Monday, March 31, 2008

DC, Richmond propose or try innovative programs to increase reach of health care

Recently, there have appeared a couple more stories about local initiatives to do something about improving access to health care.

On Saturday, March 29, The Washington Post reported, in a story by David Nakamura in the Metro section, p E1, on a plan by the District of Columbia to cover the uninsured. The story is “D.C. Plan Could Aid Uninsured: New Taxes Would Help Pay for Care,” link here. The plan, to be offered this week to City Council, would cover all the uninsured with a subsidy paid for by increased “sin” taxes on cigarettes. Residents would have to pay a premium of $20 to $100 a month, based on income. The remainder would be subsidized by the City and by CareFirst Blue Cross Clue Shield. This solution has some of the features that characterize the “mandatory coverage” programs appearing in some states and possibly to be proposed at a national level by Hillary Clinton.

On Sunday, March 30, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has an editorial “Health Care Solutions: Access Now” p E2, link here. The program was launched by the Richmond Academy of Medicine and Richmond Enhancing Access to Community Healthcare. The program relies on voluntary cooperation and donated services from area providers. This concept is more in line with “conservative” or “Republican” efforts.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

NCLB: many misconceptions; budget crises; do we always need certification and formal licensure?

Chester Finn has an article in The Washington Post Outlook today, March 30, p B3, “5 Myths About the Education Law Everyone Loves to Hate,” link here.

Finn debunks what he thinks are the five misconceptions of “No Child Left Behind”: (1) that it extends federal control (a Republican complaint) (2) that is it underfunded (Democrats) (3) NCLB essentially federalizes educational performance standards (4) NCLB requires teaching the test, (5) (the most controversial), NCLB improves teaching by making teachers get certified.

Having subbed a couple of years with well over 200 assignments, I can see that I saw a lot. Something like 70% of the need does seem to come to have teachers with the patience to reach underperforming kids with repeated drills on basic skills (whatever the approach, say, to teaching math, whether the “modern” one or not). As Rafe Esquith wrote in his book, the profession does need people who will “teach until their hair’s on fire.” (Review.) The remaining one-third or so of the demand seems to be at the upper end, with quality math, science, and humanities at the AP level. Let's face it: teaching AP calculus requires a very different skill set and personal temperament (for one thing, a "hands off" and non-interventionist strategy with students is desirable) than teaching inner-city elementary or middle school. That leads to the next points.

Most of the concerns on finding qualified teachers have actually focused on the academic qualifications and degrees, and ability to pass Praxis tests. That may be one reason why in many (though not all) states, qualifications for subs have been so lenient (as noted on previous posts). But it’s also true, one has to have the desire to work with underperforming kids in many or most of the jobs, and to serve as a real role model and disciplinarian (sort of the Esquith concept). Not everyone has the temperament to do that, to play pseudo-parent.

That brings us to certification. The issue for people switching from other fields (at mid life or particularly after retiremet) is the financial and time investment in taking the 180 clock hours or 15 credit hours (sometimes more) for teacher certification in most states. (MED’s take 24-30 hours.) Recent school district budget problems (related to the subprime crisis) and even teacher layoffs in some areas (like California) do not help with the matter.

If school districts are really serious about hiring more math and science teachers (especially with career switching at mid life), they should consider reducing the credit hours required or providing real assistance to future teachers, such as by providing the course work to subs on high school campuses after hours. Given current budget realities, this may not happen quickly.

Update: April 1, 2008

ABC World News Tonight had a provocative segment, "Inside the High School Makes Teachers Become Family; School Found Success by Turning Teachers Into Surrogate Family Members," story by Neal Karlinsky, link here. The story seems to be motivated by the recent statistics on high school dropout rates in inner cities. However, to ask a teacher, who might have never married or had kids, to (at an advanced age) to behave like "family" or chaperon seems provocative (in the spirit of Rafe Esquith's biting book (above). This is certainly an issue for career switchers, and would make for good discussion.

Also, ABC Nightline, on April 1, had an interesting story to the effect that "lying" or prevarication is actually an important "intellectual" skill, indicating the ability to imagine levels of reality, even though we don't want kids to do it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Foreclosure" non-bus "tour" (No. VA)

Today, I took a self-driven “foreclosure” tour. Media outlets talk about problems in Manassas Park, VA, adjoining Manassas itself, a few miles south of I-66, about 30 miles West of Washington DC.

I drove around the area and can make a few curious observations. First, there seemed to be few through streets connecting the two towns. That may have to do with historical “political and social” problems specific to the South. In Manassas, there were a lot of nice three-story town homes, often with garages, in cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets. Nearby there would sit some plain garden apartment complexes. They looked clean enough, but they also looked bare-bones. The impression is that anybody who intends to “have a life” believes that he, or she (or most often, an entire family) must buy a home. That includes going into debt, and, during times of excessive speculation, risking an “upside down” situation, owing more than a property is intrinsically worth. In Manassas itself, I saw only one sign mentioning foreclosure (it said “pre-foreclosure”).

Finally I got back on Route 28 and worked into Manassas Park, along Manassas Blvd. It looked like a different world, with lots of smaller, Cape Cod-like houses from the 50s. This did not look like Virginia, which usually goes out of the way for a “colonial” or even “Williamsburg” look with more upscale and newer homes and townhouses. It looked more like an older suburb one might find around St. Louis or Kansas City, or perhaps even in Oklahoma. It looked Midwestern (although the first Catoctin foothill ridge for the Blue Ridge is visible). I saw lots of “for sale” signs and some “reduced” but no mention of “foreclosure” or of “bank owned.” I did see one sign announcing an “Auction.” I saw no ransacking or neglect. I did see a Hispanic Pentecostal church, and a small Christian pre-school. I expect to find religious institutions in a community like this, as I would in the Midwest.

So, at least on the surface, life seems to go on. The financial perfect storm is not leaving the obvious scars that I would expect. They are subtle. It doesn’t look like a financial Katrina. Although, problems in many other areas of the country are worse than they would be here.

Media reports discuss abusive lending and various scams or schemes to attract possibly illegal immigrants, as likely contributing to the meltdown in this and in other communities. Even so, to a local blogger looking at the “physical world” for a change, it looks like the problem really is getting a lot of hype.

