Thursday, July 30, 2009

Should Selective Service itself allow exclusion for conscientious objection? Remembering the draft boards of the 1960s

A Quaker (Tobin D. Jacobrown, 21), in Washington State has filed suit against the federal government claiming that the Selective Service System provides no way for him to declare himself a conscientious objector. The Washington Post story (July 30) is by Del Quentin Wilber with link here.

The government maintains that the proper forum for conscientious objection is before a draft board, if Congress ever reinstated the draft. The government maintains that no fundamental rights are violated just by the selective service male registration process itself for men 18 to 25. Men are not drafted now, but could be if Congress wanted to reinstate the draft, as was suggested by Charles Moskos, Carl Levin and others after 9/11. Others propose compulsory national service regardless of gender, and the president wants strong carrots for service, but no sticks.

Wikipedia calls conscription (link) a general term for involuntary labor demanded by an established authority”.

In June 1981 the Supreme Court, in Rostker v Goldberg (reference), ruled that the male-only draft had been constitutional, and that presumably male-only registration is constitutional. Nevertheless, the idea that the government can compel specific involuntary duties of citizens based on biological gender goes against the current of notions of diversity and equality in modern society.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Banks don't always see it in their interest to help homeowners; with "cash for clunkers" be careful; ban texting while driving?

Well, there’s some odds and ends about how well we’re digging out of the ditch economically. “They say” that home prices have bottomed out and that there are definitely new buyers around. In some less affected regions, like northern Virginia, McMansions still get built.

A woman in New Jersey is cooking and baking her way out of foreclosure, as in this blog here. I hope the local govies don’t demand that she have a commercial kitchen (like on John Stossel’s “give me a break a few years ago). The story "made" AOL.

On July 28, Renae Merle has a story “Foreclosures are often in lenders’ best interest: Numbers work against government efforts to help homeowners”, link here One problem is that banks have little incentive to help borrowers who really could redeem themselves (Suze Orman style) “with great sacrifice”. It’s only borrowers who really can’t make it now and who would if helped who make sense to banks for forbearance.

Barney Frank is reportedly pushing for legislation to make banks for responsive.
On the subject of “cash for clunkers” I’ve wondered what would happen in a family if there were a clunker in another family member’s name, and the family members traded cars just to get the rebate. I wonder if that’s illegal; it sounds like people could get prosecuted for fraud. I bought a Ford Focus today, getting rid of a 12 year old Escort (for $250 trade in) and no, I didn’t try to do that.

Commercial banks are offering better car loan rates than are Ford Credit (or GMAC). Don't know why. If the dealer offers a rate with a bank other than yours, have him try a bank with which you have an account. The bank will probably match it or better it if you have an account in good standing.

Also, I understand that the Democrats are pushing for laws banning all texting while driving, or denial of federal funds to states that won’t ban it. CNN has been demonstrating how far a car at 55 mph moves during one text. Anderson Cooper says he’s stopped all cell phone use while driving because of all of these broadcasts.

Update: Aug. 1

The life in "cash for clunkers" ran out (as in "Ghost Story" maybe) but the House, according to the Saturday WSJ Weekend, has tentatively approved $2 billion more for it. CNN reports people are gaming the system, buying cars and turning them around as "used" to get the big SUV they "really" want. I don't see how this works; maybe someone else does. Is it legal?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

SEC makes short selling "location rule" permanent

A new (or more or less reinstated) rule for short sellers requires brokerage firms to “locate” shares that could be shorted and borrowed before actually allowing short sales. The intention of the rule is to prevent “abusive short selling” which can destabilize large financial institutions, as we saw in 2008 just before the September crisis. This is a temporary requirement that will now be made permanent.

The SEC will also tattle on “fails-to-deliver” incidents. The explanation by the SEC is here.

The Washington Post story July 28 by Zachary Goldfarb is “SEC moves to limit short sales”, link here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Miners urge boycott of Tenn. over proposal to ban mountaIntop removal

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has joined Benjamin Cartin (D-Md) to propose an amendment to the Clean Water Act to prohibit the dumping of coal mining wastes in streams. Such measures would effectively stop mountaintop removal strip mining in Applachia, although it wouldn’t prohibit other practices, like box-cut strip mining.

Kari Lydersen has a story on p A8 of the July 26 Washington Post, “Miners boycott Tennessee over Alexander’s bill; it would ban mountaintop removal”, link here.

