Instead of Explaining Greta Thunberg, Debate Her Claims

What is Greta Thunberg’s superpower?

She obviously has one, if not more. Your average sixteen-year-old doesn’t start successful global activist movements,  address UN Climate Action Summits, and have those addresses go viral as death metal videos.

Critics slam Thunberg as everything from “mentally ill” (a claim which got one Fox News guest blacklisted),  to naive pawn in a well-funded propaganda operation, to just plain annoying teenager.

I think those critics miss the point. If they disagree on the facts, they should dispute those facts rather than focus on Thunberg at all. But since the focus IS on her, let’s take a closer look.

Thunberg herself describes her autism-related diagnoses as among the aforementioned superpowers. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism,” she said in a TEDx Talk. “That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.”

Thunberg as pawn isn’t as dismissive as it sounds, but it doesn’t ring very true either. Yes, she and her efforts enjoy support from well-funded organizations and individuals, but there’s no reason to believe they randomly plucked her from the global mass of teenagers and set her in motion.  She attracted their notice by taking action. They didn’t make a winner, they saw a winner and decided to bet big on that winner.

As for her age, that’s a double-edged sword. Her supporters can position her as wise beyond her years, her opponents as too young to yet possess wisdom at all.

Personally, I think Thunberg’s superpower is that she’s a great actor.

No, that’s not intended as an insult. And no, I’m not just pulling the idea out of thin air.

She comes from a theatrical family. Her mother’s an opera singer. Her father’s an actor. Her grandfather’s an actor and director. She’s spent her entire life surrounded by the idea of performance as primary.

Formally trained or not, naturally gifted or not, she’s clearly mastered the art of holding an audience’s attention while she tells us what she thinks we need to hear.

So: IS what she’s telling us what we need to hear? Does she have her facts straight? Is her understanding of the science accurate? Are the models she trusts for climate predictions sound?

With or without Greta Thunberg, those are the questions we need answers to.

Someone hand the lady her Oscar and let’s get back to work.

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Why so Many College Students Are In Mental Distress—And What Parents Can Do about It

With college classes underway for the fall semester, parents may worry about how their children will navigate campus life, balance academics and social pressures, and find their pathway to a meaningful career. While parents of college students have long shared these common worries, they now confront new concerns.

The number of college students experiencing mental health issues has soared, with survey findings from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors suggesting that 41 percent of college students are anxious and 36 percent are depressed. So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people?A 2018 survey by the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety over the previous year, 42 percent said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function over the previous year, and 12 percent seriously considered suicide. Add to these findings the data showing that the suicide rate for US teenagers and young adults is the highest on record, and parents are right to be worried.

So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people? There are undoubtedly many contributing factors. Greater awareness of mental health issues and more willingness to seek help are positive steps forward that may drive some of the increase in reporting, but there could be other, less favorable explanations, as well.

Too Much Coddling

Some of the emotional turmoil of college students could be linked to a coddled childhood and adolescence that limits young people from developing the resilience necessary to deal with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt trace some of the increased fragility of today’s college students to padded playgrounds, constant adult supervision and structure, more screen time and less authentic, in-person interaction, and an overall emphasis on safety. They write:

On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations. (p. 160)

More supervision and less autonomy, combined with social media influences, could be making college students more prone to anxiety and depression in young adulthood. According to Lukianoff and Haidt:

Both depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is. (p. 161)

In other words, the normal stressors of college may be perceived by some of today’s students as disproportionately dreadful.

Campus Victim Culture

A key focus of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is that the fragility of today’s college students leads them to demand protection and security on campus, including the call for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Discomfort may be confused with harm, leading more college students to report emotional distress. In his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, Robby Soave explores the victim culture on college campuses in greater detail. He explains that on some college campuses, the focus on mental health has reached an extreme.

