Friday, November 5, 2010

In which a mathematician masquerades as a math teacher.

So I was in a colleague's classroom today, and I wrote down what my notes would look like if I had been a student who took good notes in her class that day. Then I wrote down what my notes would look like if I'd been in a class I taught, covering the same material. Here they are (in order -- although first scan was cut off for some reason.).I think the contrast is quite telling.

On the one hand, there's a shitload more insight in the class as I would have taught it. On the other, if you were a student looking back over your notes to try to figure out how to do a problem, the notes you'd taken in my class wouldn't do you a whole lot of good -- or rather, they would, but only if you had the patience to wade through a lot of conceptual shit in order to get there.

This brings up two questions:

1. These two teaching styles are clearly addressed towards different ways of thinking about mathematics, and different types of learning goals. (Roughly, we could describe those ways of thinking as "how mathematicians think about math" vs. "how people who are not mathematicians, but are pretty good at routine mathematical tasks, think about math.") Which of these reflects how we should be teaching our kids?

2. Is there, beyond the intrinsic value of each of these teaching styles, a value either to diversity or to consistency of teaching styles? Are students advantaged by having experience with both of these? Or do students who are used to one way of teaching/thinking freeze up when they're exposed to another way?

Briefly, I think we do want to be teaching our kids to think about math the way mathematicians think about math -- the understanding is a lot deeper and is rewarding on its own merits, but I think these ways of thinking also enable you to learn new mathematical concepts (and relearn forgotten concepts) much more easily -- because if you focus on understanding the underlying structure of mathematics, you can intuit the definitions and processes that would make sense in the context of that structure.

Unfortunately, my experience has been that there is an advantage to consistency -- and that students often react with frustration to the confusion introduced by exposure to new ways of thinking about concepts they already (at least partly) understand. I think I'm doing more harm than good by trying to teach mathematics the way I see it: by upending the expectations that kids have developed during years of math classes, I take what was once safe and predictable and render it frustrating and alienating. And I think, ultimately, that it's more important for students to have positive relationships with mathematics and with academics more broadly than it is for them to see it in particular ways, no matter how visionary or appealing those ways of seeing may be.

So I think teaching mathematics in shitty high schools is exactly the wrong place for me.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In which a supposed "anti-incumbent bias" is clearly more important than a Puerto Rican general strike.

I am getting so fucking sick of hearing about "anti-incumbent bias" as an explanation for the losses of Blanche Lincoln, Arlen Spector, and Trey Grayson. Not only are all three of these people world-class schmucks who have nothing going for them except their incumbency, but I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of people sitting in Congress at this time next year are exactly the same people who are there now.

The thing is, these fuckheads are so used to the idea that they can win every election no matter what that when their win rate goes below 90%, they take this as a sign of bias against them, rather than a slight decline in the level of bias for them. And the mainstream media just slurps it up.

In other news, while the mainstream media echo chamber has been caught up whining about how the power brokers they've been ponying up to for all these years might not be there anymore, you know what they haven't been talking about? The student strike in Puerto Rico, which has been going on for nearly a month, and which is backed by a general strike of all Puerto Rico's major unions.

Check it out, seriously: a Google News search turns up not one source from the mainstream, non-occupied US media.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In which we don't actually believe all students can learn.

Educators love to talk about reducing the achievement gap and about how all students can learn – in other words, about not giving up on students at or near the bottom of the spectrum. And it’s admirable that we say these things, and I think we really believe them, in the sense that, all other things being equal, we think it’s worthwhile to spend time on low-achieving students. Some of us would even go so far as to say that – again, all other things being equal – we’d spend more time with students who are doing poorly than with students who are doing well.

But all other things aren’t equal. Most educators believe that different students respond differently to instruction, and that spending the same amount of time with some students will produce more improvement than with other students. Usually this is blamed more on behavioral factors which lead to less time being spent actually teaching, but the fact is that almost always, the students we believe will respond best to instruction are exactly the ones who are doing well.

It’s not that we don’t think the other kids can learn. We do believe they can learn. But we believe that we’ll have to spend so much time on eliciting the sort of behaviors necessary for learning that it just won’t be worth the effort. So we end up prioritizing the students who are doing pretty well anyway, because we know then we can spend our time teaching.

Some people argue that this is missing a key piece of the equation: although it’s true that you’ll have a stronger direct effect if you focus on the “good kids,” there are strong enough indirect effects of prioritizing the “bad kids” to make it worthwhile. In particular, the bad kids spend all their time fucking up your class for other kids. If you spend the resources to enlist them, even though this probably won’t end up turning them into lawyers, they’ll probably stop fucking everything up. So even though it takes a lot of extra work, the payoff is huge not only in terms of the effect on their learning, but the effect on other people’s learning.

But I’ve recently started hearing about a third approach, which tends to be used especially at really shitty schools. At a school like the one where I just got hired, it’s really difficult to target the bad kids – they’re usually not in school, and there are enough of them that you just can’t do the kind of interventions that you’d need to get them back on track. You need really intensive work with a lot of these kids – probably the equivalent of a full-time worker each, between counselors, social workers, and teachers.

So instead, you target the kids who are pretty bad, but not terrible. Here, the priority goes to students who are failing one or two classes – roughly between the fifth and the twentieth percentile. These are kids who still have some hope for academic success, and who might get there with a little extra help at lunch or after school. By doing this, too, you can isolate the kids you can’t help – you ideally go from having four failing students in a 20-person class to having one, who probably will just stop showing up when ze doesn’t have accomplices anymore.

Beyond that, if you successfully target all the borderline cases, incoming frosh classes will start to see their options differently – and so you’ll get fewer students who fall to the level where you give up on them.

I can’t say I’m really comfortable with this. We really shouldn’t see our choice as being between teaching most of the kids and teaching none of them – especially since a lot of times what we’re doing is ignoring the most vulnerable students (even at a school that’s entirely made up of poor students of color, my impression is that the students we expel or allow to fail are more likely to be homeless, abused, or neglected). But at many schools those really are the only two choices.

Our two favorite phrases, as a profession, are currently “closing the achievement gap” and “all students can learn.” And the thing is, I think we really do believe in these principles. But we believe in them in an abstract sense – where, all other things being equal, we don’t think it’s a waste of time to work with vulnerable, low-achieving students.

But all other things aren’t equal. Targeting those kids is a lot more work. And we need to start asking, “Do you believe you should target low-achieving students from disadvantaged populations even if that means less total learning will take place? Does your belief that all students can learn come with a commitment to make sure all students do learn, even if that means other students don’t learn as much?”

I think most teachers would answer no to both of these questions, and they do, through their actions, all the time.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In which Jesus is a fucking radical.

By the way, my posting volume has been down -- and will likely continue to be so -- because I now have a teaching job, so I've been scrambling to salvage the year for my kids, some of whom have now had three math teachers and two long-term subs.

Let's talk about Jesus, okay? The Sermon on the Mount (or the Plain, depending on whether you trust Matthew or Luke). He says:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41)
Now, I'd always been a little uncomfortable with this. Because the thing is, I'm all down with not fighting back -- that part makes sense to me. But can't you at least block? Isn't some kind of nonviolent resistance okay?

Then I heard new interpretations of these verses that blew my fucking mind.

First, turning the other cheek. Here's what Wikipedia says on the subject:
A literal interpretation of the passages, in which the command refers specifically to a manual strike against the side of a person's face, can be supported by reference to historical and other factors.[1] At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.[2] If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.[3] The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality.
It goes on to talk about the coat/cloak thing, in the context of Deuteronomy 24:
10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. 13 Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it.
See, if someone sues you and tries to take your tunic, they're not allowed to take your cloak. So by giving it to them, you're putting them in violation of Hebrew law. Furthermore, Shine Thomas points out that if you give him your cloak, you're probably naked -- and your nudity brings shame on the viewer, not on the naked person.

And it turns out that Roman soldiers were allowed to make you carry their stuff for a mile, but no further. So if you carried it for two miles, they were again violating the law.

All of these are a foundation not so much for a tradition of civil disobedience as for one of uncivil obedience. All of them involve allowing (even perhaps facilitating) wrongdoing, but changing the context of that wrongdoing so that the perpetrator feels uncomfortable about it. And there's definitely no civility in it: there's a kind of challenging hostility in the turning of the other cheek that I find really compelling.