Miners say that the bill will cost them jobs, although that’s debatable. Arguably it could save underground mining jobs—if that’s a good social goal in terms of our karma.
Tennessee tourism is down, but that might occur because of recession and not boycott, which sounds as silly as anti-gay boycotts against Disney.
The article hints at the Great Smoky mountains as being in jeopardy, but I didn’t think they had coal;. most of Tennessee’s coal would be in the Cumberland plateau. There is also a lot of coal in flatter western Tennessee and Kentucky, and southern Ohio, where there is plenty of strip mining, but less destructive. On the USGS map here, coal is found in the "Appalachian Plateau", behind the Eastern Continental Divide (for example, the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike). That's what I thought. I'm not sure how NE Pennsvylvania antrhacite fits in to this.

Attribution link for USGS diagram of Appalachians good for a school geography lesson

Friday, July 24, 2009

Winnowing down the health insurance debate

On Tuesday July 21, the Wall Street Journal, in an article on p A16 by Janet Adamy, posed “Ten Questions on Health-Care Overhaul: the effort to change the system enjoys more support than past attempts, but complications are as acute as ever.” The link is here.

Of course, the article anticipate President Obama’s news conference Wednesday night.

I think that the debate is starting to winnow down to a few conclusions.
(1) Requiring employers to provide health insurance, and subsidizing employees with pre-tax premiums, may make US companies (especially in autos and manufacturing) less competitive
(2) An individual mandate would be workable if poor people were subsidized.
(3) Many of the public costs still come from subsidizing the poor. But when everyone has insurance, providers do not have to charge the insured more to pay for the uninsured, so there is some savings there.
(4) Much of the unnecessary cost comes from “fee for service” billing. If providers are paid salaries and paid bonuses for good results, costs should come down.
(5) A lot of expense comes from the fear of malpractice suits. Tort reform is an essential component of health insurance reform.
(6) A lot of cost comes from manual record keeping. Automated records transmission, enabled by modern information technology (and intricate XML protocols for transmitting data securely) will help eliminate redundant care, and result in safer treatment and prescriptions for patients and family caregivers.
(7) There is no real difference between “public” and “private” providers or insurance companies, or between mutual and stock companies, or “profit” and “not for profit” (Blue plans). Ultimately, every insurance operation has to worry about pricing premiums properly and managing underwriting risk, in a world where exclusion because of pre-existing conditions or anti-selection concerns can no longer be acceptable socially.
(8) All individuals need portable policies, that stay with them regardless of employment change.
(9) Catastrophic coverage (for cancer treatments or horrific injuries) would have a public component
(10) Eventually, Medicare might be integrated with a universal health insurance policy
(11) Meaningful dental coverage should be included
(12) The “social contract” (or "citizenship component") will have to be considered, in considering how to cover situations where the availability and support of non-parent family members is at issue.

I still think that a hybrid plan like Switzerland, that is partly private but where no one goes bankrupt, is the way to go. That plans was covered in PBS’s “Sick around the World”.

Update: July 26

See the Washington Post editorial today, "The Health-Care Sacrifice
What President Obama needs to tell the public about the cost of reform",

Thursday, July 23, 2009

H1N1 trials want volunteers -- but -- well, how serious is the administration?

The media reported today that the government will be looking for volunteers in various age groups to test a new H1N1 vaccine.

Actually, NIH (that is NIAID) runs or plans trials of a number of vaccines for a variety of viruses including H1N1, H5N1 (bird flu) and H7N3. Some of the studies have not started recruiting yet. The basic link for information is here.

Farai Chideya, Lynn Sher and Sitara Nieves have a brief article (at a site called Takeaway)(link) with an audio interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who warns that the trend for H1N1 to affect young people more severely is disturbing.

The study was said to involve eight other universities, including the University of Maryland, and hospitals.

Anecdotally, at least one small pharmacy company has told me that the state of Virginia approached pharmacy businesses about participation in administering vaccine to volunteers, but would not guarantee the companies that they would be paid.

Medical News also has a comprehensive story about the trials, but it seems as though the government needs to work on how corporate intermediaries are encouraged to participate.

Update: July 24

ABC news is reporting that the CDC fears that 20-40% of Americans will become infected with H1N1 this coming winter, and that if the vaccine is unsuccessful, there could be several hundred thousand deaths instead of the usual 35000 or so from a normal flu season. The economically destructive "social distancing" concepts come back into consideration.

