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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In which right-wing nutjobs offer a correct analysis of the plan to try KSM.

I've recently read (or read accounts of) three different attacks on the idea of a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: here, here, and here. And, although it's clear that everyone involved in writing these pieces is an asshole, it's worth admitting that they're also right.

The argument goes like this: the US government is attempting to use a civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to give some legitimacy to his impending execution. But the reason why civilian trials grant legitimacy to punishments is largely because they presume innocence, and make you prove guilt with admissible (i.e., non-torture-derived) evidence before you can apply those punishments. In this case, the ability to do that is far from assured -- a lot of the evidence will be thrown out on the basis of waterboarding, and there's a reasonable chance that a good court would throw out the entire fucking case due to prosecutorial misconduct.

But the administration has made it clear they don't give a shit about any of that. Just look at the disgusting smirk on Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's face when he says KSM "is going to meet justice, and he's going to meet his maker." And Attorney General Eric Holder's claim that "failure is not an option" clearly doesn't fit well with the whole presumption-of-innocence thing, either.

And in general, the Obama administration has made clear they think they get to hold suspected terrorists without trial. So it seems clear that, pretty much no matter what happens in the courtroom, KSM's never going to see the outside again. I believe the correct phrase for a trial that fits this description is "show trial."

Furthermore, this puts some fucked-up strain on the judges involved in the trial and the appeal: the courts have to either find a way to a conviction, or be rendered irrelevant. Either way, there are potentially disastrous consequences: either we set a precedent of allowing inadmissible evidence in certain cases, or we end up in a situation where the executive branch can not only hold someone without trial, they can hold them after an acquittal.

If you're going to try him, you have to be committed to live with the results of that trial. And that might mean an acquittal. If you're not going to do that, the neocons are right. Don't bother with a trial.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In which Karl Rove is a frighteningly talented commentator.

So I was listening to an interview with Karl Rove on Fresh Air, and what struck me most was that the man is absolutely incredible at framing issues. When they start talking about his anti-gay agenda, he managed to cast it quite effectively as support of traditional marriage, rather than opposition to gay marriage, let alone actual anti-gay rhetoric and sentiment. And when the conversation shifted to the war in Iraq, he deflected criticism about WMDs by talking about the "broad bipartisan consensus" on the subject, had the gall to argue in favor of the war in terms of Hussein's flouting of the international community, and explained away the rise in insurgent violence in terms of worries that democracy in Iraq would mean a loss for al-Qaeda (he cites a letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden to make this point).

And here's the thing -- he actually got me to go and fact-check his claim about the letter. It seems to be somewhat true: Zarqawi seems to be making the point that as long as al-Qaeda is fighting against the United States, they have some support within Iraq, but if democracy gets strong enough that the US can pull out, their war with the Shi'a (whom he considers at least as important an enemy as the US) will lose some of its backing. It's worth noting, though, that the word "democracy" is used only once, and it's not entirely clear what it means to Zarqawi: elections? The general principle of empowering people to make decisions for themselves and their communities? Whatever it is that the US is pushing for?

Did you see what just happened there? I got caught trying to justify (or at least make sense out of) internal al-Qaeda communications. Why the fuck did I do that? Who the fuck cares whether Zarqawi said that? Was there any doubt in any of our minds that fucking Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is an asshole?

And that's exactly the problem: Rove was so effective in portraying this as a decision between the United States and "the terrorists" that I actually thought it was worth looking into whether fucking al-Qaeda was really as unreasonable as he said they were. And Terry Gross took the bait too -- she asked him if he really thought what they were scared of was democracy rather than the US invasion, and it was easy for him to answer that, yes, in fact, Zarqawi did write that shit in a letter.

So he got two reasonably well-educated, intelligent, vaguely left-minded people to take the bait by implicitly assuming that (1) Zarqawi spoke for the insurgency; (2) people couldn't be radicalized into opposition to actual Iraqi democracy as a result of opposition to the forces arrayed in favor of Iraqi "democracy"; (3) it even makes sense to talk about the invasion of Iraq as though the real problem with it is the resulting increase in the numbers of Muslim extremists. And the conversation got to the point where the only apparent way to challenge him was to side with al-Qaeda.

