Bring in the Clowns – Whoops They Are Here by Al Sikes

Bring in the Clowns—Whoops They Are Here

Trump sows dissent, it spreads. Farmers are envious. 

Trump smiles and tweets.

The dissenters lash out at Pelosi and then Biden. They miniaturize the sane.

Where is Amy of Minnesota? Well she is at the end of the debate line trying to avoid the spittle of de Blasio of New York.

Trump smiles and tweets.

Amash of Michigan offers up a principled withdrawal—a revolt of one—Trump smiles.

Fringe is in. Outrage, the new black or is it orange?

Cable channels, the new Arbiters, with their breaking wisdom,

Yes, “the levee is dry”.

Those who offer to work across the aisle find the aisle congested with clowns. Forgive me, not meaning to disparage clowns.

Racism. Well it should be a serious subject but, Biden and Pelosi racists? Or, any white men, period?

Civility? Who takes the first step? It should not require new profiles in courage.

Plastic is out; no it’s in, its MAGA man. Leaders can’t find space among the carnival barkers. 

Trump smiles and tweets.

by Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Faith and Community by Al Sikes

My wife and I spend a few weeks each year at a cabin on the Beaverkill River in the Catskills of New York. We are in our 22nd year and our cabin, in a quiet rural area, has given us a window on the changes we frequently read about.

Overall, the beauty of the Catskills with it’s legendary trout streams provides a modest economic base built around tourism and second home dwellings. But, tourists and part-time dwellers do not provide volunteers for fire protection or regular church goers.

When we arrived there were two churches several miles apart; both were struggling. Neither had full-time pastors and both occupied old but classic New England style church buildings.

One lacked community leadership and is now closed. One is the center of a small community and is open in the summer with special events during other times of the year. And to say that the church is defined by its community is an understatement. The community does it all.

One feature that I find particularly interesting is a rotation of church members who deliver the Sunday message. Last year I became one of those.

Faith has many expressions. The Bible chronicles the first church and its many leaders. The epistles of Paul are filled with messages to the leaders in Corinth, Ephesus and beyond. He was framing first century theology and urging their devotion. We have to assume that these first communities of the newly faithful came together often and were led by persons who struggled with what to say. Undoubtedly they were thrilled to receive letters from Paul, but when it came to sustaining the church they were on the frontlines and on their own.

Today we read about shuttered churches, declining numbers of the ordained and falling church attendance. In a recent Wall Street Journal article about expanding suburbs, the writer noted a church in rapidly expanding Apex, North Carolina. There is a Catholic Church in Apex called St. Mary Magdalene. Father Donald Staib observed that in their new sanctuary there were eight stained-glass window panels from two closed churches in upstate New York.

My wife and I have heard a number of church messages presented by speakers at our small Catskill church. We find them insightful and often inspiring. And, it is not uncommon to find half the congregation participating in the service in one way or another. Maybe doctrinal elements are under emphasized, but expressions of how faith works in individual lives is more than an adequate substitute.

Now, this is not a message aimed at the ordained. Gifted religious professionals are crucially important. But, I do believe that churches should engage more lay people in the content of services. I know that preparing a message engages me well beyond commentary on the week’s news.

The churches in the Beaverkill Valley were once Methodist and I am told that the presiding Bishop did not make the transition to non-denominational status easy. I can imagine that regardless of the denomination, the powers that be don’t want to turn in reports showing fewer churches.

My limited research does not reveal an organization that encourages and facilitates congregation take-overs. I hope there are many faithful communities helping to reverse the downward slide and while doing so enriching their spiritual life.

One final thought. Today headlines and commentary rage about court battles over religious freedom. Most deal in one way or another with government actions. Forcing The Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception insurance coverage is probably the most memorable of recent years.

My concern, however, turns more on faithful communities and less on the latest outrage. In fact, I think that when politics is fused with religious doctrine, faith suffers. But when the faithful reach out and touch those in need, even the jaded are forced to pay attention.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

The Big 3 and Nature by Al Sikes

Americans are of two minds. Most revere the past and most eagerly participate in the future. We honor our heritage and fret about its decline. 

I must admit some ambivalence about the future. I love Wikipedia, the instant communication options, and having done backbreaking farm work as a kid, I love my John Deere tractor. 