NBC made a similar report on Nightly News July 24.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why can't the Commonwealth of Virginia use some common sense on highway rest stops?

Why can’t the Commonwealth of Virginia use some common sense and turn over the operation of the Interstate highway rest stops to private vendors, who would love the opportunity for profits from travelers? NBC Washington and WJLA say that it is because federal law prohibits, and that Virginia needs permission from Congress to privatize its rest areas (but some states have done so, and all paid turnpikes like those in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey have rest stops paid for by private concessions; the stops north of Baltimore on I-95 really rock). Privatizing rest stops sounds like the libertarian solution to the highway drowsy driver problem.

I’ve driven the stretch from Arlington to Richmond on I-95 in Virginia more times than any other Interstate, and I am pretty tired of it. It is one of the nation’s most relentlessly congested highways.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 21 reported "UPDATE: On schedule, state closes 18 rest areas today" here.

Picture: the "hidden" state capitol in Richmond.

Update: July 22

A man was stopped on the "interstate-like" portion of US-50 east of the Capital Beltway for driving too slow, at 58 in a 65 mph zone, according to NBC Washington. Would you believe?

View more news videos at:

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Family values" are only for those who need them, perhaps; Jimmy Carter and the SBC

Small newspapers continue to have interesting columns. Today (July 16-22), the Falls Chruch News-Press (Falls Church VA, near Washington DC) has an instance in the “Anything but Straight” column by Wayne Besen, “The Family Values Fraud”, on p. 12.

He remembers being introduced to the buzzword in the early 1990 in connection with real estate. Was that a code word for excluding gays, singles, or people with kids out of wedlock, or even single mothers?

He points out that strong families don’t need to be defended (presumably from “competition”) and that (given scandals with Larry Craig and his minions) the GOP “is a pathological party of head cases and closet cases” with a “bombastic base” comprising “many people who lack self-control”, just as they used the term in grade school report cards in the 50s.

The real problem is perhaps how risks and burdens of “community” are going to be shared as our civilization has to shift to a more sustainable future.

The link for the column is here.

Also, note the story in Politics Daily about former president Jimmy Carter and his leaving the Southern Baptist Church over its treatment of women, which seems to follow the Biblical interpretation that wives remain subservient to their husbands, link here. There is also a story in Feministing.

It's interesting to wonder how he would relate to the more liberal American Baptist Convention, or with a church, like First Bpatist at 16th & O Sts in Washington (less than a mile from the White House) which has ties to both conventions.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

State-paid parental leave, child care remains an ideological issue

Leslie Bennetts has a challenging if brief article on child care in the July 19 weekend issue of Parade Magazine, on p 4. The cover of the mag says “as parents look to give their children a quality start, can we solve our child-care crisis?”
The article claims that “in European nations, high-quality child care, especially for 3- to 6-year olds, is seen as a right of citizenship.” In the United States, about 1.1 kids are in state-funded preschool and under a million are in Head Start, but middle class families are on their own.

A few states, such as Minnesota, have tried innovations like the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.

She points out that, after the United States, only Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Liberia and Swaziland fail to provide paid maternity leave (paternity leave may be a different matter). However, this statement should be distinguished from listing countries that do not mandate private employers to provide some paid parental leave, which may be greater. In the US, many progressive companies do provide some paid parental leave to long term associates, even in a downturn.

There is, of course, the ideological problem that Phillip Longman and others have pointed out: to what extent, is child rearing the responsibility solely of the parents dependent on their “choices”? What is the responsibility of the childless, within the family or community.
The link for the article is here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Health-care rationing and the "QALY" method: Peter Singer takes it to the root

Here’s an interesting perspective in “Business Insider” by Joe Weisenthal “Peter Singer’s Uncontroversial Call for Health Care Rationing”, link here. He makes the interesting point that it is the social conservatives who object to “rationing” of end-of-life care, although in practice it happens (and it really happens in Canada, Britain and the rest of Europe).

Of course, he is referring to Pete Singer’s piece in New York Magazine last Sunday (July 12), “Why We Must Ration Health Care” here. There is a certain reductive rationalism in his arguments toward the end of his piece (where he talks about the “QALY”, or quality-adjusted life year); but I agree, we must deal with it “rationally.”

I also think that for some people, “less care” really is more, and they may be better off not knowing certain things, which don’t always get worse.

