Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thomas Friedman: Inaurgurate Barack Obama right now!


On Nov. 22, 2008 Thomas L. Friedman (“The World Is Hot, Flat and Crowded”) ran an op-ed in The New York Times with a startling suggestion: Quickly amend the Constitution, and swear in Barack Obama as president on Thanksgiving Day. Forget the Inaugural balls and parade, we can’t afford them.

Friedman may not have studied John R. Vile’s books on the constitutional amending process, which gets complicated in practice and theory (despite what you learn for multiple choice government tests in high school). I think Friedman is right that Congress should stay in session and on the job.

Friedman says he is getting a bit anti-social, wanting to drive people out of restaurants (like in that scene from “Victor Victoria”) because nobody can afford to eat out right now.

The next best thing, he says, would be to ask President Bush to fire Hank Paulson and appoint Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury right now. The markets aren’t fooled, he says. Bank stocks are trading at Great Depression levels now.

We found the fiscal “WMD” in our own back yard, or at least New York City streets. They were the derivatives, credit default swaps, and subprime mortgages. This is our “Code Red” he says. (Apparently Friedman has watched Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”).

The link for his op-ed ("We Found the W.M.D.") is this.

My take is that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and even candidate and still powerful Senator John McCain should make some joint appearances and appear to be in charge. We really do have more than one president right now.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fed helps drop mortgage rates; a sudden refinancing boom?


Real estate agents and now loan officers must feel whipsawed. After months of slow or little work, suddenly some of them are at the office until after midnight, as suddenly the Federal Reserve announced Tuesday it would buy some mortgage-related securities, dropping interest rates.

The Federal Reserve press release from early Nov. 25 is here.

The Washington Post has a major front page story on the sudden mortgage boomlet Thanksgiving morning by Dina ElBoghdady, “As Loan Rates Fall, Borrowers Seek ‘Taste of the Bailout Pie’”, link here. However, some borrowers still will not have enough equity given the drop in appraisals (at least until Obama’s team figures out what to do about this) and many have had their credit limits drop, lowering their credit scores even if they have good bills-paying records.

The whole subject of credit score seems a bit arbitrary to me, and ought to get a much closer look, as to what really goes into it, and as to how accurately the scores really predict consumer “risk”. There are plenty of new variable on the scene to think about, and credit scoring could get further out of control. I worked on this product, at least tangentially, in the 1980s when I worked for Chilton Corporation in Dallas (now Experian).

I once refinance a condo in Dallas, in 1986, going from a 12.5% VA to a 10.5% FHA. The closing just consisted of signing papers in a lawyer's office.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Washington Times: Obama's health care programs will invite destructive anti-selection


The Washington Times today (Nov. 26) ran a blistering editorial “The coming health-care tsunami”, on p A20, link here. The editorial was particularly critical of mandatory plans with “community rating” or “shall issue” (that is, guaranteed issue) provisions that would cover those who “smoke, abuse drugs, or become obese.” (It's all too easy to imagine many other examples of this kind of argument, that don't need to be listed right here.) The editorial says that such requirements (essentially forced "anti-selection") would drive private insurers out of business and bring on a government monopoly.

According to the editorial, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) reportedly wants to expand Medicare to ages 55-64. He also wants every American to buy insurance through an Independent Health Insurance Council. Baucus has a “Call to Action” position paper (PDF) for 2009, link here.

On P A21 Washington Times contributor and syndicated columnist Tom Blankley has an op-ed piece (link here), “Obama’s health care czar: Tom Daschle book (written with Jeanne M. Lambrew, and Scott S. Greenberger, published by Thomas Dunne) lays out plan”. The book is titled “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis”, in which a new board, modeled after the Federal Reserve and SEC, would set up standards for health care.

All of this seems to do with how to make people with lower risk pay for those of higher risk, no matter how you package it. It creates social and personal confrontations that cannot be avoided. For social conservatives, that obviously loops back to the debates on "family values." But there is a bigger issue, of what will work for everybody. It gets to a point that ideology about "personal responsibility" just gets counter-productive.

The Editorial talks about Medicare and social security, but could have gone into the dimensions of the coming eldercare crisis, noting that Medicare does not normally cover custodial care. The end result is an increase in family responsibility (including likely future attempts by states to enforce "filial responsibility laws") for everyone, regardless of their own “choices” about having children. I’m surprised that the Washington Times hasn’t gone deeper into this. There is plenty of opportunity.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ron Wyden's "Healthy Americans Act"


Senator Ron Wyden’s “Healthy Americans Act” is an important idea in the health care debate. His PDF file describing it is here.

