The hard bigotry of low expectations and low priorities


Perhaps the single best-known piece of social science research ever done in this country is the study produced by James Coleman in 1966 under the authority of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, commonly called “the Coleman Report.” Coleman’s work is the second largest social science research project in history, covering 600,000 children in 4,000 schools nationally.

Coleman concluded that school-based poverty concentrations were negatively impacting school achievement for the minority poor. His proposed solutions were the impetus for the school desegregation movement and specifically busing. Coleman later admitted to the ultimate failure of busing as a consequence of  “white flight.”

Coleman found those two factors – poverty and minority status – more predictive than just differences in school funding. This is frequently distorted to suggest “research shows school funding doesn’t matter in achievement.” Coleman never said that. He just said parental economic status and segregated schools were the most important factors. Results from “The Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, show that states with the highest education spending (and highest percentages of unionized teachers) are the highest performers.

The impact of family economic well being on school achievement continues to be studied. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), California’s state testing vendor, has conducted two such studies: “Parsing the Achievement Gap” (2003) and “The Family – America’s Smallest School” (2007).

In “Parsing,” the authors are careful to assert, “We know skin color has no bearing on the ability to achieve,” and “… it is clear that educational achievement is associated with home, school, and societal factors, almost all having their roots in socioeconomic factors affecting this country.”

This report, “based on a careful review of the synthesis of research,” identifies 14 correlates of elementary and secondary school achievement. There are six correlates related to school: curriculum, teacher preparation, teacher experience, class size, technology, and school safety. The remaining eight correlates are categorized as “Before and Beyond School”: parent participation, student mobility, birth-weight, lead poisoning, hunger and nutrition, reading in the home, television watching, and parent availability.

Note that at least three of the six school-related correlates are actually resource-related and, with the other eight correlates, are beyond the control of the school and teachers.

The other ETS study, “The Family – America’s Smallest School,” goes over much of the same territory as “Parsing,” noting the negative impacts on school achievement of single-parent homes, poverty in the minority communities, food insecurity, parent unemployment, child care disparities, substantial differences in children’s measured abilities as they start kindergarten, frequency of student absences, and lack of educational resources and support in the home.

The study concludes that these factors “account for about two-thirds of the large differences … in NAEP eighth-grade reading scores.”

The elements of school achievement outcomes cited by ETS in its studies related to health and life expectancy issues can also be found elsewhere, for example, in “Life and Death from Unnatural Causes,” by the Alameda County Public Health Department.

In a resounding echo of Coleman’s conclusions about poor students and low achievement, the Alameda study states, “A main way that place is linked to health is through geographic concentration of poverty.”

In “Life and Death,” the factors of family wealth, environmental issues (exposure to lead), lack of access to health care – in so many words the conditions of poverty – result in a “life expectancy gap.” Children, overwhelmingly minority children, born in the flats of Oakland “can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a White person born in the Oakland Hills.”

It appears that the medical experts doing the research for this study didn’t realize that using the conditions of poverty found in economically segregated communities to explain different life span outcomes is really all a matter of “making excuses.” They should have known that dying early results from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There are those who will argue that there is no established causal relationship between conditions that contribute to poor life expectancy rates and the conditions that contribute to low school achievement; that conditions that can grind 15 years off a child’s life span don’t also grind off abilities to succeed in school. Such arguments are the “hard bigotry” of ideology.

There are those who will suggest that California, the richest state in the richest nation on Earth, doesn’t have the ability to correct in large part the conditions of concentrated poverty that ETS identifies as contributing to low achievement and that the Alameda study identifies as contributing to abbreviated lives. That, indeed, is an example of low expectations – of the variety that can be found when people fail to prioritize education.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.


  1. It shocks me that we have kindergarteners starting school who do not know their colors. I don’t even know how it’s possible that a child can get to 4-5 years old and not know colors in some language.