It looks like the president doesn’t yet have much bipartisan consensus on his reform package. The first committee hearing went 13-10, Democrats over Republicans, and sounds like a late fall football game.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Health care debate winnows down to 2 or 3 major policy choices

Today (Wednesday July 15), The Washington Post gave us an editorial that sounded more like the tomes in The Washington Times. The leadoff editorial is “The Deep Pockets Mirage: House Democrats would have us believe the rich can pay for it all”, link here.

On the surface, the health care debate is turning into a Hobson’s Choice (or “two things you don’t like” as kids say). Soak the rich (play Robin Hood), or tax employer benefits, which is what the Post wants (and a lot of conservatives want, in order to fund grants for individual health insurance). But the Post also points out how the health problem is being driven by demographics: people can live longer, but only sometimes better, and use more services, while there are fewer children and workers to pay for all of it. The other third rail comes up (usually encountered on my retirement blog): “means testing.”

How I remember all the indignant chatter from the far Left in the early 1970s when I was a young man, starting my working career. It still comes to mind, and it could get personal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor is grilled on her deference to the Law, v. the influence of life experiences

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said that her judicial philosophy is very simple, “fidelity to the law.” She finally spoke Monday at 3 PM EDT, after five hours of opening statements from various Senators, all on CNN. These statements included Democratic Senators from Minnesota Amy Klohuchar and Al Franken, who has moved back from independent film and comedy to the US Senate. The CNN story is here.

Her blue suit was a bit garish, and her speech reflected her New York origins, even mentioning the Yankees (how about their run in 1978?) She spoke of family somewhat artificially. Wikipedia refers to her as divorced with no children. The online encyclopedia also mentions her having Type 1 diabetes.

In the 1980s, it was religious conservatives who complained about “court made law”, particularly then when the first case challenging sodomy laws, Bowers v. Hardwick, came before the Court. It was seen as “judicial activism” to identify “fundamental rights” that had never been spelled out before as such (although the 14th Amendment gives us a lot of direction) or incorporated to the states (again, the 14th Amendment).

The actual questioning begins at 9:30 AM Tuesday July 14, when she wore a scarlet-tanager suit. Right now, she is discussing the incorporation doctrine and the Second Amendment. She also talked about the policy ramifications of precedent, and distinguished that from personal policy deference from the bench. But she says that judges must examine what they’re feeling when they hear a case – and then put those feelings aside. Senator Sessions kept on saying that she willingly accepts that her feelings affect her judgments in a case. He said that her life experiences could affect the facts she sees.

CNN has a video on the assessment of Sotomayor by other Senators, including Diane Feinstein (D-CA).

I can remember, when working as a debt collector, a conversation with my boss about the effect of life experiences.


A visitor recommends this video from, here.

Update: July 20

Congressman James Moran (D-VA) has a perspective on Sotomayor in the local Falls Church news Press, July 16, link here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Homelessness affects entire families and not just lone individuals (HUD Report)

On Sunday, July 12, on p A4, The Washington Post ran a story about the large increase in homelessness in whole families as opposed to single men and women. The “Politics and Nation” story is by Alex Mostrous, is titled “More families are becoming homeless: largest increases in 2008 came in rural and suburban areas, study finds,” website URL link here.

The report really comes from 2008. There is a general link about homelessness at HUD. That leads to a link of the "Fourth Annual Homeless Report" in PDF format.

The Post story shows a harrowing photo of a 1930s style shantytown in Fresno, CA. However, people are pandhandling in suburban areas, near Metro stops for example, or sometimes approaching traffic stopped at lights, and it is impossible to tell who is legitimately homeless. These are usually lone individuals (sometimes the same individuals every day), but occasionally they have accompanying children.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

MD students, below top level, don't have adequate math skills for college

Liz Bowie has an important article on math education in the Sunday July 12 Baltimore Sun. The front page title in print is “student math doesn’t add up: what is taught in Md. High schools seen as insufficient for college”, and the online version substitutes the title “A failing grade for Md. Math”, with direct link here.

Top students at the University of Maryland seem to have done very well, finishing one year of calculus in high school and placing on the AP tests, but average students often appear needing remedial math classes. The problem goes back, the article says, to the way Algebra I and earlier courses are handled: too much breadth, and not enough drill and basic mental agility skill. Also, the algebra courses are diluted by material, like data analysis, needed for state graduation requirements but not useful as college preparation.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas in 1966-1968, I taught two semesters of “remedial” Algebra, with a credit called “3&”, meaning that the grade counted but the course added 3 hours to graduation requirements. On tests, students had difficulty with getting beyond rote processes, and could not state definitions or postulates (like the commutative law) clearly. And I was teaching in an environment influenced by the life-threatening issue of military conscription and student deferments during the Vietnam era.

