Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Historical Revisionism

Historical revisionism has become rampant in our society.  While sometimes the term is used when new evidence overturns what used to look like truth more often it's used for the more dangerous purpose of whitewashing our past so that we cannot learn from and old evils can be perpetuated in a new era.

The Civil War seems to bring out the worst strains of this in our country.  As has been often said, while the Civil War is not just about slavery there's no Civil War without slavery.  There's a strong strand of historical revisionism trying to use pride in a myth of the Civil War purged of its evils to push a new agenda, mostly having to do with State's rights though I detect a distinct undercurrent of populism against liberal northern elites.

The New York Times has been running a great series on the Civil War that gives good history in easily digestible chunks.  Today's posting does a good job of detailing how slavery was an essential issue and how it mobilized people in the South to fight, you can't really get away from the issue in any honest history of the South.

The harsh truth is that the Civil War was a wholly retrograde movement with nothing to redeem itself except the bravery and beliefs of individual men and women, there is nothing in the collective action that should be held up pridefully.  Which is not to say that the North was a shining beacon or that mistakes were not made in other areas, these are other sins however and not celebrated.  The South has much to be proud of, many of the Founding Father's were from the South and its role in history was noble in many other ways.  If events from the Civil War must be honored than honorable men like General Lee or the sufferings of citizens in places such as Atlanta are worth honoring and commemorating.

However, the Civil War itself was nothing more than an elite trying to hold on to its privileges despite its weakness and the increasing horror of the world at their actions.  If the war had been won by the South it is hard to see what good could have come from it, an ever more powerful landholding class exploiting both white and black?  Would they have become like Prussia or Russia or another state where the landholders did win?  This was nothing but a war of an elite against the passing of their time in power, there's nothing to be proud of here.  Be proud of victories and of contributions to the good of mankind, don't try to whitewash sins.

Friday, December 17, 2010

John Stewart on the 9/11 Responder's Health Care Bill

This outraged me when I first saw it in the NY Times.  I hadn't thought of a good way to express it however, so posted nothing then.  The Daily Show manages to give the reaction I was looking for that I hadn't seen elsewhere.  One of my favorite bits was when one of the first responders mentioned how they felt it was an honor to work on Christmas Day and not a sign of disrespect, which Senators had been saying when called to work on Christmas to do the nation's business.  Check it out.

Why Examine Decadance?

I had originally been intending for this to be my last post on the subject, rather than somewhere in the middle.  However, I was considering that since my blog normally focuses on more immediate topics, with only brief and sporadic forays into more general academic topics, I thought it might be worth explaining why I think this topic is immediately relevant rather than purely academic.  The first reason is purely academic, as I consider applying to begin a PhD program in the relatively near future I intend not to make the same mistake as my Master's in not knowing in advance where I want to focus my research, this seems like a good topic, though one that might require a level of knowledge not practicable to attain in the limited timeframe of the program (this will be more apparent when I get to the post on how to test the model).  Of course, since I'm already thinking about it probably a year before I'd start this may give me enough of a head start to make this topic work.

The basis of the critique I'm presenting is that throughout history there seems to be a constant pattern of successful societies that know they must change but simply refuse to do it, even though there are already those urging the necessary changes.  The narrative is consistently along the lines of some sort of barbarous new group of successful people threatening the former virtuous way of life.  Yet, if these people are so successful with their new habits, what are so virtuous about the old?  Consistently, these societies then begin to seek to prevent the new successful people from advancing and to instead institute policies to extend the privileges granted to the old way of life.  When these societies inevitably collapse, the modern reader is left wondering what would have happened if instead of favoring the virtuous small farmer or caring local elites if the society had instead let the new merchants grow or let the old landed elite die away in favor of their unethical, but successful, urban challengers?  I'm led further to ask this what if by how different whatever the society that replaces the old is, the new society is never like that of the old order overthrown but rather a new order with a different cultural attitude and moral underpinning.  If it had been old virtues that made a society successful, wouldn't the successful new society have shown the old virtues renewed?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Income Inequality Stats

Came across this on a link on Timothy Egan's Opinionator piece on the NY Times.  It's some interesting graphs on changes in income inequality over the years.  I think one of the most important aspects of a society is the degree of challenge its elites face on holding onto their status against those lower down that wish to compete with them.  Healthy societies will see a lot of churn as the best and brightest of those born with less advantages manage to beat the rich and powerful at their own game.  When this happens less, it's likely to indicate that the powerful have found some way of blocking this churn.  Much of what I've been suggesting on this blog are ways to restart these types of challenges and help give those less wealthy the initial push needed to challenge the powerful.

