Sunday, December 31, 2006

Chutzpah - blogs and profiles created new controversies in 2006


Chutzpah – blogs and profiles: a big story in 2006

One of the most alarming developments during the past year has been the repeated media reports about the rapidly increasing concern employers have over the blogs and social networking site profiles of job applicants and individual employees.

I have expected this kind of problem for a long time, since around 1999, partly out of legitimate concerns about confidential information or trade secrets in the workplace, and of inadvertent distraction of stakeholders – essentially a kind of “conflict of interest.” My own situation with my involvement in the military gay ban and the job I had in the 1990s had given me a lot of reason to think about this.

Some of this concern, however, may be slipping into more nebulous concerns about appearances and social conformity – something we sometimes call “reputation.” Already, companies that claim they can manage your online “appearance” and “reputation” are cropping up, and we may see a day when employers use these companies to manage what their associates do off line.

One kind of situation you often hear about is people not getting jobs because somebody saw a video of their underage drinking on their myspace or facebook profile. An employer will probably say something like this: we don’t want to interfere with free speech. You can argue for lowering the legal drinking age (or even age of consent) or even for legalizing marijuana in an essay, and that is fine. But just don’t depict yourself as doing it or having a propensity to do it (the latter part gets tricky – just look at the military gay ban and then at defamation law regarding fiction). That creates a liability risk for us if we hire you, and then our clients find you online. Another way to put it is something like this: Your personal stuff can be fun and mostly inconsequential, but if you want people to take it seriously, be prepared, because you might just get what you wish for.

Maybe. It’s easy to make false analogies here, the kind that you would miss on an SAT test. I can recall thirty years ago that people didn’t want to be “caught” on live television at gay parades or at MCC churches. In fact, going back maybe a half century, police tactics of publishing the names of those arrested in gay bar raids reflecting a similar kind of thinking.

In the past dozen or so years, the mathematics of binary searches has given the ordinary person an unprecedented asymmetric opportunity. With almost no startup cost (“free entry”) someone can put his thoughts on the Web in a personal site, blog or social networking profile, and someone in Pakistan can find it in a search engine within days thereafter. This is profound. When I worked on my first book in the mid 1990s (“Do Ask Do Tell”) I didn’t really grasp the significance of this development. This sounds like the ultimate idea for direct world democracy. But it also provides unquantifiable, although usually very remote, risks, to oneself and possibly to others around oneself, including the workplace, residence and especially family. We are beginning to question if unlimited free entry to the world public stage is such a good thing, and if there should be more rules, at least based on the kind of job you have. Already, social networking companies and blogging publishers are offering whitelisting capabilities, that would restrict the audience to a known list. And major litigation (as well as new legislative efforts) goes on regarding how to protect minors (COPA). One obvious issue is educating high school students on the legal responsibilities that come with showing up on the public stage.

Free speech as the First Amendment spells it out actually has several components, including assembly, expressive association, faith (or no faith), and, yes, individual speech and to some extent access to the press. The concepts are subject to interpretation and parsing. In practice, many people of older generations are used to a concept where the right to be heard has some functional dependence on one’s performance in taking responsibility for others (heading a family). That does not sit well with modern individualism (at least it reinforces the importance of competing in a social or political hierachy), and is questionable when applied to the First Amendment, but chutzpah certainly does challenge religious cultures and is particularly troubling in the Islamic world, as writers like Manji and Bawer have recently explained in brilliant books. (Self-published debate also challenges the hegemony of special interests and partisanship.) There certainly is a mapping between the issues of individual expressive freedom as we are encountering them now with the Internet and some of the ideological issues that are driving some of our international risks and struggles.

We enter the new year with abundance of caution.

Picture: a mock workplace drug test (the hair test)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Filial responsibility burdens -- major NY Times story


Filial Loyalty Burdens

Jane Gross has one of the most disturbing stories yet in the December 30, 2006 issue of The New York Times, “Elder-Care Costs Deplete Savings of a Generation,” at this link (may require online subscription or membership). She opens her story with an account of a female vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank who has depleted most of her own assets to care for a 97-year-old father.

The story quotes a geriatrician. Robert L. Kane, at the University of Minnesota School of public health. “There is a myth out there that families abandon their elders. Instead, across the income spectrum, children are sacrificing to care for their parents to the limit of their means and sometimes beyond.” The story produces a chart showing about 8% of adult children involved in supporting eldcercare. The problem gets worse as medical care can keep the severely ill elderly alive longer but cannot always offer quality of life or independence, and as birth rates in many economic classes fall.

Tax laws add to confusion. Adult children cannot claim parental expenses (unlike a situation with spouses, where there is a 7.5% AGI threshold) unless they pay for more than half of a parent’s support. This would not apply with parents on Medicaid.

The story also quotes an elder-care lawyer Steven Schurkman, who recommends that adult children keep track of parent’s expenses from the parent’s account to establish eligibility for Medicaid. Many adult children do not do good accounting.

The story does not mention that many states (about 30) have filial responsibility laws, and could go after adult children before parents go on Medicaid, even if parents have no assets (they do go after children when give-aways have happened, and the look-back rules have been recently tightened).

This whole topic runs across profound cultural divides over family responsibility. Biological loyalty is usually much stronger in minority communities, and is extremely strong in the Islamic world. Gay rights seems like a cultural insult, since often gay people place much less personal priority on biological loyalty since often they do not procreate their own children.

My own detailed account of filial responsibility laws is at this link. We still have not had a well structured debate on this creeping issue.

Wall Street Journal story on teen caregivers, Jan. 5 2007

Clare Ansberry has an article "Daily Chores: Young Caregivers: Parents Turn to Children for Help: Many Juggle School with Feeding Tubes, IVs," The Wall Street Journal, Friday Jan. 5m 2005, p. 1. The detailed and graphic story (with many examples) cites a 2005 study claiming that over 1.3 million minors from age 8 to 18 care for disabled or seriously ill family members (parents, siblings, sometimes grandparents).

Friday, December 29, 2006

Family friendly policies and "for better or for worse" in marriage


The Washington Times concluded its series on marriage with Gregory Lopes, “Work making way for family life: More employers adopt flexible schedules and telecommuting” on Dec. 28, 2006, and Gabriella Boston “’For better or worse’ takes a lot of work: Learning what to expect can help marriages last” on Dec. 29.

In many jobs, flexibility is a win-win situation for employers and employees alike, regardless of personal life circumstances. The measures can include telecommuting and flexible work schedules (4 10’s, 3 12’s, etc). This also helps save energy and reduce pollution and sounds like responsible citizenship.

More problematical is the way people use benefits according to family situation. Insurance premiums are often much higher for family coverage. But many people say that the unpaid leave of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is inadequate, and lobby for paid maternity and paternity leave, following most European countries. This contradicts the practice of making many jobs contract and piece-work or commission oriented.

One major concern about strengthening traditional marriage is the effect on the childless and on the unmarried. There have been books with varying viewpoints (Burkett, Longman) on this, because inevitably there are calls to expect the childless to help support other people’s children. One particularly troubling situation can occur in a salaried workplace, where on-call and unpaid overtime is common, because in some cases there are pressures on those “without families” to do more of it.

We do have to face a troubling Catch-22 in the way we think about marriage. That is, stable marriage, children, and religious faith do tend to shield some people (although not the “providers” and “protectors”) from the feeling that they must prove their worthiness in competition with other people. Ideas about abstinence contribute to that feeling. In modern individualistic culture, there is more tendency to judge people as if they operated on their own, apart from family. If you make the childless and unmarried defer to the needs of those with families, you have to make them second-class citizens. That just seems like an observation of merciless logic. That is the underbelly of all the arguments about same-sex marriage. If one does not have a committed family relationship to provide for others, one’s resources can seem to be up for grabs and expropriated or hijacked to meet the needs of others. Or what is worse, one can be told something like this: "We will deferentially "protect" you, even from "discrimination", but you must serve our purposes -- church and family -- before you can serve your own, because otherwise you could expose us." That does make one’s own purposes go away. It is pretty disturbing when it happens.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Embryo screening and ethics


All the way back to the 1980s there has been constant criticism from social conservatives (like George Gilder with his famous “Men and Marriage”,as Gilder in turn invokes Aldous Huxley and "Brave New World") of meddling with natural reproduction in married, with any artificial technology like “test tube babies” or use of stem cells, and, especially pre-natal testing.