Friday, July 10, 2009

H1N1 vaccine will likely be available by October, at least for school age children

The Washington Post, in a story July 10, 2009 by David Brown and Spencer S. Hsu, reports that an H1N1 or “swine” influenza vaccine will probably be available in the United States by October, and that school age children and health care workers are likely to be first in line. Vaccine testing for efficacy and safety starts around August 1, and several companies are manufacturing the vaccine. It was not yet reported if the vaccine would be free.

About one million people in the United States have been infected, with about 170 deaths, about 1/50 of one percent. Over 400 deaths have been reported worldwide, many in Mexico.

It is not likely that governments in the US will recommend “social distancing” schemes, closing schools and businesses, unless the virus becomes more virulent; but we are likely to have a massive outbreak in morbidity (illness) by late fall without a vaccine. Older adults seem to have some immunity from past exposure to similar viruses. British movie star Rupert Grint, from the Harry Potter movies, was slightly sickened by the virus recently. The link is here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Health insurance benefits from employers should be taxed like other income; or scrap the employer system!

Leonard A. Burman has a very sensible op-ed on p A19 of the July 9 Washington Post, “Give Up a Benefit, Gain Jobs”, link here. He is talking about a cap to limit tax-free health insurance benefits provided by employers to a dollar threshold. He argues that putting on such a cap or eliminating the tax benefit entirely would make employees more likely to be careful in using health benefits, as well as help employers become more competitive internationally (especially auto companies as they move out of bankruptcy) and save jobs. Tax free benefits, however touted by unions, contribute to layoffs.

Some Republicans want to provide tax free grants to individuals to purchase their own health insurance under a guaranteed issue (no preexisting conditions exclusion) arrangement. That also leads to discussion of making individual insurance mandatory (remove the anti-selection problem). The employer-sponsored system, originating voluntarily during WWII and fed by Congress as an easy political out, should be scrapped in favor of individual assistance and responsibility -- but then you can argue that single payer makes American companies more competitive, too.

On jobs, they're already talking about a second stimulus package. Will these bailouts ever end?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The health care debate and the "R" word: could family "solidarity" influence coverage decisions?

Alec MacGillis has a disturbing article on the front page of the July 8 Washington Post, “In Retooled Health-Care System, Who Will Say No? Questions about cost and limits linger?” link here.

The article mentions the British national health system (which incorporates what we would call Medicare) and suggests that in some cases coverage is denied on utilitarian grounds: if the benefit (a few months extra of life) does not justify the extreme cost of some kind of radical treatment. The question can be posed in terms of “respect for human life.” But the efficacy of treatment could depend also on a cohesive family: not simply minor kids, but adult children and siblings to provide care, in a society where family units have weakened. Decisions in some cases might depend on whether the person has dependents – also a question with a moral double edge.

No one has wanted to discuss “rationing” squarely.

There is also the question as to whether physicians should be salaried (as in Britain) rather than charge fee for service. Add to this the idea of guaranteed issue (no denial for pre-existing conditions), portability between jobs, mandatory individual coverage, and automated health care records, and the debate takes shape.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

HIV "elite controllers" or non-progressors could hold clues to treatment, vaccine

Charles Slack has an important story about HIV “elite controllers” in the Health Section of the July 7 Washington Post, “HIV Positive..So Why Don't They Get AIDS?: Researchers Hope 'Elite' Group Holds Clues for Others”. The web link is here.

The story starts with an account of Karen Pancheau, who acquired HIV from a 1982 blood transfusion and is still alive and well, whereas her son died from AIDS.

Elite controllers seem to run at about 1/2 of one percent – 5000 people out of every million infected. There T-helper cells remain normal, and it appears that their natural killer cells are able to destroy HIV-infected T cells much more rapidly than other people. There is some research that points to a gene that allows certain proteins (nucleotides) to change shape rapidly, making the more effective, or perhaps making T-cells resistant to entry by the virus. It is likely that other mammal populations, including primates (and probably felines), have evolved the gene, enabling them to defend themselves from retroviral disease in the wild.

It’s not clear if the gene could help design a vaccine, or some other sort of stem cell therapy as a vaccination process, or a new class of anti-HIV drugs.

