Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Education and the Propagation of Inequality

The United States has experienced an extended period over which income inequality has grown to dangerous levels. There are undoubtedly multiple factors at play in causing this trend, but when it comes to arresting and countering this development, all eyes seem to turn to our education system. If everyone receives a quality education, then the most competent will be rewarded with the best careers and greatest financial compensation—and that’s the way it should be. This belief places our education system in the rather uncomfortable position of being the place where the playing field is supposed to be leveled so that our "meritocracy" can run its course. Because there are also multiple factors at play in determining ultimate success—be it before schooling begins, during education, or after graduation—this is not an easy task. Here we will discuss our education system and how it affects inequality of outcomes.

It is efficacious to view our system within the context of how other wealthy countries provide education for their children. The OECD has provided a report that attempts to provide that comparison. Much of the data gathered is summarized in this table:

Since education actually begins at birth, the manner in which we approach preschool education is important. In terms of ensuring that three- and four-year-olds receive some form of preschool attention, the US is ranked well below the median. Only 69% of four-year-olds are in a formal program. The study provides us with an interesting comparison with our presumed less-developed neighbor to the south: Mexico provides early education for essentially all of its four-year-olds.

There is another significant difference between the US and other countries:

"On average across OECD countries, 84% of pupils in early childhood education attend programmes in public schools or government-dependent private institutions, while in the U.S., 55% of early childhood pupils attend programmes in public schools, and 45% attend independent private programmes. In the U.S. the typical starting age for early childhood education is 4 years old, while in 21 other OECD countries, it is 3 years old or younger....In addition, education-only early childhood programmes in other countries are usually delivered by a qualified teacher and have a formal curriculum, while in the U.S., the situation can vary."

While other countries attempt to level the playing field by providing a consistent environment for their children, ours is much less coherent. In fact, an observer might conclude that our preschool approach was constructed in such a way as to tilt the playing field as much as possible. The fact that about half the children who are in any program at all are in "independent private institutions" implies what is typical of private education: the wealthy will purchase for themselves the best product they can. One should not forget the 31% of our children who receive no formal preschool attention at all.

The net result is that children enter their first year of formal education with a wide variety of preschool experiences. Some will have learned to be curious about their environment and ask questions about it. Some will have become adept at socializing within a large group of children. Some will have been told that they are special and are entitled to be inquisitive and to have their needs met. Others will enter and be utterly frightened by a totally new experience.

By the time our children enter school, the idea of equality of opportunity has already been compromised, and it may not be possible to correct that situation.

One of the hallmarks of a "meritocratic" system is that it is believed that students should be allowed to learn as fast as they are capable of learning. This can be a dangerous concept when applied to young children. A class of nominal five-year-olds will have students varying in age by as much as a full year. The difference in maturity between five years and six years can be quite large. Also, children do not all mature at the same rate. The young slow learner might just be the young immature learner. Categorizing young children as either "bright" or "not bright" creates variations in how they are taught. Those deemed faster learners are provided different materials, experiences, and teachers. If this sorting is applied at an early age, one runs the risk of inserting an artificial bias in favor of those who are naturally more mature or who have had better preschool preparation.

Some countries forbid dividing students into different learning groups until they have reached a certain age. Finland forbids it entirely in K-8. In fact, Finland views their education system as the means of attaining equality of opportunity. They wish to hold back the fast learners so they can help the slow learners in trying to move everyone along at the same rate—a rather interesting concept that seems to work quite well for them.

In our meritocratic education system, any notion of equality of opportunity is lost as soon as students are binned into groups based on learning proficiency. The system makes it exceedingly hard for a slow starter or the wrongly evaluated to ever catch up.

There are other sources of inequality in our system. Our long summer vacations penalize the poorer students who tend not to receive the same enriching experiences that wealthier parents can provide their children: music, sports, travel, and tutoring or other enrichment programs. Students who are equally proficient at the end of one academic year are not necessarily equal at the beginning of the next.

The wealthier children might also be enrolled in a private school where a quite different environment is available to them. The availability of elite private schools guarantees inequality.