Back to the data.  Two slides stand out most to me.  The first is the one on upward and downward mobility.  While this has always been messy, there definitely seems to have been a downward trend over time.  The second interesting slide is that regarding the US and France, which shows that the income gap has not increased to the same degree in other countries.  While I'm not sure that France is the point of comparison I'd choose as most relevant, it is worth noting that inequality trends are not an unavoidable fact of life but the results of policy choices.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Criminal Justice System: Labor Destroyed

I've been postponing my next post in the rethinking ideology section to do some reading on the topic of criminal convictions and employment.  I still haven't found the time to do more than skim a few articles but since I eventually do want to get around to putting this all together into a fairly coherent platform (my goal has coalesced into something similar to the Republican's Pledge to America or Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future, since actual politician's running for office haven't come up with a coherent political vision that addresses America's problems in a way that I believe could actually solve them I'm taking on the task myself so when I write to my representatives about how I dislike what they're doing I can send them a real alternate vision, this will wait till I've given some thought on each of the issues that I'd like to address in separate posts to make me think through them more, with the more radical things like Constitutional changes allowing for national level representation to be confined to appendixes) I think it's time to write another post.

What I want to address today is how adversely our criminal justice system affects our labor pool and how this is rarely considered in conversations about criminal justice topics.  The data is unfortunately too messy for me to have found any simple graphics or data I'd find worth putting up here, what there seems to be agreement about is that any criminal record at all significantly adversely affects employment prospects as well as reducing income.  Based on what I read, the reduction in income seems to be around 30% for someone with a criminal record vs. someone without.  Thus in addition to a significant amount of state spending required to incarcerate someone, we also end up permanently reducing the income of those individuals, further permanently reducing state revenue (with some potential for an offsetting effect due to reduced crime through a deterrent effect, I have no idea how these numbers compare).

Too Sick to Fail (to be treated at massive taxpayer expense)

As you no doubt know by now a Virginia judge has ruled the provision of the health care reform law that requires that people buy insurance unconstitutional.  If this ruling stands, which it probably won't, this makes health care reform basically impossible without constitutional reform. 

It comes down to a problem that since the public isn't willing to simply let sick people die in the gutters and requires that emergency rooms treat patients regardless of ability to pay, everyone already has their health implicitly backed by the government.  Let's call it Too Sick to Fail (to be treated at massive taxpayer expense).  Of course, since this treatment is reserved for those that have become far too sick to be treated efficiently or, in many cases, to work to pay back even a fraction of their medical expenses, this becomes a very costly medical subsidy for those that choose to recklessly speculate on margin that their physical condition will stay sound enough that they can forgo spending on health care now to raise present consumption.  They can do this knowing that if things go too badly they can rely on the government, and those moved with sympathy by their sob stories, to provide a level of medical care sufficient to prevent truly disastrous consequences.

Given that this implicit government and community backing has proven time and time again to exist, it simply makes sense to acknowledge its existence and make those covered by the implicit government subsidy pay for this backing and face the costs of it themselves, either through obtaining health insurance or through a national taxpayer funded plan, rather than being able to gamble that they can enjoy more consumption today knowing that if they do get sick they'll be shielded from the worst consequences by the tax dollars paid equally by those that bought insurance, who do not rely to the same extent on health care provided at public cost.  This would have a further advantage in providing the means to pro-cyclically monitoring a person's health and perhaps catching a disease before it became both more costly to treat and more likely to prevent later recuperation of the costs through future income by the patient.