The govtrack reference is S 334 (110th Congress) here. Senator Wyden is a Democratic Senator from Oregon.

The bill would allow each American to purchase a HAPI or Health Americans Private Insurance Plan and calls for employers to make “shared responsibility payments”. It would terminate the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHB) and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). It would make health insurance mandatory in a manner a bit like the Massachusetts plan. It aims to provide a level of care that members of Congress enjoy for “an affordable price.”

On p B03 of the Sunday Outlook section of The Washington Post, Nov. 23, Shannon Brownlee and Ezekiel Emanuel, “5 Myths About our Ailing Health Care System,” link here. America does not have care as good as many other western countries that spend less, link here. Most of the runnup comes from excessive tests (to avoid malpractice) and adoption of new technologies that do not offer radically improved outcomes. It is true that some outcomes have improved radically, as with HIV disease, and with the control of heart disease with carefully monitored medications.

The story mentions the Lewin Group's analysis of the bill, although I could not find that today on the Lewin web site.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Private health groups say they can offer universal coverage with mandatory insurance


Two health insurance industry trade groups have said that the private health insurance industry would be willing to offer guaranteed issue and cover everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions, if Congress requires that everyone have insurance.

The two trade groups are America’s Health Insurance Plans (their story is here) and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (story here).

The story is by Robert Pear in the Nov. 19, 2008 New York Times, “Health insurers to accept all applicants, on condition,” link here. The underlying logic is to remove anti-selection and cherry picking.

A mandatory guaranteed issued system could work in the individual market, even if employers got out of the picture. Or employers could stay in but coverage should be portable.

Massachusetts has implemented a mandatory health insurance policy, with controversial results.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pseudo-president Jim Cramer proposes 8-point plan: Don't wait until Jan. 20


Well, “President” Jim Cramer ("Mad Money") announced his eight-point plan for saving the country from Great Depression 2 today, in a piece called "What I would tell Obama". We can’t wait for January 20’s inauguration of Barack Obama, or it will be the coldest day of the year (but in DC weather statistics say it's supposed to be). Obama needs to have a press conference now and announce Jimmy’s (Mad Money) plan.

His point include not allowing any more financial institutions to fail, guaranteeing all life insurance and annuities, giving tax credits for home purchases, insure the bonds of Fannie and Freddie (I thought it had done that). He would give aid to an auto company if and only if it does a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The recipe appears on “The Street” here.

Today, Democratic leaders in Congress seemed willing to talk to automakers again in early December, if the CEO’s learn their lesson and “pay their dues” (don’t fly private jets). Yet, the Dow tanked in a sickening last hour of trading.

Welcome to the United Socialist States.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Are we entering Great Depression 2? Did government start it?


Paul B. Farrell of Marketwatch gives “30 Reasons for Great Depression 2 by 2011: New-New Deal, bailouts, trillions in debt, antitax mindset spell disaster” at this link. As the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia says, "Business depression" is the new "terror." All societies that have money systems have experienced economic downturns.

Farrell starts with a discussion of the dot-com bubble in 2000 followed by the housing bubble, morphing into a megabubble of bubbles, rather like a multiverse of universes.

Ben Stein has been writing columns saying that only government can stimulate the economy enough to get things moving again. For example, Nov. 17, "Reflate the Economy, Now", link here.

The most touted reason is a basic failure of “market fundamentalism,” which was also the case as the Great Depression followed the 1929 crashes. Is this a renouncing of libertarianism? Well, I think that libertarian principles would still require that “securitization” of investor money be transparent to them. I don’t think people should need repeated calls from financial planners to manage their money with basic portfolios. (Day trading is different; you do have to know what you’re doing.) I think people ought to understand what funds will do with their money. I think retirees ought to be able to see what employers do with their pension funds.

The Cato Institute has a Briefing Paper by Lawrence H. White, “How Did We Get Into This Financial Mess?”, Nov. 18, 2008, PDF link here. The paper discusses unsound policy on interest rates (in conjunction with the Taylor Rule) but goes on to criticize the pressure by government on banks, starting with the Community Reinvestment Act at least, to make unsound mortgage loans to low income people. The paper is critical of public policy that tries to make “free” luxury housing available to unqualified borrowers ultimately at the expense to others. It sees this as redistributionist expropriation, or playing Robin Hood. It seems like this started with the Democrats. But then the Republicans looked the other way on reckless securitization practices, out of sight of investors.