Here are the two modern parallels to this kind of behavior that jump into my mind. Neither of them were things I would ever have dreamed of pointing to as Christian examples before this Sunday morning.

One of them is this account of the death of Che Guevara -- particularly the refusal to kneel to be shot, and his comment, "Know this now, you are killing a man." The other is the "Please, Lou, Please" scene from Fight Club -- and, come to think of it, the scene where Edward Norton beats the shit out of himself to blackmail his boss.

What we see here is a very confrontational Jesus -- rather than being a pitiable figure who was willing to suffer because of his unwillingness to use force, we see a figure who urged his followers to use their own suffering as a weapon. The Passion of the Christ image of a Jesus who passively suffered at the hands of his tormentors masks the fact that there are few things more unsettling than someone who, when you hit them, says, "Yeah, hit me again, but this time hit me like you mean it."

I'm also reminded of the reports that people gave of how they were affected by participation in the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. People consistently talked about how they'd changed for the better when they saw the kind of cruelty they were capable of. They were forced to confront a side of themselves that they hadn't been ready to deal with, and they realized that there was a good chance other people wouldn't stop them from doing terrible things. These realizations forced them to accept greater responsibility for their destructive impulses, and made them less likely to allow those urges to take over in the future.

Notice, also, that all of these were ways of confronting forms of violence that were socially sanctioned: backhanding a slave, wife, or child; taking someone's most urgent necessities in lieu of debt repayment; and conscripting civilian labor for military purposes. All of them were about confronting oppressors with the reality of their injustices, which could otherwise be masked behind the formal sanction for them.

Now I'm just picturing someone losing their house to foreclosure, walking into the bank that now owns their house, and stripping down and handing over their clothes. Fucking brilliant.

Friday, April 16, 2010

In which false economies screw poor kids.

I want to talk a little bit about class sets.

First, a little background: Lots of teachers make absurd amounts of copies. Completely preposterous amounts of paper get distributed to students, who end up throwing it all away or losing it in the sea of mostly-useless papers that their backpacks become. In addition to being counterproductive, this is environmentally unsound and costs schools a shitload of money. So many schools, as a way to counter this, put limits on the number of copies teachers can make, either by giving them accounts on copiers with limited numbers of copies, or by giving them a paper quota and making teachers keep track of their own paper. And some teachers, even when they're not so restricted, feel bad about the paper they're using, and try to cut down themselves on the number of copies they make.

One of the forms this takes is the class set. Since many teachers teach three or four or five sections of the same class, they'll make one set of thirty copies of whatever they would've handed out, and expect kids to use them in class, but then return them at the end of class in a state that allows the next class to use them.

Sometimes, this is done for things like readings -- in which case it makes sense, if we assume that no one is going to re-read these texts after the class ends, and they're simply going to get thrown away anyway, which is often the case. But more often than not, this gets done with things like worksheets, along with the instruction to work on a separate sheet of paper (the same principle is at play when math teachers assign problems out of the book, although on a somewhat longer-term basis).

What gets lost in this is that paper provided by students is also paper. In fact, we end up using more paper this way: we've gone from 150 sheets (one for each student) to 180 (one for each student to write on, plus a class set of the questions). It's actually even worse than this: many teachers know that students benefit, when reviewing, from having the answers and the questions in the same place, so instruct them to copy the questions onto their own sheet, so we now have to have enough paper for two sets of questions (one of them presumably copied in somewhat larger print).

We're also then using class time for the copying of words that are already printed, as well as the extra time the teacher needs to spend making sure to get all the sheets back (as a substitute, this is a huge issue -- teachers are sometimes generous enough to leave a couple of extra copies, but even so, if I lose an average of one in each period, I won't have enough for the last class, and since I don't have copier privileges, it's tough to remedy this) -- this ends up occupying three or four minutes of class time, which sounds trivial until you remember that it's almost ten percent of the class.

So in doing this, we use significantly more resources, all in order to transfer costs from schools to students. And the funny thing is, this always fucking happens in the schools where the students are poorest -- schools with rich students almost universally can afford a few extra copies. We are, on a large scale, transferring the costs of education to poor kids and their parents, and we're calling it "greening."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In which I write a letter.

Brendan Coughlin
Chair, Nominating Committee
Wesleyan University Board of Trustees

Dear Brendan,

I am writing to tell you that I will not be voting in this year's Alumnae/i Trustee election. None of the candidates can be fairly described to represent me, or any of the thousands of Wesleyan graduates like me.

Of the six Alumni/ae Trustee candidates, five are from the business world. Of the six current trustees who will be returning, three are from business backgrounds -- so, regardless of the outcome of the election, business is guaranteed a majority of alumni trustees.

Outside of business, alumni trustees and candidates represent two professions: medical school professors and directors of nonprofits. It's worth noting, also, that the nonprofits we're talking about -- the Tiger Foundation and the Philanthropic Institute -- are both of the type generally referred to as the Nonprofit Industrial Complex; in other words, they're nonprofits who view themselves as primarily accountable to donors, rather than to the communities in which they work. Here's a text sample from the Tiger Foundation's "Who We Are" page:
Since inception, Tiger Foundation has pursued the dual mission of providing financial support to the top nonprofit organizations serving New York's neediest families, and training active and engaged philanthropists who serve on the foundation's board. Tiger Management was dedicated to maximizing the return on every investor dollar. Similarly, Tiger Foundation is dedicated to investing in nonprofit organizations in the five boroughs of New York City that maximize the social return on every contributed dollar.
I can understand why this is exactly what a Board made up largely of corporate officers and wealthy donors likes to hear -- but as someone whose primary involvement with Wesleyan was as a student rather than a donor, it makes me a little nervous to think our decision-making bodies are made of people who believe their primary responsibility is to donors.

You have to know that this isn't a representative sample of Wesleyan graduates. In fact, Wesleyan's embarrassingly small endowment is constantly being blamed on the fact that this isn't what most Wesleyan graduates look like. We're all going off to become social workers, and teachers, and community and union organizers, instead of going where the money is, the way all these nominees have.

Ultimately, I don't see any reason to vote for three more representatives of business and the nonprofit industrial complex to join a board that's already full of representatives of business and the nonprofit industrial complex. Boards of Trustees are not democratic institutions, and allowing us to choose from a list of pre-screened, pre-vetted candidates doesn't change that. This is a charade, and I'm not participating.

If you'd like some nominees that reflect the rest of the spectrum of Wesleyan graduates, I'm happy to submit a few.

Regards,
Per

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In which feminists make jokes.

So I think it's fair to say that Sady "Sady fucking Doyle" Doyle went all Rahm Emanuel on this douchebag, who is pissed because he feels men aren't treated fairly by feminists -- basically, because he thinks feminism isn't about women, it's about equality, and therefore men shouldn't feel like they need women's approval to be real feminists. There's a whole argument to be had there about how if women don't like your feminism, it's probably not feminism, and about the epistemic privileging of the oppressed, but for right now, I want to talk about this shit:
Look, I have to tell you: your whole enterprise here, the whole long and short of it, appears to be an edifice designed to give you a platform that paws at discourse while denying the possibility of you ever getting called on anything. I mean the whole apparatus of the place. It’s like this constant recursion of LOLspeak/serious speak/LOLspeak, this Russian dolls style thing you’re so enamored with. It’s just a mechanism to introduce a self-limiting aspect on what you want to say; you want to be heard and to be taken seriously, but you want the out to be able to say that you were just goofing. Well, goof away, it’s the Internet, and it’s your dime, but understand that you are denying intellectual rigor when you do so.
Sady, in her first response, gave some pretty good attention to some of the reasons why she's allowed to make jokes if she wants to (it's a little alarming that this is something women have to defend), but I want to add a couple more reasons.
  1. Because of the humorless-feminist stereotype.
Over the years, I have noticed that sometimes, powerful people make really unpleasant jokes at the expense of women, or black people, or Jewish people, or Mexicans, or queer people. And when they do so, those people and their allies sometimes call them out on it. And almost always, when they do, we're told that the problem isn't in the joke -- no, the problem is that the victims of the joke were just too sensitive to get it, and were too caught up worrying about the fact that this joke was making light of very real hardships and dangers to get that it was funny.

