jasonbwatson

August 7, 2017

There’s no such thing as free college

I have seen a few comments in social media over the past few days celebrating Rhode Island’s decision to offer “free college.” There is of course a little more to it than that, but the recent action by the Rhode Island legislature, signed by the governor, bears examination.

Last Thursday the Rhode Island legislature approved the Promise Scholarship, which will cover the cost of tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island for new students starting this fall. The tuition and fees will be covered regardless of their income. According to CNN, it is a four-year pilot program for which the legislature appropriated, as part of the state’s budget, $2.8 million for the first year.

Community College of Rhode Island has some 15,000 students, but most of them will not be eligible for the Promise Scholarship because they are part-time students or are not recent high school graduates. The CNN report indicates that the college “expects an uptick in enrollment of first-time students next year by at least 200 because of the program. It estimates that between 1,200 and 1,300 students will receive the scholarship this fall.”

Full-time tuition for Rhode Island residents is currently $2,074 per semester. The Promise Scholarship will also cover a per-semester fee of $208 per student.

This all sounds very exciting, of course, especially to those who like the idea of free college education. But, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as free college. The Community College of Rhode Island will continue to receive the same $2,074 per student per semester (plus the $208 fee) I assure you–the money will just come from somewhere else. Specifically, it will be included in the state budget, paid for out of state coffers. But where does the state get its money? From taxes, of course, paid by the residents of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is not the first state to offer “free” college education. It is, in fact, the fourth. The first three are New York, Oregon and Tennessee. It is worth noting, then, that according to the Tax Foundation’s rating of the top marginal individual income tax rates as of June 1, 2017 only California and Maine have a higher rate than Oregon, where the rate is 9.9%. New York is among the highest rates as well, at 8.82%. (Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. fall between Oregon and New York though, other than Minnesota at 9.85% those states are all between 8.82 and 8.97%).

What about Tennessee? It’s income tax rate is a middle-of-the-road 5.0%. Nine states have a lower rate, besides the seven states that have no state income tax. But Tennessee actually only taxes interest and dividends income, meaning it would effectively be lower than most of those nine states with lower rates. So how does Tennessee pull off its free college program? It simply shifts the tax burden. According to the Tax Foundation, only Louisiana has a higher sales tax than Tennessee (9.98% to 9.46%).

As of July, Rhode Island’s state income tax rate was only 5.99%–but its sales tax rate was 7.0%, making it 21st in the nation. Keep an eye on tax rates in Rhode Island over the next four years of this program because it seems likely that one or both rates will increase. In Oregon, for example, despite its high income tax rate and low rate of purchasing power (it ranked 33rd in 2015 in the Tax Foundation’s comparison of regional price parities, examining the real value of $100), their free tuition program is already being altered. When it launched in 2016 only recent high school graduates were eligible. But, the state budget suffered a shortfall, and starting this year students from high-income families are not eligible, CNN reported. New York has similar restrictions; its program starts this year but it excludes students from families earning $125,000 per year or more. That does not seem particularly burdensome probably, to expect a family earning $125,000 to be able to afford college tuition, but New York ranks 49th in real purchasing power; only Hawaii is worse. The real value of $100 in Rhode Island is $101.32. In Oregon it is $100.81. In New York it is only $86.73. The likely increase in Rhode Island taxes is further supported by the fact that, according to Ballotpedia, Rhode Island, in fiscal year 2016 (before the implementation of the Promise Scholarship), had higher per-capita spending that Oregon for total state expenditures. Additionally, the Pew Charitable Trust report on August 4, 2017 entitled “Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis” indicates that Oregon experienced an increase in tax revenue from FY 2016 to 2017–while Rhode Island experienced a decrease. (Interestingly, New York and Tennessee also experienced declines–leaving Oregon as the only state with a “free college” program that experienced an increase in tax revenue over the past year). If Oregon cannot continue its program then, why would Rhode Island think it can? The Pew report also ranked states’ rainy day funds, or financial reserves. According to the report, the “total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 36.2 days” as of the end of FY 2016. Rhode Island fell just above that median, at 37 days. New York (47.9 days) and Tennessee (56.5 days) were well above the median.