The gloomy Federal Reserve minutes were released today here, although they refer to data that was known before the end of October.

Visitors should note the Treasury Department's Emergency Economic Stabilization Act Website.

And we all know about "Democratic lame duck Congress to Big 3 Auto Makers: Drop Dead!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Economist says federal government should eliminate negative equity with partial full recourse loans


Today The Wall Street Journal has an article by Martin Feldstein (on p A21), “How to help people whose home values are underwater: The economic spiral will get worse unless we do something about negative equity,” link here. Mr. Feldstein was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan.

He writes that the United States is the only major country that does not offer lenders “full recourse” on defaulted mortgages. Now, I know that in the 1990s this was not necessarily true, as I wrote on Nov. 1 on my main blog, here. Default judgments happened then. They may not be practical now, but then how could they work in Europe or Australia? But Mr. Feldstein correctly says that removing negative equity will be one of the new president Obama’s highest priorities.

He suggests that upsidedown loans get help by 20% replacement with “full recourse” loans from the federal government. He also suggests cooperative write-downs in the loan balances from lenders, essentially removing negative equity and the incentive to default. Perverse incentives and unintended consequences must be thought through very carefully. Feldstein is critical of more superficial proposals from Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Arguments about later marriage have a flip side


Mathematica has made a study for the Administration for Children and Families for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, “Strengthening Relationships and Supporting Healthy Marriage Among Unwed Parents,” with a lot of statistic information about mainly low income couples, by M. Robert Dion and Barbara Devaney, link here.

The Washington Times, on Sunday Nov. 16, ran a column in the Family magazine p 15, “Marriage, family a goal for teens,” by Cheryl Wetzstein, link here. She discusses the welcome decrease in teenage pregnancy and intercourse, and notes a concern of a delay of teens to delay marriage. Then the emphasis on the article tends to an increase in interest in trial cohabitation, which may increase the odds of divorce later.

It seems as though we’re mixing a lot of concerns here. But one problem, more subtle, is that people postpone marriage forever for seemingly constructive reasons – career, and not sex. Wetzstein even mentions that more parents of adult children despair as to whether they will even have grandchildren at all. We’ve made it almost punitive for some people to marry and have children, say some observers like Philip Long (“The Empty Cradle”). It’s not so clear what the biggest concern is.

Then, today, The Washington Post ran a story by Chris Jenkins, “Raising Kids of Relatives Could Bring Federal Funds,” in the Metro Section, p B1, link here. The story, emphasizing poor families, tends to suggest that people, even childless people, often have to be able to raise other people’s children.

Then, on Nov. 17 Good Morning America, there was a brief report on a program in Kansas on “warchdog dads” where fathers take a day off work and spend time in public schools, especially grade schools. The story is by Erin Hayes, “Dads Trade Overtime for Quality Time
'WatchDOG' Dads Get Involved As Local Volunteers and School Mentors, link here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Employee Free Choice Act: Both sides argue vigorously


Today some media broadcast and cable stations were airing ads for the Employee Free Choice Act (of 2007), with acronym ECFA. Govtrack gives this as H.R. 800, introduced by George Miller (D-CA. with 233 cosponsors), passed the House, but without cloture on the motion to proceed in the Senate. It is also called the “card check bill”. The Govtrack reference is here.

An advocacy organization has a website with a petition to support the passage of this legislation. The website is this. The website claims that the bill would strengthen penalties against employers who break the law, allow either side to request mediation, and allow for a “majority sign-up” concept.

There is a website called “ECFA Exposed” from the “Labor Relations Institute, Inc.” The summary complains about “card-check of unions without a secret ballot election” (that is, more potential of union pressure on employees publicly), government imposed “fast-track” contracts, and punitive damages for companies but not for unions. The site URL is this. The site claims that president-elect Barack Obama has promised to sign the bill. There is an embedded YouTube video “ECFA Exposed” in which individuals who are identified as “real” union organizers argue against the bill as allowing undue social pressure on individual people to sign up.

The legislation speaks to the whole question of how important structured “power” relationships need to be our economy.

Picture: AFL-CIO on 16th St. in Washington DC, near the White House.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Proposition 8 demos and G20 talks side-by-side in DC today


With the thunderstorms and tornado watches in the area and other gumshoe invstigations (all while watching the storms on the Weather Channel, I didn’t leave on time for the Proposition 8 demonstrations that formed at the Capitol early Saturday afternoon. What I did get to see was how much of downtown Washington was blocked off for the G20 meetings. From 15th Street on East, traffic was blocked and it looked like pedestrians were discouraged. But there were plenty of people circling the White House, even from the ellipse, and people were allowed to walk through the “inner circle” shortcut. The Nation’s Christmas Tree is set up, but with no lights yet.