Or we can simply bury our heads in the sand and try to rule modern problems unconstitutional in an effort to avoid having to come to terms with the fact that our favored solutions can't fix modern problems.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Decadence Continued

Rather later than I had promised, this is an expansion of my earlier post on decadence.  In particular, I intend to take up some discussion of the model.  Later, I may expand on this with further examples to illustrate my point, in particular a stylized look at the Roman Republic, a look at the European notion of divine right, and a much more complex look at the struggle among various American elites and their normally fractious nature, which I fear has been replaced in recent decades with an unprecedented cultural dominance by a single elite, with challenging elites uncharacteristically being confined to relatively uninfluential positions that lack moral and cultural seriousness.

So to get back to the model and a basic discussion of it.  This is basically a cultural model, I'm arguing that a successful, healthy society must have a number of competing cultural norms, represented by a number of competing elites, to continue to be vibrant.  If a single cultural norm becomes dominant, most likely due to a long period where socio-economic conditions favor a particular elite, there will then be a cultural efflorescence as resources previously wasted in intra-elite competition are put to more effective use by the dominant elite.  Then, as socio-economic trends shift away from favoring the dominant elite, the dominant elite will be able to limit the influence of new, competing elites with cultural norms better suited to new socio-economic conditions, causing a gradual slide down into decadence and decline as the dominant elite prevents the reforms pushed for by the rising elite and instead futilely seeks to channel resources into changing socio-economic conditions back those that favored its continued dominance.  Eventually, this sufficiently saps the resources of society that the formerly dominant elite loses legitimacy and can be successfully challenged by the rising elites.

Nursing Home Care: A Specific Failing of Our Health System

An excellent article in the NY Times today covers the topic of middle class families using spousal refusal to pay for nursing home care.  A few things stand out, first average care costs of over $100,000 a year.  Surely, there must be a market for more mid-range care, while some patients undoubtedly need this level I can't imagine that this need is universal.  There seems to be an opening for research on whether market failure is occurring, potentially because of programs like Medicaid and long term care insurance, of if there is something else going on, insurance costs leap to mind.

The second thing that jumps out at me is that this is a prime example of how our mixed system of health care creates market failures.  In this case, to qualify for Medicaid an individual can retain:
The federal government allows a healthy spouse to keep a house, a car, up to about $2,700 a month in income and up to about $110,000 in other resources. Anything above that must be spent on nursing care before Medicaid kicks in.
This system obviously discriminates heavily against savers.  Anyone that wanted to fully fund their retirement would be basically wiped out by costs of $100,000 a year or more.  If someone is unfortunate enough to have a loved one get a condition that requires long term care then trying to take responsibility and pay for it will rapidly deplete any savings they had, of course if they had been spending the money from the start they wouldn't have this problem.

I don't really see how this problem is solvable without universal coverage.  Conditions that result in this situation are rare enough, and private options such as long term care insurance uncertain enough (I've seen a number of articles on how these plans are constantly having problems and having to shut down, or make other changes), that it's unlikely someone could adequately prepare in advance.  With universal coverage this problem can be dealt with more effectively.  Either its paid for by universal premiums to insurance companies, which would then have a huge incentive to look at and press for reform at long term care facilities, or it is paid for universally through taxes.  As it is today, there is no good way to distribute costs, people that try to pay privately get wiped out and those that don't suffer these misfortunes resent having this paid for by the public purse rather than by the individual suffering the tragedy, who does have significant assets that could partially pay for the care.

At the end of the article a reform effort within the existing system is mentioned:

Lawyers within the New York State Bar Association who represent the elderly have proposed a compromise system. It would allow people to negotiate a payment plan with the state, in which they would pledge to pay a “fair share” of their spouses’ nursing home costs — perhaps half their assets — while keeping enough for their own living expenses, Mr. Krooks said. There are plans to try out a version of this system upstate.
 While better than what we have today, half of someone's assets seems high, especially when Medicare gives so much better coverage to people suffering from diseases requiring hospital care instead.  I continue to have the same thoughts on the subject I expressed earlier in my posts on medical care, we all run the risks of acquiring these conditions and very few of us possess the ability to pay for them, therefore the only way to pay for these conditions is through universal cost sharing.  Anything else will lead to perverse incentives, such as the byzantine bureaucratic process described in the article with suits, counter-suits, and settlement negotiations becoming an expected part of life for individuals who are likely undergoing some of the most traumatic times of their lives due to the conditions their loved ones are suffering from.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Example of Innovation Driven by Regulation

