike in the Appalachians. Here is our food supply for the next couple of days. I’ll be doing small updates like this as much as I can during the trip.


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“Maybe we can live like this”…

One of the craziest aspects of the government shutdown has been the response of rabid conservatives to the closing of national parks and monuments. All I see in the social media from conservatives is “they’re spending more keeping people out than they would just keeping the place open.”

I wonder if these people have any idea what it costs to keep a national park open. Sure, when you read stories like this one, it all seems rather silly. A runner gets a $100 ticket for running through a national park. Won’t it cost more for the government to administer the fine — and the runner’s protests — than it would to keep the park open? After all, the runner claimed he saw “many other runners and bikers” in the park. If they didn’t all get tickets, and didn’t destroy the park, then what’s the harm?

Well, the Department of the Interior, which runs the Park Service, furloughed 81 percent of its employees. So clearly it doesn’t cost more to close the parks than keep them open. I suspect this is because most people are in fact staying out of the sites instead of challenging the Park Service to enforce the closures.

But maybe you could actually run the parks with less people! Couldn’t this be a win-win?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. I wonder how many of the people complaining about the closed parks and monuments have even been to one lately. I was at the Grand Canyon with my daughter last spring, during the off-season, and experienced a 20-minute wait to talk to a ranger about a route for a hike. Tourists were complaining loudly, trying to cut in line, grousing about the wait. The campgrounds at the bottom of the canyon were completely full, booked up for months in advance. We couldn’t camp, so my daughter and I decided to hike to the bottom and back in the same day.

We didn’t see a ranger once on our hike. We might have been able to sneak by and camp outside of the marked campground, but we didn’t, for fear we would be caught and fined. What would happen if hundreds, thousands of others decided they were above the law, and the park was “open” with a fifth of its normal staff? How long would vistas such as this one be unstained by six-packs dumped off cliffs and improvised campsites as far as the eye could see?

I’ve had similar experiences at parks all across America, from the Smokeys, where finding a place to bury human waste near a campsite is often like walking in a minefield, to King’s Canyon, where you need only walk a few feet off the trail to see the trash previous hikers have left behind. If this is how well the fully-staffed Park Service can maintain the parks, imagine what they would look like with 20 percent of that number. Right now the Park Service operates on 1/15 of a percent (PDF link) of the Federal budget. Are we really so strapped for cash that we think our national treasures deserve barely more than 1/100 of a percent?

I’d say the Park Service has done remarkably well with that 1/15 of a percent, helping to maintain hundreds of sites and monuments that surely would have been destroyed years ago if not for their efforts. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it would be “cheaper just to keep them open.” Not if we value these remarkable places and monuments. Not if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to see them the way we could, just a few weeks ago, the way we hope to again soon.

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Thoughts from a reader about 9/11

Yesterday’s post has received a lot of commentary, mostly to disagree with me — although there have also been some points of agreement. Most of the commentary is on my Facebook page, but I also received an email that I’d like to share here (anonymously, at the author’s request) because I think it raises some interesting points:

Hi Dave,

We’ve never met, but like you I’m a science writer, and I used to follow you on Twitter. I say used to, because after reading your post “How about we don’t Remember 9/11/2001 today?” I unfollowed. I had hoped that this simple act of merely choosing who to read and who not to read, who to see in my feed, would be enough, but quite frankly I just can’t stop thinking about what you wrote.

I’m not looking to tell you my 9/11 sob story, or my Boston Marathon sob story either, I know that as a human being you can probably grasp the fact that there are people out here in the world who were and remain deeply effected by these events. But I do want to point out to you that however unintended it may have been, your post was a blunt reminder of how isolating and alone it can be to feel like you are the only one who simply can’t get over it.

Worse things happen to more people. I know that. I think about the civil wars in other countries, the acts of genocide and violence against civilians. I’ve been working as a science writer for a year now, and a day hasn’t passed since that I don’t think about the lives lost to cancer. I think about grief. I think about loss. I think about fear. I think about how lucky I am. I think about the pain and the mental and emotional anguish that so many people go through every single day and I just feel sad. And pathetic. And weak. Because thinking about 9/11 still hurts so very much. And because what I have been through is nothing in comparison to what goes on in the rest of the world. You are right, “with more destruction going on every day, should we really put that all aside to rehash our single day of victimhood?”

I wish that I didn’t have the memories of a terrified 13 year old, certain her dad (a first reponder to 9/11) was running to meet his death (he survived). I wish that I didn’t have the memories of a terrified 25 year old frozen in fear watching another terrorist attack bring a city to its knees. These are days I wish I didn’t remember at all. I feel awful that I can’t get over it, because I should, shouldn’t I? Logic would dictate that I should. I have tried. I continue to try. I have found that despite what I have been told, time does not heal some wounds. So while you are right that yes, it has been 12 years and yes worse things happen, no I will not stop Remembering with a capital R. I will Remember because for me, and many other people, remembering is not a choice, and Remembering 9/11/2001 is something I feel compelled to do.

I am glad that it didn’t touch your life in a way that makes you feel it is necessary to Remember, but in writing this, I hope that I have made a case for showing a little more empathy toward those who are unable to forget.

