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September 2009

The October HBR Issue

I read the latest issue of Harvard Business Review over the weekend. Here are some highlights.

Financial Literacy. In "Are Your People Financially Literate?", a short article by Karen Berman and Joe Knight in the Forethought section, the authors report the following: "Asked to take a basic financial-literacy exam - a test that any CEO or junior finance person should easily ace - a representative sample of US managers from C-level executives to supervisors scored an average of only 38%. [...] About 70% couldn't pick the correct definition of 'free cash flow', now the measure of choice for many Wall Street investors." While the authors wonder why people don't tell their bosses that "they don't speak finance", a more relevant question would be: why don't they bother buying one of the many books available on the topic? The one-line bio at the end of the article does provide a website for "tools that help boost financial IQ" and the name of a book the authors, two principals at the Business Literacy Institute, wrote in 2006 along with another person.

Innovation at GE. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and two other GE affiliates co-authored "How GE Is Disrupting Itself," a fascinating account of GE's reverse flow of innovation from developing to developed countries. Companies such as GE have traditionally relied on glocalization; they "develop great products at home and then distribute them worldwide, with some adaptations to local conditions." But the ultrasound machine GE manufactured for the US in the 1990s could not be adapted to the needs of countries like China, where it was too expensive and bulky. Then, "in 2002 a local team in China leveraged GE's global resources to develop a cheap, portable machine using a laptop computer enhanced with a probe and sophisticated software." (Notice the switch from hardware in the developed countries to software in the developing countries.) This new machine opened the market of portable ultrasound devices, which are now used in the US in ambulances and on accident sites.

Baseball. "Major League Innovation" by Scott Anthony points out the importance of choosing the correct metrics; for instance, minor league statistics, which used to be dismissed by general managers, "turned out to be highly useful predictors of success." The author also draws a parallel between depth charts and innovation portfolios. This July 2009 article in the New York Times provides another perspective on the topic of applying statistical analysis to baseball.

Risk management.
HBR's October issue has a whole dossier on risk, including an article co-authored by Nassim Taleb, of Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan fame, along with two other people ("The Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management"). Taleb often disparages traditional financial engineering and quantitative techniques in the media, where he usually comes across as having a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of just about anyone else (read for instance this article in the New York Times, and just about any page in the Black Swan; the one-star reviews on Amazon summarize well the issues I have with that book - Fooled by Randomness, Taleb's first book, is a lot more readable.) The neutral tone of the HBR article was therefore a pleasant surprise. The article makes some good points, for instance (Mistake #1), "[i]t's more effective [rather than focusing on a few extreme scenarios] to focus on the consequences - that is, to evaluate the possible impact of extreme events." The authors give the example of nuclear plants: the goal is not to predict the likelihood of an accident, but to develop a contingency plan when the accident does happen.

Another point that attracted my attention was Mistake #4: "We assume that risk can be measured by standard deviation." I was quickly disappointed, though. I had expected a sophisticated argument, such as "standard deviation penalizes downside and upside risk equally, when we are really interested in downside risk", but the authors come up with the following reason: "The standard deviation corresponds to the square root of average squared variations - not average variations. The use of squares and square roots makes the measure complicated." Honestly, if a company's risk manager finds square roots complicated, that company has some serious problems on its hands.

Mistake #5 also sounded reasonable ("We don't appreciate that what's mathematically equivalent isn't psychologically so") but the explanation for it seemed far-fetched. The authors explained they asked people in an experiment whether they would board a plane in a foreign country if the "[s]afety statistics show[ed] that, on average, there has been one crash every 1,000 years on this airline." Everybody said yes. Then the authors changed the question to read that "[s]afety statistics show that, on average, one in 1,000 flights on this airline has crashed." Only 70% said they would take the flight. The authors point out that "in both cases, the chance of a crash is 1 in 1,000." Uh, no. One crash every 1,000 years is not the same thing as one crash every 1,000 flights. If you do experiments just to trick people, or pretend you did, the experiment loses its value and its meaning. 

Fighter brands. "Should You Launch a Fighter Brand?" is my favorite article of the whole issue, written by Mark Ritson, a faculty member of Melbourne Business School. It explains that "[i]n eras of belt tightening, marketers are often tempted to launch fighter brands. Properly executed, a fighter brand fends off low-cost rivals while allowing a company's premium brand to stay above the fray. [...] But the long list of failed fighter brands shows how hard they are to pull off." The article is full of detailed examples, including the Busch Bavarian beer, the Luvs brand from P&G, the Celeron chip from Intel, the Saturn car that was a brand success for General Motors but also a financial disaster, and Jetstar, Qantas's cheaper brand in the Australian airline industry. The author also provides great insights on what makes a successful fighter brand and which questions managers should ask before taking the leap.