The auction company that I stumbled up appeared to be "Williams Actions". Yup, there are a lot of seminars in hotels now on buying, renovating and "flipping"(?!) foreclosed properties. As in the Tom Cruise movie, "Risky Business."

Update: March 30

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is warming up to helping live-in homeowners, but, he says, not speculators or investment banks. In other words, he doesn't believe in "privatizing profit and socializing loss," or ignoring "moral hazard" or even anti-selection.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Comparison of 3 candidates' health care reform plans

Julie Appelby has a major story in USA Today (Wednesday March 26), front page in print, comparing the health care plans of the three major presidential candidates: Clinton, Obama and McCain. The story is called “Candidates diverge on health care plans.” The link is here. A “comparative government” chart (to borrow from a well-known technique in the World Book Encyclopedia, which I used as a boy) is provided online.

The basic theme is that Republican plans emphasize lowering health care costs, whereas Democratic plans emphasize covering more people, trying to achieve universal coverage.

Hillary Clinton comes closest to state plans that require mandatory health insurance. She would keep some employer participation (especially large employers) but offer every American coverage as good as what Congress gets, and eliminate exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

Barack Obama would make coverage mandatory for minors. He seems to admit that adults cannot sometimes afford insurance and have never had a completely satisfactory answer in the debates, although the talks about a fund for the uninsured. Hillary Clinton may be able to capitalize on this during the remaining Democratic nomination process. Sometimes it seems Obama wants to have a plan that is “different.”

John McCain wants to replace the pre-tax health insurance purchase for employers with an equivalent exemption for individuals and families.

None of the candidates have addressed eldercare significantly, or the issue of long-term care insurance and filial responsibility. So far this whole problem seems like a third rail for politicians, because you can’t run on this issue.

Update: March 27

A visitor recommends the World Congress website.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Insurance companies and expensive therapy for autism; vaccine controversy

On Monday March 24 ABC News reported on a controversial law in Arizona requiring health insurance companies to reimburse parents for claims for an intensive and very expensive new behavioral treatment for autism. The story is "Insurance vs. Autism: For Parents, Insurance Is a Personal Fight; Insurance Companies Struggle, Parents Sacrifice to Cover Expensive Behavioral Therapy," by John Donovan, link here. The article has a link to allow visitor to check for the laws in their own state.

The story views this as controversial because of the extreme expense born by all insurance company subscribers (often employers). However, it is pointed out that the therapy may spare the person a lifetime of care and actually "save" money. In "spiritual" terms, these both sound like "utilitarian" arguments.

There is still a lot of controversy over vaccines, and some claims that mercury in some vaccines could have caused the increase in autism. I talked about this recently on my film blog, here. The medical establishment still does not accept this theory. The statement by the Centers for Disease Control on Autism and Thimerosal is here. However, some parents (in some states) are skipping vaccines, which some authorities say gradually endangers public health and re-emergence of old infections by reducing "herd immunity." For example, measles could return, and measles sometimes causes neurological damage requiring special needs. I had measles at age seven and it may have affected by motor coordination skills as a boy and teen (measles can cause subtle neurological impairments). Had a vaccine been available in 1950, the course of my life could have been quite different, with much easier adaptation to certain demands of boys (athletic, social) at school.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Teacher layoffs in California: is this a way to get people to "career switch" into teaching?

Media reports have surfaced that school districts in California are laying off employees, including teachers. Even (Republican) Gov. Schwarzenegger ("terminator") has acknowledged that this may be necessary to get the budget under control. A typical story, by Mike Zepler, is "School districts to mail teacher layoff notices," in the Whittier Daily News, link here. Education Week has a subscription-only article " Layoffs Loom Amid California’s Fiscal Crisis," (indicating pink slips for over 14000 teachers) by Linda Jacobson, abstract link here.

The story has been "digg-ed", link (note the cartoon about Schwarzenegger movies).

Undoubtedly, the education budget crises are related to the subprime crisis which has hit California particularly hard. However, I thought that previous tax referendums in California (such as Proposition 13 in 1978) had separated funding from property values somewhat.

Is this any way to attract teachers (and get people from other professions to may the time and money layout for the 180 clock hours or more of credits)? I do remember the days of teacher layoffs during the 70s, when I was more "safely" in the world of I.T.

Apparently, California allows substitutes to teach without licensure: NEA link here.

In the District of Columbia, there was a recent mass layoff of non-teaching employees, but these were actually prejudicial firings of employees who did not perform. The main Washington Post report was on March 8, 2008 by V. Dion Hayes and Yolanda Woodlee, "D.C. Schools Chief Fires 98 Workers: Largest System Dismissal in a Decade Is Part of Pledge to Improve Efficiency," link here.

Update: March 27, 2008

The DC school system is "buying out" some teachers over 53 and creating vacancies that inexperienced teachers would have to fill. I'm not sure what sense this makes. The story on in the Washington Post p B04, March 27 by V. Dion Haynes is "Teachers Expect Early-Retirement Offers
Schools Could Lose Hundreds of Experienced Employees, Union President Says," link here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

DC Mall area and monuments could flood with global warming

A new study commissioned by the Bush administration’s Department of Transportation admits the likelihood of a rise in sea level by one foot by 2050 from global warming, with some flooding of Reagan National Airport (and other coastal airports like Logan and New York area airports), and possibly areas around the monuments in Washington, and the Mall, which is about 7 feet above sea level. Some of the flooding would be tidal in nature (hence, “the Tidal Basin”). However, other scenarios, as in a recent National Geographic “Naked Science” program about glacier meltdown, (review) point to much more rapid rise of sea level.

The DOT report was discussed in The Washington Times report Friday March 21, 2008, p A1, by Tom Ramstack, “Warming scenario sees flooded airport,” link here.

The Mall area was ground zero for torrential rains in a spell in June 2006, when some of the buildings nearby (including the IRS) flooded.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Compare to 1970s, inflation hits the poor harder this time, even though official numbers are lower

While the official inflation rate is low, this go-around, inflation is hitting the poor and middle income people the hardest. Why? Because much of the inflation is driven by the price of commodities, most of all oil, but also many foods. Other countries trying to improve their standards of living with large populations (most of all, China), are competing for oil. Many operations are taking agricultural land out of food production to grow ethanol or sugar cane for fuel. (Sawgrass could become more efficient in the future.) The poor tend to spend a larger portion of their incomes on necessities, and sometimes have to drive long distances, often in older cars.