One often turns to scores on standardized tests as a means of assessing inequalities in academic outcomes. Thomas B. Edsall provided a more direct means of assessing the bias that wealth might inject into our education system in a New York Times article titled The Reproduction of Privilege. A college education is the gateway to success in our society. Therefore, the most relevant assessment of academic accomplishment is the ability to score high on the SAT tests used for college admission. Edsall provides this chart:

The difference in test scores between the wealthy and the not wealthy is stunning. Can one still conceive of there ever having been a level playing field?

Edsall provides us with one more illuminating chart:

The top quartile income group has seen its probability of gaining a college degree increase significantly over the years while the other groups have barely changed at all. That seems to imply that there is a growing bias in our higher education system that makes it more difficult for students from lower income families to succeed in college.

Consider the above table again. Note that the term "upper secondary education" is equivalent to high school graduation. We are one of the top countries in the survey when it comes to financially rewarding those with a college degree. Unfortunately, when it comes to punishing financially those who did not graduate from high school we are even more efficient. Low incomes are not likely to be helpful in improving college graduation rates.

The OECD report also tallies the amount of money spent on higher education by each country. The US is tied with South Korea for spending the most money on higher education as a fraction of GDP. However, Korea graduates about a 50% higher fraction of its population from college than the US. That means college education in the US is the most expensive in the world.

"On a per-student basis, annual spending by higher education institutions in the U.S. amounts to USD 29 201. Only in Canada (USD 20 932) and Switzerland (USD 21 577) does spending exceed USD 20 000 on this measure."

Not only are we expensive, but we place a tremendous financial burden on the student and his/her family.

"In the U.S., 38% of higher education expenditures come from public sources, and 62% are from private sources. Across all OECD countries, 70% of expenditures on higher education come from public sources, and 30% are from private sources. What is more, 45% of expenditures on higher education in the U.S. come from households."

By decreasing incomes in the lower quartiles and making college education ever more expensive, is it any wonder that graduation rates have not been increasing?

By biasing academic success towards the wealthy, our education system is complicit in propagating the inequality that is such a concern to us. Fixing this is going to require a lot more than the firing of a few incompetent teachers. Providing universal preschool education would be a good start. It would at least ensure that our children are properly nourished. It might have beneficial economic returns in terms of providing working parents with reliable child care and making them more efficient workers.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Teachers, Unions, and School Performance

Teachers and their unions are under continual attack. They are blamed for undermining our public education system, and are assumed to have not only crippled us economically, but to have also compromised our national security in the process. It will be argued that teachers’ unions are irrelevant to the issue of school performance, and that the source of our problem is not so much failing schools, but failing societies.

These criticisms of unions do not come from those seriously working with educators to provide the best learning environment for our students. Rather, they come from those with an agenda to be pushed. Often their goal has little to do with education itself.

On two recent occasions I came across references to teachers unions in which an attack was levied without any attempt to justify the assault. The first comes from the conservative economist perspective. An article in The Economist was describing what it considered "true progressivism" to be. Out of nowhere came this comment:

" Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have."

In this view, privatization and the planned obsolescence of public education are good things, and teachers unions are bad because they would inhibit the efficiency of lower wages, and complicate the plans of the financial types who would control the schools. The author of that statement has presumably bought the verbiage that emanates continuously from conservative think tanks.

As an example of the gullible being captured by the think-tank propaganda we have Lawrence Lessig. In his book, Republic Lost, he produces this statement:

"According to Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, if we could eliminate just the bottom 6-8 percent of bad teachers, we could bring our results up to the standards of Finland, perhaps the best in the world."

Unions are deemed evil because they place constraints on the ability to fire teachers. Lessig takes this bait and runs with it. Teachers unions are compared to a deadly virus that attacks children, and the lobbying activities of the unions are lumped in with those of the tobacco industry and other merchants of death.

The truth is that public education utilizing unionized teachers has produced some of the best school systems in the world—and they are right here in the US. If Massachusetts, for example, was a country, it would be ranked up there with Finland and the best of the Asian overachievers.

