TPM Cafe: Opinion

In the mid-1970s, a small number of economists and sociologists started noticing that academic skills were not all important. It sounded obvious, but in the rush to count and compare IQ and reading scores, this simple truth was easily forgotten. Over the next three decades, more and more studies showed that when it came to predicting which kids grew up to be thriving adults—who succeeded in life and in their jobs—cognitive abilities only went so far.

Something else mattered just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances. This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem. In one study of U.S. eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores—but their self-discipline.

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s finding that there’s plenty to like about being a political talisman. If he so much as eats a slice of pizza, he gets coverage from NPR and the Boston Globe. Media-appointed ideological standard-bearers never lack for attention. How do today’s progressives eat—or approach income inequality? Thanks to de Blasio, now we know.

The downside, of course, is simply the other side of that attention. In exchange, de Blasio can’t speak without inadvertently offering a lens for media analysis of the viability of capital-P Progressivism’s approach to pizza, nutrition, personal hygiene, snow removal, education, taxes and so forth.

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In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery. Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

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Imagine, for a moment, that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll were to go on ESPN with an unusual announcement about Sunday's Super Bowl. He says his team will refuse to kick off to the Broncos unless the Broncos spot them a field goal in exchange.

"We're not just going to give the other team the ball unless we get something significant in return," imagine Carroll declaring. "It would be irresponsible for us to just give in to their request for the ball without getting at least three points attached to it." Carroll says that unless the condition is met, the Seahawks aren't even going to bother playing the game. They insist that if the Broncos won't sit down and negotiate, it'll be their own fault if the Super Bowl gets canceled.

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In minute three of his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama called up a vintage line about our global competitiveness: “The United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”

It was the kind of rhetoric you’d hear 20 years ago and not think twice. (In fact, President Bill Clinton used the exact same line in a 1995 speech, right after he praised this wonderful thing call the Internet.) But at this particular moment in time, that bold claim did make me think twice. Is Obama right?

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I met Korea’s education minister, Lee Ju-Ho, at his office in Seoul. He had a boyish cowlick and a default expression of mild amusement, both of which artfully masked the ambition that had powered his career up to this point.

Lee was a product of the Korean pressure cooker. He had attended an elite high school and Seoul National University, one of the country’s top three universities. Then he’d earned his PhD in economics at Cornell. He’d risen swiftly up the Korean hierarchy, becoming a professor, then a politician. But when he became the Minister of Education, he did so with the goal of dismantling the pressure cooker, piece by piece.

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As the State of the Union Address and the first partisan blows of the 2014 election cycle approach, there’s a familiar character missing from the political state: the Deficit Boogeyman. With federal budget deficits plunging and the debt-to-GDP ratio stabilizing, public concern over deficits-and-debts is gradually abating despite the massive investments made by deficit hawks in creating an emergency atmosphere conducive to “grand bargains” involving tax increases and curbs in spending on Social Security and Medicare. With Republicans refusing to consider any real revenue measures, and the two parties managing to cobble together essential spending and (we can hope) debt limit legislation, interest in big budget deals, made bipartisan by the president for the last two years, has now all but vanished.

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On Friday, the board of directors of JPMorgan Chase voted to give CEO Jamie Dimon a raise. Not just a cost-of-living increase, but almost a doubling of his compensation. In Dimon's case, this means his compensation jumped from $11.5 million to $20 million.

Since 2013 was not a great year for the bank, the decision raised some hackles among Wall Street watchers, reflected in the headlines in the New York Times ("Big Raise for JPMorgan's Dimon Despite a Rough Year"), the Washington Post ("JPMorgan gives CEO Jamie Dimon 74 percent raise despite bank's legal troubles"), Business Week ("Dimon Gets 74 Percent Raise After Billions in Fines"), Forbes ("Jamie Dimon's Undeserved Pay Raise Indicates an Ineffective JPMC Board"), and the Wall Street Journal ("Dimon Gets Raise After Rough Year").

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What do a handful of businesses, bosses and bureaucrats have in common? Fierce and unrelenting opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) birth control benefit.

The ACA established minimum standards for health insurance to ensure that individuals can get the health care they need to lead healthy and productive lives. Contraception was included in that coverage. What should be uncontroversial and common sense has met swift opposition from a small minority since the law pulled out of the station in 2010. And on March 25, that train arrives at the Supreme Court.

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It’s an enduring mystery: The U.S. spends more per pupil on education than all but four countries in the world. And yet our teenagers perform unimpressively on the most respected international test of critical thinking. They score below average for the developed world in math and average in reading and science, a pattern that hasn’t changed in over a decade.

We all have our theories about why this might be: Maybe our country is much too big to compare to South Korea, too diverse to compare to Finland. Maybe our teachers’ unions are too powerful … or perhaps our education budgets too anemic?

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Want to contribute to TPM Cafe? Email ideas for your pieces to us at talk@talkingpointsmemo.com

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