One good thing about the Rhode Island scholarship is that it does have a string attached: according to The Hill, “Upon receiving the scholarship, students must also agree to stay and work in Rhode Island for as many years as they received tuition.”

It is telling that the state legislature did not go as far as Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo wanted it to go; she had favored covering community college tuition as well as covering two years of schooling at Rhode Island’s two public four-year colleges. Their refusal to do so shows at least some fiscal restraint among the legislature. Only time will tell, of course, how Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship turns out. But even if it works (a possibility on which, I confess, I am skeptical) do not forget–neither lunches nor college educations are ever really free.

May 5, 2015

The most important thing

Mattel has a brand new doll they want to sell your daughter. It’s called Hello Barbie, and it takes the classic American doll to a whole new level. This new Barbie uses WiFi and speech recognition, records the voice of the doll’s owner and then, using cloud servers and voice recognition software, sends responses back through the doll’s built-in speaker which allow little girls to have conversations with their Barbie. At a toy fair in New York a Mattel presenter said that the Hello Barbie can “have a unique relationship with each girl.” According to an article by Julie Borg, the doll will be able to “play interactive games, tell jokes, initiate storytelling, and listen and learn about each girl’s preferences and then adapt accordingly.”

A Washington Post article about the doll said, “a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie [at the New York toy fair] by saying: ‘Welcome to New York, Barbie.’ The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: ‘I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?'” Not surprisingly then, the Washington Post article was titled, “Privacy advocates try to keep ‘creepy,’ ‘eavesdropping’ Hello Barbie from hitting the shelves.” A CNN story was headlined, “Talking Barbie is too ‘creepy’ for some parents.” Borg’s article in WORLD was subtitled “New interactive Barbie blurs privacy lines.”

This excerpt from the Post article explains where the “creepy” part comes in for most people: “Hello Barbie works by recording a child’s voice with an embedded microphone that is triggered by pressing a button on the doll. As the doll ‘listens,’ audio recordings travel over the Web to a server where the snippets of speech are recognized and processed. That information is used to help form Hello Barbie’s responses.”

The doll is not scheduled to be available for sale until the fall, and the companies involved with it–Mattel and ToyTalk, the company that manufactures the software in the doll–are planning to develop privacy policies before then. Already, though, a Mattel spokesperson says, “Mattel is committed to safety and security, and ‘Hello Barbie’ conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Interestingly enough, the technology in the doll could be used both by the toy company and by parents to “spy” on children. ToyTalk says, “Parents can choose to receive daily or weekly e-mails with access to the audio files of their children’s conversations with Hello Barbie.” Most parents do not listen in to every conversation their children have with their toys. Part of childhood’s wonder is the ability to pretend and talk to one’s toys–that, until now, have not been able to talk back. How will the ability to listen in to those conversations impact parent’s relationships with their children? This eavesdropping could have potentially positive results, but it is not difficult to imagine potentially dangerous ones, too. Then, too, there is the potential danger of someone other than the parent accessing the recordings, either by hacking the parents e-mail or the company web site, and using the information contained in the recordings to cultivate a relationship with the child.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has already created a petition demanding that Mattel scrap the doll because of the potential for using it to market directly to children. The doll could be used to plant the idea that children ask their parents for Barbie accessories, for example, the group claims. “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director.

Creepy though the technology and capabilities of the doll may be, it is not difficult to understand how we got to this point. “Sales of Barbie have plummeted recently, while demand for children’s apps and online games has exploded. Children are forging their digital footprint earlier than ever, forcing parents to make thorny decisions about what kinds of technology limits to put in place during playtime,” the Washington Post reported. With more and more parents giving their children virtually unlimited access to anything the Internet has to offer, through iPads, smart phones and more, one cannot fault Mattel for finding ways to combine the latest in technological capability with their best-selling toy for young girls. Still, that does not mean the doll is a good idea.

