Book Four Synopsis

Book Four Synopsis

Series Overview | Dead Serious and Light-Hearted | Grading on the Curve
A Reasoned Case for Optimism | No Dog in the Fight | The Brilliance of Many

Grading on the Curve
Towards a More Objective Understanding of America

          Grading on the Curve is the fourth book in The Chance of a Lifetime … series. It attempts to present a thorough and objective description of the contemporary American condition. The book’s genesis lies in the fact that we Americans do not have an accurate understanding, a shared memory, or a shared perspective about our country. This contributes greatly to the very divergent beliefs held by Americans about our strengths and weaknesses as a nation.

An understanding our own country will not, by itself, calm our nerves or diminish our fears. However, it will allow us to better evaluate the empty simplicities and hyperbole which frequently characterize our political campaigns, the buckets of data dumps thrown onto our American conversations by various experts — self-declared or otherwise, and the bounty of factoids and tracking polls which are served up by the media. Understanding America’s true condition may be a useful guide in determining where we should go and what we should do. It may serve as a common place from which to begin the resolution of America’s issues, and it may help be the best basis for changing both the tone and the substance of our American conversation. Lastly, it may help us realize that America is in a period of peculiar opportunity and that there is a basis for much optimism.

But descriptions of America are difficult. Accuracy, measurement and even truth are elusive. Data, definitions, period selection, and statistical models are subject to easy manipulation, and it does not help that new chapters of history are written and more data is assembled each day.

Similarly, any snap-shot of America is, by definition, “history” the moment the picture is taken. No matter how fast the shutter speed of our camera, the picture distorts that which it memorializes. It fails to show that which preceded or that which will follow. It fails to capture what is behind the camera, down the road, or over the horizon. America is just damn hard to “see.”

In addition, American society and our people are definitionally and unavoidably subject to division in a hundred different ways – by our ages; by our place of birth or place of living; by the extent and quality of our education; by our biases, predilections, curiosities, and even our dispositions; by the nature of our appearance or the condition of our health; by the structure and strength of our families and friends; by our race, ethnicity, and religion; and by the extent of our income or the type of our employment.

Partly because of the number and significance of such divisions, any attempt at a composite description of America is difficult and even dangerous. Because of such divisions it is not surprising that Americans have difficulty sharing common agreement about the state of our own nation and its prospects for change. It is not surprising that we get all twisted in the mirror as we try to discuss our problems and resolve our differences. Worse yet, our unfamiliarity with one another and with other parts of our country makes us vulnerable to the mischief and mischaracterizations of others – especially social and political leaders.

Nevertheless, such description remains the only place to begin. Any serious discussion about America and about our alternatives for change must begin with knowing, to even the limited extent possible, who we are and how we are.

This is the subject of Book Four, Grading on the Curve. In this book an attempt is made at the impossible: to summarily, objectively, accurately, and interestingly describe America. It builds upon many of the facts and data presented in Book One (The Relevance of Reason – The Hard Facts and Real Data About the State of Current America – Business and Politics)(July, 2013) and Book Two (The Relevance of Reason – Society and Culture)(October, 2013).

The book’s title is intended to present both a comfort and a reminder. The comfort portion of the title is that America, like all countries, deserves to be “graded on the curve.” There are several reasons.

First, while any description of America can become easily buried in data and bogged down in a cascade of numbers, the meaning of that data and the importance of those numbers are oftentimes found only in the context of comparisons. Randomly dropped factoids about America are common; but they are only interesting. Alone and without context, they are rarely useful. While comparing America with other countries is exponentially more difficult, it is far more meaningful. For example, it may be nice to know that the average life expectancy in America has been extended to 78.7 years, but this number has limited absolute meaning. It gains far more traction when compared to parallel data of other nations or in the context of trending patterns. It becomes are far more meaningful number when we understand that America’s life expectancy is not first in the world. Instead, it is 50th in the world – below Portugal, Jordon and even Bosnia.  On a brighter note, American’s life expectancy has roughly doubled in the last century and has increased by another roughly ten years since the early 1970’s.

Secondly, grading on the curve may be especially relevant in this age of globalism. The use of a comparison may help us to better understand our own country as we stand in contrast to our friends, our enemies, and our competitors. At least since the end of World War II, most Americans have accepted that we cannot meaningfully view ourselves as separate, apart, or distant from the world. Partly for that reason as well – comparisons, not absolutes, matter.

Consider even a few examples. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Although it is an important nation especially in the context of national security, it is still somehow strangely relevant, if not somehow strangely comforting, to know that Pakistan’s economy is about the size of the State of Oregon. Russia remains a dominant player on the world stage, and it possesses a seemingly impressive gross national product of approximately 2.2 Trillion (US) dollars. However, these facts seem to take on more meaning and a better perspective in the context of comparison of knowing that this entire Russian economy is only about the size of the State of Texas. American has some of the greatest health care facilities in the world, but the troublesome fact is that infant mortality rates in the Unites States are comparatively high. They are higher than Greece and Italy and nearly three times those of Singapore.

This book recognizes that there are limits to this type of analysis. Comparative analyses are terribly difficult to apply in certain contexts such as assessing political and economic stability or evaluating the quality or state of aspirational goals such as equality, opportunity, achievement, idealism, or even perfection. While the level of our success in achieving these goals is critical to any full description of American life, in these contexts the limited utility of grading on the curve is recognized and understood.  Fortunately, such goals are usually matters of on-going effort and, except for the delusional optimist, they are almost definitionally unobtainable. Equally important, few Americans are demanding the audacity of perfection. They merely want progress.

The reminder portion of Grading on the Curve title is that the world is oftentimes the more correct standard.

Understanding America in comparison to its stated ideals is incredibly important. Evaluating ourselves in the context of our own past and against our own potential remains inevitable. In fact, America already is compared and evaluated every day in the flow of capital, the net migrations of peoples, and the evaluation and debates about the many alternative models of social, political and economic systems.

Nevertheless and however disquieting it may be to some, comparing America to other nations may help us understand ourselves better. In some instances such comparisons will give us further reasons to be proud and appreciative of our country. We may finally find a basis for allowing ourselves the patience which we so desperately need. In other instances such comparisons may give us reasons to be find ourselves disappointed and embarrassed for our country. We may finally find a basis for remembering our need for humility which we so desperately need.

Grading on the Curve inevitably acknowledges – indeed highlights – some of the serious issues facing America. But it also starts to present some of the reasoned bases as to why Americans should feel proud, energetic, and — even in our new post-9/11 world — confident and secure about itself.

All of these reasons combined, lead to the fifth book in The Chance of a Lifetime … series – A Reasoned Case for Optimism – America in the Early 21st Century.