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  2. Gee, Mr. Ravani,  do you have any numbers for “California, the richest state…”  I don’t see that.  Or is that rhetorical flourish?  Statistically, it seems CA is behind other states in per capita income though a bit above the average.  What I see is a state where taxes per capita or per income are above average, state spending on all education is well above average, and teacher income is at or near the top.  Spending per K-12 student is a little above average or a little below average (depending on the year) but hardly the bottom.  It is near the top in K-12 capital spending, even though the percentage growth in enrollment is not near the top.  It is spending proportionately more on higher education than most states and more than most on education overall.
    As for the correlation between NAEP scores and spending, funny you should mention that, I did an analysis myself and found correlation coefficients on the order of 0.2 which is meaningless.  Can you provide access to your numbers?  A spreadsheet perhaps? What correlation coefficient did you get in which subject populations?  What years did you cover?  I will try to post mine ASAP and provide access to it.
    (Looking at the NEA “Rankings of the States 2009″ downloaded from the NEA web site.)
    Out of 50 states and the D. of C.,
    CA is #1 in teacher salaries in 2007-2008, #2 in 2008-2009 (C-16, C-18, pg 21)
    CA = #5 in growth of teacher’s salaries over the 10 years 1998-2008  in constant dollars.
    CA = #9 in per capita personal income (D3, p26)
    CA = #5 in per capita state and local tax revenue
    CA = #22 in Public school revenue per student ADA 2007-2008 (F-3, p 39)
    CA = #22 in Public school revenue per $1,000 of personal income 2007 (F-5, p 40)
    CA = #15 in per capita expenditures for all education (H-3, p 52)
    CA = #3 in per capita capital spending for public K-12 schools (H-19, p 58)

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  3. I forgot to throw in cost of living adjustments for states.  Those are available only after years of study and self denial in the bowels of the national archives here:
    Near the bottom of the entry under “Income by state”.   (0.16 seconds, 10,000,000 hits).  California is 9th before COL and 34th after COL adjustment.

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  4. I am in Sacramento today and will respond to reasonable questions tomorrow, Friday.

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  5. W. Norton Grubb’s “The Money Myth” suggests the opposite ratio, 40% home / 60% school.  Any idea of what the differences between these reports and that book might be?  Mostly curious, as either way I  look at it both factors are large.

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  6. The term  “low expectation bigotry” is used as ‘blame the victim’ strategy. Its like telling a person falling of a cliff to hang on tight to his boot straps or hold onto to his or her underwear. Slowly, painfully slowly, people with good intentions are beginning to realize that they can’t destroy public education which unlike charter schools, serves all children, and claim that that they are working to help kids. One can’t claim that charter schools are giving a choice to children’s parents when actually the choice is given mostly to high test scores children who tend to be white. The charter choice is not for all children and parents, rather, its about manipulating the public into believing that schools should be run like businesses with all the implications and that it would be better for kids. Once you accept that children must produce test scores then you accept that if they don’t, they will be regarded as toxic assets in a balance sheet: written off and disposed. (Lance hill). Lastly one can’t claim to be helping families and children while working to destroy the unions who struggle to assure these families fair working conditions, protection from abuse and retribution and wages one can actually live on. I refuse to accept that super rich progressives push forward the Swift Boaters For Truthines, Koch brothers union busting agenda just because they have become a part of the oligarchy ruling this country since Obama’s election. If Rob Reiner or any of them can name another reason, please come forward, and if not, please, “move away, you are blocking the good morning sun.” as Diogenes said to Alexander the Great who came to see the wise old cinic who was sleeping inside a barrel. When Alexander The Great asked the old man what he could do for him Diogenes stuck his head outside of his barrel and said: “move away, you are blocking the good morning sun.”
    Yeah Rob, if you read this here as I hope you would, here is a way for you to know who’s talking to you: “Have some Kind David seeds. Lets watch a ball game. Forget politics”

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  7. Mr. “G” (unusual last name that):