I will never be as good at this as Karl Rove. If I get in a debate with him about Iraq, I will lose. I admit this is partly because he spends all his fucking time figuring out how to argue in favor of killing and torturing brown people, and I actually have to spend some time at a real job. But it's also partly because we've been culturally conditioned to accept all these tiny little assumptions like the three I mentioned above, and so it's really fucking easy to swing the focus of the debate in ways like that.

I dunno -- at this point, I think I would revert pretty quickly to, "Just stop. Please. Really, you don't have to do this. We believe you're very tough. Now step back from the lectern." Does anyone have any better ideas?

Monday, March 15, 2010

In which credit is due and credit is given.

In the wake of the recent revelation that the gun used in the Pentagon shooting of March 4, 2009 came originally from the Memphis Police Department -- and that on that very date it became illegal for Tennessee law enforcement agencies to destroy guns that could still be used to kill people -- I figured I'd look into how these things go in Chicago.

It turns out that in both the case of the Don't Kill a Dream, Save a Life gun exchange program, and the case of guns confiscated in criminal investigations, CPD melts the guns down rather than selling them. Not only that, but Daley's involved in lobbying to have all cities destroy guns seized by and/or handed over to police.

Way to go, City of Chicago. You've lowered my expectations so much that I'm actually impressed that you don't participate in what might be the most counterproductive law enforcement practice ever (aside from incarceration, of course).

But quite frankly, I'll believe that you're serious about ending gun violence when you disarm the cops.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In which a lot of what we teach in school is conformity to the dominant culture.

The AVID program is a course of study offered in some public schools aimed at teaching college-preparatory study habits to poor kids. And a whole bunch of the stuff they teach centers on acronyms. My favorite is SLANT, which, with some slight variations depending on who you ask, stands something like this:
Sit in front.
Lean forward in your desk.
Ask questions.
Nod your head.
Talk to the teacher.
If this seems a little pedantic to you, you're not alone. But NPR recently interviewed a guy who has a pretty solid theoretical justification for an approach like this (props to Jonathan for sending this to me):
If you tell a kid to pay attention, and the kid doesn't do what you want them to do, and you say back to them, I thought I told you to pay attention, I think most teachers know that the answer is going to be, I was paying attention. [...]So you sort of lack the accountability piece there, if you don't make your directions observable. [...]

When directions are vague, there's a lot of opportunistic opportunistic off past behavior. And there's a certain number of kids who may not be following the task because they - we just weren't really clear about it enough as teachers. Students may not - the issue maybe what I call incompetence, which is they don't know how to do what you ask them to do. When you tell a student to pay attention, does the student know that that means sit up, get your eyes on me and put your feet on the floor?

So, if you give them more specific directions, sit up, get your eyes on me, put your feet on the floor, you're actually teaching the kids who don't know what to do. You're eliminating the ambiguity that let some of the kids sort of exploit that, and you're making it much, much harder - a kid really has to willfully decide that they're going to defy you.
Essentially, the argument is that there are legitimate sources of misunderstanding about lots of types of directions that teachers assume are perfectly clear. There's no a priori reason why "Pay attention" should have anything whatever to do with putting your feet on the floor, and if you want students to put their feet on the floor, you have to tell them that, rather than getting mad at them for not understanding that that was included in paying attention.

There are often significant cultural differences that contribute to misunderstandings between teachers and students. In many cases, you have a teacher representing a middle-class, white, formal, professional culture interacting with a student representing a poor minority informal home culture. And teachers often are totally insensitive to that cultural difference, assuming their own definitions to requests (or commands) that have multiple legitimate meanings -- and students often respond to their uncertainty about what's expected to them by doing nothing.

There's another legitimate angle from which to question this approach, though. The teacher is, in many cases, one thirtieth of the people in the classroom -- why are we so thoroughly privileging their cultural associations? If twenty-nine people think "pay attention" doesn't mean putting your feet on the floor, and one person thinks it does, why are we not questioning whether the feet on the floor are really an essential part of the classroom experience?

