Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some employers still monitor off-duty behavior, especially cigarette smoking

Last night, CNBC “60 Minutes” re-aired an earlier broadcast about the tendency of some employers to spy on employees, mostly to control health care costs. The report was produced by Deidre Naphin. 

Much of the report focuses on Weyco, a Michigan insurance company that in 2005 announced it would give employees 15 months to stop smoking and then start screening for nicotine, even at home. Four employees did get fired.  There had been an original report on “60 Minutes” a few years ago.  The CEO is still very determined about his policy. He doesn’t follow employees home, but the policy does.

CNN had a policy against hiring smokers for 13 years.  A Florida police department recently dropped its ban on hiring smokers because of recruiting problems. 

There was a beer distributor that fired an employee for drinking Coors instead of Budweiser in public.
And a university in Kentucky imposed an intrusive wellness program, offering discounts on health insurance premiums, and expecting employees to agree to let a “nanny” nag them. Some of the intrusion could involve questioning about "safer sex" practices.  

The report said that some employers may not be trustworthy with employee personal information.

Only five states completely ban employers from acting on employee lifestyle factors.  But the practice has become more common as health care costs have soared.

Testing for nicotine may be controversial because it is legal.  Many employers test for illegal drugs and sometimes legal prescription drugs (as in airlines).

At ING, in 2001, my last year, I got a bonus for taking an annual physical.  When I had gotten that job in 1990 when it was USLICO, we had a pre-employment urinalysis drug screening.

There could be a possibility of testing positive because of second-hand smoke (whether tobacco or marijuana), an issue never completely resolved.  That's less of an issue now in cities where smoking is banned in bars and restaurants.  

Weyco was reported to charge employees more for health insurance if their spouses smoke. 

The report did not mention employer monitoring of associate’s own personal use of social media or websites.

 People have been fired for what they write in blogs (the most famous being Heather Armstrong, who founded “dooce”, a famous lucrative mommy blog, after being fired from a software company in 2002 for criticizing her boss anonymously on a blog.

The report also did not mention sexual orientation.  Hopefully most employers look at this as off limits (and may be prohibited from discriminating in many states, but in some they still are not – hence the arguments for ENDA).  Employers might have made arguments regarding HIV in men, particularly in the 1980s; but in my own experience, HIV claims were never very significant where I worked.  (There were at least two deaths.) 

During the debate on gays in the military, I had been working for a company that sold life insurance to the military.  When I wrote a book dealing with the ban, I decided to transfer to a different portion of the company (after a "good" merger), to eliminate a possible ethical conflict. 
Employers tend to look at these issues pragmatically, in terms of bottom line effects, rather than on abstract or “parallel” moral arguments. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Maryland plan to track young gifted students has drawn controversy over racial disparate impact fears

Here’s an interesting story Monday in the Washington Post Metro by Ovetta Wiggins about education in Maryland, regarding new rules for identifying gifted students, link here

What’s noteworthy is that that some school leaders (the Montgomery County Education Forum) have claimed that identifying and separately tracking gifted children at very young ages would negatively affect the performance of black and Hispanic children as a group.  It sounds like convoluted reasoning. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Moral hazard may have its practical limits: is man really a "social being"?

The Business Day section of the Sunday New York Times has a detailed piece, “Moral Hazard: A Tempest-Tossed Idea”, by Shaila Dewan, with the caption “American pride in self-reliance can mean unease with safety nets”, link here. The term refers to the “undue risks people are apt to take if they don’t have to bear the consequences.” Right out of libertarianism, right?

The article, toward the end, gets into specifics in the mortgage mess, suggesting that a new innovation at a few banks to sell back foreclosed homes to owners at prices they can afford and splitting subsequent resale “profits” might make for mutual self-interest.  There’s plenty of discussion about why people have to be delinquent to get help on upsidedown houses., whereas owners who keep paying on time get zilch.  Sounds Marxist?

Here’s another aside: yesterday, on NBC Today, Barbara Corcoran did explain that if you do a short sale, your credit is harmed for three years.  But there are realtors who can get it done.

But back to the philosophical question of sharing other people’s burdens.  Sometimes it seems as thought that’s what the entire New Testament is about.

In fact, the prodding to conform to gender roles when I was growing up was all about being willing to take some risks (in my time, the 50s and 60s, appropriate for gender) and allowing others to depend on me in certain ways.  Even at the age of 9 or so, when "they" tried to push me into a team contact sport (football), I saw only foolish risks, being taken for the eventual sake of others. (Based on recent medical attention to the head injury problem, my selfish concerns were well founded.)