    First, re that actual meaning of the article: concentrations of childhood poverty in the US (the world’s wealthiest nation) and CA the (the wealthiest state) are having significant negative effects on both educational achievement and health.
    The OECD ranks the US only ahead of Mexico in the number of children living in poverty of around 30 industrialized nations.  We give rapt attention to the OECD rankings on international test scores. We pay little/no attentions to the poverty issue.
    Schools have about one third of the influence on school achievement that SES related issues outside of school have. Teacher effects are some undefined fraction of that one third.
    Current “accountability” measures have the expectation that the one third tail will wag the two thirds dog. Reasonable?
    Anyway, you seem to have focused on several  trees at the expense of seeing the forest.
    You have also confused wealth with income. The US is wealthy because of its GNP. States have a GSP, and as reported In the CA Legislative Analysts last issue of CAL FACTS, this state is-even in the face of the recession-one of the great economies of the world. It has 13.3% of the US GDP with Texas, the second wealthiest state, at 7.95% of US GDP or roughly one third less.
    The LAO also notes that CA’s taxes are “slightly above the US average.”
    CA ranks 2nd of the 50 states in cost-of-living (behind only Hawaii)
    High cost-of-living leads to high cost of providing public services (including schools) coupled to middling taxes results in a “structural deficit.” There is a lot of wealth not being captured for the public good (or for per capita incomes for that matter). FDR said “taxes are the dues we pay to live in an organized society.” We’re not paying them and… chaos. We have rejuvenated “social Darwinism.”
    I’ll let you argue with John Fensterwald about school spending. If you go to the archive on TopEd, 1/12/11, you’ll discover an informative article based on Ed Week’s “Quality Counts” report. This pegs CA’s spending for K-12, in COL adjusted dollars at 43rd in the nation. This was before the cuts driven by the last few years of budget kabuki as the state is held hostage by a few anti-tax radicals and a DC lobbyist.
    Repeat: The wealthiest state in the nation is 43rd in spending for K-12 education. A well respected Rutgers U study gives CA a “D” for equity issues in school funding. I think Rutgers was generous.
    RAND Corp. (2005-CA’s K-12 Public Schools) finds K-12 school funding, as a % of personal income, declined 1970 to 2000 by “relatively large dollar amounts.” There were no significant increases under  the Governator. Teacher salaries were “top ten in the nation in terms of absolute dollars” but “are actually lower than the national average” in purchasing power (32d) and “last among the five most populated states.”  Again, this is based on data available on 2005, but conditions for teacher salaries have generally (furloughs, etc.) have declined.

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  8. I am not impressed by Mr. Grubb. There are several studies related to the influence of SES and school. Coleman was one and then there is ETS who studies the impacts on scoring on their own tests. There are others.

    His “Money Myth” is refuted by Fedeeral Education Budget Project  (as well as a casual study of the data. Regionally the Northeast spends the most per student for K-12, followed by the Midwest, the West, and the South.  According to the FEBP results from the 2009 NAEP, “states where pupil spending was highest in 2007-08 outperformed their peers in states with lower pupil expenditures.” In other words, the regional pattern of NAEP performance followed the regional pattern of school spending. These are general trends and there are outliers.

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  9. Your looking at just the total GSP when you know CA has the biggest population is rather odd.  On that basis I suppose India is a rich country ($1,729T) and Switzerland ($523T) is a poor country.
    GSPs are available at Wikipedia
    which shows California’s at 12th “per capita”.  If, after adjusting for COL, being 9th in personal income adjusts to 34th, then being 12th in GSP probably adjusts to about 40th in GSP per capita.  You spend it on services “per capita” and collect it in taxes “per capita”.  Mostly it is collected on income and on property.  CA at 34th “per capita” personal income (adjusted for cost of living) is not really rich.  Richer than some, poorer than most.  The reason it spends proportionately less on K-12 is because it spends proportionately more on colleges, particularly the UCs.  It spends proportionately more on education than most states in unadjusted expenditures.  The group that took the biggest hit in this years state budget was social services.  This huge hit to social services helped minimize the cuts to education.
    So I am missing the forest or the trees.  What is your point?  I’m looking for a concrete action proposal and what I think I got was a rhetorical essay on the short-sighted penny-pinching refusal of Californians to tax themselves more.   That may be, but I see a state with higher than the national average unemployment at a time when the national average unemployment (including those who stopped looking or are working only a few hours a week and so don’t count in the official figures) is around 18%, college graduates working at $8/hour, (if they can find that) and a lot of laid off people wondering when their unemployment checks will run out.  Even the Army and Navy are “laying off” thousands of enlisted and officers because the lousy economy isn’t inducing many to leave voluntarily.  You might have a little sympathy for people who feel stretched and are taxing themselves more than most to pay for education, such as teachers salaries, like yours.
    Suppose CA did raise taxes enough to give everyone below poverty level an extra $20K per year, thereby cutting nominal poverty by a lot – do you think this would automatically turn their kids into good students?  Or would they be the same kids only with better shoes?  Maybe Correlation is not causation as others have so wisely noted.  Maybe the reason they are poor is that they and their parents don’t have the life skills to figure out how to get out of poverty.  In which case high intensity burn-out-the-teachers but turn (at least some) kids around charter schools might help if the local districts would quit fighting them?  Or maybe a lousy economy doesn’t provide much opportunity for anyone these days?

