Monday, October 27, 2014

Education Reform

Recently, my local Connecticut newspaper published a front-page report showing the differences in average SAT scores for students at various high schools throughout Fairfield county. Predictably, the report showed that students from high schools in wealthier communities scored much higher than students from schools in predominately lower class cities with large minority populations.

In Darien, a small, largely white, well to do town along Fairfield County’s so-called Gold Coast, students averaged 1799 on their combined Sat scores. Only 18 miles away in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s most populous city, the largely black and Hispanic students of Bassick High School averaged only 1024 on their combined SAT scores. Actually, the discrepancy is even worse since only a small percentage of Black and Hispanic students even take the SATs.

The newspaper was quick to draw the obvious conclusion that children in wealthier communities get better educations. But why? Is it just that wealthy community pours more resources into their schools? It is true that their buildings look nicer and more modern and have better equipment, but teachers in the inner city schools make largely the same salaries as their colleagues in wealthier towns. Moreover, the schools in Bridgeport receive over $150 million each year in State funding, largely provided by the taxation of the residents in the wealthy Gold Coast towns. The people in Darien are supporting two school systems, their own and Bridgeport’s.

I believe that the reasons for the education gap are not monetary. I also believe that they are not about race or ethnicity. For most of my life I have read articles and editorials about educational reform. No one should dare to write or talk about it without spending some time in a classroom, or at least talking to the teachers who are actually on the front lines. In my financial planning practice many of my clients were teachers in schools from all over the social and economic spectrum. I would often meet these teachers in their schools and get a pretty good idea of what was going on by talking with them, and just using my own two eyes.

I know that the good, the bad, and the ugly exist in the teaching profession just as in any other profession. However, in my experience the good, competent, and dedicated teachers far outweigh the bad. Anyone who blames the teachers for the sorry state of education in our cities has probably never been in a classroom to observe just what they have to deal with.

I know a young white woman fresh out of college with a degree in elementary education who has just started teaching first grade in a Bridgeport school made up largely of black and hispanic children. Her college degree could not have prepared her for the chaos she encountered on her first day. Every day presents a new challenge and these are only first graders. In many ways, first grade is pivotal for it is then that the mind is ready to learn how to read. If the opportunity is missed, students will fall behind and low SAT scores will inevitably result.

Sadly and significantly, the teacher told me that on Parent’s Night, only four parents showed up to hear about their child’s progress. Maybe parent is the wrong word because most of these Bridgeport first graders don’t have parents. They are being raised by grandparents some of whom are not even in their forties. Sometimes even great-grandparents are the caregivers for these children. Moreover, in most cases there are no men involved in the raising of these children.

One need only contrast this situation with the Parents’ Night at a typical white middle class school in nearby Fairfield. The parking lot will be packed with cars and the classes filled with fathers and mothers anxiously seeking news of their child’s progress or lack of it. Actually, I knew a young math teacher in Bridgeport who did not want to work in a suburban school because the parents were too involved.

No amount of money will rectify the tremendous social disaster that has taken place in American cities in the past few generations. Unwed teenage pregnancies create an almost impossible educational problem. To get an education certificate today, teachers have to take courses that would almost qualify them as master psychologists.

Just the other day the newspaper told the story of a nineteen-year-old woman who left her 3 month old child with strangers in an urban motel. Police finally tracked her down 60 miles away in another hotel room with a group of men. The future for this young woman is really bleak but it is practically hopeless for her baby who has been taken into state custody. The probability is very high that the child will be virtually uneducable by the time he goes to first grade. He will come to regard school as a prison and by the time he gets to eight grade he will likely be attacking classmates and teachers, and destroying school property. Next, the probability is also very high that he will join a street gang, become a drug addict or dealer, and eventually wind up in jail or dead on the street.

On the other hand, the Wall St. Journal recently published an op-ed by a young black woman who had just graduated from college. Her story was the familiar one of a fatherless child with a teenage, possibly addicted, mother. By the time she went to school she was completely out of bounds and disruptive in and out of class. However, her life was transformed when godmother took her away from the mother and placed her in a private school in fifth grade. She credited the school and the State of Florida’s tuition support program but I credit the godmother. Finally, the young girl had someone in her life who cared for her and took an interest in her education.

Some advocate busing Black and Hispanic children from their schools in Bridgeport to high achieving predominately white schools in towns like Darien. What good will it do if there are no parents who will ask them how they did in school today?