US students have been participating in a measurement of reading and mathematics skills administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This PISA test can be used to evaluate the students and school systems as to their status within the body of nations, and with regard to progress over time. A recent study by Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek, and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon provides an analysis of the most recent data available. This would correspond to the high school class of 2011 being tested at the age of fifteen.

This study provided fascinating data by mapping individual state achievement scores onto the country data so that each US state could be compared on the international scale. This effort was discussed in How Your State’s Students Compare with Those from Other Countries. Charts ranking states and countries can be found there or in the link to the original article.

The net result is that we have state school systems that rank with the best in the world and we have state school systems that rank with the worst in the world. If Massachusetts was a country, it would be ranked ninth, just behind Switzerland and just ahead of Japan in math achievement. Finland is fifth. In reading proficiency Massachusetts is ranked fifth and is positioned below Hong Kong and above Singapore. And just below Singapore comes the great state of Vermont. If Mississippi was a country, it would be ranked below Bulgaria and above Uruguay in math proficiency. It does somewhat better in math, finding itself below Lithuania and above Turkey.

Our problem is not that we can’t produce good students in our public schools; our problem is that we are not a single nation. We are a single country made up of multiple nations with different cultural values and histories. The societies and cultural histories of Mississippi and Massachusetts differ by so much that they might as well be considered separate countries.

Let us consider the relationship between teachers’ unions and academic performance. This site produced this chart of percent unionization of teachers by state.

If teachers’ unions are so detrimental to education, that would imply that a Bostonian should probably pull up roots and head to Mississippi in search of a good education for his children.

What is the correlation between unionization and performance?

The top five states in reading proficiency are Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Montana, and New Hampshire. The bottom five, starting with the lowest, are New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Alabama. In math proficiency, the top five are Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, North Dakota, and New Jersey. The bottom five are Mississippi, New Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia, and Louisiana.

If one had to determine a correlation, it would favor highly unionized states as being more effective in education, and indicate that a lack of union representation suggests poor performance. But that simplification would be misleading, because the degree of unionization also follows cultural boundaries. West Virginia is highly unionized and it performs poorly. One must suspect that it is the stronger cultural ties with the similarly underperforming Southern states that are the dominant consideration.

There is no evidence to support the notion that teachers’ unions are, by their nature, a detriment to educational performance. Our school systems have problems, but they lie elsewhere.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Australia Teaches Us How To Package Cigarettes

The movement to put serious health warnings on cigarette packages appears to have been initiated in Canada in 2001. Many other countries have since followed suit with varying levels of graphic detail. Australia has just imposed the most severe packaging requirements of any country. Smoking opponents are hoping that the Australian law will set an example that other countries will follow. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek by David Fickling provides background.
"Tobacco products complying with the world’s first plain-packaging laws started arriving in Australia’s stores around Oct. 1, when the country’s A$10 billion ($10.37 billion) tobacco industry was hit with strict constraints on how it can package and sell cigarettes. Similar regulations, backed by the World Health Organization, are being weighed in the U.K., New Zealand, Turkey, and the EU. ‘With so many countries lined up to ride on Australia’s coattails, what we hope to see is a domino effect for the good of public health,’ Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director general, said in a statement."

Fickling provides this graphic to illustrate the extent to which the law controls how the product must be delivered.

"New government standards set out the images and health warnings that must cover 75 percent of the front of cigarette packs. Among them: a gangrenous foot, a tongue cancer, a toilet stained with bloody urine, and a skeletal man named Bryan who is dying of lung cancer. Further warnings must appear on the sides and cover 90 percent of the back."

By creating a stunning visual effect that cannot be ignored it is hoped that smokers can be convinced to stop, and young people convinced to not start. Australia seems to be giving that notion its best shot.

The cigarette companies battled the plan based on the claimed loss of intellectual property in the form of trademarks that they were prohibited from displaying. That morally weak thrust was dismissed by the High Court of Australia.

If Australia can take such actions, why can’t the United States? A CNN article by Bill Mears provides a status report.