The NY Times has a very interesting article on a Swedish city that has been switching much of its energy use over to renewables from fossil fuels, in this case biogas.  It's a very interesting alternative, since it also serves a role in waste disposal.  The incentive to do this seems to have been a combination of carbon taxes and desire to shield themselves from fluctuations in fossil fuel prices.  This always seemed like the key to the importance of putting a tax on fossil fuels, very large incentives already exist to switch but most of them have to do with uncertainties, which gives people a reason to put off making the switch.  Providing a certain penalty is enough to drive people's cost calculations over the edge, at least in some cases.

What I find most interesting about this however is that it seems to solve what I see as perhaps the biggest hurdle in making a transition away from fossil fuels, the different incentive structures facing urban and rural areas.  In this case, rural areas get incentives because the plant relies on fuel provided by agricultural areas providing a good means of disposal.  Urban areas get the lower cost heating and power generation, which benefits rural areas as well.  Of course there are some problems, it seems unlikely that people's transportation needs can be met through a variety of different fuel options, which is what local initiatives like biogas would provide.  I plan on extending on this thought later, I believe that energy reform in the US will require an upfront acknowledgment of the differing costs of adjustment to rural and urban areas.  The essential frame I see is that if we simply let the market do its thing, then rural areas will find themselves facing very high energy prices with little choice but to pay them.  Urban areas will suffer little damage, plenty of substitutes exist to fossil fuels, especially for transportation, that will easily be deployed in urban settings.  If we adjust in advance through a mix of policies however, we can make the costs of adjustments fall more evenly, with everyone paying something but urban areas making the adjustments well in advance of price spikes, exerting downward pressures on fossil fuel prices limiting the costs incurred by rural areas.  More on this later.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Krugman on Corporations and Kleptocrats

I thought this was an excellent post by Krugman.  He argues that the notion of corporations as having undue influence is dated, instead it is more accurately seen as powerful individuals having too much influence.  I see this as very accurate, look how hard they've been fighting for lower individual tax rates but how readily calls to reform and lower corporate tax rates have been abandoned.  We're seeing the slow rise of very powerful individuals in this country, not the increasing influence of corporations.  My only slight critique is that kleptocracy focuses too much on economic resources, people seek power, wealth is ultimately only one way to this.  Seen through that lens history makes much more sense than it does if you try to read resource centric views back to too many times and places.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tax Reform I Can Believe In?

Apparently Obama is considering the idea of pushing for a major overhaul of the tax code that will eliminate loopholes and lower rates.  At this early stage there isn't a lot to say about it, other than the obvious fact that this is an essential reform.  It's also a very risky move to pursue at this stage in his first term.  I'd be surprised if the reform is in finished form before the next election but if it's going to happen at all we'll know enough about it to piss off the special interests.  Still, if it's well done and will generate the revenue we need this is something that could energize the base and get the support of moderates.  I believe this would be a high-risk, high-reward strategy.

However, the cynic in me thinks that this is all about distracting the base from the recent tax proposal and will simply drop off the agenda rather than show any real accomplishments.

Randomized Trials and Social Assitance

The NY Times has a very interesting article on how New York City is using randomized trials and follow up to discover whether the Homebase program is fulfilling its goal of keeping people out of shelters.  There's a lot of opposition to this, which would make sense if the program had previously approved everyone.  However, this isn't the case.  The program already had a limited budget and had to refuse people.  What's different now is that some good is coming of this, we're becoming more able to assess a program's success which should improve homelessness prevention programs in the future.  I do of course understand the emotional aspect making people angry which happens when there is a change in the programs.  But is it really any better to be denied because of an opaque bureaucratic process than it is to be denied because of a lottery understood beforehand?  When you get past the emotion, that seems to be what the two options are, opaque bureacracy or lottery.  The lottery has the added advantage of being able to assess the program.