Luxury goods, especially those associated with information services, telecommunications, media, and “free content” get cheaper, and benefit upper classes. However, models in these industries could change, too. The falling dollar could eventually affect electronics, but that could be remedied by doing more manufacturing in the United States (especially the south).

Radical effects because of global warming agreements or even pandemics are still somewhat of a threat.

Inflation in the 1970s was partially driven by labor union strikes and wage inflation, which helped lower income and union workers relatively speaking compared to now. Remember President Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons in 1975? Still, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the first major oil price run-up into 1974 was a major factor. I remember driving somewhere in northern New Jersey New Years Eve of 1973 and hearing a radio talk show host say that we were looking into an abyss.

The story on p A1 of the Washington Post March 21 2008 is by Neil Irwin and Alejandro Lazo, “Inflation Hits the Poor Hardest: No Income Group is Untouched, but Staples Are Rising Fastest,” here.

Update: March 23, 2008

In the DC area, the foreclosure crisis is hitting some areas, including, at least around Manassas, VA those populated by Hispanic and other minorities. The crackdown in Manassas on illegal immigration may have made the self-feeding foreclosure crisis in the area worse. The details are in an article, Metro p B1, Washington Post March 23, "N.Va. Foreclosures Form 'Ring of Fire': Chain of Housing Crisis Hot Spots Indicates Disparity in Market Downturn," by Nick Miroff, link here.

Picture: from outside the Supreme Court 2nd Amendment session Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

US Supreme Court hears arguments on DC 2nd Amendment Case

Today, Tuesday, March 18, 2008, the U.S, Supreme Court heard oral arguments in District of Columbia v. Dick Anthony Heller, about the DC gun control or handgun law, which had been struck down by the 4th Circuit. The transcript for the arguments are available at the Supreme Court website (prepared by the Alderson Reporting Company) and are here (89 pages). The media reports that young adults camped out all night in sleeping bags to get in line (even the "three minute lines") to hear the arguments.

Appearing are Walter Dellinger for DC (petitioner), Gen. Paul D. Clement, Solicitor General, and Alan Gura, for the respondent.

Right away, Chief Justice Roberts asked why, if the 2nd Amendment purports to pertain to a “group right,” why does it say “the right of the people to bear arms” instead of “the right of militias”? There follows a detailed lesson in United States history (good reading for AP classes in high school – I think teachers could assign this argument to be read for analysis) about how the militias developed and the relationships between the states and federal governments.

Later the justices gravitate toward the possibility of reasonable regulation, and Roberts asks what is reasonable about a total ban on handguns?

Later, with Justice Ginsburg, there is a discussion of the precedence set by the English Bill of Rights and the idea that it can be regulated by Parliament.

Scalia noted that the concern for disarming militias was a subtext for taking away the ability of people to defend themselves against tyranny. The militia and individual self-defense concepts go together "beautifully," he said.

Then they get to what seems to be a discussion of Clinton’s assault weapons ban.

Breyer says that the 2nd Amendment might have been read as an “individual right” but only with reference to joining a militia. Breyer also refers to Blackstone’s allusion to the right to bear arms “under law.” Justice Stevens refers to the fact that Pennsylvania and Vermont (in 1783) allowed the “right of self-defense” as a reason to bear arms, but other states referred to common defense (militia membership).

Solicitor General Clement noted that application of "strict scrutiny" could make it difficult to justify an absolute ban on personal handguns in a locality, even if there were legitimate public safety concerns. He suggested a possible intermediate scrutiny standard with sending the law back to lower courts.

My most important previous posting on this matter appeared July 17, 2007, here.

I had noted here that a book by Philip Gold actually refers to a federal law that defines an unorganized civilian militia. The idea was also discussed in a book by Erin Solaro, review here.

There is also the overriding concern about “individual” v. “group” rights, even in the punctuation of the 2nd Amendment. President Clinton, in his 1993 speech on gays in the military, actually made allusions to the existence of “group rights,” as if one could somehow argue that gays need access to self-defense and ability to join the military could be one such mechanism. There is an organization which supports gay self-defense, “Pink Pistols.” (“Armed gays don’t get bashed.”)

The CNN story by Bill Mears is here. CNN had a live audio link which downloads an extra plugin (at least for Mozilla), but when I tried to play it, it went to a speech by President Bush.

The Washington Post story front page March 19 is by Robert Barnes, is titled, "Justices Appear Skeptical Of D.C.'s Handgun Ban," link here. There will be a web discussion "Supreme Court Hears D.C. Handgun Case" at 1 PM EDT Wed. March 19 (the Post accidentally said Tuesday) here.

In general, local police worry that if the Supreme Court rules against the outright handgun ban, it will be difficult to screen purchasers reliably, resulting in many guns in the hands who should not have them, with more shootings and crimes spilling into PG County. At the same time, they fear that most legitimate homeowners really would not want to purchase them and learn to use them.

March 21:

On p 14 of the DC Examiner, Jeffrey Noel-Nussbaum writes (in a letter) that the 2nd Amendment enumerates the right to "keep" and "bear" arms but not to use them at home; the purpose is literally (according to the writer) to maintain the "free" status of a status with regard to a larger (federal) government.

Update: March 24

Frank Creel has an op-ed in the DC Examiner today p 13, "Don’t ignore the elephant behind the gun law," link here, in which the writer questions the application of the 14th Amendment "incorporation doctrine" to the right to bear arms as an individual right with respect to regulation by an individual state (or D.C.)

Also, on March 24, NBC4 reported on a DC police "voluntary search" for handguns in DC homes in a SE Washington DC neighborhood, with amnesty (but without search warrants), video reference here.