Other articles I enjoyed reading include "The Five Traps of Performance Measurement" by Andrew Liekierman (which include "set[ting] easy-to-game metrics" and "cling[ing] to systems that have outlived their usefulness") and "Making Time Off Predictable and Required" by Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter, a must-read for anyone involved in the consulting industry.


When the numbers don't add up

In its Economics focus column, The Economist asked on September 5th: "Is China deliberately understating the size of its trade surplus?" The issue is that China's trade surplus with other countries does not match the deficit these countries report in their trade with China: "if you add up all countries' trade with China (using the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics database), then the world ran a trade deficit with China of about $650 billion in 2008, more than twice as large as the $295 billion surplus logged by China itself". A $355 billion difference can hardly count as rounding error.

So what is going on? It'd be tempting to conclude that Beijing is "deliberately understating its embarrassingly large surplus." This answer, the Economist concludes, would be incorrect for the following reasons:

  • "[A] lot of China's trade is shipped through Hong Kong." It is difficult for China to track the final destination of these goods, which are recorded as exports to Hong Kong instead. Customs officials in importing countries, however, do record the true country of origin. In addition, "Hong Kong re-exporters also add a mark-up of around 25% to goods they handle."
  • "[C]ountries report exports and imports on a "customs" basis. Imports include the cost of insurance and freight but exports are recorded on a "free on board" (FOB) basis, which excludes such charges."
  • After the two factors above are reincorporated, the discrepancy about China's surplus falls to $90 billion. The Economist conjectures that "much of the remaining gap probably reflects disguised capital flows [to dodge capital controls and transfer profits to low-tax areas] rather than a deliberate ploy by Beijing to understate its trade surplus."

A 2006 article from BusinessWeek makes many of these same points ("China's Trade Surplus May Be An Illusion").


Newspapers as Nonprofits and the Philanthropy Problem

In "A Publisher Stumbles Publicly At The Post" (July 3, 2009), the New York Times describes the awkward situation Katharine Weymouth, the Post's new-ish publisher, put herself into when it became known that "[t]he Washington Post had sent out a brochure offering sponsorships — a fee of $25,000 for one, or $250,000 for an entire series — for an exclusive “Washington Post salon” at [her] home in which officials from Congress and the administration, lobbyists and, yes, the paper’s own reporters could have a quiet, off-the-record dinner, discussions to be led by [the newspaper’s editor]." This created enough outrage for the plans to be canceled and blamed on an overzealous marketing employee; the Times's reporter wrote scathingly that the publisher "decided to sell [legitimacy], with her paper’s editorial integrity apparently thrown in as a parting gift."

With the talk of newspapers becoming nonprofits becoming louder every month, though, it was only a matter of time before newspapers tried some of the funding techniques their nonprofit counterparts have honed over the past decades. The attempt was ill-advised, but not as shocking as the New York Times portrays it to be. In March, "a Democratic senator [...] introduced a bill to help [newspapers] by allowing newspaper companies to restructure as nonprofits with a variety of tax breaks", according to this Reuters press release; a former Washington Post reporter turned blogger at the New Yorker gives the idea of "the Post as a nonprofit" a lot of thought in this January essay, where he wishes the Post had an endowment the size of Williams College's. (He doesn't say who would pay the tuition.)

A large part of nonprofits' success hinges on their ability to attract wealthy donors to underwrite their activities. I go to a lot of arts performances; every single program, in every concert hall or arts center, includes a long list of donors ranked in decreasing amounts of the money they have contributed. Putting together a new production at the Metropolitan Opera costs millions of dollars; this is not the kind of money you raise one $100 check at a time (although $100 checks certainly help, the Met doesn't even list small-time donors in its programs.) Philanthropists are often offered some kind of behind-the-scenes access if they write a check for a large amount - a brunch with the maestro, or a reception with the manager, or free tickets to open rehearsals. Corporate donors also contribute large amounts of money.

The main difference with newspapers, of course, is that nonprofit newspapers, which would also rely on wealthy philanthropists and conglomerates to fund their massive operations, might have to report on the people who are giving them money, while no wealthy philanthropist would dare asking the Met to produce his opera (although the example of Gilbert Kaplan, businessman who occasionally leads some of the world's most famous orchestras for Mahler's Second, might generate a following). Would newspapers simply ignore stories that might offend their benefactors?