We need more of this if we're going to trim government effectively and make government better able to fulfill its goals.  I do need to add a note of caution however.   Since there are many different programs out there to combat homelessness to assess things correctly this has to be done one program at a time.  While I don't think there will be a big rush to do more of these studies, especially when the emotional response is considered, since good government movements sometimes come in waves I feel the need to note in advance that if people are bouncing from program to program getting denied as a result of randomized trials you're just going to mess up the results of all the tests.  I know the bureaucracy understands this, I'm less sure about politicians.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Some Good Eduction Data

If you haven't seen it already, Economix has some good charts on results from the most recent education assessment test administered by the OECD.  The most interesting bits are how low the R2 is so low on GDP and education spending and how high it is for socioeconomic status.  Also not the R2 is low on the immigration status as well.

I'd have to see more data but it lends more evidence to the idea that you can't fix education solely by focusing on education

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Decadence Modeled

[Update: At long last continued here]

Perhaps the longest lasting explanation for the rise and decline of nations is the theory of the organic nature of the state and its senescence and eventual collapse due to decadence.  This is quite common throughout classical literature, since I read it most recently I'll give Ibn Khaldun's version of it as an example:

1. Overthrow of old regime, beginning of new, group feeling means ruler is a model for the people and excludes them from nothing -->
2. Ruler seeks to consolidate power and reserves glory to himself -->
3. Leisure and tranquility leads to focus on government and winning support of followers through money and positions -->
4. Contentment and peacefulness, lives at peace and imitates predecessors -->
5. Waste and squandering, ruler ruins the foundations of his state leading to eventual destruction of the state

The classical formation is of course no longer used and I have no desire to revive it.  However, I do think there is something to the concept of decadence, I just don't think the formulation of some sort of pure past and corrupt present is what is actually going on.  Rather I suggest this:

1. Coalition of new elites overthrows old elites, institutes series of agreed upon reforms leading to initial prosperity -->

2. After the initial reform period, the coalition of elites begin to struggle amongst themselves for dominance.  This occurs primarily at the policy level and leads to a great deal of growth and innovation, the people at large prosper but are upset at the pace of change and the level of social chaos.  -->

3.  Eventually one of the competing groups wins out.  This ushers in a period of consolidation and social peace, however there is less innovation and change during this period.  The winning elite is credited with the current peace and prosperity and its rise to power is recognized as how a society must operate to be successful.  Society valorizes the actions and qualities of the reigning elite and begins to condemn other values. -->

4. Socio-economic changes threaten the ascendancy of the dominant elite.  If the process of valorization has progressed enough, these challenges are met by measures that increase the dominance of the elite, if valorization has been weak, a period of social disruption and reform ensues that brings us back to an earlier phase. --> back to 1 or 2, alternately -->

5.  The power that the elite holds over hearts and minds means that order is maintained in the short term.  However, the failure of society to adapt to a changing socio-economic reality means that relative decline sets in and society becomes infused with a reactionary, golden age rhetoric.  Changing realities mean that the old elite cannot prevent the rise of new elites, which may at this stage manage to rise to centralized power. --> back to 1 or 2 if new elites succeed, otherwise -->

6.  Revolution and revolt.  The grip of the old elites falters and new elites overthrow the old regime.  While this need not be violent, it often is.  --> back to 1 if new elites succeed, or state failure.

This framework is meant for societies strong enough to warrant the term hegemonic, it is not meant for states small enough to enjoy the externally corrective forces of the international system.  For examples, I'll apply it to a few cases.

Soviet Union
1. Alliance of liberals and socialists overthrow Tsarist government and make initial institutional reforms.  Further conflict between Bolsheviks and other factions results in the Soviet State.  While war communism led to initial failures, the emergence of the NEP led to relative prosperity.

2.  Struggles among various factions within the Bolshevik party lead to the end of the NEP and more centralization of the economy.   Given the low levels of [prior] investment growth was quite remarkable.  With the constraints facing the Soviet Union, and in particular the pressures of war, the Soviet Union made quite impressive progress.  Of course, due to the relatively short history of the Soviet Union and WWII this stage is quite compressed.

3.  Communism's success is valorized by its success in war and remarkable industrialization.  In the short term, successes such as the rapid development of nuclear weapons and the launch of Sputnik confirm the Soviet economic model and lend it legitimacy.  Soviet style Communism becomes ever more firmly entrenched and beliefs in this system reinforced.