A AP story on Dec. 28, 2006, “Babies Created with genetic defects,” by Lindsey Turner, highlights these concerns. The story reports a survey of American clinics that found that 4 (out of about 120 clinics) reported embryo screening with intention of producing babies with specific disabilities, for parents who wanted to have offspring "like them." The Washington Times reprinted the story Dec 28.

The closest concept that I could find in the dictionary was something like “line breeding.” Now we all are aware of the moral and bioethical debate surrounding all of this. It need not all be accounted for here (President Bush weighed in on it during the early months of his presidency). Vatican theology, for example, demands openness to all new life, even though this imposes potential “burdens” on other people besides the legal parents, as part of its reverence for human life.

When I first saw the story, I was a bit shocked. Yet, I can give it a context, in the way I have been able to depict myself, with a concept called “dreamcatching.” Personal judgments do not matter here.

At least, thankfully there does not exist any genetic testing scheme that can guarantee that babies will be born straight (or gay). Remember the play and film "Twilight of the Golds"?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

New push for "pro family" and "pro birth" policies


Cheryl Wetzstein has a series in The Washington Times, starting Dec. 26, 2006, "U.S. out of love with marriage" that starts with a mention of this film and of how important George was to his family. Link is here.

As noted elsewhere in the blogs, the problem is existential. Is it important to be one’s own person first, or to create a committed family structure first? It is a kind of chicken-and-egg question, but we need to understand it that way.

Is marriage a public institution that we share, or is it a private experience that becomes a certain public expression? The question is philosophical, but it has tremendous policy implications for how people will do, especially LGBT people.

Some of the ideas in the Times article on p A12 include:
. preserving marriage for one man and one woman
. discouraging cohabitation
. discouraging recognizing civil unions and non marital domestic partnerships
. provide government support for marriage and abstinence education
. reduce the ease of no-fault divorce (especially when there are children); encourage covenant marriage
. reform welfare to encourage marriage
. double personal income-tax exemption for children to $6400 and child tax credit to $2000
. Provide universal tax credit per child to age 5 of $2500
. in social security, give a married mother three years of employment credit for each child

Actually, some European countries have tried to make their policies much more child friendly (especially with paid maternal and paternal leave, which we don’t have as a legally driven mandate in the U.S.) without creating social friction among the childless.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that these policies, in combination with stronger filial responsibility laws, could put people disinclined to marry (heterosexually) and function as parents at a serious disadvantage compared to people who marry and have children earlier. On the other hand, early child bearing today often puts women especially at a serious disadvantage. However, is it really good for marriage to make it (and the family bed) almost "compulsory" as a step toward social acceptability as an adult?

(Picture: from Big Bend National Park, Texas, November 1979, from a Sierra Club camping weekend)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Substitute teacher shortages and licensure


Public concern about substitute teachers seems to have increased since Aug. 2006, when a former substitute teacher John Mark Karr made a false confession (later retracted when no physical or DNA evidence could be found linking him to the 1996 crime) to the JonBenet Ramsey case in Colorado. The media reported that many states and their school districts are haphazard and careless about the quality of people they put in the classroom as substitute teachers.

Most localities have shortages of substitute teachers, and have lax licensing requirements. In fact, most states don’t require teaching licenses at all for short term substitute teachers. Most have a minimum number of hours of college credits (often 60). Many times retirees are attracted, as may be artists or actors while looking for work. To some extent, this is a good thing for manyudents, who have the chance to interact more with adults who have lived in the “real world” of work.

The National Education Association has a state-by-state discussion of the licensing or expiration requirements for substitute teachers, at this link. The following states do have meaningful licensing requirements for substitutes: CO IA MI MN ND PA . Typically, unlicensed substitutes (or substitutes without permanent positions) have no teacher's union bargaining power and often no benefits, and in some states the pay is quite low.

In secondary schools, regular teachers usually leave lesson plans, which often involve administering examinations or showing films and relatively little actual instruction. Substitutes often are not content experts in the particular classes filled. In fact, most school districts will allow any substitute to fill almost any position.

Many school districts have “three strikes and you’re out” or similar rules for substitutes. That is, a principal or school administrator may request that a substitute not return to that school. The administrator does not have to give a reason for the removal. In some cases, with a serious enough situation, a substitute could be terminated after one such request. But if an administrator gives an “illegal” reason for trying to remove a substitute, the school district may well not honor the request. An example could be an issue involving off-duty free speech, where there is a history of rather complicated case law balancing free speech of employees (and students) with the need for safety and discipline in the schools. More common reasons for removal might be failure to follow lesson plans or, particularly in lower grades or with disadvantaged students, inability to maintain classroom discipline (the popular euphemism is “poor classroom management”). In practical, sometimes administrators do not make specific "do not send" requests but instead start canceling future (system-generated) assignments, hoping that the particular sub will take the hint.

From a job performance perspective, then, the substitute considers two issues. One is her own content mastery. But this is normally seen as less critical with substitutes than with regular teachers. The other is connecting to and “managing” students – “The Kids!” School systems tend to look at substituting as babysitting jobs. They expect the substitute to come to the job with some degree of socialization and ability to connect with immature students. Normally this experience is obtained in the home – first of all in marriage, as by raising one’s own family, or by taking care of younger siblings-- or by some other kind of volunteer socializing experience. The issue is more critical with retirees, who may have a lifetime which others may have expected to have included raising a family. With younger teaching employees, instruction or coursework is more likely to be effective in developing connection skills. Of course, no one says this openly.

Often substitutes are retired are part-time teachers with licenses, so in many districts administrators may not know which subs are licensed and which are not (or they may even mistakenly believe that they are all licensed). Often, individual teachers and administrators come to prefer certain subs that they know, and it is quite believable that a particular unlicensed individual is effective with more mature kids in a number of subjects – literature, social studies, technology, and especially mathematics – because of workplace and life experiences, even (for social studies) experience with political activism or, for English, personal experience as a writer (including technical or grant writing).

This gets to the enormous divisions within The Kids themselves. At certain grade levels, between say 7 and 11, most adolescents begin to grasp self-interest as an abstraction that is separate from their immediate comfort and gratification, and even distinct from family position or peer popularity. An article by Paul Tough in The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 2006, “What It Will Really Take To Close the Education Gap,” discusses the shism, that occurs much earlier with upper middle class kids. This “maturity” is what the teacher recognizes is the kid’s ability to “do the right thing” without excessive supervision, both from the point of view of his own well being and out of ethical respect for his community (such as avoiding plagiarism and cheating). Usually the kids that learn this earlier are more likely to appear in Honors and AP Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes. There are correlations with race. Generally, because of cumulative historical advantages, white and Asian children have outperformed African Americans and Hispanics, which has led to metrics for improvement under No Child Left Behind that affect individual teachers. The challenge in teaching is often called “differential instruction”, which is tailoring the teaching methods to the individual child’s level of cognition and response.

All of this bears back on the issues of the teacher shortage, which is accompanied by the substitute teacher shortage, which is quite severe in many school districts and which accounts for the lenient job requirements. It is true that there are shortages in the upper levels in math and science areas, and President Bush has proposed special initiatives to address these shortages separately. That could mean that positions (both permanent teachers and substitutes) for upper end students should be restructured separately, with more emphasis on academic and workplace preparation. But the majority of the shortage seems to have to do with the average and below average students, who demand more personal attention from teachers. There is a tendency for these students not to respect substitutes, and to believe that they will have “easy days” when the “authority figure” teacher is out. (On the other hand, advanced students often like to benefit from hearing “real world” substitutes tell them what the real world will be all about.)