Apparently, elite controllers still test positive for HIV antibody; it's not clear if antigen tests always work, but they still could infect others through sexual contact or blood donations. The "non progressor" may be one of the reasons that the CDC has balked at opening up HIV negative men who have had sex with other men even in the distant past to blood donations.

I have probably known of several non-progressors myself.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Is health care reform debate "spoiled" by lobbyists?

In its own de facto series “Health-Care Reform 2009”, the Washington Post, on Monday July 6, 2009 has a feature story by Dan Eggen and Kimberly Kindy, “Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying: Firms are enlisting ex-lawmakers, aides”, with link here.

The story says that the nation’s largest health insurers and hospital corporations and probably PPO’s and HMO’s have hired former legislators and government staffers to lobby for a more favorable outcome in the health care debate.

The report comes out, ironically, a few days after the Washington Post was caught with its panties down, offering major lobbyists, officials and CEO’s a “paid” dinner with access to its star reporters (pun after the 1950s board game), an event that was canceled.

Much of the business for “K-Street” consulting firms comes from associations and trade groups (for example, hospital holding companies or health insurance associations like BCBSA) who want data and analysis on specific government programs (for example, Medicare operations) to lobby Congress. These businesses are themselves run somewhat tightly, with eyes on reliable and steady profits. I’ve worked in this environment before. For someone in I.T., it’s just a “job” (to be performed professionally and accurately) and one tends to lose sight of the public significance of what is going on, until one goes solo as a blogger, for example.

The stories highlight the importance of independent speech in the debate on health care, eldercare, defense, “gay rights”, technology, censorship, and many other issues. It is difficult for people employed in certain publicly sensitive positions to speak frankly, as there is a perception that so much gets done by the “insider” privileged few.

This is probably a good place for me to give a reference to an essay I wrote on Internet speech and employment “conflict of interest” back in March 2000, when I was still in Minneapolis and well before my own “forced retirement”. It has attracted some attention over the years. Here is the link.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

"Community" issues: volunteer firefighters; African American teachers

A couple of stories in the Washington papers today, at first unrelated, at least connect on the concept of “male role model.”

The Metro Section of the July 4 Washington Post has a story by Avis Thomas-Lester, “Number of black male teachers belies their influence,” link here. Most school districts say they need more black male teachers, particularly in lower and middle school grades. African American boys are more likely to believe that school is meaningful to them if they have a role model “like them” who benefits from school and who values school, as our president did. Knowledge of the results of the presidential election is not as meaningful as actual contact with male role models.

The story relates an African American man who teaches AP history in high school. I did have a history teacher in high school while, although white, was, having been a military veteran, very conscious of race and social issues way ahead of his time (in 1959-1960). Likewise, I had a young white male for government as a senior who was also way ahead of his time on social awareness. Without these two examples, I don’t know if I would have written my own book.

There is a curious story by Peter Greenberg in the weekend Parade Magazine, “72% of America’s firefighters are volunteers: why they serve,” link here. The author of the article has been a volunteer firefighter since age 18. Mary Hauprich, after moving to a small beach community in Maine, was approached by the local volunteer fire department to take notes on meetings, and became a full-fledged firefighter herself. Is this what the new proponents of sustainability mean by “living in a community”?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Unemployment hits 9.5%, highest since 1982, most destructive recession since 1930s

The U.S. economy nosedived to an official 9.5% unemployment rate in June, indicating that this recession is the first since the 1930s to wipe out the gains of previous intervening books. The New York Times story today by Peter S. Goodman refers to “deflating recovery hopes” and the link is here.

In December 1982, unemployment reached 10.8% and, when I was employed by Chilton Corporation (a credit reporting company then in Dallas on Fitzhugh, in Oak Lawn) we considered ourselves “fortunate”. Inflation was severe then, and the recession then was caused partly by a tight monetary policy. The Wikipedia article is “Early 1980s recession here. This was the "stagflation recession" riding on the heels of two oil shocks, in 1973 and 1979 (don't forget the New York City "drop dead" financial crisis of 1975).

This time, while official inflation was lower, the basic cause was “trying to get something for nothing” – investment bankers and homeowners alike – shrugging off the “moral lessons” of 9/11 and the succeeding warnings about energy supplies, global warming, federal deficits, and sustainability.

So, there is a new normal, with lower expectations, and maybe a new social contract coming back. Listen to Suze Orman moralize about what we have to do to cope with "this recession": line up for her smackdowns.