4.  The limits of the Soviet model begin to be reached.  Major problems with goods shortages emerge and the difficulties of a central planning model to spur the innovation needed by a post-industrial economy become ever more apparent.  Despite this, more government edicts get passed and ever more centralization occurs, with various sectors of society being blamed for under-performance.

5. New elites begin to emerge and to significantly challenge the hold of the party.  Elite party rhetoric maintains its grip on important institutions in society, such as the military.  Weaknesses become so undeniable that reform oriented elites begin to initiate reforms under Gorbachev.

6. An attempted reactionary coup halts the process of elite peaceful reform, leading to new elites seizing control over the state.

There's a bit more I want to do with this framework before abandoning it.  I'll take up some more related topics tomorrow.

[Edited for clarity, also update has been delayed due to my easily distracted nature, will be picked up by the end of the weekend.]

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Foretaste of Bipartisanship in an Age of Divided Government

From the NY Times:

"The payroll tax cut would put about $120 billion back in the pockets of workers and the unemployment benefits would cost about $60 billion, officials said. Continuing the lowered tax rates for the highest-earners, by contrast, would cost the government $700 billion in lost revenue over the next 10 years, according to budget analysts. "
"But it generally won praise from Republicans, and suggested that how the White House and the newly empowered Republicans on Capitol Hill might work together." 

God, I hope not.

At this rate we're going to get Social Security reform that guarantees benefits won't go down in return for lowering the payroll tax cap from $106,800 to half that, $53,400.  This is nuts.

If this is the kind of bipartisanship we're going to be getting for the next two years let's cut it out and go full partisan before we go bankrupt.

Crazy About Taxes

Apparently the current deal envisions dropping the Making Work Pay tax credit as part of the grand bargain on extending the tax cuts.  While I dislike using the tax code as a welfare device, this particular credit has been recognized as one of the more beneficial anti-poverty measures of recent years, and one that has been especially helpful because it particularly helps the working poor and gives greater incentive for these individuals to work.  Apparently it will be replaced with a payroll tax cut, we'll have to wait to see in what amount, which is at least a symbolic blow against entitlement programs.

I become more convinced every day that the right in this country believes they are engaged in some kind of anti-Communist class war.  I also become more convinced that this is met by bafflement on the left, which woke up one morning, discovered that Communism failed and is dead, and abandoned most socialist influence and class war in favor of traditional liberalism, such as that of Mill, though updated for the modern age.  However, this makes compromise difficult because the right is still shouting slogans at the corpse of Communism, convinced it will get up any moment now and fight back, while the left has lost any desire to engage in the frame of capitalism vs. communism frame making it impossible to even speak the same language as the right to enable some form of compromise to be reached.  We're just not using compatible ideas and frames of reference anymore.

I do have to ask though, what the Hell happened to the country that we can envision raising taxes on the poor and dropping them for the rich as a compromise?

[Update:  It seems the payroll tax cut will be 2%.  I'm not certain about the distributional effects of this relative to the Making Work Pay credit but from what I remember about MWP this favored lower incomes more and upper incomes less than this would do, though I doubt this reporting is on final rules.  In any case, I think the Republicans are doubling down on the notion that a successful upper class is the main driver behind the economy, an idea I've expressed disagreement with before.  I just don't see the evidence that we're capital short, I think our problems lie with an inability to create sufficient incentives for those without wealth to save and grow new businesses and insufficient investment in public goods to make it easier for those businesses to succeed.  We're also failing to invest sufficiently in human capital.  I look at what the Republicans are pushing for, look at our economic numbers, and am just baffled.  Their economic theory doesn't seem to be translating into their expected reality.  Tax cuts aren't raising revenue and we're not getting unprecedented economic growth since we've started slashing taxes.  How many more times do we have to run this experiment?]

[Update 2:  I must also add that I find it very depressing that a compromise involves simply enlarging the deficit by more, rather than compromises that keep it stable or shrink it.  If this at least involved creative ways of spending money now to grow the economy so that more could be collected later, I'd at least find it interesting and worth an attempt.  Spending more now in ways that will not significantly alter the current situation is just depressing.]