What to do about all of this, and improve the substitute pool? I think one way is to have expiration dates or periods for unlicensed subs. Let them try the job out for twelve to eighteen months, after that make them make decisions about obtaining licensure. But rather than make them go to a college campus to get the classroom clock hours required for licensure, offer the course work on the school properties on-line, with instruction application network software. (They should be closed intranet applications rather than offered on the open Internet or Web). Provide some in-person instruction, but bring professors to school properties. It should also be possible for “apprentice teachers” to dial in from home into the applications over wireless or high-speed connections. Obviously, this needs money, but more than that, it needs a lot of planning, thought, and determination.

Along these lines, it should be noted that schools often do offer long-term substitute positions (including summer school) to unlicensed persons with enough academic credentials. Sometimes they offer permanent positions with temporary or provisional state licenses, and can provide the hooks for the necessary clock hours of instruction while the teacher has the position, but this can become grueling.

It should be added that besides substitute teachers, there are also positions for teaching assistants and resource assistants. But most often, these assistant work directly, sometimes one-on-one, with special education students. To be successful in this role, the substitute (or regular assistant) needs to be comfortable with connecting with students who are not on an adult-like level of cognition.

Original discussion on doaskdotell at this link.

Update: March 12, 2009

The NEA link on state requirements for subs seems to get a 404 error right now. I hope NEA restores this table, since it says it is redesigning its web site. In the mean time, here is another website (Mahalo: "How to become a substitute teacher") with links to state requirements, but it is harder to use. I'll check later and see if NEA has restored the table.

(Picture: Map of St Mary's City colony, MD)

Avian Flu at phase 3; 1918 quarantines were somewhat effective


A report by David Brown in the December 13, 2006 The Washington Post, "1918 Flu Epidemic Teaching Valuable Lessons: Actions Taken Apparently Were Effective", at this link,
itself based on new data presented at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, suggests that the stringent public health measures taken in 1918 to close schools and public gatherings, require masks and excluding people who coughed from theaters (as shown in Peter Jennings's book The Century) may have been more effective in controlling the mortality rate that previously thought.

This kind of a finding is important, because large scale quarantines and closings could have devestating social and ecnomic effects in urban areas, and cause major rethinking of what we call "family values". This is indeed "an inconvenient truth," which was exaggerated in the TV film this spring from ABC, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America". I have correspondence from Congressman Jim Moran on this and it is not that reassuring. The link for these letters is here.

There is an interesting comparison to HIV in the 1980s, where public health officials had to repeatedly reassure the public that it could not be casually transmitted, despite wild speculations from the religious right, sometimes from the media shows ("there's always a first time!") and even a careless remark in 1983 from NIH reported in Randy Shilts's book "And the Band Played On". (There were some speculations in Robert Gallo's 1989 book "Virus Hunting".)

There is also an interesting comparison with other horrifying bloodborn viruses like Ebola and Marburg (Robert Preston's "The Hot Zone"). There is an Ebola epidemic among gorillas in Africa, and there was a scare in 1989 about "Ebola Reston."

The CDC's site is pandemicflu.gov and that has a link to a World Health Organization (WHO) site that considers us at Phase 3 ("No or very limited human-to-human transmission, link here.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Is marriage with kids a fundamental right, or an obligation?


“You don’t have to be married,” the matronly Barbara Bush (wife of the first George Bush) said during the 1992 presidential campaign (that would be lost to Bill Clinton). “But if you have children, they have to be the first priority of your life.”

In modern urban civilization, we have supported the idea of marriage as a celebration of love and of having children as a voluntary choice that we take responsibility for. In past eras (as well documented in the film Marie Antoinette) (review) marriage was a way to make political alliances and “justify” the passing or property.

But then look at the debate spurred by the article “Childless by Choice” by Leslie Fulbright of the Seattle Times (April 1, 2003). The article discusses organizations for child-free couples and singles, such as Child Free by Choice, No Rugrats, To Breed or Not to Breed Brats, and No Kidding!. But then the article goes into areas and quotes that highlight the cultural tension among those whose lives revolve around family and those whose don’t. “’Any healthy culture is child-centric because the future rests with our children,’ said Allan Carlson of the Family Research Council. ’These (No Kidding!) people are copping out on the future, refusing to accept the standard obligation for responsible membership in our society. I would describe them as childish, immature and irresponsible.’”
Here are some URL’s: (1)

(2)

(3)

Well, that puts it bluntly. I’m part of the problem, a freeloader, Even Dr. Laura isn’t this blunt.

“Virginia Rutter, a sociologist at the University of Washington, sees the opposition to the child free as both psychological and political. She says there are two issues: caring for children and a societal level and the choice at an individual level. ‘People think that those who don’t (re)produce are somehow the source of the lack of child care that we have as a society. When facing an extraordinary stress, they are angry and seem to direct that at individuals rather than the system. They see themselves as morally superior because they are dealing with the hardship.’”

Indeed, hardship and the possibility of failure tends to encourage self-righteousness, and the desire to make up or derive from religion a moral code (like abstinence outside of marriage) that eliminates competitive possibilities from others.

“In contrast, many No Kidding! Members—often called selfish—see child-bearing as narcissistic and don’t understand why society equates reproduction with responsibility.”

The battle over childlessness has been creeping up in books. The most famous is Elinor Burkett’s “The Baby Boon” (2000), (review) but there have been a number of “pro-family” books emphasizing the difficulties that parents have in an laissez-faire, individualistic adult society, such as Jennifer Roback Morse. “Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work..” (review) But a recent concern in the past ten years or so has been the lowering birthrate in more affluent classes (especially in Europe) as presented by Philip Longman in "The Empty Cradle", (review) in combination with increasing lifespan and an elderly population with increasing needs for custodial care. Occasionally in the 1990s social conservatives would call for “the family wage” and it is likely that those calls will increase in the future.

It has gradually become apparent that child care and eldercare needs to be born by all, not just those who have children. At least indirectly, the competitive culture and open Internet raises issues about how the expressive behavior of uncommitted adults (or of affluent adults) affects other people’s children, especially in lower income groups. Compared to ten years ago, more jobs today proportionally could have caretaking duties (and note the shortage of substitute teachers, to be discussed in an upcoming post).

This leads to a logical conundrum. We want people to feel free to choose consenting adult significant others, and I have proposed this as a “fundamental right” in my own books. Yet, these “private choices” are becoming increasingly public in consequence. A number of resolutions can be enumerated. We can make procreation and child rearing a strictly voluntary personal responsibility choice. That was the pure libertarian position, though it has become unstable. Many people who have children seem to need help (and deference) from others to raise them. We can expect caring for the next generation to be shared by everyone, but embrace the idea of same-sex couples as parents and of single parent adoption. That supports equality for gays but would seem to undermine the supposed “birthright” of a mother and father for every child. Or we can design public policy to encourage many more conventional heterosexually married couples to adopt and offer foster care, while excluding same-sex couples and singles. It sounds extravagant, but maybe it is conceivable. But then one is left with the idea that the “non marrying kind” will be forced into a subordinate role, deferring to the needs of people with more “responsibility.” That hardly supports the idea of marrying just for love.

The cultural change, over the past few decades. toward individual meritocracy does make it harder to address the needs of the vulnerable within any family. Frankly, many careers outside of the technical, artistic and entertainment areas do require a lot of the content-independent social manipulation skills that generally comes from marrying and raising kids. We are not well prepared to take care of an increased population of profoundly disabled elderly, who can be kept alive longer, in view of the lower birthrates and smaller families, apart from the possibility of preventing or treating medically many of these disabling disases (Alzheimer's, etc.) We are also not prepared for the sacrifice that can come from other exogenous sources, like global warming. It is likely that the childless will be called up to bear much of the slack for all of this, and we are not prepared for the moral implications of the problems.

(Family Leave: unpaid in U.S., paid in many other countries)

One practical issue is paid maternal and paternal leave, which most advanced countries outside the U.S. offer, without that much social tension over the implicit sacrifice by the childless. There is a lot of controversy over the effectiveness of unpaid family leave in the U.S. workplace. Cindy Skrzycki, “Door Opens to Changes in Family Leave,” Dec. 12, 2006, link.