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  10. Gary,
    First, you seem to confuse correlation and causation. Based on correlations, the Coleman and ETS studies “estimate the fractional contributions” of home and schooling. Yet such teasing apart is misleading to a degree because the majority of schools in this country is doing a poor job of instruction, which accentuates the importance of home effects. In other words, those reports show their relative importance AS IT WORKS TODAY, but not as they necessarily have to be. To illustrate this difference, consider that there *exist* schools that serve disadvantaged students AND make them achieve very high on objective (rather than subjective) scale. I recently mentioned elementary schools in the Inglewood school district, as well as the Aspire charter school in East Palo Alto, as such examples. Clearly, if the home correlates were immutable, those couldn’t exist.  Further, consider countries that may have a smaller fraction than us of “children living in poverty,” but still a non-zero fraction. That would include everybody. If your interpretation that “home correlates” are barely mutable by schooling was correct, those countries would have an achievement gap about as big as ours, except that the respective size of the “advantaged” vs. “disadvantaged” groups would be different. Yet many of those countries have a much smaller achievement gap than we do — not just the size of their disadvantaged group, but the size of the gap.
    All this illustrates the simple point that we have a generally ineffective schooling system that cannot *today*, in the general case, overcame the home effects. But this DOES NOT indicate that there is no effective system that could do it, as you would like us believe. Just to the contrary, the examples of Inglewood, Aspire, and many other countries, show that it can be done, and at cost not higher than we spend now.
    On a separate note, imagine for a moment that you are indeed correct. That schools are indeed mostly powerless to combat home effects. Given that, don’t you think that a rational response might be simply to push for less trained and less paid teaching workforce? If all schools do anyway is by and large babysit their students (as some parents already think), why do we need babysitters with university degrees, and paying them even more if they got a Master’s?

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  11. “G:”
    You questioned my use of “wealthiest,” and CA is the wealthiest of the states by a considerable margin. Your use of “per capita” is reasonable, but like most manipulations of data it tells us some things but masks others. People don’t bring home per capita dollars, they bring home salaries. And CA’s growth in wealth is going to corporations, in large part. Corporate income grew (See CA Budget Project) by 412% between 2001 and 2008 compared to personal incomes (salary) growth of 27.8%.
    There have been numerous studies of late indicating the tremendous inequity in the distribution of wealth not seen since the 1920s, or perhaps the Gilded Age. Not healthy for consumer based economies and not captured by discussions of per capita
    And I have great sympathy for taxpayers.  (I happen to be one as matter of fact.) You may recall Warren Buffett remarking that his secretary paid a greater percentage of taxes from her earnings than he did from hers. In fact the lowest fifth of taxpayers are paying 11.1% of their earnings in state taxes while the top 1% pays 7.8%. Of 650K taxpayers earning $200K or more 2,000 of them paid no state taxes. I have sympathy for one group, none for the other.
    In CA local taxes, general sales taxes, property taxes, motor fuel taxes, tobacco taxes, and alcohol taxes are all (some far) below the national average.
    The state has a personal  income tax system that is regressive and doesn’t require the wealthy to pay their fair share.
    And, again, corporations.
    The CA Dept of Finance indicates personal income taxes provided 53.2% of tax revenues in 2009-10 up from 35.4% in 1980-81. Corporate taxes  were 10.7% of revenue in 2009-10 down from 14.6% in 1980-01.
    We have, therefore, a situation where the combination of inequitable distribution of wealth and a skewed tax system contributes to concentrations of poverty with severe negative consequences for health and school achievement.
    Re charter schools: You need to go back and read the CREDO results.
    Re people not having a chance to live out a “normal” lifespan and not have a level playing field for academic achievement because, noting just one factor-inadequate health care-in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation on the planet? There is only one thing to say: No excuses.
    Re causal v. correlation. I’m not certain the causal relationships between cigarettes and cancer have ever been demonstrated. So, if that’s your position, as my old drill sergeant used to say: “Light ‘em if ya got ‘em.”

