Episode 94: The $140 billion investment no one is tracking

Nijay Williams had a plan. Graduate high school, go to college, and start a business.

Nijay says he has always had an entrepreneurial streak. Back in high school, he made money as a deejay and party promoter, but he knew he needed some new skills -- management, accounting, marketing -- if he was going to fulfill his dream of owning his own bar.

And we, the American taxpayers, invested in Nijay's dream. He got a Pell Grant for about $6,000 from the U.S. government, and enrolled in Tennessee State University, a four-year school near his home in Nashville. But almost right away, Nijay struggled to keep up with the workload.

“When I was in high school, the most they had me write was a three-hundred-word essay, a five paragraph essay,” Nijay said.

Now, he was assigned five-page papers. He also was working full-time, and could never make the school's limited tutoring hours work with his restaurant shifts. Nijay failed two of his classes, lost his Pell Grant, and couldn't pay his tuition. He dropped out after his freshman year.

Nijay's story and others like it have policymakers of all political stripes asking whether the $140 billion annual investment we make in student loans and grants to college students is bringing us enough of a return. More specifically, they're asking whether schools such as Tennessee State should be held accountable for not doing enough to make sure that students like Nijay graduate.

And they’re also asking questions. How well do students do in the workforce? What percentage of Pell Grant recipients graduate?

DecodeDC podcast hosts Elizabeth Scheltens and Robert Smith of NPR’s Planet Money ask the same questions in this week’s show, plus they explore one other surprising fact: In order to get the answer answer to some of those questions, you would have to break the law.

[Also on DecodeDCLBJ’s Howard University speech remains relevant]

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Episode 93: LBJ and the racial divide, 50 years later

It isn’t often that the president of the United States opens up about America’s history of racism or about how African Americans have suffered because of it - or about how white America must accept responsibility for these wrongs.  

But that is exactly what happened 50 years ago this month when President Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  And those who were in the crowd June 4, 1965, say what they heard on still feels relevant today.

 “I think anyone could give that speech today, and with few exceptions, not recognize that it was something that was related to a 50-year-old occasion,” said Judith Winston, a Howard student at the time who was there. “It’s a speech that in many sad ways has the same resonance today that it had 50 years ago.”

 Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a voting rights bill that was on its way to getting passed,  Johnson told the crowd of mostly African-Americans gathered in the quadrangle that those laws were not enough.

“You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want and do as you desire, and choose your leaders please,” he said. It was time for the next and the “more profound stage of the battle for civil rights…”

The speech is known as the intellectual framework for affirmative action.  Johnson spoke of a widening gulf between blacks and whites in unemployment, infant mortality and economic opportunity. “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” he said.

“It was good to hear him speak of those things and to realize that he really understood, and not only understood but really wanted to do something about it,” said Pricilla Harris Wallace, graduate of Howard’s School of Social Work.  Half a century later, Wallace says she is still waiting for things to change, “We’ve made progress along the way, but when you look at things and where we should be as far as race is concerned, economics and other things of that nature, I feel that we’ve gone backwards.”

Episode 92: Laughing Matters

I’ve gotten interested in humorlessness. 

I’ve come to believe that politics has become less funny, more humorless. I think this is certainly true of professional politicians and their henchmen and henchwomen. I think it is true of pundits and talking heads.

Most important, I think it is true of regular civilians who like to talk – and argue – about politics over dinner or at a bar. Stridency is up; the capacity to take teasing is down. At least that’s my hunch. There is no national gag-o-meter to measure such things.

The absence of laughter and humor is something to worry about. So on this week’s podcast, we paid a vist to Dr. John Morreal of William & Mary University in Virginia, a scholar of the philosophy of humor and has published several books on the subject.  

He also has helped businesses and leaders learn to use humor as a helpful tool. Morreal is also a very funny guy, but I’m funnier.

Morreal agrees that politics has gotten more humorless to the extent it has gotten more ideological, polarized and doctrinaire. But he isn’t even mildly concerned about the national funny bone.

He says the supply of satire has never been higher. And the Internet has become an incredible global arena for comedy, kookiness, absurdity and top giggles. Lighten up, he told me.

Still, there is a humorlessness issue in politics. The real problem with political jokes is that they keep getting elected.

Episode 91: Congress and...the mafia?

It’s no secret that members of Congress spend much of their time raising money. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: A huge chunk of the money they haul in is not spent on their campaigns. It’s funneled directly to the political parties in the form of dues.

On the latest DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook explains how Congress works a little like another organized group when it comes to money, power and loyalty — the mafia. There are no Don Corleones, of course, in the strict sense of the name, and there’s nothing illegal. Still, members are expected to pay up.

Seabrook talks to former members of Congress and other players in the Washington political game about the hundreds of thousands of dollars members must collect to satisfy the party leadership. It is an enormous amount of political power — even by Washington standards — to have streams of money flowing up, up, up into the control of a few at the top of the party.

Episode 90: Narwhal vs. Orca

Once upon a time in the fairytale land of politics, there was an epic clash of magical beasts.

On one side, the sea-unicorn called the narwhal. With a wave of his single tusk, he could muster thousands of volunteers, knock on millions of doors and direct a laser-beam of votes on behalf of Barack Obama.

On the other side, the narwhal’s natural enemy, the orca, tasked with unearthing voters across the realm for challenger Mitt Romney. This may sound too fantastical to believe, but it’s actually closer to reality than you think.

The presidential race of 2012 did indeed see such a contest, between the President’s Project Narwhal team and Mitt Romney’s Project Orca. But the contest wasn’t waged on Middle Earth, it was waged online, by Silicon Valley hackers wielding the power of…database computing.

For many, the showdown between the two digital camps came to symbolize the growing and dominant role technology has come to play in today’s politics. But that story is, well, a fairy tale, according to the man behind Project Narwhal.

“It wasn’t technology. The answer was that we had a great field team and we had good volunteers and our grassroots was on point ,” says Harper Reed, former Chief Technology Officer for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. “We raised all the money and the finance team did this really great work. Technology just helped a little bit to make some of that stuff faster.”

On this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook sits with Harper Reed to recount a story that ended up being too good to be true, about a Narwhal, an Orca, and the real magic behind campaigns that help a candidate’s dreams come true.


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