(Picture: at Liberty University, Lynchburg VA)

Monday, December 11, 2006

More on Health Savings Accounts


In early December, the House approved a bill raising the tax-free Health Savings Account deduction from $2700 to $2850 for a single and from $5450 to $5650 for a family. The Washington Post sotry Dec 11, 2006 is by Jeffrey Birnbaum and Lori Montgomery, p A4, “GOP Lawmakers Add Provision to Passing Tax Package: Measure Expands the Amount That Can Be Given Tax-Free to Health Savings Accounts.” Link is here.

The U.S. Treasury has a website, including FAQ’s, on how Health Savings Accounts work. Generally, you have to have a high-deductible health policy with a qualifying company (or employer). Generally, money from them can be spent only on qualifying medical or dental expenses (sometimes even to help purchase long term care insurance), but they can be spent on family members. Presumably this includes parents (probably if they had been declared as dependents on the tax return—check with a tax advisor). (This would seem to be an issue with same-sex marriage debates, as presumably they could not be used for partners since this is a federal deduction; one would have to research this with a tax accountant.) In general, the money may be invested, and it accumulates; it does not have to be spent the year it is deducted. It is controlled by IRS rules. The website is this link.

The issue is still heavily politicized, as it seems to remove pressure from employers that unions seem to want. I wonder if HAS’s can address the problem of providers charging more for procedures from uninsured patients. If a patient “buys” a health care service from his own HSA funds, does she pay more than if a group insurance company pays for it under volume-discount pricing?

I know with my own dentist, this issue (of individual surcharges) came up with extraction sutures (where I had to pay more), and later with an oral cat scan (where I did get the discount from a retiree health policy). Presumably HSA’s could be set up to deal with this problem, but the underlying structural problems of hospital financing (which I became familiar with in 1989 when I worked on a model that dealt with hospital Medicare operating margins) remain.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Small companies like health savings accounts


Amy Joyce has an article, "Shifting Risk, Responsibility: New Health Plans Move More than Costs to Employees," on Sunday Dec 3, 2006, in the Washington Post, here.

One small company in Rockville, MD, TeraTech, made a switch from a Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan to a health savings account, which shields $5250 for a single and $10500 for a family from taxes. However, the money must be spent within a certain time period, which encourages preventive care. It is particularly effective with known expenses, such as a pregnancy, or possibly for recurring conditions like HIV or diabetes.

HR Magazine, December 2006, has an article by Susan J. Wells, "Will Employees Orchestrate Their Own Health Care? Consumer-directed health coverage requires employees to make wise decisions on care and spending. But will it improve health and cut costs?" The acronym for these plans is CDHP.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Government is keeping scores on travelers


There was a sensational story in the major media today to the effect that Homeland Security is keeping a database of scores on travelers, a kind of FICO like (or CLUE like) score that assesses their potential "threat".

Right now, members of the general public do not have the right to see or to challenge their scores.

Scores tended to be based on travel-related details like method of payment, iteneraries (esp. overseas), seat assignment, even meals. It was not completely clear if this list is limited to persons (including US citizens) arriving from international flights at least once since around the beginning of 2002.

The CNN story is here.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Security clearances and debt


In the past couple of months, the media has reported a steady increase in denial of security clearances to active duty military personnel (especially the Army) because of heavy debt problems. Still, the rate of denial is less than a tenth of one percent.

Media has often reported poverty and financial problems for lower ranked military families with children, which sounds surprising given the housing allowances and dependent benefits.

I worked for a collection agency during the summer of 2003 and did not run into this. But I've dealt with security clearance issues in my life, early on, because of my sexual orientation. I never was able to achieve a top secret clearance, although the last attempt was in 1971. It is supposed to be a lot better now for civilians, but for military personnel the "don't ask don't tell" policy obviously presents an issue. (Pentagon regulations as written supposedly try to get around this.)

The underlying concern is, of course, blackmail, and the military is concerned about underming security for deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or other areas like drug areas. I thought we were past that, and it was a red herring. Maybe not. Yet, in 1971, when I had a BI for a TS, an investigator (when I was a civilian employee at the Washington Navy Yard) asked me point blank (after I told him about the William and Mary Explusion), "has anyone ever tried to blackmail you?" No. Delicious circles.

There is more on my other blog, here.

There was another interesting workplace story today, about efforts by hotels to select and train employees in "body language" and "small talk" skills, to improve customer service and return business. As a customer, I find gratuitous small talk from employees of any place to be distracting, and it seems misplaced to me, but they say I am an aspie. There is more about "sales culture" at this entry on the same blog.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

US News & World Report has Boomers Guide on eldercare

The Nov. 27 2006 issue of U.S. News & World Report has "A Boomer's Guide" "Taking Care of Mom & Dad" with articles by Christine Larson on living arrangements (and the wide variety made available now by private industry for people with enough money), long-term-care insurance (Mitchell Andrews), Part D Medicare drug plans, and the rules and "lookback periods" for Medicaid for long-term nursing home care (Sarah Balduf), which has increased the look-back to 5 years with the penalty period starting with the admission. Finally, there is an article by Deborah Kotz on employer benefits, and the fact that, in addition to the FMLA of 1993, California actually mandates a small amount of paid leave for eldercare (or childcare or legally married spousal care).

Also on Nov. 21, 2006 PBS Frontline had a one-hour special "Living Old".

Neither report mentioned filial responsibility laws as such, as I have discussed them in a few posts in this blog, or at this link.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Charles Rangel again urges return to the draft


Rep. (D-NY) Charles Rangel told news outlets Sunday Nov 19, 2006 that he planned to introduce another bill reinstating military conscription in 2007. He had proposed a similar Universal Service Act in 2003, about which a typical story is here.

Rangel claims to have two major motives. One is to raise awareness of the disproportionate percentage of poor people and racial minorities who volunteer for the military and bear the risks. The other is that, if there was a draft, the American people would become more skeptical of presidential pushes for war, as in Iraq. Of course, the experience of the past (Vietnam) does not necessarily bear that out.

Kathryn Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer have a new book from Collins that picks up on Rangel's first point. The book is "AWOL: The Unexecused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country." I have a discussion here.

NBC4 in Washington did a straw poll by inviting emails, and it found that 75% of viewers were against resumption of conscription. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi promised that, just as in 2003, the bill would go nowhere. The Pentagon is still against it. But, of course, with the involuntary extensions the Iraq war has effectively created a backdoor draft anyway, which fits into Rangel's theory.

I have often raised the question, what happens to "don't ask don't tell" for gays in the military if there is a draft again. Back in Vietnam days, the services had separate regulations that pretended to ban homosexuals (I remember reading the official Army Regulations while goofing off at Fort Eustis--we did a lot of that in 1969), but of course turned their heads at draft physicals when draftees tried to claim homosexuality. I actually took the physical three times after my William and Mary expulsion in 1961 for homosexuality and went from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A and served without incident (thought I did not go to Vietnam).

Right after the 9-11 attacks, pundits encouraged resuming the draft, and that included Senator Carl Levin, D-Mi, of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sociologist Charles Moskos from Northwestern University in Chicago, whom we remember helped construct "don't ask don't tell" for the Clinton Administration in 1993, supported the draft, and actually emailed me "gays should get behind conscription, then the ban would be lifted." Yet, this all smacks of involuntary servitude, whatever we think of shared sacrifice.

So, we have a merry-go-round on this, kind of like the carousel in "Strangers on a Train." It's in black-and-white, all right. But the debate on mandatory national service seems to be inevitably heating up. There is a lot more to moral issues that the lexical simplicity of the abortion and gay marriage debates.

Links: National Service Debate; "Pay Your Dues," which is not quite the same concept as "Pay It Forward."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Health insurance companies urge Dems to push reforms

A story by Robert Pear in The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2006, p. A14, "Health Insurance Industry Urges Expansion of Coverage" summarizes the proposals for Universal health care well.

. Create tax incentives for indviduals to have "universal health accounts"
. Create tax incentives for people to buy universal health insurance for children
. Match the pr-tax deductions enjoyed by employers for individuals
. Expand Medicaid to all adults with incomes below poverty, including singles who may not qualify
. The Children's Health Insurance Program should cover all kids in families with incomes up to twice the poverty level

The cost over ten years would be $300 billion, about $1000 per person, to approximate universal coverage for adults.