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  12. Gary,
    “Re causal v. correlation. I’m not certain the causal relationships between cigarettes and cancer have ever been demonstrated. So, if that’s your position, as my old drill sergeant used to say: “Light ‘em if ya got ‘em.””
    As a matter of fact, the relationship between smoking and cancer has been clearly established. As a matter of anecdote, my mom used to say that when you have nothing to say, don’t say it. Perhaps you should consider this wisdom.

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  13. Gary,
    Are you saying you are using data from the FEBP to refute the point I raised from the “Money Myth” or are you saying the project itself has specifically refuted the that point?  Some web searching did not turn up any details for a direct refutation.  If that is what you meant, can you provide a reference?
    I’m guessing that I’m not getting your meaning about the regional differences in school spending.  If education results improve with school spending that seems to be an argument that schools matter.  It doesn’t say that schools matter more than the home environment, but it doesn’t refute that point either.

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  14. As much as I’ve enjoyed the exchange between Gary and the others, I’d like to set aside for a moment, the specific comparisons of how wealthy we are vs. the taxes we pay.  A question that interests me even more is, Why aren’t taxpayers willing to pay more for public education in CA?  I don’t think that anyone with day-to-day experience in CA public schools thinks that they are being lavishly funded at $6-7,000 per student.  There is widespread evidence in all but the most affluent districts of growing class sizes, decreasing course offerings, growing teacher turnover (due, at least in part, to compensation issues), and deteriorating facilities.  What intrigues me is that, other than parents of current and prospective students, no one seems to care all that much.  True, we are still feeling the effects of a severe recession, but are Californians so selfish/uninformed/callous that we don’t care about the education of the children who are going to be caring for us someday?  It paints a pretty uncharitable picture of our friends, neighbors and co-workers — one that doesn’t actually seem to jibe with our day-to-day experience of those people (at least not for me).

    If you go ahead and ask people why they don’t want to pay more, the answers seem to fall into three general buckets:  1) There are the people who say “Who cares?  I don’t have kids.”  Or “mine are grown”.  That segment seems to conform most closely to the negative stereotype above, and it is growing relative to the rest of the population, unfortunately.  I’m not sure how much we can do about changing the minds of people who “have theirs” and don’t care about others.  2) Then there are the people who say, “I’d pay more, but it all seems to go to educating illegal immigrants/kids who don’t want to learn or whose parents don’t care, etc.”  That is a somewhat more interesting segment, as they might be willing to pay more, but don’t see the outcomes they’d like. They may misunderstand how important the children from these households are going to be for the future of our state, but the crux of it seems to be that they don’t believe that we are doing a good job educating these children, so why bother?  Unfortunately, they have a lot of data on their side. And finally, 3) there are the people who used to support school spending, but no longer feel that more money, in any amounts, will really address the structural problems of education in CA.  This is the segment I find most fascinating, because it seems to include increasing numbers of parents who are reasonably well-educated and middle-class, with kids who are in school now or will be in the near future.  These people have always been a key constituency of public school funding.  They are often politically active, and they know how to get their way on issues that really matter to them.  Yet it seems that we are losing them, except in the most affluent districts with high parcel taxes.  I believe that we are losing them as education supporters because their day-to-day experience with the decision-making and operations of public schools has simply grown too discouraging.  One of the most ardent school supporters and fund-raisers in my own district recently told me, “Not one red cent more for these people (i.e. the district).  They don’t know how to make a positive difference.”  I believe she came to that conclusion over many years, because our large, diverse district tries to cope with the different needs of very different student populations, and unfortunately, they haven’t addressed any of them well.  They clearly focus money, time, and administrative attention on “closing the achievement gap” and reducing drop-out rates, but after 10 years of lots of spending and plenty of busyness around those admirable goals, they have not moved the needle.  Meanwhile, in the schools with the most involved parents and college-bound students, the doors are literally falling off — fewer AP courses, fewer foreign language options, fewer experienced teachers, fewer electives, less equipment in operating condition.  Teachers — probably one of the worst-managed labor forces in our entire society — have grown so tired of the district bureacracy and inept micro-management, that they leave as soon as they can.  The talented, motivated students are somehow still increasing their schools’ API rankings, but they are basically learning on their own, amidst indifference and disorganization that very few of us would recognize from our own youth. 

