Monthly Archives: April 2015

The American Dream Is Leaving America

by NIcholas Kristof, published October 25, 2014

THE best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a new study underscores that the escalator is broken.

We expect each generation to do better, but, currently, more young American men have less education (29 percent) than their parents than have more education (20 percent).

Among young Americans whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, only 5 percent make it through college themselves. In other rich countries, the figure is 23 percent.

The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized country — a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in that roster.

These figures come from the annual survey of education from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., and it should be a shock to Americans.

A basic element of the American dream is equal access to education as the lubricant of social and economic mobility. But the American dream seems to have emigrated because many countries do better than the United States in educational mobility, according to the O.E.C.D. study.

As recently as 2000, the United States still ranked second in the share of the population with a college degree. Now we have dropped to fifth. Among 25-to-34-year-olds — a glimpse of how we will rank in the future — we rank 12th, while once-impoverished South Korea tops the list.

Continue reading The American Dream Is Leaving America

Porsches, Potholes and Patriots

by Nicholas Kristof, published July 2, 2014

The anti-tax crusader pulls out of his driveway in his Porsche, hoping that the neighbors are watching. He’s proud that it’s the most expensive car on his block. “That’s the greatness of America” he muses. “That’s what we should celebrate on July 4! I spend money so much more wisely than government.”

Three blocks later, Babbitt, as we’ll call him, swerves to avoid one pothole and lands in another. There’s a sickening thud. With a sinking heart, Babbitt gets out to examine the damage.

“*@# government!” he curses. “They can’t even fix the roads. Now I’ve got a flat, and my rim is bent! What’s the point of owning a hot car when the government can’t even fix the roads?”

Babbitt calls a tow truck and gets to the office two hours late, missing a meeting with a client. “The government is like George III,” he moans. “Robs us blind and doesn’t do anything for us!”

Voters like Babbitt will play a major role in this year’s elections, and politicians are often too timid to point out the blunt truth: Sometimes money is better spent by the government than by individuals. Indeed, it seems to me that we’re at a point where we would be better off as a nation paying a bit more in taxes and in exchange getting better schools, safer food, less congested roads — and, over all, a higher standard of living.

America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes.

Continue reading Porsches, Potholes and Patriots

The Happiest People

by Nicholas Kristof, published January 6, 2010

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica

Hmmm. You think it’s a coincidence? Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth.

There are several ways of measuring happiness in countries, all inexact, but this pearl of Central America does stunningly well by whatever system is used. For example, the World Database of Happiness, compiled by a Dutch sociologist on the basis of answers to surveys by Gallup and others, lists Costa Rica in the top spot out of 148 nations.

That’s because Costa Ricans, asked to rate their own happiness on a 10-point scale, average 8.5. Denmark is next at 8.3, the United States ranks 20th at 7.4 and Togo and Tanzania bring up the caboose at 2.6.

Scholars also calculate happiness by determining “happy life years.” This figure results from merging average self-reported happiness, as above, with life expectancy. Using this system, Costa Rica again easily tops the list. The United States is 19th, and Zimbabwe comes in last.

A third approach is the “happy planet index,” devised by the New Economics Foundation, a liberal think tank. This combines happiness and longevity but adjusts for environmental impact — such as the carbon that countries spew.

Here again, Costa Rica wins the day, for achieving contentment and longevity in an environmentally sustainable way. The Dominican Republic ranks second, the United States 114th (because of its huge ecological footprint) and Zimbabwe is last.

Continue reading The Happiest People

We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!

by Nicholas Kristof, published April 2, 2014

We in the United States grow up celebrating ourselves as the world’s most powerful nation, the world’s richest nation, the world’s freest and most blessed nation.

Sure, technically Norwegians may be wealthier per capita, and the Japanese may live longer, but the world watches the N.B.A., melts at Katy Perry, uses iPhones to post on Facebook, trembles at our aircraft carriers, and blames the C.I.A. for everything. We’re No. 1!

In some ways we indisputably are, but a major new ranking of livability in 132 countries puts the United States in a sobering 16th place. We underperform because our economic and military strengths don’t translate into well-being for the average citizen.