Doctors have told me that in Britain and Canada, the very elderly cannot get coronary bypass surgery that they would get in the U.S., based on medical considerations alone. Likewise, I might not have gotten a new operation for my acetabular fracture in 1998, which healed quickly with rapid return to work after a new surgery and device at the University of Minnesota; the alternative could have been three months of traction for what is usually a severe injury.

It is well known that the uninsured are often charged several times the group rate for the same procedure by most hospitals, which then go after them with aggressive debt collection procedures.

Medical savings accounts might, in my opinion, be augmented by filial responsibility and long term care accounts, an idea that I discuss here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Will DC smoking ban Jan 2 2007 help or hurt business?


The clock is ticking, and on Jan 2 2007 the District of Columbia smoking ban will go into effect in all bars (except outdoor areas).

The anecdotal evidence from other cities and from some establishments in the District that have voluntary smoking bans suggests that so far the bans do not drive business away. I, for one, look forward to not having clothes reek when I get home and have to go into the washer immediately from second-hand smoke.


What about gay bars in the District? Because of cultural and political reasons, customers won't be driven to Virginia. But the Cobalt Lounge on 17th Street is already smoke free (the disco upstairs is not yet) and it doesn't seem to have affected business from all appearances.

Here is a story from the Washington Post, Jan 9, 2006, by Eric M. Weisz.

In New York City, however, the evidence initially was the business was off. Story is here, by Charisse Jones, USA Today, 7/1/2003/.

In any case, guys, remember, heavy smoking damages circulation and makes you go bald on the legs. Cigarette smoking is gross.

(Picture: Julius's in New York City)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

British report on severely disabled newborns

The Washington Times, on Nov. 6 2006, carried a UPI story which reports that Britain's Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology advocated a public debate on euthansia for severely disabled newborns. The URL is here.

The report claims that a severely disabled child can mean a "disabled family."

The report would comport with the current case in front of the US Supreme Court on partial birth abortions. Many people would say that all of this involves infanticide. I can remember Oliver North saying that on his talk show in the mid 1990s.

The Washington Post
has an editorial Monday Nov 13 "Partial-Birth Replay: The Supreme Court has to decide whether it meant what it said about 'partial-birth abortions'" in saying that they must be allowed to protect the health of the mother, in striking down a Nebraska law, which Congress went ahead and replaced anyway.

Of course, the flip side of the question is how people deal with the extreme degree of need that such children will provide. We have heard this debate with respect to autism, which has rarely occurred more than once in a given family. It is a debate within the school systems under "No Child Left Behind" as special education teachers are hard to recruit.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Reprise on stripmining


Leonardo Di Caprio has added a link to his site about mountaintop removal,
I Lovc Mountains. The site is using search software to develop an online National Memorial for the Mountains, and offers two free videos to watch on the site. I discovered all of this when following up on the re-release into theaters of the film "The Great Warming." Reviews are here.

My earlier posting on this was from September, about another website about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

I also have a movie blog entry on this here.

The picture is along WVa 93 between Mt Storm (the power plant owned by Vepco) and Davis, where I was almost arrested in 1971 for taking pictures of the stripming by Douglas Coal Company. I got a private tour in a smoke-filled pickup truck cabin. The land does look considerably restored now.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Church and State, and the Va. Marshall-Newman amendment: when does one's life belong to others?

On Tuesday, Oct. 31 2006, The Washington Post ran, on the Metro page, an op-ed by Marc Fisher, “Va. Marriage Debate a Hotbed of Irony.” He pointed out that social conservatives, who usually want less government (at least in economic matters) want increased regulation of marriage. The libertarian position would be to let each religious faith define marriage for itself. Marriage is the one area where church and state come together, as a result of a history of some legal paradoxes.

Bob Marhsall, a Virginia General Assembly delegate from Prince William County was an original sponsor of the amendment, and he quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead’s work, to the effect that all civilized societies regulate sexuality in order to induce most adults to participate in a committed way in raising the next generation (and to some extent caring for the previous one). This is a matter of public morality with him, not a matter of uninhibited personal choice or equality. This is a collective concern. It gets mixed in with the supposed birthright of every child to a mother and a father (and parents who can express the complementarity of gender and character specialization), but this affects people who don't have their own children. The deeper meaning of the amendment goes way beyond "gay marriage."

What I notice is another paradox. Modern mental health talk stresses the importance of having one’s own adult life and expressive identity before trying to have committed relationships with others, capable of raising children or of some kind of official public and religious or legal recognition. This is part of the modern "liberarian" concept of personal autonomy or individual sovereignty, which is very important in the formal Law but less clear in actual society and in moral calculus. Yes, there is also an opposite tug. One, at some point, is expected to respond to the needs of others and incorporate them into one’s own priorities. One is not always left alone (like the teenage character in “Little Miss Sunshine”); one is supposed to respond to being called to. The name for this is “socialization.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

Face-off on cultural wars, shared sacrifice, and national service


USA Today, on Thursday Oct 26, 2006, had a Forum face-off “Why Democrats are losing the cultural war” on page 13A. The face-off raises some points that I have been making in my blogs and websites for some time.

Amy Sullivan has a piece “Republicans’ Edge: Seeing the Problem.” She gets this right, by going into the layering of issues. Politicians galvanize voters on abortin, gay marriage, and to some extent stem cell research, as well as the free display of religious speech in schools and public places. These issues are just the visible tips of Titantic cultural icebergs about the meaning of individuality in reference to the group. She is right, that the culture has become superficial, looks like a candy store in the media, then ruthlessly prosecutes those who stumble across the line of the law. At the individual level, competitiveness has superseded service or any sense of social payback and focused on visual and financial appeals.

Hodding Carter and Ronald Goldfarb, in “An opportunity for shared sacrifice,” comes even closer with a rather blunt and strident call for mandatory universal national service, at 18, for everyone, for a minimum of 18 months. Besides my own concerns about “involuntary servitude,” the piece does raise some obvious questions. One is that thirty years ago, we resisted the idea that civilian service could sub for the risks taken by those in the armed forces. That concern became discredited by the failure of Vietnam and Watergate, and would probably be discredited again by the problems in Iraq. Another question is whether service could be spread out over a lifetime. Remember that just four days after 9/11, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin was calling for resumption of the draft on CNN. Another obvious question is, what happens with "don't ask don't tell" for gays, not just in the military but in other areas where forced intimacy might occur.

The “shared sacrifice” is a more appropriate buzzword than many others, and one which Ross Perot used in his independent or Reform 1992 campaign. What both parties are starting to get is that you can’t take liberty for granted, and the sharing of hardships (especially in a world with concerns like global warming) is an “inconvenient truth” that goes with freedom, and is necessary for people who are less fortunate to be treated properly. The social conservatives are right are hinting in that this starts with family responsibility and a “pay your dues” consciousness, but they aren’t very forthright about it yet. It’s interesting to see that, in this Forum, the greatest bluntness came from the Democrats.

Goals for America has a short piece advocating national service at this link, and the group has suggested that if America doesn't want outright conscription again, it should support the partitioning of Iraq into semi-automonous countries!

Remember, though, that any attempt by the government to force "sacrifice" with law naturally invites corruption.

I have weighed in these problems on my own domain. Try:
Pay your bills, pay your dues
The draft and mandatory national service
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Individualism and the stake in social justice
These date from 2004 and 2005.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Public schools may offer single-sex classes


The Department of Education has announced regulations that would allow public school districts to set up single-sex schools or programs in academic subjects. Enrollment would have to be voluntary. The rules start Nov. 24 2006. Right now most single-sex subjects are in health and physical education.

The stories are by Diana Jean Scehmo, "Change in Federal Rules Backs Single-Sex Public Education," The New York Times, Oct. 25, 2006.

Or Valerie Strauss, "Schools May Offer More Single-Sex Classes Under New U.S. Regulations," The Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2006, link here.

Arguments used to me made comparing sex segregation in school to racial segregation, and the offense of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Many feel that girls will feel more interested in pursuing math and science in single-sex environments, and some boys will have fewer discipline problems.