Although this interview doesn't give a full answer to that, Lisa Delpit does, in Other People's Children. A lot of the book is a critique of white liberal educational practices with regard to literacy, but they apply in lots of situations. Basically, white liberals realized in the past couple of decades that white culture isn't actually better than black culture, and started questioning whether it makes sense for us to so thoroughly privilege white culture in schools. They started realizing (holy shit) that black (and Latin@, and Native American) children felt alienated by being told the language of their parents, families, and communities was "wrong." They realized that kids were being driven away from focusing on meaning, because the pronunciations that they were being taught to associate with written words weren't the ones that they used to communicate.

So they started de-emphasizing the whiteness-specific parts of the curriculum -- they stopped teaching grammar, and started teaching creative writing process; they stopped correcting the silent "r" in "before" when kids were reading; they stopped using words like "Spanglish" as derogatory.

But the problem is, no one else stopped judging those kids for their language. The set of linguistic practices that had been assumed in schools were the ones that they were expected to use in the rest of the world -- they were part of what Delpit refers to as "the culture of power." And parents were pissed at the schools -- their kids already knew how to write and speak in black English, they already knew that black was beautiful, but they were sending them to school to learn how to deal with white people, and they were being cheated out of this.

Essentially, then, we do have an obligation to teach kids that "pay attention" means having both your feet on the floor -- not as an absolute, but as a part of the cultural system that gives you access to the mechanisms of power. And I wish Lemov had been clearer about validating the other ways of paying attention, and I wish more teachers were clearer about doing so in their classrooms. The way he talks about it, it really sounds like there's an absolute meaning of "pay attention," that the teachers are responsible for teaching to their students -- instead of that there are two different meanings, and teachers need to teach students a new meaning.

Kids are remarkably sharp about stuff like this. They really can understand it if you say, "When people say 'pay attention' in school, they usually mean something different than when people say the same words in other contexts. And when people say it in school, it's going to include things like having your feet on the floor, nodding at appropriate moments, and taking notes."

Another piece of this, though, is that asking simple, measurable things of students, no matter how arbitrary those things are in an objective sense, gets them used to the idea that you will expect certain things of them, that you'll teach them how to do those things, and that they'll be achievable. I think this is a really important step in countering a lot of the negative feelings students have about school, and getting them ready to put effort toward the things that do require effort. I also think it's important to set the expectation early on that this classroom is a place where people are mostly working together, and mostly interacting positively -- because students' initial impressions of a classroom atmosphere have a huge effect on their willingness to risk their time and their cred by cooperating.

I do worry, though, that it creates a top-down atmosphere, where students are being taught that their job is to respond to teacher directions, and expect positive teacher feedback for those actions -- rather than allowing them to feel like they're responsible for coming up with some of the direction, and most of the motivation, for their success. It's probably worth it, but you have to counter it pretty quickly by giving them opportunities to participate in decision-making for the class, contribute ideas and get some positive reinforcement from other students, and do things that aren't "for a grade."

Friday, March 12, 2010

In which I endorse the provisions of the Creative Commons License, but reject the license.

The Creative Commons project does great work by writing licenses that allow people to feel that their rights are being protected while they allow others to reproduce and distribute their work. In particular, I was drawn to the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. There are pretty strong moral arguments to be made for all of the provisions.

With regard to attribution, it just seems fair to mention who wrote something when you reproduce it. It's good for readers, who get to know where they should look for more of the same thought. It's good for writers, who in our vanity want to be recognized for our genius. And it's good for society to be able to operate under the assumption that information has a source, and one that you can track down pretty easily.

The noncommercial restriction makes sense partly because I really don't think ideas should be subject to the same treatment as commodities. The notion that having knowledge entitles you to make money off that knowledge is flawed in the first place -- and it's double-flawed when you're not the source of that knowledge. It seems deeply unfair for someone to get rich off the creation of someone who's giving their work away for free.