The G20 made a conceptual agreement “in principle” to have consistent Soros-like regulatory policy. This does not sound like it amounts to Bretton Woods II by any means yet. But what we face is a politics and economics of scarcity, sustainability and perhaps decentralization in the future. “Yes we can.”

But the most startling sight was at the McPherson Square Metro stop when I went back, right in front of a sign that said “White House.” I don’t know if he was alive. I told the Metro attendant. We see the divide between the rich and poor within 1000 feet of the White House. I wonder if that will change.


I also notice that we have a “St. John’s Church” near the White House. A church by the same name in Richmond was the site of Patrick Henry’s famous 1775 speech, and it is well to ponder what it means.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Starbucks Coffee gives out "Good" newsletter: this week, about National Service


Although perhaps Starbucks Coffee is sharing the economic pains of the rest of the economy, it offers a nice little free newspaper at the purchase counter called “The Good Sheet”. The issue for Nov. 13-19 2008 (No. 010) looks like a nice red geometric square with crossed shovels called “National Service”. At the bottom of the sheet is an echo of President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural question, “What can you do for your country?” The web references is here.

Page two of the paper has some important statistics. It says that in 2007 26% of the adult population volunteered, and 3.7 million Americans traveled more than 120 miles from home to volunteer. Some of that activity probably occurred in the Gulf states hit by Katrina and other storms.

Page three of the paper has a five column table on “volunteer” (some of them careers and paid) opportunities, from the strictest to the most inclusive. They are the military, the Peace Corps, the Foreign Service, Americorps, and Senior Corps. Only the first two of these are named as requiring a physical. On the "Good" website, you have to slide the bottom border cursor over to see the entire page.

Late today ABC reported that Barack Obama would invite election opponent John McCain to work with him on national service as well as climate change.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bailout plan drops purchase of "toxic mortgage assets"; Internet gambling snuffed by fiat


Stock markets reacted negatively Wednesday when outgoing Treasury Henry Paulson announced, at a morning press conference, that none of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money would go right now (at least in the first portion) toward purchasing “toxic assets” (securitized bad loans) to retire them. Instead they would go toward purchasing preferred shares of many banks. Paulson says that this will help banks get lending more and reduce job losses. Paulson also wants to look at auto loans, student loans and credit card debts. As of yet, he has not turned much attention to mortgages, although the FDIC itself has.

Nevertheless, investors ran for the covers, with stocks dropping during his speech. The Dow ended the day down over 400 points, getting close to testing the support levels of previous lows. They act as if they feel uneasy by Paulson’s changing plans and making different promises every time he speaks, despite the doomsday scenario when he first proposed a bailout in September as a purchase of the bad mortgages.

There is more talk of some soft of bailout of the auto industry, or perhaps a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization from which it could emerge and become profitable again. A collapse of the US auto companies, possible even before Obama takes office, could send the economy into prolonged depression.

Debeorah Solomon’s article in the Wall Street Journal is “Bailout’s Next Phase: Consumers,” link here.

CNBC has a detailed analysis of how Paulson's action could lower interest rates for consumers and stimulate the "real economy" here. Curiously, this analysis is not pessimistic the way most investor sentiment seemed to be.

Also: Bush Administration complete snuff of Internet gambling:

Curiously today, the Treasury Department issued rules, to be fully in effect by December 2009, to prevent financial institutions from processing transactions related to Internet gambling, essentially banning it. The WSJ story is by Corey Bowles and Jeff Bater, here.

Banks say that implementing the rules will be a burden when they are under financial stress. Because the rules are vague and relate to state laws, they could affect real world gambling by accident. There are also serious precedential (maybe even constitutional) questions about treating Internet business activity differently from real world activity. In the intellectual property area (as with Internet censorship and COPA) courts have generally not allowed this.

My current domain doaskdotell.com was at one time largely on a domain called hppub.com (for “High Productivity Publishing”) related to my first book. I gave up hppub in the summer of 2005, and a gambling company took it over immediately. Then that domain disappeared. Curiously, I checked it (hppub) today (on WHOIS) and found that it looks like a new webpage for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for which I was a plaintiff in COPA. This is very interesting; I will check into why. You can find pages from my old hppub.com on the Internet Archive or "Wayback Machine".

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Women pay more than men for individual health insurance


Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News’s medical correspondent, reported tonight on “NBC Nightly News” that women often pay more than men of the same age for comparable individual health insurance. The video link for the story is here.