Update: April 14

Barack Obama's off-hand comments about small town residents "clinging to guns" created controversy in the PA Democratic Primary race, DC Examiner story "Gun rights split PA Democrats," here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New alarms: "Margin calls" on the US Economy and financial system

Treasury secretary Henry Paulson appeared on ABC Sunday morning March 16 and defended the Federal Reserve's emergency loans to Bear Stearns on Friday (March 14). The AP story by Jeannine Aversa is titled "Treasury Chief Defends Fed Intervention" and the link is here. Paulson said that he recognizes the importance of "moral hazard."

Breaking News: Late Sunday (8:30 PM EDT), the AP reported (writers Joe Bel Bruno and Madlen Read) that JP Morgan / Chase had agreed to buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share (ot had closed at $30 on Friday), and that the Fed helped with this to stabilize the markets for Monday. The link is here.

Breaking News: About 9:55 PM EDT Sunday night March 16. The Federal Reserve announced lowering the discount rate from 3.50% to 3.25% in an unusual weekend move.
AP story is by Jeannine Aversa, link here. The story was available on AOL almost immediately.

However, the weekend Wall Street Journal has an alarmist article by Liz Rappaport and Justin Lahart. It is called "Debt Reckoning: U.S. Receives a Margin Call," link here. The tone of the article suggests that foreign investors could very quickly pull money out of the US in the wake of the Bear Stearns fiasco and the fear that the subprime "ponzi scheme" mess will spread to most other brokerage houses. Remember those movies about the 1929 Wall Street crash where bill collectors go around to people's homes and offices and demand margin calls?

Gretchen Morgensen has a similar piece as the headline banner of the Business section of the Sunday March 16 New York Times, "Rescue Me: A Fed Bailout Crosses a Line," link here. She compared Bear Stearns 's exposure to delinquent securitized mortages to the industry as a whole, and found Bear's exposure almost double that of the whole industry. Go figure.

And this seems to come down on the heads of the American people as individuals -- this "get something for nothing" behavior with the mortgage mess, and the $3 trillion war in Iraq (finding no WMD's) without the tax increases to pay for it. And, finally, we compete with the rest of the world, especially China, trying to raise living standards, for oil and carbon footprints.

Steven Mufson has an analysis in the Washington Post Outlook today "Field of Schemes: A Crude Case for War," where he presents the Bush neocon conspiracy theories for war in Iraq: to get $15 oil (wasn't going to happen) and American hegemony, link here.

I've made a lot of "sharing burdens equally," and the idea that "military service" should be shared equitably (even to the point that discussing resumption of the draft becomes credible) seems to lose gumption when we keep finding that two of our major wars (Vietnam and Iraq) were engaged on possibly faulty assumptions. (Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf I in 1990 are different matters.)

So then check out John Rogers "A FAREWELL TO ARMY: I Love It. But I Have To Leave It," p B01 Post Outlook, link here. He says he needs to leave to raise his family. But then lawyer John Renehan reacts to 9/11 by joining the Army at 29 and serving in JAG in Iraq, and has a column "RECRUITING POOL: Who Says The Elite Aren't Fit To Serve?," link here. I wonder what each military writer giving perspectives today would think of the "ethics" or lack thereof of "don't ask don't tell."

Update: St Patrick's Day, March 17

The bloggers are attacking the Fed's move as throwing the dollar into the toilet. (Just look around.) But, of course, blogs are just words and video, not money. The general impression is that the Fed should have opened a credit-granting center without lowering the discount rate immediately. It would be very difficult for the economy to get back on its feet without tackling "real wealth" issues: carbon-clean energy, reduction in dependence on foreign oil, health insurance, eldercare and demographics, "personal responsibility." There are also reports that the Clintons plan to do a discussion on national service soon.

Guess what? Oil dropped to $106 at the opening of the markets.

Update: March 18

A further drop in the discount rate ran the stock market up Tuesday.

Read the article by Alexander Cockburn, "The Spitzer Sting" in the March 31 The Nation, p. 13, in which it is suggested that Republicans staked out Eliot Spitzer to keep him from exposing the mortgage mess at the investment banks further. Link here. If so, "it didn't work."

The Dow opened down 182, at 11768.

Update: March 24, 2008

One week later, after black-and-blue Monday. JPMorgan Chase agrees to pay $10 a share for Bear Stearns, boosting stocks and lowering treasuries. Here is a typical story, by Joe Bel Bruno and Stephen Bernard, AP, link here.

Also, today 2008 Democratic presidential candidate and New York Senator Hillary Clinton pointed out that many mortgage companies are reluctant to offer buy-downs or work-outs with distressed borrowers out of fear of being sued by investment banks. She proposed legislation to protect mortgage lenders from such suits. (NBC4).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bend, Oregon has health insurance lottery; Providers check credit scores

Well, the latest in the health care debate apparently is a lottery, in Bend, Oregon. The New York Times story by William Yardley is "Drawing Lots for Health Care," from March 13, 2008, link here. Oregon has about 600,000 uninsured residents, and the lottery has only 24,000 slots, of which 17,000 are filled.

Oregon had attracted attention in the 1990s with its state program for low income people (it amounts to enhanced Medicaid) but a 2003 study from the Oregonian indicated that many physicians would not treat patients in it. Story is here.

A lottery to provide health coverage sound like one of the most bizarre ideas I've heard of. It sounds like the draft lottery of 1969 in reverse.

Update: March 24, 2008: Health Care "rationing" by credit scores?

There are scattered reports that some health care providers are reviewing patient credit scores before deciding whether or how to treat them. See the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial, January 17, 2008, by Lori Swanson: "Health care and credit scores don't mix: Use of consumer payment histories could lead to an unfair rationing of medicine," link here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Economic tailspin illustrates mathematical weaknesses in public: "get something for nothing"

A story about public school mathematics education on p A06 of the March 14 Washington Post pretty much leads us to “connect the dots” about what happened to our economy.

The story by Maria Glod is “Panel urges schools to emphasize core math skills,” link here.
The story, referring to a presidential panel study, points out how high school students are behind European and Asian competitors, and how some concepts in arithmetic, especially fractions and decimals, seem particularly nettlesome. There is a culture in some families, that if the parents had trouble with math, then the kids will. In 2006, I worked scoring special education binders in the Fairfax County Public Schools, and became familiar with the Virginia SOL math requirements at each grade level. The Post report says that fluency with fractions and decimals is required by the end of fifth grade (before starting middle school), but it seems that this was required earlier, from what I recall.