But, a number of forces in our economy have pushed toward big. Investment forces, often branded Wall Street, have pushed quarterly revenue growth and/or profits as the only test of success. And if growth, by all means not criminal, is success then, just under the radar, exploitation is quick to follow. Plus, Wall Street and big company America is filled with financial engineers whose main job is efficiency. I am not sure what the symbol is for efficiency, but it is saluted regardless of lost jobs, factory closings or shareholder considerations pushing aside employees.

On the farm, Big (apologies for turning an adjective into a noun) has created irrepressible forces that war against nature. An enthusiastic  shout-out to farmers who have resisted.

If nature is to be made great again then much needs to happen. And, I am going to narrow the scope of this column to what I see on my farm, Nature’s Reach, and my more youthful experiences.

As a kid I did some farm work. I picked cotton and melons and sold the latter at a roadside stand. Today most of the hand and back harvesting is done by migrants—it is hard, dirty work. Mechanization has saved a lot of backs. But, mechanization and chemicals have also made it easier to turn land that used to be left to wildlife into marginally productive acreage. And here is where the Bigs take over.

Productive is good isn’t it? Well no, if that means that rain water runs straight across open fields gathering up sediment and pollutants that trees and bushes and grasses don’t filter because they have disappeared. 

What about those trees and bushes and grasses? They are crucial for pollinators, birds and mammals!  And, encyclopedic lists of invertebrates are important actors in a healthy food chain. Yet, where the imperatives of Big Ag and Capital have taken over, landscape health is at best a peripheral concern. Quail, nice to have, but don’t need to have.

I grew up thinking of nature as the out-of-doors. I fished and hunted and then spent many hours canoeing streams that fed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. And the two farms I worked on had brushy areas and I was allowed to hunt for rabbits and quail. They were plentiful. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my experiences were helping me understand the profound design of nature. 

Now I don’t profess to be a scientist, but I have gotten intense experience as a beekeeper instructed by the late Mike Embrey. All of us who were his students are proud to have studied with him. 

So let me wrap this up, before trying your patience, with several takeaways. America’s greatness is inextricably linked with its natural resources and not just those that can be mined or pumped. 

Agriculture economics have become increasingly capital intensive and you won’t find flora and critters on an Excel spreadsheet. And you won’t find many farmers, who actually work the land, who are not up to their neck in debt from buying the tools and chemicals of so-called efficiency. 

Now let me add the final Big. When my wife and I bought Nature’s Reach we applied for a small grant to convert 5 acres into a wetland. The Department of Agriculture employee that helped us with the paperwork spoke disdainfully of “mud puddle subsidies.” Big Government dances with Big Ag and Capital and the overwhelming drumbeat is efficiency. What we need is a clearly stated and implemented restoration policy.

An initiative called Bee Friendly Farming recommends 3 to 6% of a farm’s landscape be devoted to pollinator protective practices. There are government programs that will compensate the farmer for land being used to restore pollinators. 

Intuitively and lovingly many Americans regret what has happened. Americans spend more money on bird food than baby food even though ornithologists believe backyard feeding does more harm than good.

We need personal concern to translate into big picture support for nature’s food chain. Rather than fighting over the snail darter, we need to push for action that restores nature’s balance.

Nature’s Reach, the farm my wife and I own is not a farm if farm translates into efficient production. But, nature has provided bountiful lessons. Every farmer should care as much about pollinators as they care about their corn crop. And the same can be said about the flora and fauna that is so crucial to the food chain and clean water. But, in the final analysis if the Big 3—Ag, Capital and Government—reject the crystal clear melody of nature, we are in for a rough future regardless of all the promises of technology.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. Photography by Marty Sikes.

The Destruction of the Supreme Court by Al Sikes

Politics and the Supreme Court, intentionally, have a tense relationship. Indeed Franklin Roosevelt, when President, attempted to expand its membership so it would find more of his programs constitutional. The Court has the final say and its jurists enjoy lifetime tenure.

Beyond the structural differences, I can recall arguments in my constitutional law classes regarding the extent to which popular opinion influenced decision-making. Purists preferred to think the Court, being supreme, sits well to the north of the grubby fights about the legal way forward. Most know, however, that politics play a role in the appointments, confirmations and even considerations. Most Americans hope, however, that lifetime tenure invites wisdom.