There seems to be little in federal law that prohibits this practice, and the new president and Democratic Congress are more interested in expanding group insurance or portability than repairing inequities in individual plans. Women are charged more for a number of reasons. They tend to live longer, they use more medical services, and they are (in some age ranges) more likely to be pregnant (without a responsible spouse).

Gender equity cuts both ways.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Northern VA school district faces severe budget cuts, loss of AP and IB, layoffs


NBC4 in Washington DC is reporting that Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school district in the Washington DC area and the 12th largest in the nation, is forced to consider drastic budget cuts, including layoffs.

Superintendent Jack Dale has come up with three plans (best to worst case scenarios) for cuts, which could include teacher layoffs.

The cuts could include eliminating some or all Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, a tremendous loss of opportunity for the schools best students. It’s not clear if this could affect the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Other cuts include athletic programs and larger classes.

News reports indicate that these sorts of budget meetings this early are unprecedented, and that funding from the County is a highly political issue right now. The NBC-Washington story is here.

I worked as a sub in FCPS from 2004 to 2007 and have discussed my experiences there on this blog before. I have good memories of some of the AP classes (such as mathematics and chemistry). Considering that some high schools can offer two years of calculus at public expense, this is potentially a very big loss for students from the area. The jobs board on the FCPS is still unchanged and shows many positions.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Numbers on need for adotive parents (especially from foster care) don't add up; possible implications for LGBT equality?


Jeff Katz has an opinion piece on p A17 of the Saturday Nov. 8 Washington Post about adoption that is relevant to our debate on moral values and shared responsibilities. The title is “Adoption’s Numbers Mystery” and the link is here.

Katz points out some basic contradictions within the usually reported numbers. He says that in the United States about 600,000 women seek to adopt non-related children. Many of these women say they will adopt older children, siblings together, children of other races, and particularly special needs or disabled children. But the “supply” of potential adoptees seems smaller that previously thought. Particularly, the number of newborns given up, and of foreign children is relatively small, partly because most women raise the children they bear as single mothers if they aren’t married (yes, that’s a problem) and because foreign governments have made adoption more difficult (look at Margaret Schwartz’s book “The Pumpkin Patch”, reviewed on this blog last December). It’s true, these numbers might rise if the pro-life movement were right and more babies were born and given up for adoption, and if foreign governments, particularly in the former Communist block (Romania, for example) fussed up to the horrible child care problems that they inherited from the Soviet domination area.

But the most interesting numbers occur with foster children. Katz says that the Department of Health and Human Services reports that there are about 129,000 foster children in the US waiting to be adopted. Some these wind up on NBC-Washington’s “Wednesday’s Child” segment series. Here is a good reference from DHS itself, if you like bar graphs. But only 8000 of these children actually get adopted. Only about 3% of women who call a social services agency seeking to adopt actually do so. Katz reports that social services agencies in many communities make the process uninviting and unpleasant, and make too much of a spectacle of weeding out “bad” prospective parents. Katz makes a sweeping statement that on foster care adoption, "the numbers don't add up" -- the first check any systems analyst demands on a report used to make public policy.

The confusing mismatch between the supply and demand of potential adoptive parents and actual children has other consequences for debate. In the past, I’ve read somewhere (in The Washington Times) that only about 1 in 400 heterosexually married couples seeks to adopt children. Yet the popular conception is that adoption is typically the first resort for traditionally married couples unable to have children. The media makes it look like the demand for adoptive parents is so great that openness to adoption is almost a moral imperative for every adult (for example, look at the Adoption Expo in downtown Washington DC in December 2007 sponsored by Freddie Mac). In some (supposedly more “socially liberal”) communities, like Minneapolis, local authorities have aggressively advertised to singles as potential parents, as with ads at bus stops. Hollywood has made several popular theater and television movies (“Raising Helen”, “Saving Sarah Cain”) and at least one television series (“Summerland” on TheWB) in which unmarried siblings are expected to raise children after a tragedy, or even as the result of a will in probate. Even the soap opera “Days of our Lives” had a sequence where an unmarried man (Nick) was tricked into taking custody of children.

Much of the debate over marriage (and equal rights for gays and lesbians to marry) come down to the likelihood that a marriage will result in raising children. And the concern over the likelihood of parentage is appropriate. Parents face challenges that the childless don’t (although the growing eldercare crisis will complicate this), and this adds to a lot of the tension of the “culture war”. A few states (Florida) have bans on gays (or sometimes unmarried couples, as with a recent law in Arkansas) adopting children, and the “supply and demand” issue would seem relevant to that debate.