So feminists get characterized, again and again, as humorless, because they're always cracking down on the enjoyment that normal, funny people get out of sexual assault; domestic violence; misogynist, racist, homophobic and transphobic stereotyping; violence against queer people; the grossness of queer people; and the grossness of fat people.

Almost all humor, people in marginalized communities are told, is at someone's expense -- it just happens that this time, it happened to be at your expense. But somehow these jokes never get turned around -- we don't actually end up hearing the jokes at the expense of men, or white people, or straight people. And when we do, without the context of oppression the meaning isn't the same -- I can hear jokes about straight white cis dudes without feeling threatened.

So what ends up happening is that many of the actual conflicts involving feminists (and, to a lesser extent, anti-racists and queers) are between some straight white dude making jokes, and some feminist earnestly telling him what's wrong with those jokes. And so feminism becomes the side of earnest, serious people getting in the way of fun-loving, if sometimes insensitive, dudes.

And that's not a fun side to be on. So it was nice to see, in this case, a real lady feminist getting criticized by a fake dude feminist for being too funny. And it's also a hopeful sign, that we might live in a society where people no longer feel that they have to trade in the funny for the feminism.
  1. Because humor is a really effective way of policing a space.
The two standard options for policing feminist spaces are to simply refuse to publish offensive comments and to be willing to seriously debate the ideas contained therein. Both of those have their merits, but they have their flaws as well.

In particular, refusing to publish them gives assholes an excuse to cry censorship, which can end up creating a conversation about censorship instead of a conversation about them being an asshole. But publishing them and seriously debating them lets them derail, and in the process sends a message to marginalized people that this is a space that cares more about the free speech rights of assholes than about their safety or comfort.

And to be fair, a little of both of those are done in the posts I linked above, but mostly, the guy's subjected to endless mockery. And rightly so -- because his ideas weren't serious criticisms, they were derailments. Humor enables us to send a clear message that particular types of discourse aren't welcome, without giving a real opportunity for people to cry foul -- it's exactly what anti-feminists have used against us for all these years.

And so the final result is, if I was planning on making an misogynist comments over at Tiger Beatdown, you can be pretty damn sure I'm not going to now. Because if I did, Sady Doyle would fucking end me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In which Glenn Beck finds an ally.

Justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about...

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a 'just' manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.

F.A. Hayek, interviewed here (via)
I like this quote because it serves to show how what's being questioned by the most hardcore critics of social justice movements isn't merely the specific goals of particular movements, but the foundational notion of collective responsibility as an ethical imperative. There's actually a different set of ethical principles at work among advocates of social justice than among free marketeers, and if we don't actually talk about those differences of principle, we end up talking past each other and using justifications that don't answer the questions the other side is asking.

So I think it might be appropriate to spell out some of the ethical underpinnings of the idea of social justice, as I see them.

Firstly, markets are not natural forces. This is true partly because they are created and regulated through social and political processes, by real people. In particular, markets do not exist without the decision to violently enforce the property rights of rich people against poor people. We can meaningfully talk about markets and, by extension, about "the free market" as having architects, almost all rich, white, male, and European, who imposed the legal framework necessary for the market on the rest of the world.

Markets are also not natural forces in the sense that any particular condition which is the result of the "action of a market" is actually the result of actions by individuals. In general, if these individuals are acting as economists believe they should, they are acting selfishly. All of them had the option of acting to increase justice rather than acting to increase personal accumulation, and to the extent that they did not, they share in the responsibility for the injustice of the results.

It seems like part of the difference here has to do with trouble with the diffusion of responsibility. For Hayek, it seems to follow that, because the unfairness of the distribution of resources is not based on my actions alone but rather the action of a large number of people, therefore I bear no responsibility for my part in this continued injustice. For me, the sharing of blame does not make that blame disappear: all of the people who participated in a wrong share blame.

Furthermore, even if markets are thought of as impersonal forces to which terms like justice do not meaningfully apply, that doesn't mean we can't think about them in terms of justice. Floods, certainly, are such impersonal forces -- if a flood affects a particular subset of the population disproportionately, that doesn't make it an unjust flood, because floods can't be expected to be thinking about things like justice when they decide where to do their damage. And further, if a flood destroys my neighbor's crops, I shouldn't be held responsible for that injustice.

But -- and here's the biggest thing I think Hayek is missing -- that doesn't mean I don't have an obligation to remedy it. Even though I have not acted unjustly up to this point, it would be unjust of me to respond to this by saying, "Shit, sucks to be you," and hiring guards to make sure ze doesn't try to sneak in and eat my vegetables at night.

Even if you consider markets to be akin to natural forces, it's not always right to allow natural forces to dictate social outcomes. Or, to phrase it another way, the flood is the only person we can hold responsible for the destruction of the crops, but we're all responsible for the social structure that allows that destruction to starve one particular person rather than making all of us a little hungrier. And it is meaningful to apply principles of justice to that kind of action.

Essentially, all of this is about the idea that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to individuals for the actions of collectives of which they are a part. An interesting aside to this, though, is that a key ingredient in this ascription of responsibility is the separation of two aspects of responsibility that are often conflated: responsibility in the sense of guilt and responsibility in the sense of agency. This allows us to place responsibility for the injustice of the world as it is at the feet of the privileged and powerful, without also placing sole responsibility for the creation of future justice in their hands (and thereby endorsing their continued vanguard status in left movements).

This can seem like a bit of a sleight of hand on the part of social justice advocates: either oppressed people have the capacity to shape change or they don't. If they do, they should share responsibility for the injustice of the world as it is; if they don't, they might as well give up on trying to shape the future. But injustice can be created and maintained by a section of a community, for their own benefit; justice, on the other hand, requires the involvement of all. So even though poor people aren't to blame for their own poverty, we need their involvement in order to abolish poverty.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In which young people talk about violence.

A girl in the sociology class I was in today told me she had just done a project on youth violence. "So tell me about youth violence," I said. The teacher hadn't left lesson plans, and I figured this was a good place to kick off a discussion.

"These people are all trying to say kids get in fights because they're abused, or because their parents are divorced, and all this other stuff, but I think some kids are just bad." I hear this one a lot.

"So the thing you have to realize is that not all neighborhoods are like this. Fights happen way less in Wilmette than they do in Englewood. You think those kids are just better people than you guys?"

"I don't know."

"So let me ask you this. You've all been in fights, right?" Everyone in the class -- it was still early in first period at Robeson, so there were only about five of them -- nodded. "Are you bad people?"

"No," said another girl. "But I only get in fights to protect myself."

A few other kids agreed. "But," I said, "different people have different definitions of what it means to protect themselves, what you have to do." I asked if they would punch me if I pushed them -- most said yes, and one girl said, "Why would you be pushing me if you weren't trying to start a fight?"

"What if you were just in my personal space?" I asked. "I wanted you out, so I pushed you back."

She told me how my response should have been exactly what a nonviolence educator would hope it would be: ask her to move away, explain that it's making me upset, etc.

"Of course," I said. "Those are all things I should have done, and that's what I'd hope my reaction would be. But can you honestly tell me that if I was up in your face like this" -- I stepped about a foot away from her -- "talking to you, that would be your response?"

She laughed. "I probably would push you. But you shouldn't have been that close to me anyway!"

"But look at what's happened -- using only your reactions, we've gotten from someone standing too close to you to a punch getting thrown. This is how fights get started. It's always OK to do just a little bit more than what's done to you, and before you know it knives are getting pulled."

The conversation drifted a little bit. I let it go.

A little while later, a girl was talking about an elementary-school pastime of hers. "We had these police tasers, and sometimes there'd be these white kids sitting on the bus, and we'd start tasing them, and we'd chase them off the bus with tasers."

Another girl -- the same one who'd said fights were caused by bad people -- added, "We used to -- I'm talking about when I was in elementary school -- we'd be riding deep, like, twelve or fifteen deep, and one of us would just point to somebody, anybody, at a bus stop, and we'd just jump 'em. And there was so many of us, they couldn't do nothing, and we'd just beat on 'em and then leave."

"We used to do that too, over on Jackson."

At this point, I had to bring in the rest of the class. "How many of you used to do that?"

"Do what?"

"You and your friends, in elementary school, beat up random strangers at bus stops."