I do have another personal reaction, reflective of John Stossel: how about more freedom to start new businesses? Some destruction becomes "creative" after all.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Some DC schools pay students for attendance, grades: is this a good idea?

The media around Washington DC made a lot of the ceremony of paying some middle school kids checks for good attendance and grades.

It’s not hard to imagine both sides of the issue. The plan was initiated by controversial chancellor Michelle Rhee. One blog entry, on “Edwize”, from Sept. 2008, is titled “Paying kids to show up: Rheely Dumb” (pun intended), here. The article notes a similar program in New York City. A more objective story had appeared on Fox News last September, here.

Is school really like work? My own perception is, yes and no. It is, but the compensation is non-monetary, it is more about recognition and karma, the stuff of science fiction loglines. A successful high school kid’s world is rich, meaningful, and eventful, but he or she does not have enough experience on this planet to really understand what it is like to be on one’s own, and be measured by money more than anything else (the world can be selfish indeed). I sometimes wish I could get into a time machine and reenter high school as a senior myself (like Zac Efron does in “17”; by the way, Efron was a great student, as were Jared Padalecki and Ashton Kutcher).

I earned by first money at around age 13 or so, accompanying a choir at the piano. It was very little, but it was a breakthrough at the time. I “earned” a chemistry scholarship at William and Mary as a freshman, to be lost in the Expulsion of 1961, a traumatic incident explained elsewhere in my blogs and books. But by 18 or so I realized that money really matters. I didn’t realize that earlier, and I think kids in poorer families are forced to.

So, on Michelle Rhee’s controversial plan, it’s hard to give a concrete yes or no, for me, at least.

There is a followup NBC4 story " Rhee Talks to Calif. Group About Running DC School DC schools chancellor considers Green Dot makeover for underperforming school" link here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Teachers: the system gives them all the wrong incentives (Washington Post editorial today)

It’s interesting and heartening to see so many stories about education as the summer break begins.

Let me proceed this post with a recollection. I recall, when substituting in a particular AP Chemistry class, a student who would (since the class was small) always claim about four black benches as “feline” turf and simply sit down and go to work on the take-home problems that the teacher had assigned. Were all teaching like that – eager calculus students who understood that you have to practice in to get “good at integrating by partial fractions. It’s rather like piano students who love to practice. The student in question was a champion swimmer and could have gone to Beijing alongside Michael Phelps if he had aimed at it. Instead, from sources, I know he plans a medical career (at one time Ashton Kutcher’s first choice). And I don’t think he would have followed up with a bong hit press report like Phelps did. Maturity is pervasive. (I guess I could explore another tangent: Phelps reportedly had ADD (blog story by Dr. Kenny Handelman), and sports is what gave him his new life; but some kids can do it all.)

But most of the time, the schools were begging to fill the special ed classes, sometimes breaking assignments and putting subs there. Most of the time, there were plenty of students are desperate for any male around to act like a father figure, a dicey idea for someone with a background like mine (and legally a second class citizen according to federal law).

All that said, let’s look at the Washington Post editorial today July 1 (whoopee – it’s the Post this time, not The Washington Times, whose editorial style I seem to like to emulate in posts like this). The editorial is titled “Best in Class: The Obama administration, the unions and rewarding teachers who teach.” The editorial says that, in practice, most teachers advance by accumulating seniority (and tenure), or by getting graduate education credits. Note: Virginia requires 15 credit hours for licensure (18 for special ed), but George Washington University requires a minimum of 24 hours for its degree program, with 30 preferred. Academia loves the system we have.

But what is needed in practice is teachers who want to work with kids as they are, as kids, not as almost-Olympic champions or almost ready for med school. In teaching math, it needs teachers who will drill and who can interact continuously, offering the instant rewards. It’s (also) interesting to ponder the studio teacher system in the movies – those teachers have to be licensed for elementary school, even though a lot of the kids who work in film and even soap operas (like the character “Will” in Days of our Lives) can be as ahead of the scale developmentally as imaginable (otherwise they couldn’t be there at all).

The link for the Post editorial is this.

There's one other thing I remember from undergraduate college about med school: they would say, at GWU, "they'll teach you the biology, but they won't teach you the chemistry". Undergrad pre-meds hit a brick wall with organic chemistry, it seems. And it's not all nomenclature and memorization. Oh, yes, it's preps. Some readers will know all about this.