Soave describes a visit to the University of Arizona campus, where signs such as “Breathe in. Breathe out. You got this,” and “44% of ASU students report having difficulty managing stress,” are ubiquitous and direct students to the college’s mental health services. Soave explains:

People who need help shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. But at so many campuses, it has begun to feel like mental instability and trauma are the norm—that students are encouraged to see themselves as sick and vulnerable, and so they do. They have fully appropriated the language of mental illness. (p. 495)

Encourage Self-Empowerment

Given the trends and statistics on college students’ mental health, it may seem like there is little parents can do to help their college-age children. But a key step parents can take is to shift the narrative of victimhood and helplessness and encourage their grown children to take control of their own happiness and success. Borrowing the language of FEE’s Director of Entrepreneurial Education, T.K. Coleman, parents can help their children to see themselves as the “dominant creative force” in their own lives.

These students can set their own path. They can avoid dwelling on obstacles and instead embrace possibilities. They can find their passion, incubate innovative ideas, and build new enterprises that are personally meaningful and societally valuable. They can see themselves as agents of change in the world rather than victims of it. They can be the Revolution of One, as the following brief video spotlights:

It is a scary time for parents of today’s college students, as this cohort experiences rising rates of mental illness and a prevailing college culture that emphasizes fragility over self-empowerment. Fortunately, parents can encourage their college-age children to be strong, resilient, and focused on being active change agents and value creators in their own lives.

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Great Tools for Teaching Kids Economics and Liberty

Whenever my children express an interest in economics or are curious about the ideals of freedom and responsibility, I can barely contain my excitement. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, and fell in love with, economics, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood liberty as a life philosophy.

Fortunately, I can avoid stifling their budding interest by drawing demand curves or quoting Hayek and Hazlitt (though I’ve been known to do both!) and turn to some outstanding resources just for kids. Designed to introduce economic principles and the foundations of a free society to young children, these tools are interesting, engaging, and easy-to-understand—for children and adults alike!

The Tuttle Twins

The popular Tuttle Twins book series continues to grow, with 10 children’s books now available, as well as accompanying activity sheets and instructional materials. Created by Connor Boyack, a father who was disappointed by the dearth of good economic and civic content for kids, The Tuttle Twins series introduces concepts ranging from spontaneous order and how money works to individual rights and youth entrepreneurship. The latest book in the series, The Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, makes a case for non-coercive learning outside of the classroom.

These may seem like big ideas for small children, but Boyack says we underestimate children’s ability and interest. “I’ve been blown away at how well little kids can understand big ideas,” he says.

We get reviews from parents daily who are amazed at the same discovery and are thankful that their children are being introduced to ideas that most adults never learn.

Boyack recently launched Free Market Rules, a new weekly, family-centered curriculum for exploring free-market principles in greater depth, and FEE readers can use the coupon FORTY to get 40 percent off the Tuttle Twins books.

Nobody Know How to Make a Pizza

FEE’s founder, Leonard E. Read, wrote his famous essay, “I, Pencil,” in 1958, celebrating the miracle of the free market in facilitating voluntary exchange and producing the goods and services we want and need. This process happens spontaneously, without any central planner determining what to produce and how to produce it. Indeed, the remarkable message of “I, Pencil” is that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Now, author and economics commentator Julie Borowski offers a kid-friendly version of Read’s classic essay in her new book Nobody Knows How to Make a Pizza. Like a pencil, a pizza may seem simple to make, but it relies on millions of strangers working together peacefully and spontaneously to produce a basic cheese pizza. Borowski explains why she decided to write this book:

Over the years, many parents have told me that their kids enjoy listening to my commentary because I make learning about economics fun and simple. Some have asked if I would ever consider writing a children’s book. One day, I was re-reading Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” when it hit me. It’s already a fascinating story, but can I make it more kid-friendly? I changed it to pizza cause, well, kids are more interested in pizza than pencils. And my illustrator, Tetiana Kopytova, did an amazing job creating cute characters with bright colors. It’s a fun, positive book that will revolutionize the way kids think about the world.

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I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty

A 2017 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of American adults couldn’t name one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and only one-quarter of them could name all three branches of government. Clearly, there is a crisis in American civic education and a disturbing lack of understanding of individual liberty.

Author Rory Margraf wanted to address this problem by creating an accessible, colorful children’s book that easily explains the Bill of Rights and the principles of liberty to kids. He says:

I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty was inspired by research for an article while reflecting on the first time I was stopped by the authorities. The gap in civics knowledge, between both children and adults, indicated a crucial need for additional resources outside of brick-and-mortar schooling.