"Well, you don't go into other hoods and start fights at their bus stops, because you don't know what's going to happen. But in my hood, at my bus stop? Yeah, you're going to get got."

"How about the rest of you?"

One boy piped up and said he never had. A girl stayed silent. Everyone else nodded. We were up to eight in the room by this point.

"So let me tell you guys. Growing up in my neighborhood, I never got into a fight with a random stranger in a bus stop. Do you think that's because I'm a better person than you were? Because let me tell you, I wasn't a good person in seventh, eighth grade."

"You never got in a fight?"

"That's not what I'm saying, but no, I didn't. But the point is, as a kid, it never occurred to me to beat up a stranger in a bus stop. There wasn't a pack of fifteen twelve-year-olds running around beating up strangers that I could've joined. It just didn't happen. Why do you think in my neighborhood in Evanston, that never happened, but on the South and West Sides, where you grew up, it happens all the time?"

They were a little shocked by this. "You know, some of those people did have some problems, like, anger problems, violence problems."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In which I probably should care more about abortion than I do.

I don't care about abortion.

I've been waiting a long time to get that off my chest. I kinda feel bad about it, because I know it really matters to a lot of people. It's just another medical procedure to me -- like assisted suicide, it's a right, but it feels abstract to me.

And it's weird that it should be abstract, because people close to me have had them, and their lives and my life would be very different if they hadn't. And I'm glad they were able to do so, and I don't believe those choices should be stigmatized -- but I can't bring myself to get up in arms about it.

Maybe I'm overstating this. I do certainly find common cause with abortion activists on a lot of issues: I'm totally down with clinic escorting, for example, because I really like the idea of escorting as a way of showing support to victims of harassment and violence. And I shared in the outrage and mourning over the death of George Tiller, because I'm opposed to political violence, and to the way it gets minimized when it's carried out by white Christians. But when people started expressing joy over the fact that Roeder's sentence doesn't offer the possibility of parole for fifty years (like, thank God for that, right? Can't leave open even the slightest possibility that at seventy-fucking-seven he might have ceased to be a danger to society...) they kinda lost me. Similarly when it started to seem like the only way health care became a feminist issue was when that health care related to the removal of fetuses.

It's stuff like this that has led to me getting bored by coverage of abortion.

Partly, I think this has to do with the fact that, in addition to an argument about misogyny, there's an argument being had about whether fetuses are lumps of cells or humans, and at what point that transition is made. I don't think that's the sort of question I'm equipped to answer, just like the question of whether chimps have souls or the question of the existence of God. I don't think the question makes sense (aren't humans lumps of cells?), it bores me, let's talk about something else.

So I don't like it when people's stance on abortion gets taken as a litmus test for whether they think women are people. Because, as it happens, I think women are people and that they should be able to have abortions, but I care a lot more about them being people than I do about what they do with their fetuses, and it doesn't seem impossible to be feminist and anti-choice, provided that you've got some other way to mitigate the unfair distribution of the consequences of unwanted pregnancies. (Of course, I understand that one of those consequences is birth, and it's hard to distribute that one -- so there's some 'splainin' to do, but I don't think it's necessarily impossible.)

Another piece of it is that I think the centrality of abortion to feminist conversations reflects the dominance of particular groups in feminist conversation: specifically, it's an issue that is especially salient to straight women, but it also seems to me to alienate a lot of mothers, especially religious mothers (and therefore, especially poor mothers and mothers of color).

On the other hand, I don't think it's up to me to decide whether it's possible to be feminist and anti-choice -- or to decide how much to prioritize it within the feminist movement. And, of course, it's probably also true that part of the reason I don't care about abortion is that I'm a dude, and don't have to deal with it if I don't want to -- there's a long tradition of dudes not caring about feminist issues, and I recognize that and am uncomfortable with participating in it.

I can't shake the feeling that saying, "I'm a feminist, but I don't care about abortion," is a little like saying, "I'm a feminist, but I don't care about feminism." There's a certain hubris in thinking that I can choose which aspects of feminism to care about.

But, y'know, it is what it is. I can't bring myself to get excited about abortion.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In which nonprofits compete unfairly.

So it seems that the fight over "unfair competition" from nonprofits is sprouting up again, this time in the form of objections to fitness centers in churches. Basically, the complaint is that churches can afford to charge much lower rates than commercial fitness centers not only because they have much easier access to clients, but also because they don't have to pay taxes, and can pass some of those savings on to customers.

I wasn't aware of this, but it seems this debate has existed for as long as clause 501(c)(3) has governed nonprofit tax exemptions. Small business owners get worried that nonprofits will undercut them by providing the same services without having to pay taxes on their profits.

I really don't get how this is a serious complaint. Is the fear here that small-business owners will be driven out of business by nonprofits providing the same services, and eventually all profits (which will then be known as surpluses) will be used for the public good?

One fear that might be raised in this regard is that the only limit 501(c)(3) status places on executive salaries is that they be "reasonable." Lax enforcement of this means that nonprofits can, to some extent, distribute the results of commercial activities to executives rather than to projects that benefit the public good -- and occasionally, they do.

But in order to have serious fears about unfair competition, it seems like you need some evidence that this is leading to a flooding of markets with cheap nonprofit options, and that on the whole the proceeds aren't being used for the public good. And in order for that to happen, you'd need some incentives for people to fund such a project, given that they can't make money from a later sale of the organization. In principle, you could hire such a person as a consultant or executive, but in fact, I don't think the salaries are high enough to ever make it worthwhile to do so.

The one exception might be an industry that requires a very small initial investment -- so you don't need to find donors, but can pretty much fund yourself by providing services. In a case like that, one might find it worthwhile to dodge taxes by starting a company that's officially nonprofit, but mostly, it seems like you've got to be able to convince investors, and there's really not much you can promise them. So ultimately, I think what we're dealing with is really small business owners who really can't see the difference between selling mugs to support the opera and selling mugs to line your own pockets.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In which corruption is defeated by a crack team of... wait, what?

Via Ray Fisman and Edward Miguel's discussion in Economic Gangsters, I learned about Antanas Mockus, who was mayor of Bogotá in the late nineties and early oughts. When he came to power, Bogotá had the highest murder rate in the world. Worse, he couldn't address it through the traditional means: not only would that involve building massive numbers of prisons, it would involve relying on a notoriously corrupt police force.

So instead, he hired about 400 theater students as mimes. They walked around, and when they saw people doing bad shit -- jaywalking, running red lights, corruption, vandalism -- they'd make fun of them. And they'd flash red cards, like soccer refs. And maybe even more important, they'd give out red cards to passersby, and encourage them to get involved in the mockery and condemnation.

And it worked. By every standard, crime shot down in Bogotá. Of course, there were presumably other factors at play, including some more concrete programs -- but this and other street-theater efforts seem to have had a pretty significant effect in changing the culture of corruption in Bogotá.

In my mind, this is closely related to my post about the Assurance game that dominates the school system. Fisman, being an economist, actually talks a little about this, although he doesn't name it: he talks about the two competing equilibria, and the fact that no one wants to be the only person who isn't taking bribes. Basically, the logic goes like this: I'd rather we be in a society that isn't corrupt, but if we're living in a corrupt society, I'm damned if I'm going to be the one honest cop. This is especially true since, if the society is corrupt enough, you may find yourself subject to distrust because of your honesty, as people start wondering if you're going to rat them out for their own foibles.

And to get from one equilibrium to another, what really matters is that you create a sense that everyone's moving in that direction. And it strikes me that theater is a great way to do that. It gets everyone talking, in a positive way, about the issues of corruption and disorder that plague the society: when we address these problems through enforcement, we give people an opportunity to (often rightly) blame the enforcer rather than the perpetrator, but when we address them through mockery, the easiest way to continue the conversation is by continuing the mockery. And this creates a huge preponderance of talk that suggests that corruption is frowned upon, which makes it seem like everyone's stopping, which means they do. I love it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's In the Health Care Bill: Title I, Subtitle C. Quality Health Insurance Coverage for All Americans

This is part of a series in which I'm reading the health care bill, because I really don't know what to think of it without doing so. The introduction to the series is here. Title I, subtitles B and C are here and here, respectively. The bill itself, as passed, is here.