The issue of donations to finance judges' campaigns gives an idea of the problems ahead for newspapers if they go down the nonprofit route. Judge Brent Benjamin received a lot of media attention last year when it was revealed that "[i]n 2004 [a company CEO] spent $3m to help elect Brent Benjamin to West Virginia’s Supreme Court. In 2007 Mr Benjamin voted to overturn a $50m judgment against [that very same company]." (The Economist, February 26, 2009) According to the Economist, the $3m represented 60% of the total amount raised in the judge's campaign, and was donated as the company prepared its appeal. The judge deemed unnecessary to recuse himself.

The US Supreme Court heard the case this Spring, and "decided by five votes to four that the West Virginia case went too far." (The Economist, June 11, 2009) But the issue is far from clear-cut. "The dissenting justices listed 40 troubling questions. How much money is too much? Are judges biased against those who opposed their election? How long does a probability of bias last? What about spending not by an individual but by a group?" Those questions would certainly be relevant too for not-for-profit newspapers.


After Lehman

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers' demise. The New York Times ran an in-depth story about former Lehman employees, which served as a reminder that there were real people beyond the Wall Street names that have been so vilified in the media, and that not all have been able to land on their feet after Lehman's bankruptcy. One is unemployed, another bought (and works at) a gas station; one sells bonds for a little-known company, another spends his time flying jets. Lehman ex-employees have been thrown into a surprisingly wide range of career paths.

The Wall Street Journal came up with a similar idea as the New York Times, giving us a glimpse of the fate of several Lehman veterans, but the profiles are much shorter and more shallow:

  • After a few rocky months, a paralegal landed a job "in a general office-support position for another bank with a salary close to what she had at Lehman."
  • The global head of merchant banking was kept in place by the company that ultimately bought that part of Lehman.
  • The global head of technology law started his own law firm, and now handles the Lehman estate.
  • A vice president got promoted to director in another firm. (As an aside, the choice of picture - the young woman posing on her balcony to show off her view of the Upper West Side, in such a dress that the caption-writer had to explain she was going out to dinner with a friend after the photo shoot - displays a surprising thoughtlessness from the woman in question and a naivete in dealing with the media one would not expect from a 30-year-old. A picture of her in business clothes would have been so much more appropriate. It turns out she's a Lehigh alum. On the plus side, I'm glad she found another job in the industry and her career is thriving.)
  • An associate now has a part-time sales job at a sports store.
  • The vice-president of dining services for the Americas launched her own bakery.
  • Five other employees, including several analysts, are portrayed here.

The New York Times points out: "[F]ew Lehman veterans, or their counterparts at other banks, blame themselves for the havoc their activities wrought. Instead, they point to the failures of regulators." But the motivation to reform Wall Street has waned, as documented in this NPR article. According to the Economist, "proposals [in Britain] range from a special insolvency regime for investment banks (there is none now) to tightening up the clearing and settling of trades, and the handling of clients’ assets. Banks, lawyers and accountants want fixes to be minimal and market-driven. [...] Regulators are likely to get no further than they did after the collapse of Barings, a British bank, in 1995." ("Turf Woes")

The NYT also recently ran a series on what we have learned from the crash:

  1. A Harvard economics professor thinks that "we underestimate the contribution that investments in health and education make to our living standards."
  2. An economics professor at the University of Chicago believes that "incentives matter, even to the irrational."
  3. The former Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund finds that "poorly designed regulations and weak enforcement of even the sensible rules [...] were the outcome of a political process through which regulators — and their superiors in the legislative and executive branches — were captured intellectually by the financial system." ("People with power really believed that what was good for Wall Street was great for the country.")
  4. A Princeton economics professor writes that we have learned a lesson on social insurance, "a social contract with government that Americans quietly love, but in the shouting matches that now pass for our “national conversation” on public policy so often profess to hate". ("When the going gets tough, the tough run to the government.")

The Spellings Commission Report on the Future of US Higher Education

Here are a few highlights from the 2006 Spellings Committee Report on the future of US higher education, which I recently found online:

  • "We acknowledge that not everyone needs to go to college. But everyone needs a postsecondary education. Indeed, we have seen ample evidence that some form of postsecondary instruction is increasingly vital to an individual's economic security."
  • "While many Americans still envision the typical undergraduate as an 18- to 22-year-old with a recently acquired high school diploma attending classes at a four-year institution, the facts are more complex. Of the nation's nearly 14 million undergraduates, more than four in ten attend two-year community colleges. Nearly one third are older than 24 years old. Forty percent are enrolled part time."
  • "Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require some postsecondary education. Already, the median earnings of a US worker with only a high school diploma are 37 percent less than those of a worker with a bachelor's degree."