Switch, then, to Post Business Section today: “A New Economic Order: How Debt Bites Back,” (political cartoon online link here ) and the story by Neil Irwin, “Why the Downturn Had to Happen,” link

It seems as though “average Joe” Americans were taken in by “something for nothing” “thinking” and ignored mathematical realities that even God can’t change. It’s the law of exponents, compound interest, etc. The cartoon would make good fodder (or a good "lesson plan") for a high school Algebra II class in studying logarithms, exponents, and how compound interest works (those tend to be the harder “mental math” problems on “It’s Academic”), and helps explain why it is so easy for financial markets to careen out of control. (Actually, the latter takes a bit of calculus – especially successive derivatives). I wonder, haven’t we learned our lesson from the 2001 corporate accounting scandals? Or the Texas Savings and Loan scandals in the late 1980s? Or the wild rides of the 1920s? History keeps repeating itself because math doesn’t change.

President Bush still fiddled today as he spoke on the Internet (ABC, at least, didn’t disrupt “The View” for him this time) about the economy. Right now, the best plan we have is in another Post story by David Cho and Jeffrey Birnbaum, “Plain aims to restore faith in economy: government proposal would tighten reins on lenders, credit-rating firms,” link. Sure, more regulation. The stampede already broke down the barn door. What we need is more people like CBS Numb3rs's Charlie Epps.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

WSJ reports on NSA surveillance and "connecting dots"; House balks at telecommunications immunity protection

Siobhan Gorban has a major story in the Monday March 10 2008 Wall Street Journal about the National Security Agency (NSA), halfway between Washington and Baltimore on the old Baltimore-Washington Parkway (295), on Fort George G. Meade, MD. The story is called “NSA’s Domestic Spying Grows As Agency Sweeps Up Data; Terror Fight Blurs Line Over Domain; Tracking Email,” link here. Ironically, I played in the Armed Forces chess championship in 1969 at Fort Meade when I was in the Army.

According to the article, NSA has become a pivot for all the other intelligence gathering, linking overseas intelligence with domestic intelligence from the FBI. NSA’s massaging of data on domestic activities of American citizens is controversial. Generally, it may have access to email send-from’s, IPs and times, Internet sites visited, landline and cellphone send-to’s, financial data, and airline travel. It is very unlikely, in practice, that such sifting would lead to arrests of Americans domestically for activities unrelated to terrorism.

There is an argument that NSA practice does not compromise individual privacy as much as it would have in the past because so many people post personal information on blogs and social networking sites. However, that does not apply to everyone. Many individuals prefer to keep their lives private.

After 9/11, a lot was made of “connecting the dots,” which seems to be the NSA function, to develop associations or patterns among data. If a private citizen (say a small business owner, or webmaster for a controversial site) receives a troubling email or phone call and passes it to the FBI, the NSA would probably try to correlate the email with other bits of similar information. The government would consider information like this significant and possibly act (for example, contacting overseas governments or military commanders) when it turns up with similar tips from otherwise unrelated sources and finds a consistent pattern than indicates both specificity and credibility.

The FBI website has a page for tips and accepts tips at local email addresses. People who post controversial material on the web do receive bizarre emails, I have reported five of these since 9/11, three in 2002 (well before the invasion in Iraq). (I make no claim of “reporter privilege” given the circumstances, as these were unsolicited unusual claims.) I had a controversial essay about terrorism hacked in April 2002, right at a spot where a discussion of suitcase nukes started. I did have a telephone conversation with an agent in 2005.

Gorban also has a story in the Journal March 11, “House Democrats defy White House on Spy Program,” about the refusal of the House to go along with White House proposals to grant telecommunications companies immunity for cooperating with authorities in intelligence investigations. The link (preview) is here. I had discussed this issue on this blog on Feb. 28, 2008 (see archive link).

The New York Times on March 11 has a story by William K. Rashbaum, "Revelations Began in Routine Tax Inquiry," saying that a routine IRS audit led to the scandal involving Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer; however there was some degree of "connecting the dots" within domestic law enforcement. Link here.

Picture: Notice the tape machine implicated in the Nixon White House Watergate scandal (lower left).

Monday, March 10, 2008

Remember Perot? 1992? "shared sacrifice"?

So hear we go. Remember the 1992 election? Ross Perot entered the race, dropped out, and re-entered? He talked about “the American People” and hinted that they needed a lot more discipline, which he called “shared sacrifice”. If he hadn’t thrown a tantrum in the middle of the year, he might have won. Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas, who also dropped out, had made similar comments.

It seems like no candidate can run on talking about sacrifice. No, candidates make great-sounding rhetoric and then demand the sacrifice later, like Woodrow Wilson, and then FDR. No, George W. Bush never quite did that. John McCain, back in 2001, said something to the effect that individuals need to find causes greater than the self.

Nevertheless, the idea of “shared sacrifice” or at least responsibility sounds like it could become a foundation for resolving health care and pension crises. The Republicans do have a point in suggesting using pre-tax dollars for retirement accounts (eventually replacing social security), and health spending and premium accounts of various composition (perhaps someday replacing Medicare). It’s even possible to imagine pre-tax dollars for long-term care insurance accounts or “filial responsibility” accounts.

There may not be that much difference between this concept (perhaps one that McCain will advance in the campaign) and Hillary’s concept of mandatory health insurance, with some Massachusetts or California –like system to help low income people buy insurance. But, of course, that proves the point. Many people don’t make enough money to be able to afford all of the premiums and saving deposits, even pre-tax. Inevitably, some sort of system comes up to make the high-income (or “rich”) people pay more; perhaps with taxes, perhaps with premiums graduated based on income. Without doing something like this, the taxpayers wind up footing the bill for charity care anyway, the argument goes. And that would be right.

There’s a lot of good from this pay-as-you-go approach. It’s appropriate to have some health care consulting companies like The Lewin Group run some numbers and econometric simulations to predict what will happen. Along the way, we should figure out how to get in network discounts to everybody. And we should take a hard look at whether we should keep counting on employers to become the intermediaries for collecting health insurance premiums when other countries that we compete with don’t do this. No matter what, however, there will be enormous public costs covering those who did not or could not pay into a contributory system. We already know this from the debate on social security.