Part I -- Health Insurance Market Reforms

Section 1201. Amendment to the Public Health Service Act.


Section 2704 [again, of the Public Health Service Act as amended]. Prohibition of preexisting condition exclusions or other discrimination based on health status.

Insurance companies can't exclude people based on preexisting conditions.

Section 2701. Fair health insurance premiums.

The only acceptable variation in rates for a particular health plan are based on whether it's individual or family coverage, rating area (each state sets up one or more rating areas within the state), age (up to 3 to 1), and tobacco use (up to 1.5 to 1).

Section 2702. Guaranteed availability of coverage.

Health insurers have to accept everyone who wants coverage, except that:
  • They can set enrollment periods, subject to restrictions set by HHS.
  • They can stop adding new customers because it will interfere with their ability to serve their existing customers, provided that they apply this uniformly; and
  • They can stop adding new customers because they can't afford to cover any more people, provided that they apply this uniformly.
Essentially, this extends the rules for restricting coverage in the group market to insurers operating in the individual market.

Section 2703. Guaranteed renewability of coverage.

They have to give you the option to renew coverage, except if you're fraudulent, don't pay your bills, they're stopping offering coverage or the particular type of coverage you have (provided they don't immediately re-enter that market, and that they tell you in advance and such), you move outside the service area, or your employer leaves an association through which the coverage was provided. Again, this essentially extends the rules on renewability of group health insurance to individual health insurance.

Section 2705. Prohibiting discrimination against individual participants and beneficiaries based on health status.

It's what it sounds like. Again, extending prohibitions on such discrimination that already exist in the group health insurance market.

It also creates requirements for wellness programs that don't discriminate based on health status -- they have to either provide incentives regardless of success (e.g., subsidize gym membership whether or not you actually lose weight), or provide alternative ways of getting incentives for people for whom the normal standards are unreasonably difficult or medically inadvisable (for example, if your wellness program involves incentivizing weight loss, you can't just give people money for being thin -- you have to give fat people money for losing reasonable amounts of weight).

There's an unfunded mandate for a 10-state project instituting such wellness projects.

Section 2706. Non-discrimination in health care.

Providers can't discriminate against health care providers, but they can pay them different amounts based on quality or performance measures. Also, they can't discriminate against employees who rat them out under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Section 2707. Comprehensive health insurance coverage.

Health insurance issuers have to cover an "essential benefits packange," which will be defined by the Secretary of HHS, but includes at least the following categories of service: walk-ins, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity/newborn care, mental health and substance abuse services, prescription drugs, rehabilitative services, lab services, preventive and wellness services, and pediatric services, as well as anything else HHS adds to that list.

Adjusted for the overall cost of health care, your out-of-pocket expenses are limited to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for families.

If an insurance company provides a particular level of coverage (bronze, silver, gold, or platinum -- more on that in subtitle D), they have to provide a child-only plan that provides that level of coverage.

None of this applies to dental-only plans.

Section 2708. Prohibition on excessive waiting periods.

Health insurance plans can't have waiting periods of more than 90 days before they cover you.

Part II: Other Provisions

Section 1251. Preservation of the right to maintain existing coverage.

None of the changes made in subtitles A or C apply to your current health insurance; even if you renew that coverage after this act is passed. Also, your family members can join your current health plan, and employers can add new employees to their plan, even if those plans would otherwise be illegal under this act. If you're guaranteed coverage under a collective bargaining agreement, that coverage can persist as is until that collective bargaining agreement terminates, but changes to the plan to make it conform to this law don't terminate your collective bargaining agreement.

I suppose it's reasonable (sort of) as a way of allaying people's fears that this will affect their health insurance, to say if you're happy with your annual limits, or your lack of preventive care or dependent coverage, you can keep them. But this also allows your insurer to rescind or cancel your health insurance based on health status, not have an appeals process, hike your premiums unreasonably and without justification, not report on how they spend your premiums and reimburse you if their administrative costs are excessive, and not provide you with a nice statement of your benefits so you can comparison shop.

Section 1252. Reforms must apply uniformly to all health insurance issuers and group health plans.

When a state adopts standards of the kinds we've seen so far, they have to be uniformly applied to all health plans in the market where they apply.

Section 1253. Effective dates.

This subtitle takes effect on January 1, 2014, and applies to plan years beginning after that point.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What's In the Health Care Bill: Title I, Subtitle B. Immediate Actions to Preserve and Expand Coverage.

This is part of a series in which I'm reading the health care bill, because I really don't know what to think of it without doing so. The introduction to the series is here. Title I, Subtitle A is here. Title I, Subtitle C is here. The bill itself, as passed, is here.

Section 1101. Immediate access to insurance for uninsured individuals with a pre-existing condition.

Creates a national pool (which may or may not contract out some of its work to existing state or non-profit high-risk pools), to cover citizens, nationals and documented immigrants who haven't had health insurance for 6 months and have pre-existing conditions.

In order to count, plans have to cover 65 percent of total benefit costs, and have an out-of-pocket limit of $5000 for individuals and $10,000 for families -- and they can't just use the federal money to replace the money they were spending already on these plans. They can only vary the premiums they charge by whether it's individual or family coverage, area, age (by up to 4 to 1), tobacco use (up to 1.5 to 1). They also have to be "established at a standard rate for a standard population," which I take it means they can't be more expensive than private health insurance for non-sick people.

Insurance companies can't encourage high-risk patients to leave their current plans for the high-risk pool, by giving them money. It also counts as encouraging you to leave if your plan considers health status in determining premiums at renewal (so they're hiking rates to get you to leave) or if they've got you on a policy that they're no longer actively marketing. My guess is that the latter clause is to prevent insurance companies from, rather than setting different rates for sick people on their current plan, hiking the rates on that plan and offering everyone who isn't sick a new plan, with lower rates -- thus effectively creating sick-people rates.

There's $5 billion available for this, "without fiscal year limitation" -- it seems like this means this is all they're getting until 2014, although Rutabaga Ridgepole at TPM seems to think otherwise. If there's not enough money to cover costs, HHS "shall make such adjustments are necessary to eliminate such deficit." I'm confused about what kind of adjustments are expected/authorized. Does this include adjustments to the provisions of the law itself -- for example, changing the 65%-coverage requirement or the out-of-pocket limits, or raising premiums? Renee James at the Sunlight Foundation seems to think so: "If we run out of money, we'll get less, pay more and wait longer."

What seems clear, both from that TPM post and xpostfactoid's take on this, is that $5 billion is woefully inadequate, so this question is going to come up. Estimates range from 2 million to 4 million for the number of people who will be eligible for this, and it's clear that state high-risk pools as they stand are horribly inadequate: they're expensive and have low lifetime coverage limits.

Let's split the difference and imagine it's 3 million people who will take us up on this -- let's also assume the $5 billion is per-year, rather than for the next 4 years. 3 million average citizens spend $23 billion on health care in a year (based on a total US health expenditure of roughly $2.3 trillion) -- since the premiums and out-of-pocket expenses of the high-risk insurance pool can't be more than what ordinary people pay, we can count on $23 billion coming from the customers. So this budget will only balance the cost of their health care is only around $28 billion -- about 20% more than 3 million average citizens.

It seems clear that if these people were that cheap to cover, we wouldn't have had health insurance companies in such a tizzy over the requirement (phased in in 2014) that they stop discriminating against those people -- since such people are about 1% of the population, their added costs would necessitate only a 0.2% raise in everyone else's premiums.

Those are going to be some pretty fucking serious adjustments.

Section 1102. Reinsurance for early retirees.

Provides subsidies for the costs incurred by employment-based plans in covering retirees who don't qualify for Medicare (which I believe means they're between 55 and 65). Specifically, it pays 80% of the costs of each individual beyond the $15,000 mark, up to the $90,000 mark (so the maximum they'll pay for any individual is $60,000). Again, they appropriate $5 billion for this, and will just stop taking claim applications beyond that point.

My impression is that, for the most part, the people who qualify will be union retirees whose contract guarantees them continued access to the health insurance they had while they were working. Some conservatives are apparently calling this a giveaway to unions, but it's really a giveaway to employers of union workers -- my guess is the biggest beneficiaries will be state and local governments and car companies (this guy notes that car companies have been having massive numbers of employees retire early). $5 billion seems small for this, too -- they probably won't get much further than GM and Ford's applications.