The name "Spellings" will be familiar to some: Margaret Spellings was the Secretary of Education under the previous administration of President George W. Bush and played an instrumental role in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which "requires all public schools to administer a state-wide standardized test annually". Although the act was passed "overwhelmingly" with the help of a "bipartisan coalition" (source: this article dated May 24, 2001 in the New York Times), it has now become controversial enough for even House Republicans to consider "leaving 'No Child' behind", as this Washington Post article dated July 13, 2009 could not resist putting in its headline.

According to this USA Today article from February 2009, Margaret Spellings will "remain until 2010, spending part of her time burnishing Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which is due for reauthorization." She also says that "she's confident her successor, former Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan, will keep the law's core goal intact: closing the achievement gap between middle-class and poor children." In a conversation with a ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, as described in the Post, Duncan said that "he wants to push for higher academic standards but giving schools more flexibility to achieve them."

As for the Spellings Committee Report, here are a couple of interesting points it raises regarding US higher education:

  1. "Substandard high school preparation [...] often creates an "expectation gap" between what colleges require and what high schools produce." (p.1 of the report, which is p.17 of the PDF file)
  2. "Although the proportion of high school graduates who go on to college has risen substantially in recent decades, the college completion rate has failed to improve at anywhere near the same pace." (p.1)
  3. Affordability is of course a concern, even more so now than in 2006 when the report was written. "In our view, affordability is directly affected by a financing system that provides limited incentives for colleges and universities to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity." (p.3)
  4. The commission also proposes restructuring the confusing financial aid system and increasing need-based financial aid. (p.3)
  5. "Employers report repeatedly that many new [college] graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's workplaces." (p.3)

Spellings also gives important statistics in this speech: "only nine percent of low-income students earn a college degree by age 24, compared with 75 percent of students from wealthier families" and "only 10 percent of Hispanic students earn a bachelor's degree by age 29". This is referred to as "significant attainment gaps between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students" in the Spellings report.

Overall, I felt the report made good comments on the current state of higher education, but I was left unconvinced it would push anyone to action. The recommendations it outlines are rather vague; besides, colleges and universities are more likely to change in order to create some kind of competitive advantage than because a governmental report told them to. But it is good to have this information out there, so that students and parents can ask more informed questions.


A High School Teacher Who Quit

The Washington Post recently published an article by one Sarah Fine, former young DC schoolteacher, who quit after four years on the job and wrote an article explaining why (Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can't Stay, August 9, 2009).

She describes being drawn to the teaching profession because of her grandmother's example and her own desire to have an impact. ("Urban classrooms struck me as seductively gritty, and it only seemed right that I "give back" after spending 22 years in a suburban, Ivy League bubble.") She does not come across as someone who picked that career path half-heartedly, and certainly not as someone who considered that quitting was an option when she first signed up for the job. Her resignation fills her with guilt ("By throwing in the towel, I have become one more teacher abandoning her students.") Yet, she stands by her choice.

She gives the following reasons for her decision to quit:

  1. Burnout. How many inexperienced young people have launched into a new endeavor with great hopes of changing the world, only to become tired and disabused? Public high schools are a particularly harsh environment, even with dedicated teachers. They can only do so much when many students' reading and math skills are far below their grade level. ("Of the 130 freshmen who entered the school [where she was teaching] in 2005, about 50 graduated this spring." That's a 38.4% graduation rate.)
  2. "[T]he way that some people, mostly non-teachers, talk about the profession." Ms Fine feels that she has to justify her career choice much more often than if she had opted to go into business or law. "When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it's unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. [...] [I]t's not for the ambitious." Someone on a plane told her that career path was "nice". In the end, being "systematically undervalued" hurt her feelings the most.

While the media has popularized the image of the young teacher winning over students from gritty neighborhoods and leading them to success against the odds (see, e.g., Hillary Swank's Freedom Writers or Michelle Pfeiffer's Dangerous Minds), Ms Fine's disillusions reminded me of the other "big idea" in teaching, namely, using retirees who want to give back to society after a successful career outside education. I wrote about this in March 2007. The idea has proved popular in the math and science fields, which are plagued by a shortage of instructors but could be taught by former scientists or engineers.