And we can say that we’ve taken the concept of “personal responsibility” for one’s own children so far that people postpone or avoid altogether marrying and having children.

Yes, I’ve resented having to help pay for other peoples’ mistakes.   But in the past, I’ve certainly depended on others in ways I couldn’t see.

It does seem that the moral message of the “Gospel” has a lot to do with the idea that man has to learn to become a social being, because self-interest is such a well-developed facility of the human species.  Parents indeed have the power and responsibility to impart this to their kids.  The not-so-hidden requirement is this:  You will learn to take care of others.  It isn’t just about having a rubber nearby.  It’s going to happen.  And you will learn to depend on others, too.  You won’t be welcome in public life until you do.  Curiously, the military notion of "unit cohesion", made so notorious by the recent "don't ask don't tell" policy, applies to general society this way. 

Imagine a world that tries to work that way, consciously.  For one thing, many people find it’s easier to accept this idea (even in the deepest areas of sexual morality) if they know that others have to and don’t have much choice.  That’s where freedom has to avoid falling into its own vortex, its own singularity. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Complaint by NBC against Romney campaign raises complex questions about copyright, journalism, and partisanship; good subject matter for civics class?

The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog has an important essay on the way media companies view both copyright Fair Use and journalistic integrity, and how they might intermingle. The link is (wesbite url) here. The posting is called "Politics, Copyright, and the First Amendment Commons". 

NBC apparently objected to the (“permission-less”) use by the Mitt Romney campaign of a Tom Brokaw broadcast from 1997 of a report about reported misbehavior by Newt Gingrich.  But NBC’s reasoning is rather convoluted, as the piece explains.  The Romney campaign used the clip because news organizations are believed to be objective and neutral.  NBC is trying to say that “fair use” should not include use of older broadcasts (old enough not to be perceived as endorsements) for political campaigns.  But why not?  Political campaigns, like book authorship or movie production, are still a form of speech.

Would this controversy make for a good AP History or Government “free response” question from the ETS?  (Or would it somehow sound partisan?)  It sounds like excellent material in high school for teachers to look at.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Did "liberals" really cause the housing crisis?

Here's a theory I've heard about the housing crisis:  The Democrats and Liberals caused it in the mid or early 2000 decade by insisting that everyone -- including low income people -- have access to easy mortgage credit.  I don't know if that holds water. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP is to "blame" for allowing such deregulation of Wall Street that (as George W. Bush said) it "got drunk".  But weak regulation, in conjunction with political demands, could encourage some companies to invent the derivatives and credit default swaps (or at least to increase their use, rather like financial drugs), and others had to follow suit to "compete". The other conventional wisdom is that the Democratic Party has always been in bed with Wall Street, since the time of Kennedy (and "Marilyn").

Part of me goes back to thinking the crisis was a matter of people wanting something for nothing. Personal responsibility, anyone?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Santorum looks like a "doubter" on climate change, but that's no longer a matter of "faith"

Scott McNally has an interesting piece “Rick Santorum and Climate Change”, where he responds to Santorum’s denial of climate change as human-caused, with the mathematics of established scientific theory.  He presents some equations and works problems the way a kid would on a physics test.  The link is here.  The link for his “Guest Post” in Scientific American is here

It’s interesting how McNally characterizes a “scientific theory”, essentially as “fact”, although not proven by mathematic deduction, but, rather, very strong induction so carefully managed (by the scientific method and peer review) that its assertions are taken as fact for policy purposes. On other postings on my main blog, I’m discussing that sort of approach with sociology and sustainability.

McNally also calculates the average temperature of the Earth, about 58 F, and what the temperature would be with no atmosphere, about -4 F (about like the Moon). He maintains that one can calculate the increase with various levels of increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, released by man as gas, and probably also by methane.

CBS has a story by Rebecca Kaplan where Santorum claims that the Democrats are “anti-scientific, not me”, as he can easily criticize Obama for stalling the Keystone Pipeline, which can affect energy independence in a time with Iran is doing more sabre-rattling, link here has a perspective by Charles Babbington and Kasie Hunt, “As Santorum seizes the social issues, Romney demurs,” link here

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Iran's threats to shut off oil recall "lessons" of 1973, 1979 oil shocks

Take a look at this: “Iran’s saber rattling shows energy crisis is still with us”, p. A12, the Washington Post, Feb. 16, by Steven Mufson, link here. There’s tendency for people to think there is nothing than can do about externalities like this, but codepend on their own families.

Back in 1973, remember, gasoline rationing was actually considered, and mentioned by President Nixon in a November evening address that I remember listening to in a hotel room while on “business travel”. Ration clips were printed, and many communities actually did even-odd rationing.  Stations were closed weekends.  The supply (and gas lines) problem mysteriously went away suddenly in April 1974 “when they got the price up”.