Even as a more “liberal” administration takes power in Washington, it’s important to get the statistics on adoption right. It doesn’t seem like we are even close.

Update: Nov. 9

The Washington Post has a story by Michael Alison Chandler, "A Leap of Love: Adoptions of Children With Down Syndrome on the Increase," front page, link here.

Update: Nov 15


The Washington Post Metro section has a story by Petula Dvorak "For Teen's Adoption Dream, It's Never Too Late," about the adoption of older children in Washington DC. The link is here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

School systems tackle inequities in grading systems and their effect on college applications


Inequities among grading scales in different public school systems, and how these affect college applications in a financially stressed world, is becoming an important issue. Michael Alison Chandler and Michael Birnbaum have a story on p B1, Metro, of today’s Washington Post. The story is called “Fairfax to address tough grading policy: school system will offer colleges comparisons of student performance,” link here.

The Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) system marks the letter grade points as 94, 84, 74, 64 (that is, 90 is a B+, 89 is a B). Loudoun County (Va) starts with 93, and Arlington goes 90-80-70-60, as do many Maryland jurisdictions. I graduated from the Arlington system in 1961, when the scale went 95-89-81-75. (Yes, 80 was a D+.) School systems also vary in how much extra value they give to AP and Honors Courses. Grade point averages (where 4.0 is perfect) seem to be lower in Fairfax than in other counties as a result, where as SAT scores are higher, which could convey the impression of student “laziness” unless the numbers are explained.

Colleges tend to use 90-80-70-60 for undergraduate courses. That isn’t bad in a course where problems on an exam are relatively straightforward. A mathematics, physics or chemistry final is likely to have a few large problem sets each divided into small parts. Typically, a student can miss a couple of smaller items and still earn an A. In graduate school, such a grading scheme becomes less realistic. In mathematics, on an exam, problems tend to be harder to motivate. Professors often offer a choice of problems to answer (“what you do know” rather than “what you don’t”).

Medical schools tend to rely heavily on multiple choice and grade on bell curves, sometimes resulting in scales that are higher than the usual 90-80-70-60. In specialized testing situations, applicants sometimes nearly have to get nearly perfect scores. For example, in Minnesota I had to get 100% on a multiple choice test on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act before I could work as a debt collector. (Somehow, everybody passed!)

Although scoring of free-response or essay answers is itself an industry, certification an licensing exams tend to depend a lot on multiple choice, especially compound multiple choice tests. PRAXIS exams for teachers include both multiple choice and some free response, as does AP college credit from high school. Writing multiple choice test questions with “distractors” is itself a big business; I have worked at this once myself on a contract with a testing company. Perhaps I’ll do it again.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Math specialists are becoming essential in elementary schools


Elementary schools are turning to “math specialists” to strengthen the presentation and drill of mathematics concepts. Many elementary school teachers, almost by temperament, live in a people-oriented world somewhat foreign to the intellectual rigors of math, it seems. Schools have long employed traveling reading specialists (we had them when I want to grade school in the 50s), but mathematics specialists are becoming more common.

The Metro section of The Washington Post, p B1, on Thursday Nov. 6 runs a major story by Michael Allison Chandler, “An Addition to the Classroom: With Undertrained Elementary Teachers, More Schools Turn to Specialists”, link here. The story has a picture of a lesson concept of showing simple addition of whole numbers with dice. Physical illustrations or object sets are also very helpful in introducing equations in algebra in middle or high school.

It was not completely clear from the article how the licensure requirements for math specialists map to those for teachers. It would appear that someone with an extensive math background (such as a major) would be expected to complete the 180 clock hours in Virginia. The University of Virginia has a 33 credit hour program for math specialists that includes 18 hours of mathematics and 9 hours of education (one course of which is “curriculum advanced theory (mathematics)”, link here.

Another site discusses the Virginia Mathematics and Science Coalition which offers an NSF Institute program to prepare K5 mathematics specialists. The link is here.

I subbed very little in elementary schools, but in one class a young male mathematics specialist came at the end of the day.

The job of a mathematics specialist is still very “people oriented” and involves communicating with kids, many of whom will say they need a lot of “help”. I noticed repeatedly that, even in high school, certain groups of students were very intimidated by math, such as word problems in algebra.