The book was so well-received that Margraf plans to release a sequel to I Know My Rights before the holidays. He adds:

I have found that the philosophy of liberty and the principles of free markets reach children extremely well.

FEE Resources

FEE also provides many high-quality resources to help young people expand their knowledge of economics and individual liberty. The free Invisible Hands video series for kids combines fun puppets and a famous YouTuber to offer an introductory look at basic economic principles. And for teenagers, FEE’s three-day summer seminars on college campuses across the country offer an opportunity for more in-depth exploration of these important ideas. Additionally, FEE’s free online courses on economics and entrepreneurship are great for people of all ages!

Parents are perfectly positioned to introduce economic and civic concepts to their children. In fact, they may be the best ones to do it. With authors now creating exceptionally good material for young children on these topics, it has never been easier or more enjoyable for parents to present these ideas to their kids and help them to deepen their knowledge throughout their teenage years.

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Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?

On August 15, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services announced “a cluster of people with severe lung disease who all reported recent vaping or dabbing (vaping marijuana oils, extracts, or concentrates).”  CNN reports more than 120 similar cases nationwide based on a survey of state health departments.

“Vaping” has been a thing  for a decade or so, practiced by 10 million or more Americans (including, sometimes, me). While some studies indicate that there may be down sides to using e-cigarettes, most of the evidence says it’s not nearly as bad for you as tobacco, and this is the first significant supposed “outbreak” of  vaping-related illness I’ve heard of.

What’s going on here?

The likely answer, sometimes alluded to but certainly not very well covered in the press, is that the outbreak is a sign of “success” in the FDA’s war on vaping and in the US government’s war on drugs in general.

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, nobody uses marijuana and teens don’t vape.

No, wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Let’s try this out instead:

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, there’s a booming black market in e-cigarette products, including “juice” that supposedly contains cannabis.

Teens are still vaping, and teens and adults are still using marijuana. But instead of buying “juice” from a reputable company at a local convenience store, they’re buying it on the street.

If companies like JUUL and retailers like Wawa sell dangerous products, they’re likely to face lawsuits, regulatory fines and sanctions,  and damage to their brand reputations. They try to avoid killing their customers, if for no other reason than that killing their customers would be bad for their bottom lines.

That guy on the street corner selling a cheap tank of cannabis sativa “juice” for your teenager’s e-cigarette may be an artisan who takes pride in his work. Or he may be a scam artist looking for a quick buck and your kid may be getting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals intended to simulate cannabis from someone without a name who will have moved to another corner — or another town — by the time your kid shows up at the ER with a breathing problem.

Stay tuned as the same “public health” advocates who brought us the first wave of e-cigarette regulation for the chillllllllllldren  label the current outbreak an “emergency” and demand more of the same measures that made that outbreak inevitable.

The war on drugs, in which the war on vaping is quickly becoming the latest front, has done far more harm to Americans than the drugs themselves. If you care about your kids, talk with them — and if necessary buy their vape products for them instead of sending them to the street corner.

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Reverse Birth Control: A Thought Experiment

Some prominent sociologists argue that teen pregnancy, when it occurs, is functional.  Teen pregnancy is a foolish life choice for middle-class teens, because they’re sacrificing bright futures.  Lower-class teens, in contrast, don’t have bright futures to sacrifice, so why wait to become a parent?  I’m skeptical of the underlying counter-factuals, but never mind that.  Frank Furstenberg’s “Teenage Childbearing and Cultural Rationality” (Family Relations, 1992) rebuts the functionalists with a thought experiment that is as powerful as it is concise:

[I]f they had to take a pill for a month in order to become pregnant, relatively few teenagers, especially those of school age, would become parents. And, if they had to obtain permission from their parents to take that pregnancy pill, very few parents would give their consent.

In other words, the main source of teen pregnancy is just impulsiveness.  If youths act on their immediate feelings, pregnancy swiftly follows whether they want to get pregnant or not.

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How Our Culture Disempowers Teens

Teenagers are extraordinarily capable. Louis Braille invented his language for the blind when he was 15. Mary Shelley, daughter of libertarian feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote Frankenstein when she was 18. As a young teen, Anne Frank documented her life of hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize at 17.