In 1979, there was talk of it again.  I was living in Dallas then, and at an MCC Congregational meeting, moved that we needed a plan in case of rationing or severe shortages kept people at home. It died for lack of second.

This time, it sounds like $6 a gallon gasoline, if Iran can really block the Strait, particularly is Israel attacks.  Let’s hope Iran really can’t close the Strait. It's 11000 feet wide at the choke point. 

And I don’t have a Hybrid yet.  I have noticed that more commuter park-and-rides have all day charging stations, and we need them. 

Here's a YouTube video on "Peak Oil Rationing" (2008), with Matthew Simmons.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Authors slam Santorum on views of women, and on "war on religion"

Stephanie Coontz (author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of th 1960s”) has a special to CNN, “Santorum’s stone-age view of women”, link (website url) here

She mentions a book by Santorum, 2005, that I apparently hadn’t noted, “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good”.  I can pretty well predict what he argues.  (It's not exactly like Hilary Clinton's "It Takes a Village".) 

From his statements, it appears that Santorum decries not so much just the rise of women in the workplace (and particularly the military, even in combat), but the development of a view that women who remain economically “dependent” in order to spend full time with their children, are no longer “interesting” and will no longer generate passion in men. I have to admit that I even felt that way about things as I grew up.

I recall  a women’s magazine (Ladies Home Journal – why did I read that?) back around 1957 that had an article, “who would you rather have the college degree, you or your husband?”
There’s a general fear among social conservatives:  when people have “alternative lifestyles” available, traditional heterosexual (and preferably one-earner) marriage (with many kids) becomes less “exciting” and cannot compete. 

Coontz makes the interesting point that educated women actually improve the “quality” of time both parents spend with their kids, especially as they grow up.  When women (in stable marriages) work, fathers spend more time at home and spend more time with their children at all ages.  The “blue family” model works.  
As I recall, however, even Santorum has said that his mother worked.

Eugene Robinson has a nice piece on p. A17 of the Feb. 15 Washington Post, “What war on religion?” link here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Santorum really could get the GOP nomination; then what?

"Left-wing leaning" AlterNet has an article, referring to another source (link) by “BooMan”,  that analyzes the idea that Rick Santorum could beat Romney, and that the Obama campaign is not ready for this more socially confrontational  and (for some) charismatic candidate, link here.

There have been comments that Obama would trounced Santorum in a general election handily.  The public does not want a candidate that pontificates over “subsidiarity” – translating into moralizing over contraception (let alone abortion) and homosexuality.

One can’t be so sure.         
I turned on, by accident, to a “Time of Grace” sermon this Sunday morning on cable as I brought everything back up after a February windstorm (typical sermon)  and I certainly got a taste of the spiritual underbelly of social conservatism.  Interest comment, the personal challenge for everyone is not to ignore the unworthy (and assume that they have been cast out), but to personal reach out to others with the same mercy and compassion (they are different things) that we have depended on and forgotten about.  It seems as though social conservatism has something to do with openness to certain emotions and connections (with certain people who seem to need attention) that otherwise were unwelcome and in the way of more immediate satisfactions (and illusions of superiority).  For example, how many of us really want to communicate with a "panhandler"?

Yet, I fear that Santorum, with his actions as president, would drive someone like me back into second-class-citizenship, and expect me to “open up” anyway. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mortgage settlement may not hope most families cope with the "Darwin Economy"

MSNBC says that the mortgage settlement leaves most homeowners to fend for themselves (John W. Schoen link)  At the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik says it’s great for politicians and banks (link).  Holders of Fannie and Freddie notes are out of luck.

The whole mortgage problem is an endpoint of what author Robert Frank talks about in his book “The Darwin Economy” (books blog, Feb. 8).   People believe they need bigger houses in better neighborhoods for their kids, to get them into “better” school districts.  They borrow more.  They bid up the price of housing.  On the upper income levels, a certain population that is good at manipulating others into deals puts the packages together, and these huckster-middlemen say they do this for their families. They have to provide for others, whether or not by their own volition.  This whole process extends to Wall Street in creating and packaging the derivatives.

People who don’t have kids may have less incentive to get drawn into this behavior.  Will they hold the moral high ground?  Well, they, “needing” less, could bid wages down.  And you can’t sustain a civilization without having and raising kids.  But if you do have kids, it’s awfully hard to avoid being drawn into the game of reckless debt, unless you “made yourself” as a young adult first – and most people won’t have the chance to do that in time.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Obama caught in a "neutral equilibrium" on contraception and health care issue

The latest “word” is that the Obama administration will double-talk on its birth control mandate on employers, as in this New York Times story by Helene Cooper today, link.  The insurance companies will foot the bill themselves, so others will, indirectly at least. 