And this seems like “the worst of times,” as Americans reeling from the effect of what seemed to by a Ponzi scheme of mortgages. Yet we seem to have the same thing with our retirement and health care.

While we’re on the topic of “shared sacrifice,” at least Barack Obama is on a promising track when he promises carrots – tuition assistance – for national service. But, look at the recent report that the military GI bill today is woefully inadequate. And we all know, now, the arguments and counterarguments about the “back door draft” and whether military conscription could resume. And, of course, if it did, what would happen with “don’t ask don’t tell”? (Hopefully, Meehan’s bill would pass.)

Finally, the whole idea of “sacrifice” – or perhaps raised levels of interdependence – come up with these enormous problems of possible pandemics and most of all global warming. Will individuals be tracked for their own “carbon footprints”? Juliet Eilperin has a disturbing front page story in the Washington Post this morning (March 10 2008). “Carbon output must near zero to avert danger, new studies say,” link here. We’re competing with China and other developing countries person by person in our use of fuel resources and carbon emissions.

There’s a lot to take in.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Foreclosures: Walt Disney's Chicken Little Movie: Maybe the Sky really is falling this time

Well, one of the anomalies coming out of the subprime and foreclosure crisis is that left-wing George McGovern, who lost to Nixon in 1972, is coming out sounding like a libertarian. Rick Sincere has a commentary on McGovern’s remarks favoring consumer opportunity and responsibility, and denouncing government paternalism, here.

I recall a radio conversation back in 1972, where McGovern walked the line on “legalizing marijuana” and “legalizing marriage between homosexuals” because he said such radicalism would just “drive the Democrats to defeat.” That was about the time that George Wallace was saying “ultra-liberal wasn’t what Americans want.” (I had a “bunkmate” in the Army who supported Wallace in 1968 because he wasn’t a c_a (bad word.) Then in 1993 conservative-turned-libertarian Barry Goldwater wrote his famous piece about gays in the military: “you don’t have to be straight; you just have to shoot straight.”

Nevertheless, the media is filled with a lot of doom and gloom, about foreclosure and delinquency rates, and the total negative equity in American homes (depending on one's semantics, but we reached a new climatological "low" last week), about the effect on other credit markets, hedge funds with their margin calls, student loans, and, of course, the job market – and eventually the stock market and the savings of people like retirees (me) that are invested in them. (No wonder, a trick back in 1976 in New York lectured me on “the abuse of the media.”)

True, some “creative financing” was allowing more Americans to own their own homes. But the whole experience was based on an unsound premise. There was no reason to assume that most homes could appreciate forever, and that, given all the uncertainties, most Americans’ real wages could rise forever to match. The lenient terms, with balloons or rate-increases after five years, assumed that everyone would refinance, but nothing in economics works when everyone has to do it at the same time. Banks underwrote these mortgages, unconcerned about what would happen in a few years. That sounds like irresponsibility, but it has more to do with the short-term obsession of “extreme capitalism” and the way financial institutions reward employees for excessively reckless marketing. There is the “organic chemistry” mentality that we’re all in the same boat.

In fact, there was a column on p B14 of the March 8 Weekend "Wall Street Journal" by Dwight Cass and John Christy, from "BreakingVuews: Financial Insight," titled "Don't Blame the Geeks: Management Deserves Heat for Failure to Identify Wall Street's Credit Risks," that talks about the inadequacy of the usage of older models like "Values at Risk". (WSJ online did not have an online link, and the BreakingViews online is a paid subscription only; the abstract is here.)

The mortgage money went somewhere. That's just accounting! (What is the etymology of the word mortgage: "dead pledge".) Builders could list excessively high prices for new homes and condos, because of the low rates and lenient terms and qualifications. The builders probably got the money. That’s why some of the stories about builders themselves going under (like Dunmore in California), typical story here, are perplexing.

It’s also perplexing that high end builders still offer plenty of properties for millions of dollars. Just look at the Manhattan high rise condo ads in each Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

Now, there is some doubletalk in the way the administration presents the economy. Effectively, unemployment is higher than reported, because some people stop looking, and other people are underemployed. The official CPI in understated, because real people have to buy gasoline and food, not electronics or weekend plane excursions. And, it seems particularly in this “recession” that people with heavy family responsibilities are disproportionately hard hit: they may have much more credit card debt, and may have been much more likely to have bought more house than they can afford.

There have been some more moderate suggestions Martin Feldstein has a column on p A15 of the Friday March 6, 2008 Wall Street Journal, “How to Stop the Mortgage Crisis,” with a loan substitution program based on future earnings. The link is here. This also sounds related to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke ‘s call that banks write down loan balances and write off debts and accept further losses in their accounting now, WSJ, March 6, 2008, p A14, link here.

Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) argues in The Washington Post (March 9 2008, p B07), "The Case for a Housing Rescue," that mortgage obligation write-downs, while they may not fit the idea of "personal responsibility" or "justice" in a literal sense, would be in everyone's long term best interest, including non-foreclosed homeowners and the banks themselves, link here.

I’ve been in this territory before. I had a $40000 condo in Dallas and moved back to the East Coast in 1988 after the job market tanked because of Reagan-driven oil price drops (which were thought of as a good thing for the country as a whole), and probably also because of the misguided Tax Reform Act of 1986 (a real policy blunder). I sold the condo under unqualified FHA assumption (no longer possible) in 1991 for a $10000 loss, and in 1994 the buyer defaulted. I had to take over payments and start foreclosure. The buyer did a Chapter 13 and eventually repaid me in full with interest. At the time it was traumatic for me, and the buyer, and I benefited from some skilled mediation by a Dallas real estate attorney. So this was a local problem that could be handled with “personal responsibility.” Now, it seems like a national problem caused by serious financial mismanagement by major banks and by the federal government, with deficit spending for a war that the American people cannot afford to pay for.

NBC Nightly News, on March 8, 2008, mentioned a service "You Walk Away." Fifteen years ago, I would have called this "immoral." But even in the Texas real estate recession in the late 1980s, some homeowners just mailed in keys and walked. They could be sued for deficiencies then, but a lot of times were not.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Webb urges upgrading GI Bill for Iraq vets, for today's circumstances; student loan issues

Media stories today have reminded us of the effort by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) to bring the GI Bill up to where it really helps Iraq veterans get college educations. The Bush administration reportedly opposes it because it might undermine re-enlistments.