The concerns described above are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. Borg highlights another danger, though, when she emphasizes in her article the fact that the technology contained in the doll will serve only to further separate children from real-life interactions and relationships. She points out that in their touting of the doll’s benefits, Mattel claims that the doll can eventually become a girl’s best friend. Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician and board member of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Computer algorithms can’t replace, and should not displace, the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another. Children’s well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends.” We live in a culture that is already celebrating the pseudo-relationships facilitated by the convenience of instant digital communication. People send text messages to teachers when their children will be late for school, teens ask their friends for relationship advice via Facebook messaging and they spread rumors and gossip via Facebook posts. Courts have ruled that divorce papers can be served via Facebook, too. There are real dangers in abandoning genuine interpersonal relationships in favor of those that exist only in the cyber realm. People say things through keyboards they would never say to someone’s face–but that is only one of the myriad dangers that exist when one interacts with the world almost exclusively through technology.

I do not fault Mattel or ToyTalk for pursuing the creation of Hello Barbie, and I am sure that other toy companies will soon have their own offerings that incorporate this interactive technology. Again, though, that does not mean it is a good idea, and, personally, I would strongly caution parents against buying this doll for their daughters. I will not be signing any petitions opposing the release of the toy, nor do I think banning its sale is necessary. Mattel is a company driven by profit. If the doll doesn’t sell well, they will quit selling it. If your daughter still plays with Barbie’s try buying her one that doesn’t talk back, then get down on the floor and play Barbies with her–letting her and you create the voices and conversations yourselves. No tech companies will listen in, no advertising with be slipped into the conversation, and the relationship between your daughter and you will be strengthened. That’s the most important thing of all.

September 11, 2014

“Sloppy Sabbath”

Interestingly, on the same day in which there was an extensive discussion in an online professional networking community of which I am a member regarding the manner in which so many Christians dress today for church or chapel, I also stumbled upon, quite by accident, an article on CNN from this past April entitled “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” The article, by John Blake and appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog, includes a picture to lead the article with the caption “Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.”

Blake introduces his readers to Rev. John DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts, who has a real concern about the overly casual approach being taken by so many today when it comes to church attire. “It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” he said. “No one dresses up for church anymore.” Blake’s description of the matter goes like this: “They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.”

This is all part of Blake’s introduction, designed to set the stage for the question of what really is appropriate to wear to church, or does it even matter? “The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either,” Blake writes. Where they did find agreement, though, was in the fact that American culture has become more comfortable with sloppy dress in just about every area of life, from the workplace to the grocery store.

Blake allows Jennifer Fulwiler to introduce one reason for this change, one that I find entirely convincing. Reflecting on the fact that her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie to go to the grocery store and that her grandparents–and many of their generation–would wear their very best clothes to fly on an airplane, Fulwiler comments, “We dress up for what we’re grateful for. We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes.” This mind shift has carried over into church: “Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God.” Fulwiler offers the same approach I have used when having this conversation; if someone were invited to meet the Queen of England (her example), it is highly unlikely they would show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Several years ago there was a mild uproar over the fact that some college athletes had attended their meeting with the President of the United States wearing flip-flops for the same reason.

Yet, Blake writes, the idea that the importance one attaches to an occasion is reflected in his or her wardrobe choice is an idea that is “hopelessly old school” in many places in the United States, including many megachurches. Interestingly, though, Blake–whether intentionally or not–proceeds to provide a reason for that that supports the point Fulwiler is making above. “[M]any of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands,” he writes. “They’ve perfected a ‘seeker-friendly’ approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.” In other words, those who recognize the importance, significance and meaning for coming into the House of the Lord to worship Him have consciously decided to “dress down” so that those who do not recognize that will not fell uncomfortable. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the notion–once common in some churches–that individuals who do not arrive at church dressed in “Sunday best” should be turned away, shunned or chastised in any way. Ones attire cannot be permitted to become a stumbling block that would prevent that person from coming to know the truth of the gospel or the love of God.