Pay Discrimination and Secrecy

Economix has a good post on pay discrimination and pay secrecy.  I'll confess that I simply don't understand why pay information isn't made transparent.  I don't see any big downsides and see a lot of upsides for the workforce as a whole, and some for oversight by employees of their company (it's always a good thing to get people more involved, while top management may not be enthusiastic I bet shareholders would feel differently).  We do it in NY and the state hasn't collapsed yet (though we yet may due to unrelated reasons).  While some privacy concerns likely exist, it shouldn't be too hard to at least post titles with all associated salaries without names attached.  People could figure out the pay top figures much easier than lower down.  I'd also agree that promotion and training opportunities should be posted, though I don't see a law as necessary.  I kinda feel this way about salary information too but I lean towards this being a good idea not being done due to cultural inertia rather than sound objections.  This is the kind of thing the state is good at fixing, though also one where caution is warranted because sometimes there are good reasons for cultural practices that are not at first apparent.  In this case, since we have examples of this not causing problems, is one where I can safely lean towards the side of this being cultural inertia and not pragmatic tradition.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stupid: Giving Your Employees Less Information about Your Operations than Everyone Else Has

This is just stupid.  Apparently the Federal government is barring employees and contractors from reading the cables leaked through Wikileaks.  There is no other way to put this, this is stupid.  It makes no sense whatsoever to attempt to bar your employees from at least the same level of access that the public has.  It is completely mind-boggling that an open government such as ours would attempt this.

Things like this make me lean just a little more towards the whole concept of government being necessarily inefficient.  I have enough trust in the system to think it will eventually occur to someone that giving yourself less access to information about yourself is probably a poor idea.  The logic behind this is incredibly convoluted and defies common sense.  It's like something out of a comedy sketch.

Education: Teacher's Evaluations

The New York Times has an excellent article today on an effort to conduct widespread observations of teachers by video camera to help identify specific practices that are working.  First, I think it's crazy that something of this scale hasn't been done before with the amount we spend on education.  It seems so obvious I kind of thought this would already have happened.  We need more of this.

A big next step would be to place hidden cameras in some classrooms.  As anyone that has ever been through a workplace evaluation or audit knows the kind of practices that happen when under observation are never quite the same as what happens during the normal day to day.  While there are a few privacy concerns these seem to me to be surmountable.  In particular, a handful of particularly good teachers would probably volunteer for this monitoring as part of a research project.  It could then be used as a stick against failing schools or teachers that doesn't involve cutting aid.  Struggling schools could be asked to submit to hidden remote monitoring in exchange for allowing cameras to be installed.  People would bitch of course, but to this non-expert it simply seems like a sensible step

Education: A Radial Idea; Get Politics Out of the Classroom

Something that has always bothered me about the education in the US is how highly politicized it is.  We have school board elections in Texas resulting in dedicated political entrepreneurs attempting to influence how nationwide textbooks are written by using their skills at political mobilization to stack the board.  School board elections happen on the ballot, which may be a poor representation of those most interested in the school and get too many voting on board elections that have neither the knowledge or interest to make an informed decision.  We also have shenanigans like New York State hiking tuition at state schools and putting the money into the general fund.  There are few places more clearly in need of expert opinions, from the fields being taught especially, yet these expert opinions seem weak relative to the political forces that determine education policy.

So to fix this, a truly radical idea, depoliticize the schools.  Remove them entirely from government oversight.  Create an entirely separate institution, with revenue raising capability, to oversee the school system that is not directly answerable to the state.  To maintain democratic governance an oversight board would be elected.  These elections would be a required form during school registration (though making a selection would be optional) to insure the parents have a say in how their kids are educated.  An additional open election would be held so those without kids currently in school could elect a certain proportion of the oversight board members as well. Local oversight boards would then elect a number of their own members to sit on state and national boards, or there could be direct elections to these boards as well (though at this point we're getting into a pretty complicated additional electoral system).  Curriculum would be drawn up, likely primarily at the national level, by a panel of experts in each field with input from members of the board selected for these panels.