What I recall from my own grade school days was drill. In second grade, we learned all the multiplication tables. It was big progress to go from the "6's" to the "7's". But it wasn't hard to see that, rather than just memorize a table, one could get the next entry with successive addition.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Harper's offers forum on saving capitalism: take the moral debate seriously


The November 2008 issue of Harper’s has a forum “How to Save Capitalism: Fundamental Fixes for a Collapsing System,” with James K. Galbraith, Michael Hudson, Eric Janszen, Barry C. Lynn, Bill McKibben, Joseph E. Sitglitz, Elizabeth Warren, and Amelia Warren Tyagi. The link is here, but Harper’s shows the full content only to subscribers. Of course, one can buy a hardcopy; at most newsstands. The forum starts on p. 35.

I recall those days dabbling with the People’s Party of New Jersey (in 1972), and hearing one of the women say, “Oh, why do we have to have capitalism?” Back then, there was a sizable minority of young people who found the idea of economic profit morally repugnant. Middle class salaried computer professionals like me (I was working for Univac then) were seen as part of the problem or enemy. I was, at best, a disinterested spy, maybe an anachronism who ought to have paid his dues by living in the period of James Fenimore Cooper. Today, what we see criticized is “extreme capitalism” or “market fundamentalism.” Social conservatives think profit is morally justified when it is predicated on concrete emotional commitment to others (as in marriage and the procreative family).

Certainly the tone of the Forum is appropriate for having anticipated Barack Obama's spectacular election yesterday. I suspect that the president-elect has read it, for the ideas seem to track to some things he has said, although one could take the ideological issues further.

The most important piece, from my perspective, in the form was that by Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Realign the Interests of Wall Street”. Stiglitz says that reasonable capitalism manages risk for productive purposes. But the current unregulated environment encourages the creation of risk. Because traders are rewarded on short-term profits, they have every incentive to “beat the regulator” (rather like “beat the bill collector”) by conniving. By now, we know how they separated the borrower from the investors who ultimately bore the moral hazard risk by layers of securitization, unfortunately with an unbounded mathematical model that could literally eat up all the globe’s money if people suddenly called in their loans (or “swaps”).

But I could tell a few years ago, after my own layoff-retirement at the end of 2001, that something was wrong from the kinds of jobs I was invited to interview for. Everything was about manipulating people to buy things. Some of the setups might have made long-run sense (say, convincing customers converting whole life policies to term), but some of the rest of them were – you guessed it – selling these kinds of flawed mortgages. (As I noted Nov. 1 on my main blog, I had already been burned by real estate that had lost value during the Texas crash of the late 80s; it was common sense to me that it would happen again. Apparently no one on Wall Street had common sense.) “Always be closing.” You have to be when you have a quota to meet.

We had this bourgeois notion of what an education was for. It was to do “business” instead of productive manual labor (boy, this sounds like Marx). “Business” usually meant explaining “complex” abstractions to less education people – and manipulating them to buy things. At the same time, we kept buying things from overseas made with almost slave labor.

It seems that our economy will have to reward real productivity more. More things will be made or grown locally. Green technology encourages local manufacturing and intellectual innovation (the “green Internet” of Thomas Friedman). Future economies may not reward middlemen as much. Indeed, the transparency of information on the Internet should make middlemen to “explain” and sell things in person less essential, if the models of knowledge management (Jimmy Wales style) really worked.

Other ideas in the Forum were less interesting, to me at least. Barry C. Lynn talks about abolishing or at least restructuring stock options. Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi want a consumer protection movement to reduce the risk to consumers of financial products (just like requiring seat belts and car seats in the physical world). Michael Hudson talks about a land tax and reminds me of David Ricardo, the way we studied “rent” and other economic concepts in high school civics back around 1961.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Should High School start in Ninth Grade? What makes math so hard?


When I went to school, we had “junior high school” comprising grades seven to nine. At some point, perhaps in the 1980s, school systems starting putting ninth grade back into high school, and then often setting up “middle school” of grades six to eight as the transition zone. Even in elementary schools, systems have experimented with moving students from one classroom to another for specialized subject matter like art or science.

However, in lower income school districts, passing ninth grade is a big problem for many students. The Metro section of the Washington Post today (p B1) has a story by Nelson Hernandez “Fixing the Freshman Factor: Prince George’s Schools Focus on 9th Grade, Which 1 in 4 Kids Flunked Last Year”, link here.

At the same time, by the time they are seniors, many students have passed required exams in algebra, biology, English and government. Some of that material they should have gotten in ninth grade.

Some schools try to soften the landing in high school by setting up separate classrooms and bell schedules with shorter classes, with 90 minute “Red” and “Blue” days of alternating schedules starting in tenth grade.