Section 1103: Immediate information that allows consumers to identify affordable coverage options.

Establishes a Web site through which you can look at health coverage options in your state, using a standardized format, including private options, high-risk pools (including both the one created under section 1101 and any state-based pool), Medicaid, and state child health plans.

HHS is authorized to contract this out, but no money is appropriated.

Section 1104: Administrative Simplification.

HHS has to develop operating rules for electronic transactions related to health care, and health insurance providers have to comply, document their compliance, and report to HHS about it.

Section 1105: Effective Date.

Immediate.

What's In the Health Care Bill: Title I, Subtitle A. Immediate Improvements in Health Care Coverage for All Americans

This is part of a series in which I'm reading the health care bill, because I really don't know what to think of it without doing so. The introduction to the series is here. Title I, Subtitles B and C are here and here, respectively. The bill itself, as passed, is here.

Section 1001: Amendments to the Public Health Service Act.

Section 2711 [of the Public Health Service Act, that is -- the numbering confused me, too]. No lifetime or annual limits.
A group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage may not establish --
(1) lifetime limits on the dollar value of benefits for any participant or beneficiary; or
(2) unreasonable annual limits (within the meaning of section 223 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) on the dollar value of benefits for any participant or beneficiary.
This bit's kind of a big deal, since the abolition of annual and lifetime limits on coverage was an important aim of this legislation, in the administration's book. The tradeoff here is between the financial ruin of people with cancer (who will run up against the lifetime limits and have to pay for their own treatment) and slightly higher deductibles for everyone else -- and since the point of health insurance is to protect you from the financially ruinous aspects of illness, it's pretty clear what should be happening here.

But instead of abolishing annual limits, they seem to have abolished "unreasonable" annual limits, without defining what "unreasonable" means in this context. Section 223 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is of no help -- it's about deductibles, which as far as I can tell are an unrelated issue.

EDIT: I misread this section of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 223(c) establishes a tax deduction for contributions to health savings accounts, which are only available to individuals who participate in "high-deductible insurance plans," which are defined as insurance plans that have deductibles greater than $1000 for individuals/$2000 for families, and have total out-of-pocket expenses less than $5,000 for individuals/$10,000 for families. I imagine that the idea of this reference is that if an annual limit makes a plan fail to meet this requirement, it's unreasonable.

It seems like any annual limit on coverage would at least have the potential to make people exceed this out-of-pocket limit, so I don't see how a reasonable out-of-pocket limit is possible. But it seems like if that were true, they wouldn't have specifically banned "unreasonable" ones.

Other people who have followed this better than I have are confused about this as well:
According to a CCH tax analyst, this means that "A plan can put in place annual limits so long as they do not circumvent the deductible and out-of-pocket expenses limitations in Code Sec. 223."
Consumer Reports also claims that the fact that saying they can't put limits on "dollar value" is a "loophole that would let insurers limit certain types of care, such as physical rehabilitation sessions or mental-health counseling." I take it what they mean is that if they phrase it in terms of the number of sessions covered, rather than the maximum number of dollars covered, it's legal.

Subsection (b) goes on to say that if a plan isn't required to provide essential health benefits, it can then go ahead and apply annual or lifetime limits on specific benefits -- I'm not sure yet who is required to provide essential health benefits, but my guess is that it's going to be a requirement for participation in the exchanges (the only reference here is to the definition of essential benefits). More on that when I get there.

Section 2712. Prohibition on rescissions.

They can't rescind your coverage unless you're fraudulent. They can only cancel your insurance if they tell you about it (that wasn't already in the law?), and only as permitted under section 2702(c) (which doesn't exist, as far as I can tell -- section 2702 is inserted by this bill, and doesn't have a subsection (c)) or under section 2742(b)*, which allows termination if you lie to them, don't pay your premiums, they stop offering coverage, or you move away from their area.

EDIT: 2702(c) does exist. It's an amended version of what's currently 2711(c), which section 1001 of this bill moves to section 2731, then edited and moved by section 1562(c)(8). You can find the current text of section 2711 here (note that subsections a, b, e and f are being cut completely). You can find amended versions of subsections (c) and (d) here. It allows them to not provide you coverage if they can't do so and still meet their existing obligations -- but if they do so, they have to do so uniformly, and can't offer coverage in that market for 180 days afterwards.

Section 2713. Coverage of preventive health services.

Health insurance providers have to cover vaccines and some other preventive care (stuff that's recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force) -- they get at least a year, and maybe more, to start providing coverage after recommendations are issued.

Section 2714. Extension of dependent coverage.

Extends dependent coverage to age 26 (but, interestingly, only if you're not married -- I suppose there's something to be said about how this reflects the problematic belief that marriage is a defining feature of adulthood) -- the Secretary of HHS decides who gets covered, but it specifies that children of dependents don't count (I suppose this is to make sure we're not creating incentives for people starting families to remain unmarried -- your parents' coverage won't cover your kids).

Section 2715. Development and utilization of uniform explanation of coverage documents and standardized definitions.

Pretty much what it sounds like. The Secretary of HHS develops the standards, in consultation with the people you'd expect (with a surprising specification that this include advocates for consumers with limited English ability) within 12 months -- insurers have to start providing this information within 24 months, both before and after you sign up. They allow that they provide them in electronic form (I'm not sure if this just means they have to publish it online, or whether "providing them in electronic form" means they have to make sure you can access them, and provide hard copy otherwise).

Section 2716. Prohibition of discrimination based on salary.

Employers/group health plans can't provide different coverage to higher-earning employees. It specifically says, though, that they can make higher-earning employees pay more for the same coverage -- my guess is that they could also price plans in ways that create de facto salary discrimination, by pricing them out of low-earning people's ability to contribute (since this isn't an "eligibility rule," it's not prohibited.

Section 2717. Ensuring the quality of care.

The Secretary of HHS will develop guidelines for reporting on the implementation of practices like"quality reporting, effective case management, care coordination, chronic disease management, and medication and care compliance initiatives... patient-centered education and counseling, comprehensive discharge planning, and post discharge reinforcement... best clinical practices, evidence based medicine, and health information technology... wellness and health promotion activities [examples given include smoking cessation, weight management, stress management, etc.]." Health insurance providers have to report on how their benefit structures encourage these sorts of practices every year, and make those reports available to enrollees; the Secretary will also make them available online.

The Secretary of HHS will also write "regulations that provide criteria for determining whether a reimbursement structure" meets the requirements shown above. The GAO will report to the House and Senate committees on the impact of this on quality and cost of health care.

This section strikes me as the creation of meaningless reporting procedures that will lead to exactly nothing.

Section 2718. Bringing down the cost of health care coverage.

Health insurance companies have to submit a report to HHS each year detailing how they spent their premium revenue. If they spend more than specific percentages (20% for group plans, 25% for individual plans) on non-claims costs other than "activities that improve health care quality," they have to reimburse customers (this bit expires in 2013, presumably because something else will go into effect then). States can lower the 20% and 25% levels, but (for individual plans) not if the Secretary of HHS thinks it'll destabilize the health insurance market in the state.

This section also strikes me as bullshit. You can cover all kinds of bureaucratic hogwash under "activities that improve health care quality" (although it does say the Secretary of HHS and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners will establish uniform definitions, I don't have much faith in this process), so my guess is that mostly the only things that will go under the "other costs" heading are the legal department and high-level executive compensation. 20-25% for those sorts of costs sounds preposterously high -- even if you include a whole host of other stuff, the idea that only three quarters of your health insurance premiums are spend on anything that could reasonably be classified as health care is fucking sad.

Also, the worry that states will destabilize the health insurance market is telling. I thought the point was to destabilize the health insurance market, because the health insurance market is a racket.

Section 2719. Appeals process.

Insurance companies have to provide an internal appeals process, and an external review process that meets the standards set by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners; they have to tell consumers about these processes.

Section 1002. Health insurance consumer information.

The Secretary of HHS will provide grants for states to create health insurance consumer assistance and/or ombudsman programs. These programs help you with the appeals process, track the problems consumers have and report this data to HHS, educate you about your rights, help you enroll, and help you with health-insurance-related tax issues.