But, let me leave the classroom and turn to the court’s complicity in what are fraught times.

I believe Roe v. Wade (the decision that discovered a constitutional right for abortion) was wrongly decided but decided it was and that occurred in 1973 on a 7 to 2 vote. The opinion was written by Justice Harry Blackman, an appointee of President Richard Nixon; the Chief Justice was Warren Burger, also appointed by Nixon. Both identified as Republicans. One of the dissenting justices, a Democrat, Byron White, was appointed by President John F Kennedy. Politics is inevitably part of the court’s history.

But, when politics seems to overwhelm the court’s deliberations, its authoritative position deteriorates. Indeed it has led the current Chief Justice, John Roberts, to give multiple speeches on the need to elevate Supreme Court decision-making.

The Boston Globe reported that “Roberts has been on a mission to convince the public that if the court is ideologically split, it is about law, not politics.

‘‘We do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation,’’ Roberts told an audience at the University of Minnesota in October.”

Today political parties divide along sharper edges than in 1973. Presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns often turn on Supreme Court appointments or issues. And today’s socio-political divisions often turn on the Roe decision.

We need clarity, if the Supreme Court wishes to step back from the raw edge of politics. It needs to hear a case on abortion restrictions that will result in a decision that answers rather than raises questions. It should not choose a case that leads to a minimalist decision that ducks the core issue. America needs to know when a woman’s right to an abortion is protected and when the States are allowed to restrict that right.

I say “when the right to an abortion” is legally protected because conservative jurisprudence honors precedence and the Roe decision was decided 46 years ago and the decision was not a partisan one decided by the slimmest of majorities.  

Yet, my concern is not so much the jurisprudence, but the social and political unrest that persists because the Court has chosen not to settle the constitutional issue. The failure to define the scope of the 1973 decision has led to toxic battles in State after State.

Also, the Supreme Court seems increasingly tethered to Presidential elections. The President will always appoint, but this power should not be the pivotal influence in voting decisions. If Justice Roberts wants to return the Court to a revered institution, he should guide it toward resolving the abortion issue. Indeed, now seems to be just the right time because the Court is still closely divided and the Chief Justice has both stated and shown an interest in decoupling the Court from the overwrought politics of the day.

Law students for generations will study and debate the Roe V. Wade decision. But, the health of our Supreme Court must be restored. Justice Roberts has diagnosed the problem. Only decisive action by a largely unified court will re-elevate the judicial seats each jurist occupy.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Identity Politics by Al Sikes

Identity politics! Let’s see, I am pro-choice or pro-life and therefore a Democrat or Republican. Unstated: I am willing to suspend disbelief as long as I identify with a candidate or a Party on a visceral level. And today, there is nothing more visceral than the legal boundaries of abortion law.

Political parties respond. Data lists are accumulated, rationalized and then the separation occurs. Data becomes real people and they are targeted. Hot buttons are lit up.

Identities: Evangelicals, LBGTQ, Ethnicity, Rural, Urban, Degreed, and on and on. Can an evangelical vote for somebody who is in the LBGTQ community? What if the two persons share points of view on most issues?

What does United mean? What does E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One) mean? Our nation’s founding was inspired by unitedness. The politics of the day are defined by division. Can you define by division and then act unitedly?

Is there room, in the 21st Century, when communication is often instantaneous, targeted, emotional, and commercial, for quiet, patient relationships and decisions? Is it possible to step back from our political identity groups?

I have a lot of questions about our attempts at successful self-government. And, by nature, I am not reluctant to offer answers, by way of opinions. But, I must admit that I am stumped. While it is relatively easy to look ahead to medical breakthroughs, transformations in travel, and the like, it is maddeningly difficult to anticipate uniting answers. It is even increasingly difficult to follow facts where they take you. Failing this, how is good policy created?

Here is what I do know. Politics is attracting fewer and fewer idealists and/or realists and more and more manipulators. While idealists can get it wrong, manipulators work against the grain of unity—wrong defines their work. The Russians were able to use outlandish claims in Facebook ads because it fit a pre-existing pattern. Political parties and candidates are busily targeting their opponents with half-truths or worse. The Russians joined in.