    As the populations of economically needy and language-learning students have increased outside our large cities, our large centralized suburban districts are increasingly exhibiting the dysfunctions and ineptitude of our high-poverty urban districts. We are not providing the various populations in those districts with choices and attention suited to their different needs.  The centralized, top-down, command structure and lack of choice did not exactly endear our urban populations to their big-city public schools, and I don’t think it is helping the reputation of public education in the districts where so many current (and former) supporters of public education live.  As our students and their needs become more heterogeneous, we have not responded with flexibility or choices that families need.  Thirty years ago we had the “luxury” of not having to attend to the needs of the poorest and most challenged students.  We could focus on the needs of students from the most influential families.  Now, everyone expects to have their needs addressed, and our large districts, which were never very adaptable, innovative or accountable even before the current financial stress, are showing us all how unprepared they are for the task.

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  15. Jim: I think that’s a pretty insightful comment.
    I think if you look back to around 1980 in California education, you’ll see a similar situation with funding and apathy, in some cases with cutbacks so fierce that students could not meet A-G and graduation requirements had those service levels remained. The backlash eventually produced Prop 98.
    There is a strong general perception of school failure out there. But, it seems to me we have a lot of great, innovating, really interesting schools, and far more than we ever have, with thriving kids. There is a state award for innovative prinicpals with lots of great stories that I think hardly anyone has ever heard of… why is that? Why don’t people get to hear those stories?

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  16. Paul: I’m not sure I follow the first question about the “Money Myth.” There are many who want to discount the value of schools, social programs and public sector spending generally.  Gates recently questions the value of low class size (a significant cost issue). He attended a private school with class sizes of 16. Seemed to work for him.

    Jim: I don’t disagree with a lot of what you said. The people of CA do support spending on schools. Most of them are unaware of CA’s status of being 43rd in the nation in spending per child with largest classes, fewest nurses-librarians-counselors-administrators, etc. Many believed the Lotto was supposed to cure all funding problems.

    The people of CA are supportive of many progressive ideals but have been bamboozled into thinking they are paying the “highest taxes in the nation,” rather than being  little above average in one of the lowest taxed nations in the industrialized world.

    The latest polling indicates Californians are very reluctant to tax themselves (and many of them at the bottom of the income distribution would have a point) but find taxing the wealthy to be acceptable. The last poll we did found higher taxes on the wealthy was supported by 80+% of Democrats-And 60% of Republicans. Caused quite a stir.

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  17. According to a journal for oncology nurses there is “no scientific proof, just very high correlations” between smoking and cancer. Of course, that was 2005. I don’t follow the issue that clsoely, but things may have changed since.

    Anyway, Zev, it was a metaphor and a joke. Things must be tense down Silicon Valley way.

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  18. Gary,
    I apologize for not appreciating the joke. Perhaps, had it been attached to a meaningful response, it would have been easier on my sense of humor.

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