This program gets $30 million in its first year (FY 2010, by Sec. 1004 below). To me, that indicates that this provision is a joke -- that's ten cents per American in its first year of operation. Assuming all of it went to workers making minimum wage who were actually directly helping people, and assuming funding increases about as fast as the minimum wage, you're entitled to about one hour of ombudsman time in your entire life. Given that those assumptions are preposterously generous, you're probably allocated more like fifteen minutes. Again, that's not per year -- it's per lifetime.

Section 1003. Ensuring that consumers get value for their dollars.

Health insurance issuers have to publish justifications of "unreasonable" premium increases before they go into effect. There's no word on what "unreasonable" means, so this seems pretty toothless. States report to the Secretary of HHS about patterns in premium increases, and may recommend that issuers be excluded from their health insurance exchanges because they keep hiking premiums. HHS gets $250 million to spend on grants for this purpose, which I take it is supposed to last until 2014. Grants to states have to be between $1 million and $5 million per year per state, if they have a qualifying program (so giving New York as much money per person as Alaska is out of the question).

Section 1004. Effective dates.

Everything in this subtitle goes into effect in six months, except sections 1002 and 1003, which go into effect beginning in fiscal year 2010.

*I can't find anywhere where the Public Health Service Act's sections are numbered starting with "27," the way they reference them here. If anyone can explain the difference between this citation and the actual section number, I'm interested.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

In which maybe he did, and maybe he didn't.

I overheard a conversation recently among students. One of them had been accused of bringing a gun to school -- throughout the conversation he insisted he hadn't, and the other kids seemed to believe him. When he was called to an administrator's office, she couldn't find conclusive proof that he'd done so -- but since she still believed he had, she suspended him for five days.

I'm not sure how confident I am in this version of the facts of the story, but I think it's worth talking about because it showcases a really common tendency among people tasked with enforcing rules of all kinds. There are often cases where any such person is not able to completely ascertain what's happened, and so they have to proceed based on partial evidence. Especially in cases like this one, such people really want to show that they're taking this issue seriously -- and they feel like that means they have to do something about it.

A really common response is to figure out what you think the probability is that the person did what they're accused of, and multiply that probability by the normal response -- so, if you're 60% sure, you apply 60% of the punishment (or 60% of the stern talking-to, or the counseling or rehab -- 60% of whatever your response would be if you were sure they had done it). From the perspective of the administrator, this makes a certain kind of emotional sense -- if there's a 60% chance that a gun was brought to school, you probably have about 60% of the worry and anger you would if you were completely sure, and so this level of response seems appropriate.

But from the perspective of the accused, either it happened or it didn't. And either way, they're getting the wrong message. If they did it, your response is 60% as strenuous as it should be (working from the assumption that you would give the appropriate response if they had done whatever it is they're accused of -- which, of course, isn't generally a good assumption). If they didn't, they're being maligned for nothing. Either way, especially if this happens repeatedly, they begin to realize that it ultimately didn't matter whether they had done it or not: what matters in terms of the response is entirely about the administrator's subjective state of certainty. Which is exactly not the message you want to send.

On the other hand, the other options aren't exactly good either -- no matter the mechanism by which your perception of what happened turns into a response, your response is based on your perception, which is again encouraging the belief that what actually happened doesn't matter.

Fundamentally, I think, any system of reconciliation that relies on punishment as its path to forgiveness is going to run into this problem. When you rely on punishment, you create incentives for perpetrators to conceal their wrongs -- which is going to create these types of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenarios.

Let's suppose for a moment that, in the abstract, punishment of the guilty is an aid to the resolution of conflicts. I don't think it is, but let's imagine. Even so, it seems unlikely that punishment is as important to the resolution of conflicts as the ascertaining of what happened -- because our attempts to resolve conflicts without knowing who's done what always run into the sorts of issues described above. And since a general practice of punishment has the effect of making it very difficult to determine with any certainty what happened, because it creates incentives for people to conceal the truth, it seems like even so we have to abandon punishment in order to have any hope of an effective general procedure of conflict resolution.

The ultimate aim of the criminal justice system -- and especially efforts at juvenile justice, inside or outside of schools -- is reconciliation of the accused with the victim and with society, whether we're willing to say it out loud or not. Our goal is to make people feel able to return to their normal lives after a wrong has been done. We're never going to be able to do that if people are afraid of the process of reconciliation.

Friday, March 26, 2010

In which I launch a new and painful project.

So I've been avoiding writing about the health-care bill, because I'm among the millions of Americans who still doesn't know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I'm committed to the idea that we should be taking care of sick people, even poor sick people. On the other hand, I'm not sure if this law guarantees that, and I'm definitely not confident that it does a good enough job of it to make up for the abortion-restricting insurance-company giveaway aspect.

And the thing is, I feel like there are enough bloggers reciting the talking points they've gotten from RH Reality Check, or the Center for American Progress, or Nancy Pelosi, or Charles Krauthammer, or Howard Dean, or any of the other framers of debate. And I think the only way I can genuinely contribute to the debate on the subject is to read some combination of the bill and the CBO analysis of it.

So I'm going to start doing that, and I'm going to post summaries of what I'm reading as I go. It's probably going to be one of the few analyses of the health-care bill by someone who hasn't decided what they think before they read it.

I'd planned to have my first post on the topic be an analysis of the first section of the bill. But then my first effort in this direction was thwarted by Matt Taibbi's link to an old copy of the bill (which I didn't pick up on until, twenty pages in, it mentioned the public option), so I figured I'd write a little bit about how this process reflects on our democracy.

First of all, as a citizen, my input is only relevant to the extent that I comment on this bill. While I can make philosophical arguments and talk about the form I think health-care would take in a genuinely just society, the thing my representative will ultimately be held accountable for is a yes-no vote, and so my arguments can only be a part of the decision-making process to the extent that they take a position on that vote.

And the process that shaped the bill on which I have to take a yes-no position is hardly democratic -- look, for example, at the fact that the public option isn't even on the table, despite being tremendously popular. And so it's important that we not let the health-care debate be reduced to options set by some combination of politicians, the health insurance industry, and the pharmaceutical industry, and that we treat opinions that don't center on this particular bill as valid, relevant parts of the health care debate.

Secondly, they don't exactly make it easy for you to find out about it. The official detailed summary of the bill is horribly written, and if you don't already know what it's saying, you're not going to learn anything from it. The bill itself seems to be the only option -- and it's over two thousand pages, riddled with references to other sections and other bills. This is clearly not an institutional framework for well-informed public involvement -- this is a framework for the professionals to tell us what they're doing and what we should think about it.

In situations like this, opinion polls end up getting thrown around all over the place, but they can't possibly mean anything -- how can I meaningfully form an opinion on a two-thousand-page document I haven't read? And opinion polls like this get cited as proof that democracy doesn't work -- as, for example, when polls recently found an overwhelming majority of Californians in favor of solving the state's budget crisis by cutting spending, but overwhelming majorities against cutting spending in any of the areas where the real money is.

What's happening here is that there's overwhelming societal pressure to have an opinion on these big issues -- those who don't are seen as detached, lazy, irresponsible. But because we don't have the time or the education to read these tremendously complex bills, our opinions are often self-contradictory or wrong. This gets seen as proof that you can't leave these decisions up to ordinary people, instead of as proof that you need to give people the time and support they need to understand the issues before they make their decisions.

The Medium Dog, over at Angel Economics, argues (in section 2 of the linked article) that it's reasonable, in a truly democratic society, to imagine a two-hour workday, giving people the time to really educate themselves and genuinely participate democratically. Basically, he argues that the coercive organization of our labor force is tremendously wasteful -- we expend a lot of work maintaining the incentive systems within workplaces, locking people up who don't participate in the economy the way we want them to, and dealing with social problems that arise as a result of this organization; lots of people are unemployed, and we lose the benefit of their labor; workers' motivation is hurt by the fact that they bear all kinds of burdens that they don't have any power to make decisions about; and we expend lots of effort making crap that no one wants, and then convincing people that they want it.