Indeed half-truths now, largely inform politics. Candidates call for balanced budget amendments to our Constitution, but vote regularly for unbalanced budgets. Candidates and Advocates fly here and there to give speeches on freeing the atmosphere of carbon. Hypocrisy is not new, but a “take no prisoners” approach to identity politics makes it more egregious—cynicism sure to follow. And as regular politicians, those who come from more conventional backgrounds, attack Trump for his irregularity, it makes his base support even stronger.

A path-breaking journalist died on May 15, her name: Georgie Anne Geyer. A Wall Street Journal reflection on her career noted, “In the beginning she “operated in a virtually all-male world.”  She became a columnist after more than a decade on the road. After the Cold War, she watched with distress as the U.S. descended into identity politics. “The grievance activists,” she wrote, “create sovereignties that compete with the sovereignty of the nation.” In one of her last articles, she argued that America needed to “develop a renewed sense of common purpose.”

Sovereignty. Have we yielded our own sovereignty? Have we become actors in emotionalized morality plays directed by the manipulators? I gave to a candidate recently and now get almost daily emotional appeals to give more. I can recall many years ago a campaign in which the candidate I worked for rejected a pro-life ad that featured a fetus in a bottle of formaldehyde. How many today reject incendiary ads?

We are now in a long, long campaign period as 24 Democrats campaign against each other and Trump. The actual election of a new President will not occur for about seventeen months. And, most assuredly, in the age of Trump, this will be a demolition derby. The car, or should I say survivor, will not look pretty.

My closing thought recalls the words of the sergeant from Hill Street Blues, a 1980s TV show. Each morning, he urged the police officers to “be careful out there.” Only careful voters will insist on truth. Only truth will restore our great experiment (yes, experiment) in self-governance. And, to those who should feel honored to be called journalists, truth should be your North Star.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Can America Survive Congress by Al Sikes

Charles Krauthammer, in a Washington Post OpEd, summarized a series of Executive Orders by President Obama which created law, unauthorized by Congress. (The Lawless Presidency, August 16, 2013). He then observed:

“Yet this president is not only untroubled by what he’s doing but open and rather proud. As he tells cheering crowds on his never-ending campaign-style tours: I am going to do such-and-such and I’m not going to wait for Congress.

That’s caudillo talk. That’s banana republic stuff. In this country, the president is required to win the consent of Congress first.

At stake is not some institutional curlicue. At stake is whether the laws are the law. And whether presidents get to write their own.”

President Trump meet President Obama. His leadership appears to have been infectious.

Charles Krauthammer, now deceased, was a constitutionalist with a pen but not a vote. Those with a vote — 535 to be exact — have miniaturized themselves. There are few institutionalists on either side of the aisle. Too bad. The Congress, constitutionally, is expected to lead, not just follow.

Both Obama and Trump, but especially the latter, have elevated the Judiciary, as members of Congress spend their time raising money and tribal fever for the next election. The Judiciary is now paired with what has become the fourth branch of government, a wide spectrum of special interest litigators. Today’s sequence: provocative tweets, executive orders, special interest suits to block the order, often nationwide injunctions by District Courts and then of course, judicial appeal. Members of Congress react like performance artists.

Congress’s enfeeblement enables sound and fury and sows confusion and cynicism. And, it is damnably difficult to discern a series of events, or able and winsome leaders, that in combination can restore institutional balance. But, I cannot conclude with the phrase institutional balance. I sound like a political scientist who doesn’t have a clue and retreats to his doctoral thesis for a conclusion.

I use the phrase because absent an intentional partnership between the White House and Congress, autocratic governments like China win. Distilled into the world of business, companies fail when ownership, Boards and CEOs fail to work both in tension and harmony.

Tension is good. Finding the best way forward across a wide range of issues is not easy. Ideas are inherently competitive, yet at no time in our history have we had better analytical tools to help reach objective conclusions.

President Obama’s edicts have been largely reversed by President Trump. Autocratic leadership is an oxymoron — elections and courts erase.

If America fails, it will be because democracy has failed. And democracy’s health is wholly contingent on one thing — a well-informed citizenry that insists Members of Congress work together to shoulder their responsibility. Are you optimistic?