The Bill is called "S. 22: Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007," and the Govtrack reference is here. The bill "Amends federal veterans' benefits provisions to entitle to educational assistance under the Montgomery GI Bill certain individuals who serve on active duty in the Armed Forces on or after September 11, 2001." Senator Webb offers an information packet (pdf) here.

Jim Webb's own website talks about this here. Webb is himself a graduate of the US Naval Academy.

Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel have an op-ed "A Post Iraq G.I. Bill" in the Nov. 9, 2007 New York Times, link here.

NPR has an interview explaining the inadequacy of the old WWII GI bill in today's circumstances, here.

Upgrading GI benefits would be an important part of encouraging military recruitment. A similar carrot would be offered with any national service program, as Barack Obama has often said.

Student Loans and foreclosures:

A distantly related problem with college funding appears today on the Govtrack blog by Josh Tauberer, "Student Loan Bills (A problem obscured by the mortgage mess?)", link here.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

High Schools allow corporations to modify their curricula

Should corporate America get involved in shaping high school curricula? It sounds like common sense, since employers can give feedback on the skills that young adults will need in order to make their employers “competitive” and to become “competitive” as individuals. There is a story in the Wall Street Journal, front page, Thursday March 6, by Anne Marie Chaker: “Teacher’s Aide: High Schools Add Classes Scripted by Corporations: Lockheed, Intel Fund Engineering Courses; Creating a Work Force”. The link is here.

The article points out the companies are concerned about future domestic labor shortages in many engineering areas, even if today there is turbulence in the economy. Schools are rightly concerned that corporate support can be fickle (as one community found out about Intel). Furthermore, public school is about broad education, which is supposed to persevere against economic tides that change the demands for specific jobs.

Most school districts have “career centers,” where students are bussed from their home high schools to take specialized courses in subjects like drafting, carpentry, auto mechanics, photography, web development, animal training, even child care. In Arlington, VA the facility is called just that, the Career Center, which has three long class periods per day. In Fairfax, there is an Edison center.

Substitute teachers may have an "under the table" opportunity to convey corporate "workplace values" to students -- that is, subs who may have "retired" from corporate careers and who can impart some of the experience of the "real world" (in information technology, the whole process of development, implementation, quality assurance, and support) to students. Sounds good. But I still remember a Ninth Grade term paper "My place in the World of Work."

The Washington Post today has a story on the reduction in art courses in public schools because of the demands of "no child left behind," on p A1, by Katherine Shaver, "Coloring Outside Curriculum Lines To Depict the Drop in Arts Education," p A1, link.

Also, check out the Washington Post editorial p A20 today March 6 2008 "Virginia Left Behind: Opting out of No Child Left Behind would be a costly mistake," about a bill before the Virginia General Assembly to opt out of "No Child Left Behind," here.

Update: March 11, 2008: Home schooling in jeopardy by "licensure" requirements in California: legal battle

USA Today (March 10) has a major story by Heather Terwilliger and Greg Toppo, "Home schooling takes a hit in Calif." about a legal battle, soon to reach the state supreme court, that could cause most families who home-school their kids to return them to private or public schools to be taught by "licensed" teachers, even though the kids may be passing NCLB tests. The link is here.

It's relevant that California apparently does allow unlicensed substitutes. Look at the NEA state-by-state link here. Sometimes unlicensed subs can become long-term subs, so the idea that home-schooling should be done by "licensed teachers" (that parents need licensure) seems weakened, a point that parents ought to make before the state supreme court. I had blogged this issue in Dec 2006, here.

The Libertarian Party has been supportive of home schooling. I still remember some grade school readers in the 50s where "Mother" was the "teacher."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New Jersey considers paid family leave law for larger employers

New Jersey is considering a measure offering some paid family leave. If it were to pass this year, New Jersey would join Washington (state) and California in mandating that larger employers offer some paid family leave in some circumstances.

The story is by David W. Chen, and appears on p C12 of the Business Section, The New York Times, Tuesday March 4, 2008, the “New York Report.” In print the article is called “New Jersey Senate passes paid leave for workers to care for infants and kin.” Tne online story heads “New Jersey Senate votes for leave to care for kin.” The link is this. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) says he will sign it. Democrats have generally favored it, Republicans have not. That may seem surprising. Republicans are long on “personal responsibility” yet long on blood “family values” and sometimes these concepts (as people usually view them) contradict each other. Demonstrators wore stickers calling for “family leave now.”

The New Jersey measure is technically an extension of “temporary disability insurance.” It would cost each worker about 64 cents a week for a maximum of $524 a week for six weeks. New York has considered a measure offering $170 a week for twelve weeks.

Persons who have children (married or not) may be more likely to use the benefits. The article was not specific as to parents, but generally paid leave state laws are likely to offer them to care for parents (the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 includes parents in the federal unpaid leave provisions). If, pressured by Medicaid expense growth, states become stricter in enforcing filial responsibility laws in the future (and tend to enforce them more heavily against the childless), it is likely that childless people would wind up using paid family leave benefits at a rate comparable to that used for childbirth or children.

The link for paid family leave in California is here.
It appears that in California there have been attempts to include other family members (siblings and grand-parents or grand-children -- "covenant kin") and that has been vetoed so far; link here. The State Disability Program does allow "Bonding with a newborn baby, adopted or foster child; both parents); Caring for a seriously ill parent, child, spouse or registered domestic partner".

It's clear that inclusion of same-sex domestic partners (allowed in California) would become a contentious political issue when other blood relatives are not.

A related link describes the situation in a number of other states with paid family leave intiatives. Washington appears to allow the benefit only to care for newborn children now.

Conservatives sometimes argue that employers cannot afford to have these “unfunded mandates” pushed on them and remain competitive, yet it seems that they manage overseas.

Link for other countries.