Reducing the workday to two hours might be a little optimistic, but I do think forty hours a week is really excessive, and I agree that we can do much better by eliminating some of the waste associated with capitalism. I'd add that there are significant economies of scale in housework, especially cooking -- both because of food waste and because cooking for eight isn't twice as much work as cooking for four. The construction of the family as the largest unit we can trust enough to share our food on a regular basis hugely increases the amount of domestic labor we have to do. And our efforts to outsource that labor add other kinds of waste, in the form of preposterous amounts of packaging, and the service aspects of the restaurant industry. So as we develop the kind of economic freedom and security to feel comfortable sharing a living space and cooking duties, we can cut down on waste and free up more time for democratic participation.

So I am going to read the health-care bill, and try to give as fair a summary as I can of what's in it -- and then I'll try to decide what to think about it. But, ultimately, we need to either make the process of forming well-informed opinions on political issues less onerous, or we need to give people the time to read these two-thousand-page monstrosities -- and write them in the sort of language people can understand without going to law school.

Update:
What I've read so far:
Title I, Subtitle A
Title I, Subtitle B
Title I, Subtitle C

Monday, March 22, 2010

In which we take a good look at the Chicago Public Schools budget deficit, and the plans to rectify it.

So I had a bunch of questions after I saw Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Hubermann's PowerPoint presentation on the budget crisis (which, by the way, ranks among the best of my gifted 10-12-year-olds in terms of professionalism). Here are some of them, along with the answers I've been able to piece together so far:

1. Aren't maximum class sizes set in the CTU contract?

Yes -- in section 28-1. But if you look at subsection VII, there's this great bit of fuck-you:
Prior to Board adoption of any amendments to this policy altering the class size provisions contained herein, notice and an opportunity to meet and confer regarding alterations will be provided to the Chicago Teachers Union at least 45 days prior to implementation.
We get to talk about it for a few days before you ratchet up our class sizes to 37? How fucking sweet of you.

This might seem like a totally bizarre sort of provision to find in a union contract -- it seemed that way to me, too. It turns out that class size is what's called a "permissive" subject of negotiation, as described in the Illinois Employment Labor Relations Act, section 4.5(b):
The subject or matters described in subsection (a) [contracting teaching duties to third parties, laying off teachers, setting class sizes, schedules, and calendars, and creating and staffing experimental programs related to educational use of technology] are permissive subjects of bargaining between an educational employer and an exclusive representative of its employees and, for the purpose of this Act, are within the sole discretion of the educational employer to decide to bargain, provided that the educational employer is required to bargain over the impact of a decision concerning such subject or matter on the bargaining unit upon request by the exclusive representative. During this bargaining, the educational employer shall not be precluded from implementing its decision. If, after a reasonable period of bargaining, a dispute or impasse exists between the educational employer and the exclusive representative, the dispute or impasse shall be resolved exclusively as set forth in subsection (b) of Section 12 of this Act in lieu of a strike under Section 13 of this Act.
[By the way, subsection 12(b) is about mediation.]

So basically, the union's right to set binding standards about these subjects is severely restricted under the law (we can't strike over these issues, and we can only include them in negotiations if they let us), and bargained away even further in our contract (we don't even require them to submit to mediation).

2. How does laying off 2300 teachers save $160 million?

Here's the thing: laid-off teachers go into the cadre substitute pool, which means that they work every day (even if there aren't enough teachers out to justify it) and still get benefits, and their salary cut is about $20,000 at the outside. That means, in terms of the savings on those teachers' salaries, you're looking at a total of less than $50 million.

The real savings come, not at the expense of those laid-off teachers, but at the expense of those of us who were laid off last year, who won't be getting new jobs, won't be working, and won't be getting our benefits renewed. Chicago Public Schools keeps a structural unemployment level of about 4% -- people who are certified to teach, want teaching jobs, but have been laid off and are working as substitutes with benefits. The people who are in that category this year almost certainly won't get new jobs, will lose their health insurance, and will almost never work, because it will be very rare for 2300 teachers to call in sick in a district with less than 25,000 teachers left.

3. Where does this come from?

Hubermann's presentation does a great job of outsourcing blame as much as possible: the first thing he points to in explaining a $700-million budget deficit is a $68-million decrease in state funding. There's also a $138-million decrease in local revenue, a $279-million increase in the district's pension obligation, $169 million in increased teacher compensation, and $133 million in increased operational and construction expenses.

Portraying the increases in operational and construction expenses as anything other than voluntary -- without giving any details on where these increases are coming from -- seems to me to be mostly nonsense. Given that they're using a whole bunch of resources closing old schools and opening new ones, it seems like that number ought to be negotiable. More research on this is needed, ideally from someone who has more time for investigative journalism than I do (I'd like to suggest the pros do it, but I know how good the odds are of something like that coming out of the mainstream Chicago press).

The increase in teacher compensation is entirely predictable: teacher raises are written into the contract, and health care costs and increases in average seniority have been going on for quite some time.

In order to talk about decreases in local revenue, we need to talk about tax increment financing, the system whereby property tax revenue gets diverted from local government institutions such as the school board and into the pockets of developers. Since the purpose of tax increment financing is to combat blight, and since it's clear shitty schools have a lot to do with driving people (and by extension, businesses) away from neighborhoods, it seems like there's a reasonable case to be made that we should shovel some TIF money into the schools.

Then there are state budget cuts, which, I suppose, we just have to accept for now.

And there's the pension obligations. The Chicago Public Schools contribution to the teachers' pension fund is determined by the assets-to-liabilities ratio of the pension fund itself -- the idea is that the Chicago Public Schools are responsible for putting in enough money to make sure the pension's assets-to-liabilities ratio reaches 90% (the widely-accepted minimum for soundness of a pension fund) by 2045.

This amount had already been increased by a combination of increases in promised benefits over the years (which increase the amount of unfunded liabilities to be covered by 2045), and state government failures to live up to its commitment. According to a Civic Federation report, the General Assembly declared its "goal and intention" of putting 20% to 30% as much money into the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund as it did into the downstate teachers' fund (which makes sense given population figures), but actually less than 2% of its teachers' pension contributions are to CTPF -- a difference between about $32.5 million in FY 2010 and $482 million in FY 2010. Partly, this has to do with the mismanagement of the downstate teachers' pension fund, which put it in a much more desperate situation.

Add to this the effect of the stock market crash, and you see preposterously large requirements on CPS, in order to meet the goal of 90% funding by 2045.

4. What is to be done?

No one's being reasonable here. In the short term, regardless of the principles involved, we need to be teaching kids, and in the long term, we need to not be alienating newer teachers.

To be fair, it seems like some of what's going on here is posturing: CTU president Marilyn Stewart has dismissed Hubermann's presentation as "threatening rhetoric," saying negotiations are going on behind the scenes to resolve the issue. It seems like Hubermann's intentionally painting a doomsday scenario to push the union into concessions, and like the CTU's "no concessions" stance probably won't hold up. But for the moment, let's assume they're serious.

By refusing to compromise on the contract, the CTU isn't protecting teachers. Teachers are still taking a huge hit -- it's just that the hit is in the form of job losses, which disproportionately affect young teachers, rather than salary and benefit compromises, which disproportionately affect old teachers. This is why those of us who are young and idealistic are suspicious of the union: it consistently, whether in these debates or in the debates over tenure and incentive pay, prioritizes the desires of old, shitty teachers.

The cost of living adjustment should be waived this year. The cost of living hasn't actually increased, so we can live without 4% raises. Everyone else is doing it. I sympathize with the idea that this sets a precedent for continued concessions on the part of the union, which is why we should demand in return some fiscal responsibility from the schools (in the form of a Renaissance 2010 moratorium), the city (in the form of the diversion of TIF money from developers and corporations to the schools), and the state (in the form of an increase in the income tax -- and, ideally, the abandonment of the two-bracket tax system -- and demands that they make and keep realistic commitments to the pension fund).

The pension problem isn't going away. Most of the pension funds in the area, according to that Civic Federation report, are fucked even worse than the CTPF is. Asking the state for pension relief only makes sense if you believe the pension fund is going to rebound massively when (if) the economy recovers; otherwise, we're going to be stuck with even more massive deficits over the next few years, and even more demands for union concessions. We need to figure out what a reasonable, sustainable approach to teacher pensions is, and figure out ways to fund it.

And we need to involve parents and children in this process. As it stands, the biggest cuts are in places that hit parents and students directly. If these negotiations are only between CTU and the Board, we're leaving out the vast majority of the stakeholders.
 

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