Game Show Politics by Al Sikes

How would you like to be a contestant in a game show? Well, all you have to do is participate in the Presidential nomination contest to choose the Democrat, presumably to run against Donald Trump, himself boosted by a game show.

As of now you are on the clock. There are twenty-four choices and several clues. Debates start soon and voting begins a few weeks into the new year.

Polls suggest Joe Biden will prevail. Many commentators point to Bernie Sander’s advantage – passionate supporters. Still others can’t believe that the end-game will be down to two late 70s white males going head-to-head.

I tend to agree with the “it’s time for a new generation” crowd, although as of this minute I do not vote in Democratic primaries. I did, however, mail a check to Seth Moulton, a U.S. Congressman, after watching an interview. And, there are several other thoughtful leaders in the wide field. Amy Klobuchar, for example, has an impressive record as a legislative leader.

Lanes have become the chosen metaphor as analysts seek to order their analysis. The Left lane is led by Bernie Sanders, who is said to be the inspiration for candidates who are not allergic to being called socialists. The Center lane is led by Joe Biden. I believe there should be a leadership lane; most decisions Presidents face do not fit neatly into ideological predispositions. I would put Moulton in the leadership lane.

For example, what happens when one of our foreign adversaries becomes aggressive, militarily? What should we do when our elections are attacked or our electrical grid? And maybe the election winner can deal with health care by eliminating the private version, but I suspect the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis will alone, change the path to a revised health care law. U.S. debt narrows policy options across the board.

In an interview, Moulton characterized Trump as a weak Commander and Chief. I agree. Moulton has standing to criticize. He earned the Bronze Star and the Commendation Medal and has been “uncomfortable calling attention to his own awards out of respect to many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all.”

He also recommended a program that ties national service and financial support for college or vocational education. A 21st Century GI bill, if you will. Good idea.

My assessment of Trump as Commander and Chief is somewhat different from Moulton; Moulton stressed his lack of service. My concern: his vanity. Global leadership must, in most cases, leave room for the adversary to save face at home. Chairman Xi, to resolve trade disputes with Trump, has to lose face. Trump scolds China and then pronounces that he will win the trade dispute and, of course, that it will be the greatest win ever.

The truth is that President Trump is weak. He is a lame duck; voting begins ten months from now. His Party lost the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections. And the poll numbers, according to Fox News, has him trailing in a matchup with Joe Biden by 12 points. And beyond that, he can only proceed by Executive Order on any policy initiative because the Congress is certainly not going to give him a win.

Now let me return briefly to the game board and leadership. Most of the candidates have been in Washington for years. Their leadership training was there. As my Washington service stretched on to seven years I became convinced that the magnetic field is created by interests that target weakness—hyper-partisanship, fawning lobbyists, and the non-stop lure of ambition. Spending time in Washington is helpful, but spending too much time is debilitating—its influence subordinates knowledge, instinct and integrity.

Seth Moulton has only been in the race for four weeks and needs to receive donations from 65,000 persons to be included in the debates; that is why I sent him a donation.
America needs a leader who can cross all of the lines that civil disharmony has created. And one of the most important and currently impregnable lines is in the Congress. Moulton was recognized to be “the most bipartisan member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New England.”

I have highlighted Seth Moulton, because of debate qualifications. But, I can’t pass up a quote from Walter Mondale about Amy Klobuchar. He quipped that “She has done better in that miserable Senate than most people there.” She also deserves to be in the leadership lane.

The game’s clock is not yet in countdown mode, but early evidence of success is essential. So to my Democrat friends who will argue I have no standing and to my Republican ones who will regard me as treasonous, I simply say, this is our country not a game show.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Alternative Universe by Al Sikes

Amazingly, a real estate developer, reality TV personality and propagandist has created an alternative universe. Must have been something broken.

The setting: the White House. The big house is well known to older generations, but the 21st Century script and staging are maddeningly alien. Older generations are accustomed to decorum (even if it is deceptive), while their preferred media are press conferences, newspapers and the nightly news.

Most older Americans expect familiar patterns to change; they anticipate the old world yielding to the preferences of the young. But, as it turns out the shaper is not young, he is in his seventies.