In the Social Progress Index, the United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.

Continue reading We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!

Enjoying the Low Life?

by NIcholas Kristof, published April 9, 2015

he United States is the most powerful colossus in the history of the world: Our nuclear warheads could wipe out the globe, our enemies tweet on iPhones, and kids worldwide bop to Beyoncé.

Yet let’s get real. All this hasn’t benefited all Americans. A newly released global index finds that America falls short, along with other powerful countries, on what matters most: assuring a high quality of life for ordinary citizens.

The Social Progress Index for 2015 ranks the United States 16th in the world. We may thump our chests and boast that we’re No. 1, and in some ways we are. But, in important ways, we lag.

The index ranks the United States 30th in life expectancy, 38th in saving children’s lives, and a humiliating 55th in women surviving childbirth. O.K., we know that we have a high homicide rate, but we’re at risk in other ways as well. We have higher traffic fatality rates than 37 other countries, and higher suicide rates than 80.

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A Deep Dive Into Party Affiliation

by The Pew Research Center, U.S. Politics and Policy, published April 7, 2015

Sharp Differences by Race, Gender, Generation, Education

Democrats hold advantages in party identification among blacks, Asians, Hispanics, well-educated adults and Millennials. Republicans have leads among whites – particularly white men, those with less education and evangelical Protestants – as well as members of the Silent Generation.

4-6-2015_LEDEA new analysis of long-term trends in party affiliation among the public provides a detailed portrait of where the parties stand among various groups in the population. It draws on more than 25,000 interviews conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, which allows examination of partisan affiliation across even relatively small racial, ethnic, educational and income subgroups.  (Explore detailed tables for 2014 here.)

The share of independents in the public, which long ago surpassed the percentages of either Democrats or Republicans, continues to increase. Based on 2014 data, 39% identify as independents, 32% as Democrats and 23% as Republicans. This is the highest percentage of independents in more than 75 years of public opinion polling. (For a timeline of party affiliation among the public since 1939, see this interactive feature.)

Continue reading A Deep Dive Into Party Affiliation

The Invisible Democratic Majority

by Russell Berman, published April 8 2015 in The Atlantic

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From left: Jae C. Hong/AP, J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A new study finds broad support for the party among the general public in 2014, even as it was resoundingly defeated at the polls.

In 2002, two pundits prophesied an Emerging Democratic Majority, built on America’s increasing ethnic diversity. After the GOP triumph in the 2014 elections, one of them recanted, instead proclaiming an Emerging Republican Advantage. But what if the predicted Democratic majority already emerged, but just never bothered to show up and vote?

A study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that, over the course of 2014, American adults were far more likely to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, by a margin of 48 to 39 percent. But in November, GOP candidates for the House of Representatives garnered millions more votes than their Democratic rivals, amassing a cumulative advantage of 51 to 45 percent. A decisive Democratic edge in the general population translated to a distinct Republican advantage at the polls.

Democrats still found some solace in longterm demographic trends: Republicans may enjoy the support of older, white Americans, but Democrats remain strong among young people and ethnic minorities, who will make up an ever-increasing share of the population in coming years. The GOP’s advantage, they assumed, would be temporary, and an enduring Democratic majority would indeed emerge over time.

Yet the depth of the Democratic losses in November cast doubt on that rosy thinking. For one, Republicans captured so many seats—both on the federal and state levels—that they can write their current advantage into electoral districts that will last a decade. And more ominously, a higher percentage of Millennials—that most crucial element of the future Democratic base—voted GOP than in the past. That’s what led John B. Judis, looking at the voting choices made by white and middle-class Americans, to repudiate his prophesy of an emerging Democratic majority, and to declare in National Journal the onset of a Republican advantage.

Continue reading The Invisible Democratic Majority

How long does the mail take? Let the Postal Service count the days

by Save the Post Office, published April 9, 2015

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The Postal Service is proposing to change the way it measures the on-time service performance of First Class Mail.  Instead of contracting a third-party to evaluate how long it takes for the mail to be delivered, the Postal Service wants to count the days itself.  The change requires the approval of the Postal Regulatory Commission, and yesterday several stakeholders and postal watchdogs filed comments to PRC Docket PI2015-1.