The primary reason I endorse the share-alike restriction is that I'm opposed to the idea of intellectual property, and so everything should be shared like this, whether or not its source is my writing. But, again, this especially applies when the original work is being given freely. Remember that the "share alike" restriction can only apply to reproductions or derivative works, not to works that fall under fair-use provisions. (As a refresher, basically if your work is legitimately new and not, say, an adaptation or a translation, it's fair use. Most judges are too conservative in what counts as fair use, but this is basically the idea.) What we're talking about is blatantly derivative works being placed under a more restrictive license, which then potentially opens them up to reproduction for profit. And it pisses me off to know end when, say, Disney adapts some classic folktale, benefiting in the process from the existence of the public domain, and then fights tooth and nail to keep their adaptation private and profitable.

So yeah. The CC BY-NC-SA license pretty much exactly defines how I think artistic production should be treated in a free society. But I'm still not touching it.

The problem is, the CC licenses all work on the foundation of copyright law -- that set of laws and precedents governing what disgusting plutocrats refer to as "intellectual property." And to quote the first director of the US Office of Patents and Copyrights:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
Basically, many of the American founders thought the idea of they copyright was, deep down, an abomination, and that something else would hopefully be worked out at some point, but for now, it was important to encourage people to write and (especially) invent. In order to create incentives for people to invent and write and paint, they offered these people monopolies -- which were not, by any means, natural rights, but were considered completely artificial fictions designed to incentivize invention.

Since then, we've developed a natural-rights conception of intellectual property, which says that I somehow have a right to make money of my idea, because it's mine -- and that this right to a monopoly should last, for practical purposes, forever (75 years after my death, for most kinds of creative works, these days).

The problem is, subjecting things like ideas, which are inherently non-scarce, to restrictions like this is terrible -- for example, it allows monopoly-holders to drive up prices on life-saving drugs well above the cost of producing those drugs, thus restricting poor people's access to them.

There is no right to tell people what they can do with your idea once you tell them about it. It's poisoning us both as individuals and as a society to keep talking about whose idea something is. Yes, you thought of it. But it's an idea that you thought of, not your idea.

And that's what I think is wrong with the CC license. It's written with the assumption that the creator of a work has the right to restrict your use of it -- the assumption of copyright law. The "licensor" is allowing you to reproduce hir work, provided that you follow certain restrictions. The basis for this is that the licensor has the right to apply any of a large set of restrictions to hir work, and is choosing this limited, reasonable set as a favor to you.

That's bullshit. The authors of creative works don't have the right to decide how you use them.

So let me say this:

From a moral standpoint, anything I write on this site should only be used under the terms specified by the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license: tell people I wrote it (and, ideally, link to this blog); don't make money off of it; and share it willingly with others, under these or very similar terms.

But from a legal standpoint, I'm not willing to claim those rights under copyright law. I'm not giving you permission to reproduce anything I write, or to produce derivative works, under those terms. You have the right to do so. So, from a legal standpoint, everything on this blog is in the public domain (under CC0). I waive all legal rights to it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In which Tom Friedman's still at it.

I love Tom Friedman:
This war has been extraordinarily painful and costly. But democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing.
Yes, that's right: not only are we sending out invitations to Democracy In Iraq's baby shower, but we're defining that birth through the contrast of "extraordinarily painful and costly" births and "virgin" births.

At first I thought this was just a new chapter in Friedman's long, troubled relationship with metaphor. But, for the moment, let's take him seriously.

My impression had always been that what distinguished a virgin birth was the lack of sex. The only possible way this analogy makes sense is if you take "sex" to mean "an unwelcome incursion by armed men" -- in which case it makes perfect sense, I suppose.

And it's pretty well-documented that in military circles, that is at least one thing it means. Alicia Simoni wrote that "an integral part of the military’s objective to turn men (and women) into soldiers is the creation of a rigid hierarchy of power and subordination that exists in relation to imagined female and homosexual inferiors." She cites Anthony Swofford, talking about referring to hands as dickskinners and mouths as cum receptacles.