Just as the traditional media is shrinking under disruptive technology and economics, along comes Donald Trump with what has turned out to be a debilitating gift. He is the news. You can close down those costly foreign bureaus and expensive investigation departments – just cover Trump. Outrage or pandering will do.

The President, however, is not that easy to cover if indeed the intent is to cover, not just him, but his policies as well. It is easy to voice outrage or pander to his narcissistic needs, but actually covering his Presidency is not so easy. Unless, of course, the Steele Dossier brackets your curiosity.

How many thoughtful or probing stories have been served up on his Mideast policies and diplomacy? Or, on our face-offs with China or North Korea? Or, on the broader implications of his tax, trade or fiscal initiatives? It is much easier to script and produce a soap opera with familiar themes and actors.

The Trump phenomenon is, if nothing else, wrenchingly revealing. It has revealed institutional weaknesses in stark terms. Political parties, news media, and Congress are not just weak in the minds of Americans, they are complicit. Complicit in America’s decline.

Workers buffeted by trade and technology see two political parties that are orchestrated by their bases. The Republican Party seems anchored to social issues and tax reduction, while the Democrat Party seems enamored with utopian dreams and identity politics.

The news media and its consumers were ripe for the Trump counterattack: fake news. Indeed one critic, Matt Taibbi a Contributing editor of Rolling Stone, commented, “….news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”

And, as one friend noted, Members of Congress seem mainly to be good at saving Post Offices that should be closed. Why not? As manufacturing moves away and school districts consolidate, often the only vestige of a saner time in rural America is the Post Office. And to borrow a phrase, it takes a Congressman to save a Post Office. Who else can draw on yet more debt to save the bankrupt?

There is, of course, hope. America has proven to be adaptive and resourceful. As she lost her business strength in hardware, her entrepreneurs turned to software. Old cities are reinventing themselves. New educational initiatives are pushing its bureaucracy.

But in matters political, the reinvention is much more difficult because the powers that be are excellent at hunkering down—that phenomena attacks political science. They have erected walls of protection. Just as Congress protects the Post Office, State Legislatures have mastered gerrymandering and laws that make it difficult for new political movements to get on the ballot.

Maybe there is a gift in Trump’s Presidency. Maybe the wider public will be “woke” (aware and enlightened) to the perils of political rigidity in a disruptive era and discipline the politicians. But, as I pen these lines, I am reminded of the parting words of Mayor Frank Skeffington in the movie The Last Hurrah. As friends of the terminally afflicted Mayor surrounded his beside, the Catholic Cardinal suggested the Mayor on reflection would probably have lived his life with greater integrity. The Mayor’s final words: “Like hell I would.”

There are 21st Century scripts to be written and what a fight they will feature. The irrepressible energy of disruption tangles with the immovable, political parties. If film writers and the news media can step back, take a deep breath, and fend off biases then there are great stories to be written and news to be reported.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Beyond Inconvenient Truths by Al Sikes

With apologies to the phrase-maker, we should all spend some time with “inconvenient” truths.

Truth #1: The nation’s balance sheet is overloaded with debt. We owe $65,600 per capita, up 512% since 1990. The wealthy can shoulder the burden, but what about everybody else? As debt piles up, less will be spent on current challenges. Yet, politicians don’t talk about the debt except in abstract terms.

Truth #2: Better wages cannot be decoupled from better jobs. Better jobs are those that provide not just higher wages but job satisfaction—even pride. Nor can better jobs be decoupled from elementary and secondary education achievement.

Truth #3: Capitalism must be disruptive or new opportunities disappear. Likewise, education must be disruptable or too many teachers and administrators become bureaucrats protecting themselves. And, since it is an indisputable truth that disruption is a defining characteristic of the 21st Century the most important political question is how do we adapt.

LeBron James, the basketball player, has an insightful perspective on the problem and solution. He has spent his young life adapting his extraordinary skills to the wide array of defenses meant to stop his scoring. He has recently brought his adaptive skills to education. Here are a few highlights  from a New York Times article on the I Promise School  James started in his hometown of Akron, Ohio:

“Every day, they are celebrated for walking through the door. This time last year, the students at the school — Mr. James’s biggest foray into educational philanthropy — were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems.”