[name withheld on request]

Here’s the response I sent her:

Thanks for taking the time to reply. I really appreciate your heartfelt, thoughtful response and I can certainly understand how difficult it must have been for you to go through both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attack. I ran the Boston Marathon this year and was deeply saddened by what occurred there. I wrote a blog post about it, too — albeit more of a tribute to Boston than a commentary on the events.

Sometimes I think it would be interesting to do an article about why events like Boston and 9/11 seem to affect people so much more deeply than other, numerically equivalent (or numerically worse) tragedies. I guess I was trying to get at that apparent irrationality in the post, but I probably swayed too far in discounting the very real harm done by these attacks.

Unfortunately I feel that the dramatic impact of 9/11 led to a vastly disproportionate response which not only harmed many more innocent people than were ever touched by 9/11, but also only increased the potential for more attacks in the future. I probably didn’t get that across very well in my post either.

Thanks again for writing, and I wish you the very best in your science writing career.



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How about we don’t Remember 9/11/2001 today?

I remember where I was on 9/11/2001. I remember how shocking it was. I couldn’t believe the World Trade Center had actually been destroyed… hadn’t I just walked by there, 7 or 8 years ago? I even knew people with family members who were in the building when the first plane hit. And who hasn’t been annoyed by the increased airport security necessitated by those tragic events. I just read an article about a girl who was born on 9/11/2001 and now has to endure insensitive questions whenever she fills out a form with her birthdate on it.

But really, people, this happened 12 years ago. Since then, there have been almost no terrorist attacks on American soil. Yes, 3,000 people were killed that day, but that represents a tiny portion of our population. Aside from the inconveniences of enhanced security and some increased government surveillance, have Americans’ lives really changed as a result?

It was most definitely hard for my wife and me to decide how to tell our kids about the tragic events that occurred hundreds of miles away from us, but in the greater scheme of things, it really wasn’t so difficult. It’s been much tougher figuring out how to keep our kids motivated in school, or dealing with illnesses in the family. By comparison, 9/11 has hardly affected our family at all.

Yes, I understand that thousands of families were affected directly, but the numbers are trivial compared to many more real threats that we face every day. I’ve had melanoma. 9,000 people a year die from melanoma in America. These deaths affect families just as much as those that occurred on 9/11, and there have been over 100,000 since 9/11 occurred, more than 30 times the scale of 9/11. Melanoma is much easier to prevent than war or terrorist attacks, and yet we hardly ever think about it until we or someone we know faces it. Then, whether they survive or die, we let it fade from memory.

I’m not saying that we should have an annual melanoma day, or heart disease day, or slipping in the shower and dying from a concussion day — quite the opposite. I’m saying that we should try to put these things in perspective. When millions of people in Syria have been forced to leave their homeland by the ongoing war there, when over 100,000 have been killed, with more destruction going on every day, should we really put that all aside to rehash our single day of victimhood?

I’m also not saying we should forget about 9/11 entirely. I’m just saying we shouldn’t Remember 9/11 with a capital R, the way we Remember the Holocaust or the Jim Crow South. Absent our starting two misguided wars as a response, it’s not that scale of a historical event. If you want to remember 9/11, remember that we overreacted to it. Don’t talk about how it changed your life because you remember what you were doing when you heard about it on the radio. That’s the kind of memory you’d probably be better off forgetting.

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No, sending your child to public school won’t save the schools. Not even if everyone did it.

An Allison Benedikt article on Slate is getting a lot of attention, partly due to its provocative headline: “If you send your kid to a private school, you are a bad person.”

Benedikt’s argument is basically this: People who send their kids to private school care about their kids’ education, so if those kids were in public school, the parents would work to make that school better.

Oh, if only that were true. If only somehow the children of the wealthy (and their parents) could make schools a better place for everyone by their mere presence. Wouldn’t that be great? But you know what? They wouldn’t. Sure, the wealthy parents might spend more time volunteering in the schools. They might lobby for more money to be spent on schools and for better schools to be built.

But they wouldn’t want this for everyone. They would want this for their kids. So they wouldn’t lobby for a new school to replace the crumbling central-city school; they’d lobby for a gleaming new suburban palace in their wealthy neighborhood (but not too close — wouldn’t want to spoil their view of the golf course).

Think I’m wrong? Look, this already happens. Plenty of wealthy parents are too cheap to send their kids to private schools. So they send them to public schools, then set up PTAs to raise money for those schools, turning them into the next best thing to a private school, at a fraction of the cost. They lobby against busing. They support zoning laws restricting high-density development so that poor people can’t afford to live in their neighborhoods. They do all this even though they could afford to send their kids to private school.

These people are not benevolent. Sure, they care about their kids. To a lesser extent they care about their neighbor’s kids. But they don’t care about poor kids. They might say they care, but they certainly aren’t volunteering to put on a bake sale at the poor kids’ school. They’re not coaching the poor kids’ Little League teams, they’re not advocating for higher wages so poor parents can afford a better life for their own children.

There are a lot of things wrong with the public schools. I may not know how to fix them, but I do know one thing: Asking wealthy folks to voluntarily stop sending their kids to private schools won’t fix the schools.

And it especially won’t help the public schools that need help the most.

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