We refer to videos of drones blowing shit up as "drone porn" -- if that's a reasonable analogy, what does that say about what we watch porn for?

And by the way, what the fuck does "which has never known any such thing" have to do with anything? Is he suggesting that the only place where you can have democracy without killing hundreds of thousands of people is Bethlehem? Because if so, let me remind you that Bethlehem is in the fucking West Bank.

Also, I know Tom Friedman, at the time, was way active in trumpeting for the march to war. I imagine that at some point he claimed we'd be welcomed as liberators and everything would be hunky-dory. But there's no fucking way I'm wading through enough of his writing to fact-check that claim. If you have the stomach for it, I'd love to hear about what you find.

Other highlights:
Real “Islamic democracy” is just like any other democracy, except with Muslims voting.
Might part of the problem with what's going on in Iraq and especially Afghanistan be an effort to take an institution from one culture and forcibly transplant it in another culture, without regard for existing institutions? Taking "white American democracy," calling it "democracy," and presenting it as a model for the rest of the world?
We need to see real institution-builders emerge, including builders of a viable justice system and economy. And we need to be wary that too big an army and too much oil can warp any regime.
This is coming from the fucking United States of America?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In which textbooks are all that is wrong with education.

I had two main questions when I read this post on homeschoolers getting tricked by science textbooks that teach that evolution isn't real:
  1. Why is it so obvious to Amanda Marcotte that "Christian" automatically means "not believing in evolution"?
  2. Why the fuck are homeschoolers using textbooks -- let alone textbooks they haven't read -- to teach science?
Almost all the reasons for homeschooling -- good and bad -- relate to not believing in technocracy as a way of making decisions about education. Whether we worry about biology classes reinforcing gender binaries or teaching evolution, whether we get pissed about the lack of classes aimed at our baby geniuses or object to the lack of good teachers and resources for remedial and special ed classes, whether we hate that white people don't get their own history month or that every month is white history month, homeschooling is about the realization that training and degrees do not guarantee good teachers and administrators.

Basically, a lot of this is about the realization that curricular, discipline and organizational issues in schools are political issues, not administrative ones. There are legitimate questions to be raised about the priorities shown in our curricula, and certification doesn't guarantee that people will share our priorities. Homeschooling is one way of democratizing those decisions, claiming the right to set priorities for our own children.

The same thing applies to science textbooks. Christian or not, textbook authors don't necessarily share your priorities. Relying on someone else to decide the shape of your child's curriculum totally reaffirms the notion we started out rejecting, that educational decision-making is something that should be done by experts.

Also, the textbook itself -- regardless of where it comes from -- is an embodiment of the monolithic, uniform education system that we rejected when we took our kids home. Of course, it's true that some homeschooling parents want a monolithic, uniform educational system, just a different one from the one that currently exists. But I think at least most of the non-fundamentalist ones are doing this because they recognize that there should be more room for kids to be different, learn different things in different ways and at different speeds.

Does that sound like the kind of learning you get from a textbook?

If you're not relying on a single source for your kid's science knowledge, it doesn't matter if some of it is anti-evolution, anti-scientific stuff. Let them figure out what they agree with. If you're not looking for textbooks -- that is, books that claim to account for all the knowledge about US history you'll ever need -- there are a lot of books written for lay audiences by real scientists (Richard Feynman and Stephen Jay Gould come to mind).

Amanda talks rightly about how "I think a lot of people defend evolutionary theory for the wrong reasons---not because they understand it, but because they (correctly) perceive the pro-ignorance, patriarchal bent of fundamentalists who oppose evolutionary theory." Even for such people, your kids don't have to be that kind of people. Let them read that textbook, and take it seriously, and then read some scientists too.

Teachers' job isn't -- can't be -- to tell kids what to think. It's to hold beliefs, both their beliefs and the beliefs of others, up to scrutiny, and give students the tools to make their own decisions. That's not what textbooks are about. Stop using them. Just stop.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In which I explore the inner workings of the poverty draft.