“The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.”

“Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.”

“The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors.”

“The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.”

“The 90 percent of I Promise students who met their goals exceeded the 70 percent of students districtwide, and scored in the 99th growth percentile of the evaluation association’s school norms, which the district said showed that students’ test scores increased at a higher rate than 99 out of 100 schools nationally.”

“The school’s culture is built on “Habits of Promise” — perseverance, perpetual learning, problem-solving, partnering and perspective — that every student commits to memory. The slogan “We Are Family” is emblazoned on walls and T-shirts.”

“On a tour of the school on Monday, Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, pointed out what she called I Promise’s “secret sauce.” In one room, staff members were busy organizing a room filled with bins of clothing and shelves of peanut butter, jelly and Cheerios. At any time, parents can grab a shopping bin and take what they need.”

Americans should be able to talk about best practices in education and it shouldn’t take a celebrity to draw attention to education’s failures. Yet, the education establishment has constructed a maze of trip-wires that one educator characterized as adults looking out for adults.

Nowhere is political labeling more perverse. The life of a child—the most important education moment—moves quickly and then it is over. And, the children who fail at school are likely to fail in life.

The I Promise School recognizes that homeschooling is indispensable. I was, early in life, an indifferent student. My Mom was not indifferent. I went to public school and then I went home to my Mom’s school, enforced by my Dad’s insistence on discipline. Every child needs homeschooling.

News the past several weeks featured a Perp walk of parents who bought their children’s admission to college instead of assuring their eligibility every step of the way from elementary to secondary stages. Too often higher education provides options for legacy or wealthy parents to bypass standards of admission.

Returning briefly to basic truths. The United States does not have now and it certainly will not have in the future enough money or wisdom to re-engineer society. What it does have are examples of educational practices that work.

In the future, basketball referees and scorekeepers and the like might well be robots. But, the fans will expect accomplished players on the court. If today’s children are to be on the court, educational structures must be disruptable and adapt to assure alignment between parents, children, and teachers.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Are There Answers? By Al Sikes

Easter week in my faith tradition—Christianity—is rich with questions and necessary introspection.

Jesus Christ is tortured, crucified, and resurrected. Power, the human intoxicant prevailed, at least until “the stone was moved back.” A more intense human drama, swirling around deep religious and temporal cleavages, is hard to imagine. In both human and religious history, there is not a more dramatic context serving up more vital questions.

This week then presents the final chapters: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Day. But, allow me to use this drama to ask other than just religious questions. Questions that are both religious (recurring in most faiths) yet, quite human.

Love is the essence of the Judeo-Christian faith. Divine commandments are clearly stated. Yet we know that humanity has a difficult and, for some, impossible relationship with love. Indeed some who disparage faith, in a divine being, use the impossibility of enduring love as proof of hope over reality.

Christianity recognizes the intractable difficulty and assures us that we can ask for and receive forgiveness when our passions or intellect preempt our devotion. Some, noting the apparent ease of forgiveness, suggest we engage in “cheap grace.” Recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, the German theologian who gave up his life challenging Hitler, words: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I have now strayed into territory that should be left to those who have made faith and its attendant callings their life’s work. Let me instead translate the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves into a single word: empathy.

What would the United States be like if we had more empathetic capitalism, for example? Does empathy toward employees and customers undermine the profitable provision of products and services? Or does “hard market” capitalism eventually undermine free markets?

Much is written about self-love in the context of helicopter parenting, selfies, narcissistic leaders, celebrities and the like. Love or empathy cannot exist without some level of humility. Only by recognizing our own vulnerabilities can we find genuine, empathetic expression for others.
Can empathy exist when it is largely expressed within an affinity circle? Is empathy simply a tool when expressed by politicians? When self-love is both ascendant and ubiquitous is the culture healthy?

Questions beg questions, but attention spans say wrap it up. So, in this most holy of weeks, in my faith tradition, I simply leave you with questions. But, I would submit, that exploring for answers to life’s most important questions is itself a good journey.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

We're glad you're enjoying The Talbot Spy.

Sign up for the the free email blast to see what's new in the Spy. It's delivered right to your inbox at 3PM sharp.

Sign up here.