Gary Shteyngart Hates American Airlines

A very short op-ed in The New York Times by Gary Shteyngart titled “A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque”:

The aircraft was indeed an interesting one. One of the overhead baggage compartments was held together with masking tape. Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working. Some of us were worried for our safety, but your employees mostly shrugged as if to say, Ah, there goes that altimeter again.

And so you took us to Merrie England for a spell.

At Heathrow, fire trucks met us because we landed “heavy,” i.e., still full of fuel we never got to spend over the Atlantic. At the terminal, a woman in a spiffy red American Airlines blazer was sent to greet us. But the language she spoke — Martian — was not easily understood, versed as we were in Spanish, English, Russian and Urdu.

Is it ironic that the piece feels Kafkaesque? Honestly, I didn’t find it very convincing. Heathrow is the worst airport in the world? I thought that was absurd.

You should skip this op-ed and read Super Sad True Love Story instead. It’s actually one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Confessions of a “Bad” Teacher

William Johnson is a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn who writes on education for the Web site Gotham Schools. In this Sunday’s op-ed in The New York Times, he explains how he’s been labeled a “bad” teacher at one school, took his teaching tactics to another school, and was seen as doing a good job there. The best part of the piece was his stance on teachers’ motivations and desire to improve:

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

Read more here.

Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

Vinton Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, begins this op-ed by expounding on the importance of the Internet, but concludes that Internet access is not a human right:

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

By similar logic, Cerf explains that Internet access is just a tool for obtaining something else more important, and shouldn’t be considered a civil right either (though the case for Internet as a civil right is stronger than that of a human right, he concedes).

Cerf’s argument is in opposition to United Nations, which released a report in June of 2011, citing Internet as a basic human right.

Warren Buffett on Taxing the Super-Rich

I really like Warren Buffett. He’s got a no-nonsense approach to investing, he speaks with charisma, and in today’s edition of the New York Times, he makes his voice heard loud and clear: tax the super-rich. And heavily.

In an op-ed titled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” Warren Buffett explains how he paid the least amount in taxes from his office of twenty people (even when he made the most money):

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

Some important statistics to digest (about income disparity in America):

Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.

And his resilient conclusion:

But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

Bravo. Now, let’s make it happen.