Employers had a year to comply anyway.

Where should this "compromise" fall?  If you’re going to keep a quasi-private health care system, my instinct is that private employers (and religious ones) should be left to do as they like on “behavior-related” matters. This whole contraception question has become a sideshow, and a convenient political soccerball for the right in its attack against Obamacare -- but it's more like trying to score goals with "heading" instead of kicks.  

In my own conventional career (until the end of 2001), this may have been the case, but it didn’t matter much.  For example, in the mid 1980s, there were dire predictions from the Right that HIV would bankrupt health insurance; but that did not happen, even though it was usually covered without question.  With my own employers, the biggest claims usually came from the usual suspects (cancer, heart disease), with one big incident with a brain aneurysm. 

In practice, private employers have not been very interested in making exclusions for smoking, STD’s, or any controversial areas.  What they have not covered is “cosmetic” procedures. 

Should religious employers compromise by accepting the idea that they could have one set of rules for clergy, and another for “regular” employees?  That’s already supposed to be the case for employment discrimination.
Without going into details, it’s well to note there has been controversy over covering abortion, too.  For example, look at Carlton Veazey’s article in “Politics” in May 2011, here

Religious conservatives sometimes seem to conflate abortion and contraception, and have trouble with the wide distinction between the two.  Underneath all of this is a belief, strongly advanced in Vatican teachings, that no conspicuous or effective adult should go through life without taking on responsibilities for other generations.  


White House announcement on a "deal" on contraception and preventive care, link

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Obama administration starts granting waivers for No Child Left Behind; VA teachers complain about violence from students

Ten states are being granted waivers from the “No Child Left Behind” law by the Obama administration. Twenty-eight more have applied.   The ten “blessed states”  are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. States have to show their own ways of improving accountability and raising teacher effectiveness. CNN's story is here.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has a discussion here, emphasizing that students were finding that NCLB “dumbed down” education, and led to “teaching the tests”. 

I noticed when subbing a tendency to give more multiple choice tests (even in math) and for exams to be more standardized.

It’s going to be interesting to see if these states can get results with individualized educational online programs like Khan Academy.

AP classes were better, where exams still had more free response.  One calculus test had a “calculator-free” portion that had to be turned in first.    But even in AP classes, some teachers tended to drill for the SATs and with practice AP placement tests. 

In a somewhat related story, a Virginia television station reports that hundreds of teachers in Virginia incur physical attacks from students, and that school districts require silence, link here

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Does "the actions of a few teachers" put the reputations of all teachers at risk?

All the staff at the Miramonte elementary school was reassigned after two teachers were arrested on abuse charges, resulting in a counter protest, reported now in the Los Angeles Times, link here

This sounds like “school detention” in reverse, punishing everyone for the sins of a few.

As I look back to my tangential brush with this problem back in 2005 when I was subbing (because of the way a school administrator interpreted some of my online material) , I can see how easily schools (and especially principals and other administrators) are put in bad positions, just because of questionable "appearances" created even by online reputations.  Look again at Penn State and Syracuse.  This whole thing has exploded. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

We have an unhealthful dependence on the "working poor"

This Monday morning, AlterNet led off with a “single” with an article by Bill Quigley, “Why don’t we pay people enough? 8 Facts about America’s struggling working people, here. Yes, the byline is true, “Millions of people in the U.S. work and are still poor”.   

The big eight reasons are pretty familiar, having to do with minimum wage, and also accusing employers of theft, or of classifying workers as independent contractors (for “piecework”).  But many of the jobs are in the service industry.  You can have this sort of thing because many people don’t have to “pay their dues”.  It really is an extension of the problem of depending on products made with almost slave, barracks labor in China and other southeast Asian areas.

The Washington Post has an important story Monday, front page, “Black women in America: Amid downturn, a cracked foundation: For some, economic woes and willingness to aid family members strain personal finances”, by Ylan Q. Mui and Chris L. Jenkins, link here. The article compares black and white women, but doesn’t say much about women compared to men as a whole. 

The article depicts African American women as sacrificing not just for their spouses or their own children, but also for siblings or more distant relatives.  Some of the women don’t have children of their own.  In other communities (in the yuppie world) this would sound like sacrificing to subsidize the sexual intercourse of others.   It’s interesting how the notion of personal responsibility, opposed to belonging ti a community or family, plays out, depending probably more on social class and income than just race.  But in Europe, immigrants from Muslim countries often send money home to relatives, and there is a lot of social tension over this.