In general, allowing more single-sex classes could put more pressure on teachers to act as gender "role models", an expectation that may not fit well with some individual temperaments.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pork barrel spending and nepotism

The Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006 USA Today has a major cover story by Mart Kelley and Peter Eisler. "Family Ties: Relatives Have 'Inside Track' in lobbying for tax dollars". The story maintains that no laws prevent relatives from influencing congressional staffers. People often hire lobbyists or make campaign contributions to "get their way." Partisan work on Capitol Hill does not encourage intellectual honesty (the way journalism must). In fact, it would seem that work on K Street is a bit of a Faustian deal. Look at my review of the film "Our Brand Is Crisis," here.

It is cause to reflect on family values. Is that the measure of a man, to manipulate the political system to get advantages for relatives? The irony is that (except maybe in Massachusetts) gay couples could not be accused of this if they can't legally marry. So much for all of the stereotypes from the 50s.

The Heritage Foundation, normally in favor of "family values", has written a lot about corrupt lobbying. Rondald D. Utt has a paper "A Primer on Lobbyists, Earmarks, and Congressional Reform."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom to publish


The First Amendment enumerates many fundamental or original rights, including religious practice, assembly, and speech.

There are many forms of speech, ranging from individual speech to organizing for collective speech (such as assembly, or expressive assocation). In colonial times, in practice speech was often much more collective in practice.

The text of the First Amendment lists freedom of the press separately from speech. Does this mean that the credentialed press sometimes has the right to publish information that an individual would not? Are "publication" and "speech" constitutionally separate (if related) concepts? I think that they are, and can give some arcane examples, although I won't right now.

The visitor may wish to think of some examples.

References: First Amendment at findlaw.

My own fundamental rights slide is at this link.

Washington Post on long term care insurance


Martha M. Hamilton has an important overview, “Should You Secure Your Health Care?” in the “Financial Futures” column of the Business Section, F, of The Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2006. Specifically, she discusses the advisability of long term care insurance, which has been talked up since the late 90s. Someone with a family history of needing long term care (especially of Alzheimers) should consider starting it as early as possible. There is controversy over whether premiums will rise with time even so. If someone drops the premiums at retirement because of inability to afford them, all is lost. On the other hand, someone with a family history of short life spans might forego it. She discusses the idea that people could safeguard their ability to pass on assets to children by having long term care pay for nursing home care.

In truth, in the future, states may become tougher with filial responsibility laws, giving individuals more incentive toward “personal responsibility” by purchasing the insurance and maintaining it, lest they put adult children at risk for suit support should they become destitute.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Unions, partisan political activity, and non-members: what does it mean?

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006, The Washington Times presented an editorial, “A ‘sin’ of Big Labor, in which it discussed the use of union dues and agency fees from nonmembers for partisan political purposes. The editorial is at this link.

The story mentions the 1988 Communications Workers of America v. Beck case, as well as a Washington state supreme court opinion involving the Washington Education Association and the use of fees from nonmember teachers for political purposes. Although the Washington state supreme court ruled for the union, it is like that this case will wind up before the United States Supreme Court.

There has always been a first amendment to “not speak” and not be forced to support causes or candidates that one does not agree with. The political and social climate of solidarity (whether among workers or within a family) contradicts this right, even though many people see solidarity as an inherent aspect of "expressive association" (a concept that has many political outcomes -- look, for example, at the Boy Scouts and gays). The fact is, many jobs require public advocacy of an employer’s interest. For example, as noted in the next entry on this blog, teachers today have to become accountable to the race and minority-based standards of “no child left behind” regardless of their personal opinions about compensatory racial “preferences” (or “affirmative action”).

That is why the recent attention to the “dangers” of blogging in the past couple of years is so disturbing. A personal website allows one to pinpoint his or her political positions about any issue. However, we have seen the ability to do this threatened by some other developments. On Oct. 12, 2005 (excatly one year ago, to this date), The Washington Times carried a major editorial on the threat of proposed FEC rules to all bloggers; fortunately, this threat seems to have passed as the rules (released early in 2006) are reasonable. But today we find employers checking the blogs and profiles of job applicants and employees, not just for confidentiality leaks but for public appearances and suitability. I am quite concerned about the threat this development poses to pinpointed speech

Friday, October 06, 2006

NCLB: my take from substitute teaching experience (Virginia)


The Washington Post offers an op-ed by Jennifer Booher-Jennings, “Rationing Education,” on p. A33 on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006. The reference is here. The author makes a subtle point about “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). That is, the emphasis on improving pass rates within various targeted groups causes public schools and teachers to focus upon the students who are close to the edge, and leave the students who fail by wide margins and who are truly needy even further behind.

I can relate a bit of the culture from my eighteen months of substitute teaching in two northern Virginia counties (Arlington and Fairfax). I did mostly high school and some middle school, all academic subjects. Many parents do not realize that substitutes in Virginia (and many other states) do not need licenses, and do not even to have college degrees (just sixty hours). Some school administrators seem unaware that may interim substitutes are unlicensed! The paradigm imagined by school districts is more that subbing is about adult supervision than relaying academic content. In fact, about a third of the assignments offered, even with an “academic” profile, would involve special education classes. Regardless of profile, Fairfax would offer “public health training assistant” (PHTA) assignments which involved assisting with profoundly disabled or retarded students, and I did not know this until I went on one such assignment. I did not take another one. I tried a similar assignment in Arlington and found that I (at age 60) would be expected to appear in swim clothes and watch the deep end of a pool on a field trip. I am not a rescue swimmer like in the movie “The Guardian.” I did not complete that assignment.

In the academic areas, it was clear that there is an enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots. In honors and advanced placement classes, the students (or the “kids”) were like college students or young working adults. Regardless of the topic (I did seven days of one advanced chemistry class), I found that, with out any politicization, my ability to relate the values of thirty-plus years of a real world workplace (in information technology in my case) was very helpful to them, and welcome. Students could use the Internet in class to look up pertinent academic questions in any subject, including chemistry, physics, and calculus, without abusing the privilege. And there was indeed some de facto segregation. The advanced classes tended to be populated with more Caucasians and Asians, whereas the standard and slower classes tended to have more African Americans and Hispanics. The appearance of students (obesity, for example) was far more problematic in slower classes. All of this is an artifact of history, and raises moral questions about the responsibility of the individual who enters teaching.

In time, I would be criticized for having discipline problems, in some middle school and slower classes. I did not fit the image of an authority figure for someone with disadvantaged social background, and I probably did not have the credibility of having “paid my dues” by sharing their experiences at a personal level. In a couple of instances, it seemed as though I was expected to “act” in an authoritarian role when there may have been no apparent reason to do so. Why not allow a student who fails to do his work learn the consequences by receiving a zero? But teachers are expected to assume responsibility for students who have not achieved a sufficiently adult notion of legitimate self-interest. Nevertheless, I resented being expected to “act” in a way contrary to my personality because of the message that I felt doing so would send (a message that would make some people more comfortable, to be sure).

There would also be an issue with one item I had posted on my own website. Content, while objectively legal and acceptable, can be interpreted by some people as indicative of unstated intentions, in certain contexts, when one has a certain kind of job. I have written about this elsewhere on the blogs. With teachers, there is a long audit trail of legal cases balancing teacher and student free speech against the need to maintain order and discipline in school systems. I feel that the bar is higher for substitutes if their assignments are temporary and if they do not grade students. In December 2005, I resigned, although I am still trying to discuss the matter with one of the school districts.

One point of this blog entry is to suggest reforms in substitute programs. Substitute teachers should be hired with the expectation that they will pursue licensure, and begin their coursework (180 clock hours in Virginia) within a reasonable amount of time (not more than two years). School districts should assist with the licensure process by proving Internet or closed circuit classes on school property. When people who have left or retired from other professions and want to pursue a “career switcher” program, they should be selected carefully. One item of concern with an older candidate would be whether he or she has experience raising or caring for children or for people who are not totally intact and who need someone to be responsible for them. The best way to get this experience is obviously marriage and family (even if followed by divorce). But it could have been achieved in other ways, as by caring for younger siblings. Clay Aiken, in his book “Learning to Sing,” relates experiences teaching autistic students when he was a college age.