My own maturity level increased substantially between ninth and tenth grades. In junior high school, we combined English and social studies in what we called “general education.” I recall a term paper in the Ninth Grade “My place in the world of work.” In tenth grade, they meant business, giving final exams (three hours) for the first time. Report cards and grades came out every nine weeks instead of every six weeks. In tenth grade, the most notable subject matter transition was in English class, which alternating sequences of “grammar” and “literature.” The first “literature” unit was hard, reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with two tests spaced over the four weeks that it took. (I remember having to name the eight parts of the Elizabethean theater, including the proscenium doors! On the final, I think we had to analyze Mark Antony’s motives.)

I also remember that math got much easier. Algebra I, even in Ninth Grade (the earliest that it was offered in the 1950s) seemed hard as the year progressed (the factoring, the long division). But in tenth grade Plane Geometry was a snap (once you understood what a syllogistic proof means) and Algebra II seemed so much easier in 11th. Why? Simple maturity. Math gets easier with repeated practice. (So does piano, which I took.) The way to teach math is to give lots of confidence building homework and pop quizzes, starting with the easiest or simplest problems and progressing into staged complexity where the student has to learn to put things together and “connect the dots”. You need the volume of work and the mental agility. It becomes part of you.

Remember in the WB/CWTV series "Smallville" Clark starts Smallville High as an awkward teen in Ninth Grade (when he is "supposed" to be 14 but already knows how to give Lex CPR). Schoolwork never seems to be an issue for Clark.

Monday, November 03, 2008

VA proposes auto mileage tax; MA state income tax could end


A Virginia state legislator is proposing a mileage tax to pay for transportation projects. There is a blogger entry (“Virginia Intelligent Transportation Systems”) dated Nov. 3, here. The source for that story was an article by Holly Hobbs in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, and relates a proposal by state assemblyman David Poisson (D-northeast Loudoun County). GPS systems could track driver mileage at the pump or at state inspections, but might be viewed as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. The General Assembly convenes in Richmond in January. The link is here.

An earlier story (Oct. 7, 2008) on Blogger had described a road test of the mileage tax idea in the Triangle, VA area. As of this writing, the blog has not yet linked these two entries with a category.

In October 2008 I wrote about a Dallas company that offers auto insurance by the mile, here.

During the 1970s it became common for auto rental companies to offer unlimited mileage, especially on weekends or multiple-day rentals, an opportunity that was particularly important in western states. There have been predictions that it would stop, but they didn’t materialize. The first time that I ever rented a car was for a job interview in 1969, when I was getting out of the Army, and everything was by mileage. It would be tempting for states or localities to charge auto renters a mileage tax (or carbon tax) as a “green” option if for no other reason (except maybe for hybrids or electric cars).

Also, visitors may want to read about Massachusetts Question 1, an initiative to be voted on Nov. 4, to "end the state's current 5.3% income tax on wages, interest, dividends and capital gains" by the beginning of 2010, with reduced tax in 2009. The wiki reference is here.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Washington Initiative I-1000 is certainly controversial


The Washington Times today (Nov. 2) on p B9, offers a disturbing commentary by J. Margaret Datiles, staff Counsel for Americans United for Life, which says that it defends the lives of the most vulnerable. The op-ed is called “A Price on Your Head,” with link here.

She tells the story of how the Oregon Health Plan denied expensive life-prolonging treatment for a lung cancer patient, but offered to pay $50 for assisted euthanasia. She goes on to discuss Washington State’s initiative I-1000 which would justify or even encourage the same outcome in a variety of circumstances. There is, however, another spin on this issue, according to the “Washington’s Death With Dignity Website", link here.

All of this calls to mind the controversy over Dr. Jack Kevorkian in Michigan in the 1990s.

Today, on a Sunday afternoon, on the way to a movie in Merrifield VA I passed the Falls Church Healthcare Center on Lee Highway. I saw protest groups, carrying signs, from both sides of the pregnancy termination issue in front, separated by perhaps 200 feet, both groups behaving in an orderly manner. I did not have a camera with me for instant live journalism. I’ve reported demonstrations on the Washington Mall before, but this is the first time I’ve stumbled on such a demonstration by “accident.”

Update: Nov. 3

Alternet has an important story by Emily Douglas, RH Reality Check, on the South Dakota referendum vote Nov. 4 to ban most abortions in South Dakota, as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Some people even think the ban doesn't go far enough! Here is the link from Oct. 31, "South Dakota Abortion Ban in Dead Heat", link here.