On my forays to the Occupy sites (the latest was Sunday afternoon, right after Church and a pot luck lunch downtown), I’m struck by the variety of experiences there.  A few people don’t have to be there but want to be.  A few are coming to take pictures and blog – and I wonder if bloggers don’t make the protestors look foolish when their stories are placed alongside other issues in blogs—making the bloggers and photographers seem like gawkers, not interested in having to share the experience and live it personally.  In one or two cases, professionals or graduate students whom I know from “the clubs” were there watching.  The protestors now will probably wind up leaving unless others put them up or bring them food, since they can’t cook in the parks. The "tourist attraction" will go away. As to some of the people who tried to live there:  There are a lot of people who simply can’t negotiate a modern world so predicated on individual competitiveness, when it is conflated inconsistently with the group-oriented culture that raised them (often with families not able to stay intact).  Nevertheless, a lot of the “competition” in the past was based on bad impressions.  People bought homes they couldn’t afford because they thought they had to in order to remain in the game – and they “believed” the banks.  And, true, the bailouts seemed to save the better off (preserving the value of accumulated investments and pensions) rather than younger working people. 

And what about “volunteerosity”, a new vocabulary word on one of the protest signs?  At First Baptist Church about ten blocks away, the congregation, after First Sunday pot luck, used to make sandwiches (with gloves) for the homeless, and then I understand that was shut down for potential health liabilities.  Food and Friends has always been a great charity – but I found (in my recent day delivering for them) that there are some clients who really shouldn’t be on it – so if you volunteer, how much help are you really giving?  Very short term efforts don’t seem to mean a lot. 

One of the “fundamental theorems of compassionate conservatism” is that government intrudes less when individuals do more to take care of one another, in concentric fashion starting with the family unit.  Conservatives maintain that weaker families lead to poverty and government interventionism, so individualism must be mediated somewhat to maintain family and local institutions.  Social conservatives like Santorum (more than Romney) preach that poverty results from indifference from individuals, not just from corporate abuse or "class struggle".  The same conservatives, however, turn their “family values” into tribal battles, “my family (or tribe) is going to prevail over yours”.  Some evangelicals, and especially special denominations like the LDS church are great at consistent volunteering and providing faith-based social services (how about the Vatican, too), but at the “cost” of having the right and duty to proselytize, personally.   

Sunday, February 05, 2012

McPherson Square in Washington still has some presence from Occupy DC; all is quiet Sunday afternoon

Sunday early afternoon (Feb. 5), all quiet was at McPherson Square with the Occupy DC protest. Police allowed driving down 15th W (and then closed it), and up 15h E, but not I St.  About a third of the tents were still there.  Police did not seem to object to foot traffic or cameras. The statue of Maj. Gen. James G. McPherson had been uncovered.  

There was little traffic in the area, and there actually were free open parking spaces on the streets a block away. Lights were cylcling properly to keep traffic from loitering.  

According to CNN, there were eight arrests on Saturday.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Blade article criticizes frivolous litigation in the US

David Kaminow has a valuable article from The Washington Blade (Feb. 3), but of very general interest, “Protecting your assets fro lawsuits”, link here

The writer notes the tendency in the US to allow frivolous litigation, which small fry don’t have the deep pocket so defend themselves against.  That’s one of the issues with SOPA and Protect-IP, as that these laws would encourage it.

Frivolous litigation could be a particular problem for bloggers, as I have noted covering Righthaven on my main blog. 

To his credit, GOP governor Rick Perry of Texas (whatever his other shortcomings) has supported tort reform in Texas.

John Stossel, a libertarian oriented journalist, has encouraged advancing a “loser pays” system in more situations in the United States, as in Europe.

In the mean time, for some people, formation of trusts and LLC’s may help them protect assets that “they don’t own”. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Washington DC Auto Show: Ford (no bailout) winds hands down with electric vehicles

The Washington DC auto show was fairly quiet this weekday afternoon. You walk a long distance after buying the ticket, and then have to figure out that the other level is way upstairs, at the Convention Center at Mt. Vernon Place.

Ford, which did not need a bailout in 2009, by far had the best exhibit, on the back of the second level. It displayed both hybrid and all electric vehicles with considerable documentation on the electric batteries, which it says now last six times as long as before.  The Focus is now available as a hybrid.

Ford also had a vehicle with unusual opening, lifting of the entire cab for taller passengers. 

Chrysler had a “working engine” on display.

In the lower level, there were mostly foreign cars, often high end and even race cars.  There was even a test drive track.

Toyota claims to have the best mileage in the business. It's just a claim.