I must be candid and admit that there are issues for older gay candidates to enter teaching. In my case, I would have to be prepared to make a $4000 investment, not knowing whether, giving the political climate in Virginia now (fueled by the Marhall-Newman gay marriage amendment) I could get a job. There are issues in teaching that follow the pattern of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell.” Teaching is not just a “job”; it is a way of life, involving unions and building a rapport with parents and difficult students. These comments should be borne in mind when considering the teacher shortage in critical areas like mathematics.

A new teacher must also deal with the fact that he/she will be judged on performance with targeted minorities. I have always been opposed to dealing with social injustices at the group level rather than at the individual level. This, of course, gets back to the whole underlying problem with “no child left behind.” Here, even allowing for my attitude of objectivism, there is no way to be politically correct and truthful both.

Erica Jacobs has an op-ed, "Teaching the Second Time Around," on people who have made a career switch to teaching relatively late in life in the Oct 9, 2006 DC Examiner, at this link. For me, this did not work out, largely because of my own perception of all of the politics, and perhaps because of my lack of familial or "heterosexual" socialization after thirty-plus years of adult urban exile, in a world where children were not much noticed. It is a shame.

The picture shows the construction of the "new" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA. I graduated valedictorian in 1961, when it was one of the top public schools in Virginia.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

NLRB rules for nurses, making some supervisors, can have ramifications

Dale Russakoff has a story, "Some Workers Change Collars: NRLB rules that nurses are supervisors, a potential blow to unions," in the Oct. 4, 2006 Washington Post at this
link.

(may require a subscription.) The National Labor Relations Board apparently ruled that certain charge nurses, who assign work of other nurses, and supervisors and barred from joining unions. The article reflects a concern that nurses who rotate into charge duty temporarily could be barred from union membership, and that similar rulings could be made in other occupations.

I have a separate concern besides union eligibility. As we watch the controversy unfold over social networking sites and personal blogs, emloyers are likely, with good reason sometimes, to develop policies preventing people with direct reports in the workplace ("supervisors") from having their own separate presence online. I have even promoted that idea. So the story bears watching.

NIH advertises for volunteers for Ebola study

In the September 29, 2006 issue of The Washington Blade, which serves the LGBT community, there is, on page 51, a paid ad from tne National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases, at National Institutes of Health, looking for "health adults" ages 18-50 to volunteer for a new Ebola vaccine. The ad does not say whether HIV+ volunteers can be accepted. Some may feel that the placement of the ad in such a publication is curious.

Ebola is a hemorraghic fever virus that is primarly blood and body fluid borne, but is much more communicable that HIV or hepatitis B or C. The onset is sudden and the symptons, as described in Robert Preston's book The Hot Zone, are horrific, with softening or liquefaction of body tissues and tremendous bleeding. Amazingly, some victims survive. There are variations, such as Marburg virus. They are though to have originated in Africa in other primates. There have been concerns that Ebola could mutate to an airborne form (as with "Ebola Reston" in 1989). Laurie Garrett has also written about the virus in several books and periodicals.

Ebola, as a filovirus, however, is quite different from influenza viruses, such as avian influenza, which is causing a scare. Under an electron microscope, it has the famous "shepherd's crook". Military and CDC researches consider it among the most dangerous of all potential pathogens, requiring the greatest care in handling. If one wonders why there are not comparable fears that HIV could mutate into a more contagious form (as was speculated in Robert Gallo's 1989 Virus Hunting), and a major reason is that such a mutation would probably radically change the behavior of the virus and probably make it much less lethal. This tends to happen with many viruses if they become more widespread and must adopt to a new host to survive.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Amish -- a test case concerning freedom and group morality


The recent tragedy in an Amish school, while I don’t want to dwell on the specifics, brings to my mind a whole moral paradigm. The Amish believe in living simply in a closed society, with strict obedience to God, and acceptance of family responsibility and participation as a prerequisite for anything else in life. This includes full participation in intergenerational activities including having and rearing children, and avoiding any technology that could make one dependent on the outside world, or that, for that matter, could pollute the planet. The Amish reportedly allow their children to go to school only through the eighth grade, as further education, in their view, should not be necessary in a well-socialized, faith-based and stable life. In some parts of the country, like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin they are treasured, even if some tourists look at them as a cultural curiosity, and if local "outside world" communities look upon them as a draw for tourist income and jobs.

Unlike many other religious groups and even “cults”, the Amish do not try to export their values onto others, so they present a test case. (There are, to be sure, other such communal groups, sucn as Mennonites, common in Texas.) They definitely live by the idea that one is his brother’s keeper. They would see someone who is “different” like me and who leaves home and then draws world attention to himself (through personal "expression") as abandoning responsibility for the vulnerable of his own kin and even as endangering them. Their value systems are definitely communal and not individualistic as we know it. In a sense, their world is utopian, as it is very permanent and stable and has almost no internal crime or corruption. It does not offer personal freedom as we know it. And, with its passive presence, it may not always be able to defend itself from the outside world. It may wind up needing to allow its own members more freedom if it is to thrive in a larger competitive world.

The New Testament, even as interpreted by progressives, does tend to support the idea of communal sharing and an acceptance of inequities imposed by the external world ("Give unto Caesar ...") and even a counsel that there may be little that individuals can do on their own about these political injusticies --- hence the reason for community solidarity, especially in religious practices. On the other hand, individualism promotes the idea of science and rationalism, and bettering oneself by personal efforts. Ultimately that raises questions about where one will seek truth -- whether from accepted scriptures, or from a body of knowledge that one can build on one's own.

The picture is that of the Kittatinny Mountain Tunnel, western exposure, on the PA Turnpike; the tunnel is twinned with the Blue Mountain Tunnel immediately to the East.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Long Term Care: Pension Protection Act of 2006 (& note on filial responsibility)

The Octoer 2006 issue of the SHRM HR Magazine has an important discussion of some health benefit changes associated with the Pension Protection Act of 2006, on p. 30. There appear to be new provisions to allow long term care riders to existing life insurance or annuity contracts, based on the investment earnings of these contracts. And there are provisions to allow certaine exchanges for long term care contracts. However, annuities from conventional pension plans apparently may not be exchanged.

The reason this is significant is that it provide more opportunities for workers to provide for their own possible future long term care (nursing come intermediate care facility) needs. As noted already elsewhere in this blog, the political climate, lower birth rates, longer life spans, and existing filial responsibilty laws in many states may place financial burdens on adult children in the future of parents who do not make some sort of provision like this.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

IRS and church exemptions


(The picture here is Metropolitan Community Church in Washington DC, not the Pasadena Church; see the comparative note further down in this posting.)

The latest fight in the area of the IRS challenging tax exempt status for churches that have crossed the line in politicking seems to be the case of the All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA.

Scott Oliver and Louis Sahagun have a story in the 9/18/2006 LA Times. The article is here. It may require a subscription once archived.

Apparently a guest pastor sermon two days before the 2004 election was conceived as a speech for Al Gore.

The government seems to be drawing the line at politicking for candidates. Whether it would go after issues is less clear. We have had a similar debate as to whether the government would try to restrict political blogging under the Campaign Reform Act, and it appears from a recent FEC rule that most blogging is OK as long as it is issue-oriented.

Nevertheless, some churches that seem to be organized around a secular issue (even when they confine themselves to the issue(s) rather than candidates) could conceivably be at risk, such as the Metropolitan Community Churches, which serve GLBT people.

But all of this would affect church tithers who take itemized deductions (usually homeowners). It would not affect those who take the standard deduction, or who use various tax credits.

Note: McGreevy on Oprah:

I am listening to Oprah talk to James E. McGreevy, former governor of New Jersey, author of The Confession (don't confuse with The Confessor, by Dan Silva), and they are getting into religion, Catholicism, and homosexuality, and why he led a lie. One thing strikes me: The pressure to conform to majoritarian ideas of heterosexuality and marriage seems to be that one owes one's family the ability to protect the family's welfare before one has the ethical permission to advance one's own personal expressive ends. But doesn't that tie back to free speech? Isn't speech, whether religious and expressed in a church (as with the IRS issue), or expressed in one's own relationships, part of who one is?