Revenue collection would be a major problem.  Parents would of course be a large source of revenue but the rest of society has a nearly equal interest in the education of children* so this institution would need to have powers to collect revenue more broadly, which would require a special grant of powers from the government.  This likely makes the idea a non-starter but if we are going to remove the school system from existing partisan politics and political issues that have no bearing on education truly radical options, such as this (though hopefully more detailed and carefully thought through than this skeletal outline), will be necessary.

*I see arguments that parents should be solely responsible for the education of their children fairly frequently.  While I agree that parents are responsible for the upbringing of their child, I don't see that this carries over well into education.  Parents are the ones who will suffer the consequences if their child ends up being a brat or is completely ungrateful or lacking in a number of other signs of a good upbringing, we all suffer if a child ends up being without marketable skills and able to participate in society.  Whether or not we have kids, today's kids, whoever their parents are, are going to be the people working for our companies, paying for our social security, paying the taxes that keep society going, fighting and dying in our wars, and providing staff to the nursing homes we live in tomorrow.  We have almost as much interest that kids are educated to be competent at their jobs as parents are.  Our interest in most other parts of a child's upbringing is limited, but when it comes to education and skills we face a much different set of incentives and responsibilities if we desire to live in a functioning society.

Education: Expanding Opportunities; A National Research University System

There are a number of fields where it is constantly claimed that we have too few graduates of, namely primary care physicians, engineers, and scientists.  There is also a number of very good criticisms of our government that we are underinvesting in a number of basic research fields, energy especially but also materials science and a few other fields.

To create incentives to fix this problem a national research university system could be instituted.  To encourage a focus on these majors, especially among people who fear they might not otherwise be able to afford college, degrees at this university would be free, with a contingency that a graduate work in the US for several years (5 being an easy number); similar to how we have service requirements for ROTC programs.  Degrees would be limited to fields that we have a demonstrated need for, so available majors would be confined to the sciences, engineering, and medicine (though only primary care would be offered through this school with a requirement that graduates work in primary care for 5 years).  Other courses would be offered in conjunction with the National Online University to provide a rounded education without requiring additional staff.  All professors would also be funded researchers and, to the extent practical, students attending the university would be required to fulfill work study requirements that would involve acting as research assistants.

The narrow focus of these universities would limit competition with more traditional universities and the focus on research would help to fulfill another needed policy goal.  Providing these degrees at no cost to the student would also provide valuable downward pressure on degree costs that existing federal programs such as loans and grants do not.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Another Example of the Dangers of Overzealous Budget Cutting

The first to fall in times of tight money are often the most innovative programs.  The NY Times has an excellent article from a writer with The Bay Citizen on a program named Caduceus which seeks to provide services to people who are severely mentally ill and homeless.  The program relies on donated time and since its population is unable to meet even very basic eligibility requirements, in some cases things as simple as filling out forms, has difficulty accessing funding.  It is however very cheap due to its structure.  Despite this, the program is unable to secure funding to maintain itself and will be wound down withdrawing services from these individuals.  More traditional service systems will supposedly fill this need, whether they can effectively remains to be seen.  It is likely these other programs will however cost more than one that relied on donated time.  Programs like this are always the first to go when the calls are for budget cuts, rather than for reform which tends to have better long run impacts on both programs and budgets.

Cohen's Take on Wikileaks

I liked Cohen's column in the NY Times today and think it's worth reading for its focus on front line officers and the effects on them.  He's right, the cables so far show good US diplomacy.  He's also right that the damage done will be broad but shallow and his comparison of the effect this will have on diplomacy to that a similar action would have on reporters is probably spot on.  The damage done by these leaks won't be great but it will fall across pretty much all areas of US diplomatic activity.  We'll be operating just a little bit more in the dark since we won't be able to get confirmation about the views being held by foreign governments but it's unlikely that anything big will come of this, providing some sort of major event doesn't happen where we need these contacts to be strong before our contacts are rebuilt.

What I really don't understand is that after being able to look through these cables that anyone would have thought that the advantages provided by releasing them were worth the potential damage.  It will give us a nearer term look at how our foreign policy operates which will be interesting for academics but all of these would have likely been released to the public record eventually anyway (if you've found a taste for reading primary diplomatic documents there is a wealth of them for you to enjoy here: http://history.state.gov/).