The current system is called External First-Class Measurement (EXFC).  The Postal Service has been using this system since 1990.  As the Postal Service explains on one of its quarterly performance reports:

“EXFC is a rigorous external sampling system measuring the time it takes from deposit of mail into a collection box or lobby chute until its delivery to a home or business.  EXFC measures the transit time for single-piece rate First- Class cards, letters, and flat envelopes and compares this actual service against service standards.”

The EXFC system is conducted by an external independent third-party — IBM — and it measures the end-to-end length of time it takes for mail to be delivered.  The participants, known as droppers and reporters, are supposed to be kept confidential, and the whole process is supposed to be conducted without managers and workers knowing which pieces are being tested.  The test mail is statistically analyzed based on sample volume, mail characteristics, and the location where the mail was entered and delivered.

Continue reading How long does the mail take? Let the Postal Service count the days

A look at Berkshire Hathaway’s response to ‘mobile home trap’ investigation

by Daniel Wagner and Mike Baker, published April 6, 2015

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Mobile home purchased by Kirk and Denise Pitts of Knoxville, Tennessee in 1997. They still owe more than $39,000 on the home and land, which were valued at $33,100 in 2013. Daniel Wagner/Center for Public Integrity

After The Seattle Times and The Center for Public Integrity published their investigation of Berkshire Hathaway’s mobile-home business, Berkshire sent a statement to a newspaper it owns, calling the story “misleading.” It did not point to any factual inaccuracies.

For months, Berkshire Hathaway and Clayton Homes, its mobile-home subsidiary, had ignored or declined reporters’ requests to discuss the company’s treatment of consumers.

Here’s a look at the company’s statement, published by the Omaha World-Herald, and the credibility of its claims:

CLAIM: “Clayton Homes’ policies, procedures and training are designed to ensure that customers have a choice of lenders. A list of all available lenders is posted and provided in company-owned retail locations.”

FACTS: Customers historically have not been given a choice of lenders, according to customers interviewed for this report. In early 2015, a reporter visited Clayton-owned and -affiliated dealerships in eastern Tennessee, and saw large, house-sized banners promoting Clayton loan products. There were no comparable signs related to other lenders. Promotional materials related to other lenders at one dealership consisted of small, trifold brochures located on a side table in one room of the dealership.

CLAIM: “Customers are encouraged to select more than one lender so they can compare options – and select the loan program that best serves their needs.”

FACTS: Numerous customers interviewed for this story said they were told that Clayton lenders were the only option or the best option. Some did not realize, nor were they told, they said, that the home dealers and lenders were part of the same company. They said they were never encouraged to explore alternatives.

CLAIM: “The retailer selling the home receives no financial incentives from the lender the customer chooses.” Continue reading A look at Berkshire Hathaway’s response to ‘mobile home trap’ investigation

The Richest Slumlord in America

by Bud Meyers, published April 7, 2015

(* Editor’s note: This is from a joint investigation of The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times)

Clayton-owned mobile home dealerships with different names and similar banners offer to “BEAT OR MATCH ANY DEAL.” Customers say theythought they were comparison shopping, when they were really visiting multiple Clayton-owned dealerships — all owned by one company, which is owned by another company, which is owned by one of America’s richest men.

The U.S. second richest man, Warren Buffett, owns Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Clayton, the mobile home industry’s biggest manufacturer and lender. Clayton is a many-headed hydra with companies operating under at least 18 names. It also sells property insurance on their mobile homes — and repossesses them when borrowers fail to pay.

Berkshire Hathaway extracts value at every stage of the process. Clayton even builds the homes with materials supplied by other Berkshire subsidiaries. And Clayton borrows from Berkshire to make mobile home loans, paying up to an extra percentage point on top of Berkshire’s own borrowing costs.

Continue reading The Richest Slumlord in America