The Impact of Low Expectations

These are remarkable people for sure, but teenagers are able to accomplish remarkable things when given freedom and opportunity. Instead, our culture systematically underestimates teenagers, coddling them like toddlers, confining them to ever more schooling, and disconnecting them from the adult world they will soon enter.

Our low expectations of teenagers create a vicious circle. We think teenagers are lazy, unmotivated, and incapable of directing their own lives, so we restrict their freedom and micromanage them. This process leads teenagers to believe that they are, in fact, lazy, unmotivated, and in need of micromanagement. According to Peter Berg, author of The Tao of Teenagers and a teacher who has worked with teenagers for over 25 years, this circle emerges because many of us were treated this way as teenagers. We may have a hard time trusting teens because we ourselves were not trusted. Berg tells me:

We know that many people in our society unfortunately don’t understand teenagers, don’t relate to them well, and actually, in my experience, have a fear of teenagers. In part, I believe this is because they struggled themselves as teenagers and were not treated well by adults. Coming from this mindset, it’s easy to underestimate teenagers and easy to view everything teenagers do through a lens that confirms that we should underestimate them.

Teens Crave Connection and Purposeful Action

When teenagers are trusted and treated well, they are incredibly enthusiastic and competent. I spent this week in Austin, Texas, with 14- to 17-year-olds attending one of FEE’s summer leadership seminars for teens. Far from being lazy and unmotivated, these young people were engaged and curious—even when confronting meaty material like Economics in One Lesson. In fact, I saw more adults dozing off during lectures than teens! Sure, teens like their smartphones and social media—but so do many of us adults. As Berg says:

What irks me the most is the myth of the lazy, always-on-social-media, disengaged teen. Teenagers are engaged and are far from lazy. Most teens today have schedules that many adults couldn’t navigate. Teenagers do care—maybe not always about things that adults think they should care about—but they do care about little things, big things, and everyday things. Teens want what adults want: to be respected, taken seriously, cared about, and treated fairly.

On the edge of adulthood, teenagers need and crave authentic connection to real, daily life, but they are increasingly cut off from this experience. Even as states like Oregon push to lower the voting age to 16, arguing that teens are fully capable of democratic decision-making, they raise the compulsory schooling age to 18. Be free to vote, but you must remain locked (literally) in coercive schooling.

Teens now spend more time in school and less time in work than at any other time in our history—even in the summertime. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985. Overall, teen labor force participation has plummeted from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Part of this decline is related to more emphasis on academics, extracurricular activities, and other structured programming for adolescents. But public policy may also be to blame.

The Minimum Wage’s Impact on Teens

Raising the minimum wage, as many states have aggressively done, has a disproportionate impact on young workers who do not yet have the skills and experience to justify an employer paying them a higher wage. As a result, these neophytes don’t get hired and thus don’t gain the necessary experience to ultimately warrant higher pay. It is widely understood that minimum wage laws lead to higher unemployment, particularly for young and low-skilled workers who are then prevented from gaining important entry-level career skills.

According to a July report by the Congressional Budget Office regarding a proposed $15 federal minimum wage,

The $15 option would alter employment more for some groups than for others. Almost 50 percent of the newly jobless workers in a given week—600,000 of 1.3 million—would be teenagers.

Writing for PBS, economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth reported the same thing in 2016:

Young people would be harmed the most by increasing the minimum wage. Almost half of minimum wage workers are under 25, and 19 percent are teens.

Only 1.8 percent of US workers were paid at or below the federal minimum wage in 2015, so it’s a small segment of the overall population at this pay level but a large percentage of young people.

Rather than criticizing teenagers as lazy and in need of more control and structure, we should recognize the ways our culture infantilizes its teens. We confine them in coercive schools and school-like activities for most of their adolescence, limit their autonomy, and prevent them from working in jobs and gaining valuable career skills. Is it really any wonder that they may retreat into their cell phones when they get the chance? It might be the only moment of their day when they are actually in control and connected to the wider world.

From rising compulsory schooling ages to rising minimum wages, we treat teens like toddlers and separate them from the genuine adult world they will soon join. As Berg says:

For many teens, their days consist of an expectation to live a story or script that others have created for them.

Maybe we should give teenagers the freedom and opportunity to create their own scripts and witness the remarkable things they will do.

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