Blake next turns back to the other side of the argument, quoting Constance M. Cherry, “an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.” She says, “Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction. If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.” Therein lies the real heart of the matter, I believe; a worship service is not about “personal satisfaction.” It is also not about what anyone is wearing, of course, but the external reflects the internal, and those who approach church attendance with a casual “whatever works for me” attitude are quite possible going to approach the Bible and their relationship with God with the same attitude.

Much to my satisfaction, Blake includes in his article this statement regarding the notion that “God wants you to be comfortable”: “The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.” Citing Cherry again, Blake points out that in the Old Testament Jews had to be ceremonially clean before entering the temple and that both the Old and New Testaments teach that God should not be approached casually.

Blake also cites Carl Raschke, though, a professor at the University of Denver, who says that the early church did adopt a come-as-you-are approach to attend church and who points to Mark 12:38 where Jesus reproached the Pharisees for their fine clothes. The reality, though, is that Jesus was not mocking or criticizing the Pharisees’ attire. Rather, He was chastising them for focusing so much on the external and ignoring the internal. The Pharisees were masters of looking good without actually being good or doing good. They were all about the show, all about appearing impressive and above others. Jesus took them to task for that and He would do the same today if someone were to show up in church dressed to the nines but completely focused on themselves and impressing others.

Blake points out that others who espouse the come-as-you-are approach to worship point to James 2 in which James instructs the first century church not to show favoritism to those who are well-dressed, giving them preferential treatment over those who are poor or poorly dressed. Again though, James was not condemning dressing up for church; his letter cannot be interpreted to mean that God does not want us to dress well when we gather to worship Him when we are able to do so. Rather, James was condemning the practice of treating those who were well-dressed in a better or preferential manner out of a desire to impress and please the wealthy attendees. There is absolutely no place in Christianity for treating anyone different based solely on their clothing.

Therein lies the root of the issue. What anyone wears to church is not about, should not be about, what anyone else thinks. I dress up for church every Sunday. The only nod I have made to being more casual is that I seldom wear a suit jacket anymore, but it’s always dress pants, dress shirt and tie for me. I am in a very small minority in my church that dresses that way–it is not even unusual for me to be better dressed than the pastor. I often speak in other churches, and it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be anyone else in those churches wearing a tie when I am there. I do not think those in jeans and t-shirts or in khakis and polo shirts are any less holy than me or that I am any more mature in my faith than they are simply because of the difference in our dress, and I certainly hope others do not think I think that or think that I am in any way better because of my attire. I dress up to go to church because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I can wear a tie to work every day there is absolutely no reason I cannot and should not wear one to church. If I will put on my best to attend a wedding or a funeral there is absolutely no reason I should not put on my best to worship Almighty God.

The bottom line is this–I do not think that one’s attire has anything to do with their ability to worship God and I certainly do not think any church should have a dress code. I am sure that there are Sundays when those in t-shirts are more in tune with the Lord or receive more from the service than I do in my tie. So please do not interpret anything I am saying here to mean that I think you better get your act together and start dressing for church. What I do think is that you should take time to ask yourself why you dress the way you do when you go to church. If you dress up, is it because you are doing so as an act of worship and as a reflection of your attitude toward the Lord, or is it so that you can impress others? If you dress casually, is it so that you can be comfortable or because you don’t think God cares what you wear anyway, or is it because church is just one more place to go, no different than any other activity?

I’m not judging you and I hope you’re not judging me…but we should all take the time to judge ourselves and take a look at why we dress the way we do. God doesn’t really care about the clothes themselves, but He does care about the why.

Blog at WordPress.com.