Seniors I spoke to at one of Chicago's military academies today told me that in each graduating class of roughly 100, only about eight join the military after high school. That doesn't sound so bad, right? So I asked them about West Point and other military colleges. Maybe ten or fifteen more. Still -- only twenty percent? Maybe all this "military academies as a recruiting device" nonsense is overblown. Twenty percent's a lot, given that the military as a whole is about two percent of the 18-49 population, but still, it hardly seems like that percentage makes starting these academies worthwhile as a recruiting device.

Then they said about another thirty go into ROTC in college. This squares pretty well with DoD numbers from 1993, which show that about 45 percent of kids who do Junior ROTC (JROTC) in high school end up in some branch of the military.

Shit.

Some of the students I spoke to were considering entering some military organization after college, others weren't. I tried to get a bit of a sense of how they were thinking about it, and how their experiences at a military academy had shaped that thinking.

First of all, it seems pretty clear that, at least at the school I was at, students aren't directly pushed into the military by their teachers. Counselors talk to them about non-military career options, lots of them go to (and are encouraged to go to) non-military colleges, and they say there's no judgment on the ones who decide the military isn't for them.

Not having considered joining the military, I don't know much about the inner workings the sort of programs they were thinking about, so most of my information comes from them. But they at least talked like they were pretty well-informed about what joining the military means. They talked with confidence about the differences in pay scales and bonus policies of the different branches of the military, and about the scholarship programs available to students in ROTC. They talked about ways one might use ROTC to get money without having to commit to time as a military officer -- according to them, you can participate in ROTC and take their money for two years without committing, but once you start your fifth semester as an ROTC participant, you're pretty much locked in. At least one student was planning to participate in ROTC for exactly the two-year maximum, and leave before he had to actually commit to military service.

It sounded like incentives around college financing were very important to these students. At least two of them were planning on participating in the military only if they ran into financial trouble in their college endeavors. They also said they knew people from previous graduating classes who had decided they were done with the military after high school, but ended up joining ROTC in subsequent years when they started to have trouble with tuition.

In connection with such students, another important piece of the puzzle seems to be the feeling that "they're used to the discipline." For these students, entering military programs seems like a return to an admittedly unsavory, but ultimately bearable practice. They already know some drills, and they're used to the commands, the ways of walking, the rank structure, the hierarchy, etc. It doesn't sound quite as creepy as it might otherwise.

Also, they have connections in the military. JROTC instructors are retired military personnel, which means they know a lot of active-duty service members. Students said if they did get involved with the military, they'd get "hooked up" with placement opportunities, extra uniforms, and other stuff normal enlistees don't necessarily get.

It didn't sound like this was being presented as an incentive to join the military. These weren't being advertised as prizes, but rather as friendly legs up -- the same way my math professors offered to put me in touch with mathematicians they knew in Chicago when I moved here.

It was also clear, though, that the idea of special privilege -- even in what seemed to me to be trivial arenas like uniforms and boots -- really appealed to these kids. I think this partly relates to the hierarchical culture of JROTC itself: there are no less than sixteen different ranks students can achieve, each with its own insignia displayed on the uniform, along with several other types of insignias, plus aguilettes, arcs, ribbons, badges and medals. About half of this handbook covers this stuff; this one's got a lot of text on it too. Students also, in military academies, get special positions like "hall monitor" and "class leader" (they may have these in JROTC classes in normal schools as well; I don't know) -- I know hall monitorship is displayed on the uniform as well, but only while you're actively monitoring.

At least some kids take this stuff seriously. I've heard a student complain, "He don't even treat me like a First Sergeant! He treats me like I'm some kind of Staff Sergeant!"

Another piece to this is the emphasis of pro-military voices in JROTC classes' discussions of citizenship and history. I didn't ask students about this, but according to the Center for Defense Information,
The AFSC [American Friends Service Committee] report compared an Army Junior ROTC history text's coverage of the Vietnam War to a civilian text and found that the Junior ROTC discussion centered on the argument that the Vietnam War was necessary because the United States took on and should continue to assume "the responsibility for being the world's police officer for democracy." Protests and disagreements about the war were presented as "a threat to national security."
Given all of this, it's not all that surprising that many of the kids I talked to said that either they or their parents had been hesitant about the idea of a military academy. One boy said his parents had gone so far as to forbid him to have any involvement with the military after high school.