Friday, October 17, 2014

Connecticut Tax Shelters

I know that this year’s race for Governor of Connecticut is largely of local importance but it does have some relevance to what is going on not only in the USA but overseas. One of the big issues in this year’s campaign is the wealth of the Republican candidate, Tom Foley, a businessman who has apparently made a fortune by buying, renovating and selling companies. Dannell Malloy, the incumbent Democratic Governor, likes to portray himself as a man of the people who has made it the hard way. He even brags about overcoming a learning disability,

At the beginning of their most recent debate Foley offered a moratorium on personal attacks but the Governor refused. He and his advisors have made Foley’s multi-millionaire status the major issue in the campaign. Foley is portrayed as a wealthy aristocrat totally out of touch with ordinary people.

Career politicians like Malloy like to portray wealthy businessmen who seek to enter the political arena as modern versions of Scrooge McDuck, the wealthy uncle of famed Disney comic character Donald Duck. In yesterday’s debate Malloy tried to distinguish himself from Foley.

“I don’t own a $10 million house, a $5 million yacht, a $1 million plane, and not pay taxes in the state of Connecticut.”

I guess Foley can be forgiven for his home, his yacht, and his plane. After all, he doesn’t hoard all his money in his cavernous basement like Scrooge McDuck. Who can blame him for exchanging 5 million dollars, mere pieces of paper, for a yacht that will probably maintain its value better than the dollars? Connecticut has a large coastline and many people in the state own boats including Governor Malloy.

More seriously, information from his recently released tax returns showed that Foley paid no Federal Income tax in two of the last four years. As a result, in those years he also paid no state income tax. Apparently, Foley’s income comes from the Subchapter S Corporation he heads. This type of corporation is the kind that many small, privately owned businesses set up primarily to limit their personal liability. It has no real tax advantages since all the profit from a Subchapter S corporation must flow through to the owner and be taxed on his personal tax return.

In two of the last four years Foley paid no income tax because capital gains of more than $2 million dollars were more than offset by capital losses from his business. Offsetting gains with losses is standard legal practice. The Government insists that gamblers pay taxes on their winnings but does allow them to deduct their losses. In the same way, if you sell shares in ABC company for a gain this year, you can offset that gain by selling shares in XYZ company if they had a loss.

Significantly, the CT Post recently reported that since Malloy had become Governor of Connecticut, he has avoided paying taxes on the income he receives from renting his home in Stamford, the city right next door to Foley’s Greenwich. Malloy’s election four year’s ago presented him with a golden opportunity. He could live in the Governor’s Mansion in Hartford and thereby rent his home in the well-to-do Shippan section of Stamford for $5000 per month.

As rental property the home in Stamford gets all sorts of tax breaks that the Governor obviously took advantage of. For example, major repairs, improvements and maintenance costs on the house would be considered a business expense that could help offset the rental income for tax purposes. Actually, the rental income would pay for the improvements. These costs as well as other deductions to landlords offset all the Governor’s rental income for tax purposes. Ordinary homeowners cannot deduct the cost of repairs or improvements since they are not a business expense.

So, it turns out that the Governor has a million dollar home, a boat or two, but no private plane. He may be a small time operator compared to Foley, but like Democratic politicians all over the country who complain about the wealth of others, he is not about sharing the pie but more about getting a larger and larger share. Connecticut Senator  Blumenthal is one of the richest men in the country. Long term Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro is one of the richest women. Why aren’t they out of touch with ordinary people?


Thursday, October 9, 2014

American Democracy

Connecticut Governor Malloy
Just last Sunday my local newspaper, the Connecticut Post, ran a front-page article about Connecticut’s Governor Dannell Malloy who this year is in a hotly contested re-election bid. Ken Dixon the Post’s longtime Hartford correspondent wrote the article.

According to Dixon, Malloy is a tough even belligerent politician who has battled and antagonized many politicians even in his own Democratic party. One source even mentioned that Malloy had been a mayor of the large city of Stamford before becoming governor and that mayors are used to getting what they want. Malloy was characterized as almost dictatorial in dealing with leading politicians in the overwhelmingly Democratic Connecticut legislature.

However, what was most interesting about the article was reporter Dixon’s disclaimer that his Democratic political informants would only speak with him on condition of anonymity.  Their reluctance to identify themselves made one think of Russia under feared dictator Joseph Stalin. Many years ago famed Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described in a series of novels the fear that even high-ranking Soviet officials had of seeming to speak out of line.