While these techies would require some guidance to manage their classrooms and design grade-appropriate lectures, they would know the technical part of the material very well and would be less sensitive to issues that weigh down younger hires, such as the potential futility of their efforts. Retiree-teachers would have already proven themselves in the workforce, and would not let others define them solely by their teaching career. (A drawback: they might get even more frustrated with the administration, building on their own real-life experiences to come up with better ideas on how to run the school.)

High school teaching might become more and more a second career or even a part-time job - something people do after, or in addition to, pursuing another path. Then maybe people will be able to focus on its rewards without being constantly reminded of its position at the bottom of the prestige ladder.

Sadly, the talents of enthusiastic twenty-somethings like Ms Fine or of former-scientists-turned-teachers might not be best put to use in public high schools from blighted neighborhoods, or charter schools like the one Ms Fine worked at. If the students are already so far behind that only a third of freshmen will finish high school, an Ivy League graduate full of the best intentions probably isn't going to make much of a difference. (Ms Fine got her BA in English from Harvard with highest honors. According to this page, she "focused on 20th century poetry"; "[b]eyond language arts, her teaching experience has been in the fields of environmental science, outdoor education, and classical music.") If anything, I suspect the average high achiever becomes frustrated more quickly with the job, because he can't replace the status he enjoyed as a Yale or Harvard or UPenn student (high school kids won't suddenly turn their life around because he wants them to), status he lost when he selected a career path many of his classmates look down upon. (This statement is not meant as a reference to Ms Fine, whom I do not know and had never heard from before.)

Maybe Ms Fine would still be in the profession she seemed to love so much if she had applied to work elsewhere. Teaching at a solid suburban school certainly sounds less glamorous than reaching to inner-city kids - it does not make Hollywood material and might not appeal to Ms Fine's generation, with its big dreams of saving the world. It can, however, tremendously affect the lives of the middle-class students who are encouraged to apply to colleges when they don't realize admission is within reach, discover an interest in a field they end up majoring in, get higher SAT scores because of the better training and possibly better financial aid packages, and so on. This is not the "sexy", let's-change-the-world kind of work young people are attracted to, but it matters too.

I do absolutely love success stories where kids from disadvantaged families get admitted to top colleges, beat the odds, and ultimately lead very productive lives. (See this post of mine, among others.) My point is not to take the good teachers who are not burnt out away from the inner-city kids who need them and place them in suburban schools instead. It is that, if you are an Ivy League graduate and high school teacher looking for an impact in someone's life, and you are growing disillusioned with your work at a charter school, maybe you should come to peace with the fact there is nothing dishonorable in trying to get good kids from good schools to fulfill their potential. Instead, Ms Fine "plan[s] to travel, write and try not to think too much about what [she has] left behind." I don't feel sorry for her.


Second-hand (Stolen) Kindles

The September 6 issue of the New York Times has an interesting article on Amazon's efforts, or lack thereof, to track down the new users of Kindles reported stolen (Gadget Makers Can Find Thief, But Don't Ask). I wrote about the Kindle back in March; that post was about the prices Amazon charges to download new books.

The use of wireless technology should make it easy to locate lost smartphones, satellite radios, and e-readers such as the Kindle, which has the "ability to download books wirelessly and store hundreds of titles on a single device." Surprisingly, the NYT journalist writes that: "the gadget makers [...] often know exactly who has a missing or stolen device, because in many instances it has been registered to a new user" but have not acted on this information. "Even a request to simply shut down service — which would deter thieves by rendering their pilfered gadget useless — is typically refused." 

I was stunned by Amazon's reluctance to take action on this issue. The article mentions that its stance is hardly unique among American tech companies, and that foreign-based companies seem more willing to intervene. Most damaging to Amazon's case, I believe, is its negative reaction to the very valid points a customer raised after forgetting his Kindle on a plane:

  1. "[H]e asked Amazon to put the serial number of his wayward device on a kind of do-not-register list that would render it inoperable," to no avail,
  2. He believes Amazon should add "another step in the registration process for secondhand Kindles", in effect sending an email to the previous owner asking to confirm he has sold or given away his Kindle. 

Amazon has so far turned a deaf ear on these ideas, preferring to retreat behind the need for a search warrant. The customer above points out that this is not practical in large municipalities such as New York City, where he lives and where the overworked police has more important things to do than tracking down stolen gadgets.