Update: March 5, 2008

The Washington Post, in a story by Nikita Steward on p B01, reports "Council Approves Sick Leave In District: Bill Will Mandate Paid Job Absences," link here. This would mandate paid sick leave for the employee (in any private company large enough), but not paid family leave. Many companies have started offering paid "personal leave" by bundling sick leave and vacation. An employee who never gets sick and has no family obligations (in a state with paid family leave) could use it all as vacation. Is that socially "responsible"?

The Federal government allows unused sick leave to be paid out at retirement (but not while working), link here.

Here is a link that discusses the question for state employees (starting with Texas)/

Poll workers in VA: income tax free up to $600

I meandered over to the Arlington County Government center this morning to look into the question of income and social security tax liability for income earned by working the polls on election day (general elections and primaries). Poll workers are paid a minimum of $130 for about a 16 hour day in Arlington; some (like technical support for the machines) may be paid a little more.

The general rule seems to be that income for the year up to $600 from poll working is not subject to income tax (federal or state), or social security (FICA) or medicare tax. I asked if it would be considered “self-employment” (triggering a FICA tax liability at $400) and they said no. However, all employment associated with the election entity has to be totaled, and if it goes over $600 in a year, the amount over $600 becomes taxable (in an “ordinary” manner) and the individual must receive a normal form W-2 (not a 1099-Misc).

From a legal point of view, all of this depends on a state’s “Section 218” Agreement with the Social Security Administration. Apparently pollwork income under $600 would not count against the "earnings limits" for early (before full retirement age) retirees, too.

Virginia used the WinVote system for the Feb. 12 primary, but I was told that it is considering adding a mechanism for a detailed paper by-vote trail in November. I said that it is necessary to make the experience of working the polls more reasonable, with split shifts or more pay of possible.

ING was in the building explaining benefits to Arlington County employees. ING is the company that I retired from at the end of 2001.

Here is a link to a review of a PBS film on poll working ("By the People"), here.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Progress report and editorial on a federal journalists' shield bill

The Washington Post this morning (March 3 2008) ran an energetic editorial urging the adoption of journalist shield laws. The story is called “Time for a Shield Law: Reporters and their sources need protection,” with the link here. The specific case deals with USA Today reporter Toni Locy, who was held in contempt of court Feb. 19 for refusing to name sources for a story about Steven J. Hatfill, named as a “person of interest” in the fall 2001 anthrax case. The case has led to a Privacy Act lawsuit by Mr. Hatfill against the government. The link for the editorial is here.

There was a famous article on the anthrax cases authored by David Tell in the April 9, 2002 Weekly Standard, here.

The Post editorial today notes that 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have such laws. The House has passed a bill but it is stalled in the Senate. I’ve put up a reference list on the issue in Congress today here. The bill would apparently provide reasonable protection (“qualified privilege” for reporters except in cases where the information is needed to save lives or to resolve a major legal issue and where the information is not available elsewhere.

Jacqui Cheng wrote an article in the May 2007 Ars Technica that discusses the belief that the House bill would provide some protection for bloggers, link here.
The bill apparently considers weblogs that contain real journalism to be covered. There is no litmus test that requires “press credentials”, apparently.

March 6, 2008:

Distantly related is a Washington Post editorial today, p A20, "Secure Lawsuits: A Senate bill would allow civil liberties challenges to secret government operations," link here. The bill, the State Secrets Protection Act of 2008, S 2533, is discussed here on my Wordpress blog.

Update: April 16

The Washington Post has another editorial on this today, "The Free Flow of Information: It's time for a vote on a federal shield law," p A14, here.

Update: April 21, 2008

The ACLU has a blog entry on the need for a journalists shield law, here.

Update: May 9, 2008

ABC News has a story by Anna Schechter and Maddy Sauer, "Reporter Faces Financial Ruin for Not Naming Sources; Former USA Today Reporter Appeals Contempt Order for Not Revealing Her Anonymous Sources, Faces Fines of up to $5,000 a Day," link here
, about Toni Locy, and her refusal to name anonymous sources in a 2003 article discussing then Attorney General John Ashcroft's investigation into the 2001 anthrax cases that named Steven Hatfill as a "person of interest". Hatfill has since sued the government and has not been charged. The story is quite detailed. However Starkman & Associates has a story "Serving Toni Locy Her Just Deserts" here as well as Starkman's "Lucy Dalglish vs. The Public Good" here.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Virginia commercial and residential property tax issues returning to the table

Late in 2007 I posted a few blog entries about the Virginia law that allows increased property tax rates for commercial properties in Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Several jurisdictions, including Arlington and Fairfax counties, passed ordinances authorizing the commercial surcharges.

The Sun-Gazette has a story by Scott McCaffrey, “Manager Proposes 12.5 Cent Surcharge on Commercial Property”, Feb. 26, 2008, link here. The story refers to a proposal by Ron Carlee in Arlington.

In the Feb. 29 print issue, McCaffrey has a story “Tax Bills Headed Higher for Most Property Owners.” The residential tax rate would rise 3.4 cents per hundred. That would raise the median residential tax bill by $126. There was no link for the story as of now.

Assessments have dropped only slightly in Arlington; but the DC area, like many other areas, is suffering from the real estate slump associated with the subprime crisis. The house price drop problem is not as severe here as in many other areas, because the federal government tends to stabilize employment and incomes. The drop is more simply a product of the national economy as a whole, a combination of the current administration’s laxness on regulation, and carelessness (or even fraud sometimes) in the mortgage industry leading to the crisis.

Arlington will have a public hearing, probably on March 29, about real estate taxes, link here. A related link is here.

Still, there is concern that local governments will look for other sources to hit for revenue, in the light of declining property values. There is a concern whether to hit certain taxpayers for projects that do not benefit residents equally (yes, some people would like light rail on Columbia Pike). As one speaker noted in November at the Board meeting, local governments are sometimes tempted to regulate home-based business activity or telecommuting in order to increase revenues, and then make up an ideological justification. This hasn’t happened yet. Northern Virginia jurisdictions do tax home-based business incomes, but only income over a certain minimum; they also tax personal property (computer hardware) associated with business in a manner similar to the personal property tax on cars, but the rate is low.

The home-based occupancy permit link in Arlington is here.

An important related story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is "State's high court rules Northern Va. transportation authority, taxes unconstitutional," by Jeff E. Schapiro, link here.