It’s obvious that Connecticut politicians realize that political punishment awaits them if they dare to cross the Governor. Even if they can’t be punished with loss of power and influence, they would certainly be blocked from future advancement. No lucrative judiciary appointments or executive posts would be available to anyone who would step out of line.

A few weeks ago after voting in a local primary contest, I met a young official who was running for his party’s nomination to a seat in the State House of Representatives. I tried to discuss an issue with him but he cut me off to give me a little lesson in how things work in Connecticut’s democracy.

He explained that a representative could take one of two paths if elected. He could go to Hartford and do whatever the party leaders directed him to do. If he played ball, at the end of the session his district would be allocated funding so that a section of town road might be repaved. On the other hand, he could go to Hartford to represent his constituents and perhaps even buck the leadership on a vote or two. If he took that path, he would get nowhere and not even be given the funding to repave the roads.

A few days ago I met another candidate for the legislature who was out canvassing the neighborhood for votes. I asked her if she agreed with a recent law pushed through the legislature by the Governor to exempt teacher pensions from State income tax. She told me that she would be honest with me and admitted that she knew nothing about it. She explained that her involvement in town politics and the needs of her young children had kept her from knowing much about statewide issues. I could only scratch my head and wonder why this intelligent young person was seeking to load her already overflowing plate.

To add icing to the cake just yesterday President Obama helicoptered into wealthy Greenwich to attend a $32000 a plate Democratic fundraising dinner. Here is a man who has spent practically his entire career pillorying and demonizing the rich in this country. He never ceases to speak about income inequality and the need for the wealthy to share the wealth.

Nevertheless, he has the gall or hypocrisy to show up with outstretched hand in wealthy Greenwich. Actually, it could be just cunning. Russian revolutionary Nikolai Lenin was said to have remarked that if you give the Capitalists enough rope, they would hang themselves.

Seeing the image of President Obama stepping off Marine 1 to be met by Greenwich millionaires made me think of the final scene in George Orwell’s famous book “Animal Farm.” Orwell had fought with the Communists during the Spanish Civil War but became disenchanted when he realized that they were just as bad, if not worse, than their opponents.

Older readers will remember that “Animal Farm” was a political fable about a rebellion of the oppressed farm animals against the farmer who profited from their labor. The farmer and his men were driven off the farm which then was to be worked by and for the animals. A banner was raised proclaiming, “All Animals are Equal.” All would share equally in the work and rewards of the farm.

Unfortunately, things soon took a wrong turn. The wily pigs took over with the aid of fierce attack dogs and soon lorded it over the other animals. One day the animals noted that the revolutionary banner had bee altered to read: “All Animals are Equal, but Some are More Equal than Others.”

The book ends with a very touching scene. One night the ordinary animals stand out in the cold peering through the window of the restored farmhouse. They behold the prosperous pigs enjoying a fine dinner. Their guest is the farmer.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Masterpiece: Leonardo's Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper
(click on images to enlarge)

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited.

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. Since the eighteenth century art historians and critics have generally believed that in the Last Supper, Leonardo depicted the moment immediately following Christ’s announcement of his betrayal. Over 50 years ago in the very popular series of Metropolitan Museum seminars in Art, critic John Canaday wrote,
The Last Supper is a great picture with a religious subject. That is not exactly the same thing as saying that The Last Supper is a great religious picture, which it is not…. Nor did Leonardo intend it to be one. In all reverence he conceived of the moment when Christ says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me”, as a moment of unparalleled human drama.
Even today, a quick web search shows that the lead Wikipedia article begins with the following pronouncement.
“The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him.”
It was this common but mistaken interpretation that the late Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg’s thesis was controversial but anyone reading “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century. [i]

Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment. In a famous essay German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth century secularists for a profound mis-reading.
Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
Reading Steinberg’s “Incessant Last Supper” not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer.

To  illustrate his thesis I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles. Leonardo obviously knew his Apostles and the legends that had grown up about them. Their appearance, their gestures, and their placement show that they are reacting in their own characteristic way to the announcement, “This is My Body…Take and eat.”

From left to right the Apostles are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg’s stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour![iii]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.

 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[iv]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.

Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope….“
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[v]
The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.

None of these gestures can be explained as a reaction to the betrayal announcement.

Finally, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, who can no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement.
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vi]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[vii]

Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was modern art. But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries. 


[i] Steinberg, Leo: Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, New York, 2001.

[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 61.
[iv] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[v] Ibid. p. 70.
[vi] Ibid. p. 57.
[vii] Ibid,. p. 58.