This is a great opportunity for Sony's e-Reader, although it underscores how the issues that matter the most to customers, when it comes to their technology gadgets, often have nothing to do with technology itself.


Job Reconversions

The good: "Out of work in finance, they turn to teaching". New York Times, May 7, 2009. This article describes the Traders to Teachers program, "an accelerated three-month program which allows displaced financial services employees to obtain public school certification to teach mathematics." (source: the Montclair State University website, which also links to news articles about the program.) Successful applicants will attend classes at Montclair for free and, according to the NYT, "[t]he response to the program has been overwhelming". Some people quoted in the article wonder how long these new recruits will stay in the teaching profession once the economy rebounds, but it is doubtful the financial industry will regain its previous size and clout any time soon, and the new hires will help alleviate the shortage of math teachers in New Jersey public schools. A win-win situation.

The bad: "Swim teachers? No, folks floundering in hard times". NPR.org, August 31, 2009. Some people who turn to teaching (in this case, for toddlers' swimming lessons) really haven't been trained to be teachers. In fact, they might simply be some of Hollywood's underemployed, taking odd jobs to make ends meet. The owner of the swimming-pool had the following to say as an excuse: "It's the economy. We can't afford to pay our regular rates to teachers. And with so many entertainment people out of work, we've had to hire them." I found that disingenuous. But why wouldn't unqualified folks give teaching a try if no one stops them?

And the in-between: "Job retraining might fall short of high hopes". New York Times, July 5, 2009. The article describes the situation of a laid-off automotive engineer who first took courses in computer-aided design, but is going back to school again to become a civil engineering technician because he could not find work in design. The journalist writes: "In Michigan, where the unemployment rate in May was 14.1 percent, the nation’s highest, 78,000 people are enrolled in the state’s No Worker Left Behind program and 7,800 are on the waiting list. [...] Nonetheless, a little-noticed study the Labor Department released several months ago found that the benefits of the biggest federal job training program were “small or nonexistent” for laid-off workers." Possible reasons include the age of these workers, who often spent their whole career in one industry before being laid off, and the fact that they tend to choose short retraining programs, which have the least impact. There is also the issue of job creation in the areas where the layoffs took place, as many people are tied to a region because of their homes; in addition, even if laid-off workers pick longer retraining programs, they cannot be sure a field that is currently growing will still need new workers by the time they complete the curriculum. It is a scary situation to be in, especially since, according to a July 2 article in the Christian Science Monitor, this might be "the third time in a row that Americans struggle out of recession only to find themselves in a so-called “jobless recovery.”" An economist commented: "It will take a long time to bring that unemployment rate down."


The Way Out: Education

On Saturday, NPR.org ran a story about Tracy Kidder's latest book, Strength In What Remains. The article is called: From Poverty to Ivy League: A Refugee's Story and its title gives a good idea of what Strength In What Remains is about. I haven't read the book yet, which was officially released last week and has already vaulted to #27 on the Amazon.com rankings, but it made me think of one of my favorite works of nonfiction, Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind, which describes the struggle of a talented black teenager from a blighted D.C. neighborhood as he hopes to gain admittance in the Ivy League, and then his adjustment during his first year at Brown. (He did ultimately graduate, in four years, with an excellent GPA. But Suskind makes his readers keenly aware of how long the odds were - and remain, for any inner-city kid in the same situation.) Such stories always resonate with me because of the importance education has had in my life. It certainly beats reading about a certain former First Daughter who recently got a gig as contributing correspondent for the Today Show.

A quote by Kidder to the NPR journalist struck my attention: "Ever since I met Deo [the main protagonist in the book, who fled Burundi for the US in the early 1990s], I've had to look at a lot of people differently — people with foreign accents especially. ... You know, janitors, hotel maids, taxi drivers, young men pushing grocery carts along Park Avenue — who are they really? What memories do they carry? What dreams? What sorts of abilities?" I found the statement interesting because I tend to assume what Kidder appears to have just discovered, and I had not given it much thought until I read his quote: that people, especially immigrants in minimum-wages positions, have stories we will never know, about the life they had before they left. Some decades ago, my relatives had a very good life before they lost everything; my grandmother ended up as a cook in an elementary school. I like to think parents were happy with the food she prepared for their children (I remember amazing meals from my childhood), but I doubt any snap judgment from them about her intellectual abilities was in my grandmother's favor. It is very hard for first-generation immigrants to thrive in a new country. That makes Deo's story all the more remarkable. Tomorrow I am going to go and buy the book.