Friday, September 22, 2006

CDC advocates HIV tests for all Americans

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that every American take an HIV test at least once between the ages of 13 and 64, and at least once a year if engaging in high risk behaviors.

The recommendations follow various developments. Medications like protease inhibitors enable HIV-infected persons to live almost normal lifespans in some cases. Early treatment may be beneficial, and when persons know they are infected, they will hopefully be more cautious in behavior.

In the mid 1980s, remember, the gay community had a mantra, "don't take the test," because of the fear of stigmatization and maybe even quarantine.

The CDC web reference is here.

All media outlets carried this story today. The New York Times story was by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. The Washington Post story was by David Brown.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Health issues for federal air marshalls perplexing

The Sept. 20, 2006 Washington Times has a story by Audrey Hudson, "Air marshalls ousted over job injuries."

We recall a flap some months ago about uniforms or dress codes for sky marshalls, as these could compromise anonymity and security when flying. The same furor came out of publishing the hotels they stayed at. (We won't.)

But now the media is wondering why air marshalls apparently are dismissed once they become medically unable to fly, where as other law enforcement people don't. And why are they having more problems than pilots? Are their hours longer and rest periods shorter? Is it a lack of union protection.

Severe problems have included barotits media (inner ear pressure differentials) and deep vein leg clots. Generally circulation problems in the legs occur with old age and problems like atherosclerosis, high cholesterol and smoking. They shouldn't occur in healthy young adults. This is actually embarrassing.

So many marshalls have been forced out, and apparently there is a shortage of people to fill these hard-to-qualify positions. A major component of the TSA's airline security programs then comes into question.

This story has some significance for ordinary Americans whose employment requires them to make many frequent long-distance flights. Similar serious health problems have been reported for such travelers.

This problem reminds one of other problems of aging or "tissue death" that occur in relatively normal life activities. For example, teenagers use special high frequency ringtones to receive cell phone calls without teachers' being able to hear them -- by adult age, extreme high frequency hearing in the cochlea has been lost (although on the rifle range in Army Basic in 1968 I lost hearing around 4000 cps but not higher in the right ear, from "coaching"). One story is by Melissa Block ("Teens turn "Repeller" into adult-proof ringtone") on NPR, at this link.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Do family-friendly policies in the workplace cheat the childless?


On Sunday, September 17, 2006 Amy Joyce has an article “Kid-Friendly Policies Don’t Help Singles” in The Washington Post, Business Section F. A continuation page reads “Singles Seek Benefits Parity at Family Friendly Firms.” “Childless workers thought they worked more than people who were married with kids and they had to work holidays more often and did not have access to as many benefits.” This was in a study Beyond Family-Friendly: Singles-Friendly Work Cultures and Employee Attachment, by Wendy Casper at the University of Texas at Arlington.

In the 1990s, I ran into this issue to a mild degree. I was a mainframe programmer analyst. On occasion, I took nightcall assignments for people with more family responsibilities. Various associates varied on this issue, but one or two of them did not like to be reminded of the situation. In the early 1990s, after the previous recession, there was an attitude that persons who demanded less in benefits were less likely to be seen as expenses or liabilities; there was a culture that "lowballing" or "leapfrogging" might be encouraged. This was not nearly as bad in my situation as in some other companies, as was occasionally reported in the media and even The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, in the 1980s in another company, this had not happened at all because everyone was accountable for supporting his own system off hours all the time. This sort of problem occurs in a salaried, exempt environment, where employers have in theory unlimited use of the professional's time until a job is done. In the news story, employers are finding that in today's competitive economy it is not in their business interest to take advantage of associates this way.


Pandit Wright at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring MD was interviewed in the Post artocile. She discussed the difficulty for employers in striking a balance. “I don’t think a person should think in terms of tit for tat… Like it or not, the next generation is something you’re going to have to deal with. It behooves all of us to have an environment where parents can do what they do.”

This whole issue was the subject of Elinor Burkett's book: The Baby Boon: How Family-Free America Cheats the Childless, New York: The Free Press, 2000, reviewed here and also at this link.

On Sept 19, 2006 the NBC Nightly News had a segment about employers finding it advantageous to accomodate the needs of working and returning mothers, and then dealing with the complexity of offering comparable benefits to everyone.

On October 2, 2006 ABC World News Tonight provided a similar report. It provided a study that about 40% of career women taken an "off ramp" to care for children, and only about 40% of those return to the same level of employment, although about 90% want to. Employers are now trying to provide an "on ramp" out of the need to remain competitive.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stripmining


Today I saw an ad in a Washington DC Metro car regarding mountaintop removal and stripmining in Appalachia. Here is the link.
I had visited a stripmine in 1971 near Mt. Storm WVa and was almost arrested for trespassing while taking pictures. The picture here shows a scene on the Virginia/Kentucky border, very much in coal country (taken summer 2005).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Longevity and having children


In a recent (Sept. 2006) issue of the AARP Magazine, Joe Treen has an interesting scientific article on longevity. One particularly interesting observation is that many people who live to be over 90 or 100 did not have children, or at least did not have many children. This observation would contradict "family values" arguments that married people with kids live longer, and also that women who postpone or avoid childbearing may be at greater risk for breast cancer.

He talks about "disposable soma," a tendency that genes that promote reproduction (and the ability to be personally competitive enough to reproduce) may promote faster aging. People who live very longer seem to eat less and taken in fewer calories, which may signal to cells the idea that they should dispose of free radicals -- ions with unpaired electrons that oxidise or "rust" cells faster (remember your college chemistry!). Most of them did not smoke and exercised a lot. Indeed, however, the agressive behavior sometimes associated with overly exhuberant heterosexuality (Masters & Johnson style) seems to be associated with faster deterioration later.

The study of aging is also associated with the study of cell immortality, knowledge which could lead to much less toxic and more universally effective treatments for most malignancies.

Promotion of longevity ,as associated with reverence for life as conservatives see it, would have to be accompanied by a determination of corporations and employers to keep seniors working much longer, rather than regarding them as health insurance liabilities and as "moral hazards." It will also raise questions about filial responsibility and commitment of adult children (even those without their own children), as noted on entries below.

Why do hospitals charge the uninsured several times as much for a procedure?


In November 2004 I had a tooth extraction, which was suddenly followed by a sudden peridontal infection on the other side. The short of it is probably that since I was biting differently, I drove some peridontal disease deep down underneath the roots onto the nerve track, resulting in sudden massive swelling and infection and a "numb chin."

The supposed "numb chin" syndrome is acually quite alarming, and is often indicative of a malignancy. So they ordered an oral outpatent cat scan.

The one side cat scan of the maxillary area and neck had a list price of $1750 at a major northern Virginia hospital. It takes about 20 minutes. My retiree health insurance, fortunately, with UHC turned out to be pretty efficient, despite the high deductibles. With a retiree group policy, the list price was about $370 (about 1/5 what would be charged an uninsured patient) and my copay as wbout $175. Not too bad.

As it turned out, the radiology was inconclusive, and the problem was probably an anaerobic streptococcal infection, which resolved with clindamycin. Again, with the ING drug plan, the copy per bottle as about $4 for a $100 prescription.

There is a moral in all this. I spent about $4000 on the dentist, including a crown, diagnosis and various plaque removals. I don't know why dental care cost has spun out of control for everyone.

But why does a hospital charge five times as much to an uninsured patient for a routine procedure than what a private insurance company can negotiate with group coverage?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Homework: some authorities want it to be abolished

I remember in high school (Washington-Lee in Arlington VA, when I graduated in 1961, one of the top public schools in the nation) that homework was a given. For term papers in English or social studies, we were expected to go to the DC library downtown to find enough detailed resources. There a great deal of studying for tests in courses like history, government, and all of the sciences. In math, on the other hand, it seemed to take less "study" if you did the work every day and became facile with working the problems (like factoring in algebra or proofs in geometry).

Yet some authorities think that even in high school, learning should be a more interactive experience, and be less a way to establish a meritocracy.

The Sept 12 Washington Post story is by Valerie Strausse, at this link (may require subscription).