I asked some of these students why they had decided to attend (and/or their parents had decided to send them to) the military academy anyway, and their answers were almost universally related to the academic performance of the school. And it makes sense: the four Chicago military academies score far better than their neighborhood schools.

All four are selective; I'm not sure whether they're all academically selective. Students I spoke to said there was an interview, but students weren't rejected on the basis of bad grades; Chicago Military doesn't post its admissions standards online, nor does Carver, but Phoenix and Rickover are both clear about admitting only students who are reasonably academically well-off (by the way, a stanine of 5 -- the requirement for Phoenix -- means above about the 40th percentile, while "at or above grade level" means above about the 20th percentile).

So they're not super-elite, but they seem to be doing just enough to get rid of the bottom ranges that cause the most trouble at neighborhood schools (even the existence of an application process including an interview will get rid of many of those kids). So parents frantic to free themselves from shitty neighborhood schools -- or, at least, the ones with the wherewithal to jump through the hoops -- are being offered something meaningful. Walk three blocks from Phillips to Chicago Military and you'll see a thirty-four-percent jump in testing success.

Part of what I'm saying is, as a student in the middle of the Chicago Public Schools spectrum who would otherwise be going to, say, Phillips, Robeson, Fenger, or Julian, it's very possible to go into this situation with your eyes open and still believe a military academy is your best option. It might be.

And once you're there, they don't need to lie to you to convince you that ROTC is your best option -- because, again, it might be your best option. When you're in that situation, an option doesn't need to be that good to be your best option.

The poverty draft isn't just a problem because the military's recruiting tactics are coercive. It's a problem because poverty is coercive. And we can't stop it by removing the military option, or covering it up, or taking away the incentives -- although we should do all of those things. But we have to also be in the business of creating other options.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In which Easter is almost upon us, and I can feel it.

[Spoiler alert: I am preparing to get theological. If that turns you off, please feel free to stop reading.]

One of my favorite arguments against Christianity is the one about how Easter shares its name, timing and a lot of its associated traditions with pieces of Anglo-Saxon pagan spring festivals -- and/or how pieces of the Jesus story correspond to preexisting myths about sun gods who died in the winter and were reborn in the spring. It's supposed to be this great "gotcha" moment: "Oh yeah? Well your celebration of the return of the metaphorical Light of the World bears a remarkable similarity to the way other people have celebrated the profound joy and relief we experience at the return of the literal light to the literal world! Take that!"

Yeah -- it sure would be a shitty ritual if it didn't have a counterpart in a deep human experience, wouldn't it? And it sure would be surprising if other people hadn't already figured out really powerful expressions of that joy, wouldn't it?

Today I could feel the coming of spring. And, more than anywhere else, I could feel it in Meeting, in a dim, windowless, linoleum-floored room. Because there I could see the effect that spring has on other people, even people who live in cities and drive to work and work indoors. I could see how fundamentally our spiritual experience is shaped by our bodily experience, and how effectively our bodies, through the joy of being outside in the springtime, can guide us to the joy of nearness to God.

The divide between the earthly and the divine is at least partly a false one. We need to recognize who made the earth, our earthly desires and our creature comforts.

And also, we need to spend some time outside, as the light returns to the world.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In which conversations about oppression get turned into conversations about censorship, and everyone loses.

It's a little upsetting, in one of the most awesome videos in the world, to see the Southern Cross just hangin' out there behind Johnny Cash. It's like, I could've handled this from Merle Haggard, or David Allan Coe, or even Waylon Jennings, but Johnny Cash?

Country music's got a pretty troubling history in terms of its flirtation with racism, sexism, and homophobia. I think it has something to do with how easily "cowboy" slides into "outlaw," which slides into "rebel," which slides into "Rebel." And those -- the last one in particular -- shouldn't be so easy.

The thing is, I think the Confederacy plays an important role in Southern whiteness. And I don't think it's okay, or that it's something we should be compromising with, but I think it's something we should be trying to understand, especially in light of the racist and homophobic rebellion going on at the University of California.

The thing is, I think when a lot of Southern white people talk about the War of Northern Aggression, and talk about how it wasn't really about slavery, they mean it. And it's also true that there's a lot more that was going on in North-South relations at the time than slavery -- issues about uneven industrialization and arguments about taxation, for example -- and that those issues still color the way Southern white people think about the Civil War.

And when Southern white people lament the loss of the Civil War, it's true that a lot of what they're lamenting is a lifestyle that's based on brutal subjugation and exploitation. And that's fucked up. And there's no denying or excusing that it's fucked up. But to put the issue in fuller context, for many Southern white people, they've gone from being at or near the privileged end of an economic system based on brutal subjugation and exploitation, to near the oppressed end of another economic system based on brutal subjugation and exploitation. (Of course, even poor Southern white folks only come out near the bottom when you ignore the non-American world -- but since I'm trying to explore their narrative, I hope you'll excuse the oversight.)

Southerners really feel -- I can only assume they're being honest about this -- that the Confederate flag isn't and shouldn't be about racism. And there's an extent to which this feeling is understandable -- more slaves were lived and died under the Stars and Stripes than the Stars and Bars, and the vilification of the Confederate flag can definitely come off as a cheap way for Northern whites to avoid addressing our own racism by portraying racism as something exclusively Southern.

It's in this context, I think, that Southern identification with the Confederacy makes sense. They really do see it as being (at least partly) about the centralization of governmental control in the hands of a Yankee elite, and identify with the Confederacy as fighting that transition, and about rejecting Northern white hypocrisy about race.

The problem is, whatever the Confederacy means to Southern white people -- and it means a lot of complicated things -- and whatever it meant to Southern white people at the time -- which I have no doubt was just as complicated -- the people who are most offended by it, who feel most threatened and intimidated by it, are not New York bankers and Hollywood limousine liberals, or even Northern big-government advocates like Bernie Sanders. It threatens and intimidates poor black Southerners, who weren't guilty of the things Southern whites hate about the Civil War.

Part of what I'm worried about is the extent to which, through the use of slanders like "politically correct," being racially insensitive can be seen as sexy and rebellious instead of disgusting and brutal. The narrative that's being told about the Confederate flag is that Southern white people who just want to fight the Man and respect their ancestors' decision to fight the Man are being attacked by the Man for racism, as a way of sidelining that rebellion and also relieving the Man's own guilt about racism.

And I can see the same thing happening at the University of California. I also see it happening around the case of three kids I knew in high school getting arrested for a hate crime. I can see it happening any time racists, sexists, homophobes and transphobes start talking about "freedom of speech."

What should be happening is a conversation about intimidation and silencing of black people and gay people through hate-speech, some of which is overtly violent and some of which is just hateful. Instead, people manage to portray the anti-racist forces as the silencing and intimidating ones.

This is one of the big things I worry about regarding legislation surrounding hate speech and hate crimes (the other big thing I worry about is the entire fucking criminal justice system). By enlisting coercive mechanisms to prevent hate crimes, we create a situation where the visible tension is between authority figures and white individuals/groups, rather than between white racists and POC objectors. It fucks with people's perceptions of who the underdog is, and therefore who they should be rooting for.

I couldn't help noticing how Sociological Images talks about how "the vocal resistance to the overt prejudice and hateful stereotyping created a counter-resistance" -- but the only mention of actual anti-racist protest in their post is this: "A diverse group of students, with the support of many faculty, protested the administration’s slow response to the event."

When we focus our resistance on enlisting UCSD's fucked-up administration to act, we allow racists to claim that this is a battle between advocates of free speech and censors, rather than a battle between racists and POC. Racists should never be able to -- even for a minute -- seem to be the underdog.
 

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