Congress did pass a law in 2009 that was tame by Australian standards, but would have been an improvement over the current situation.

"The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, would have required nine written warnings such as "Cigarettes are addictive" and "Tobacco smoke causes harm to children." Also included would have been alternating images of a corpse and smoke-infected lungs."

"Other color images required under the agency rules would have been: a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole in his throat; smoke wafting from a child being kissed by her mother; and a diseased mouth, presumably from oral cancer linked to chewing."

The tobacco industry has thus far been successful in stopping implementation of the rules.

"A group of tobacco companies led by R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard had sued, saying the warnings would be cost-prohibitive and would dominate and damage the packaging and promotion of their brands. The legal question was whether the new labeling was purely factual and accurate in nature or was designed to discourage use of the products."

Does that imply that the government has no right to encourage people to stop slowly killing themselves and becoming a burden on society in the process? Apparently that is what the District of Columbia Court of Appeals concluded in a 2-1 verdict.

These quotes are provided from the majority and dissenting opinions.

"Brown and Judge A. Raymond Randolph rejected the FDA's assertion that it had a governmental interest in ‘effectively communicating health information’ regarding the negative effects of cigarettes."

"’The government's attempt to reformulate its interest as purely informational is unconvincing, as an interest in "effective" communication is too vague to stand on its own,’ said Brown, named to the bench by President George W. Bush. ‘Indeed, the government's chosen buzzwords, which it reiterates through the rulemaking, prompt an obvious question: "effectiv" in what sense’?"

"In dissent, Judge Judith Rogers said the rules do not violate commercial speech protections."

"’The government has an interest of paramount importance in effectively conveying information about the health risks of smoking to adolescent would-be smokers and other consumers,’ said Rogers, named to the bench by President Clinton. ‘The tobacco companies' decades of deception regarding these risks, especially the risk of addiction, buttress this interest’."

The emphasis in these quotes is mine. I am saddened by the notion that commercial interests take precedence over the health of our children. If the Constitution actually mandates that decision then we need a new constitution. I think, rather, that what we need are new judges.

Mears felt it was necessary in explaining the court’s decision to point out the political leanings of the judges, on the assumption that Democrats nominate Democratic judges and Republicans nominate Republican judges. This has become both common and necessary in media discussions of court actions. Sadly, many court decisions are only explicable in a political context.

We must remember that the duel to the death to control Congress that our political parties are engaged in is mirrored by a similar duel to the death to control our legal system. The same people who are throwing money around trying to buy the election of their disciples are throwing money around in an attempt to insure that our courts are packed with judges who agree with their philosophy.

We have already lost trust in the effectiveness of our Congress; and who knows where that will lead. What happens when we lose trust in our legal system? Where might that lead?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Health: Antibiotics and Probiotics

Microbiome is the term used to describe a living species combined with the microorganisms that inhabit it. All animals and plants have microbiomes. The microbes that inhabit us are not just transient visitors; they are species that coevolved with us and they are an integral part of the animal that we are. Michael Specter has produced an interesting article on how we have been affecting our microbiome and what it might mean for our health. His article appeared in The New Yorker and was titled Germs Are Us.

Specter describes what can only be referred to as a revolution in medical science. For decades we have assumed that who we are is essentially determined by our genetic makeup. Sickness could then be explained by a genetic malfunction. That may no longer be an appropriate assumption.

"....another truth has emerged: while our health is certainly influenced by genes, it may be affected even more powerfully by bacteria."

We are provided this background information:

"We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through the mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria....They are bacteria mostly, but also viruses and fungi....We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain."

One of the medical truths we face is that we are undergoing an epidemic of certain conditions: obesity, autism, food allergies, asthma.... It is difficult to assign such rapid growth in these illnesses to genetic conditions. There is a circumstantial evidence that associates the growth in incidence of these conditions with the growth in use of antibiotics. Antibiotics were lifesavers for many, and bacteria were viewed as things to be expunged from our systems. The net effect of continued and continual use of antibiotics is to upset our microbial makeup. Evidence is accumulating that indicates serious side effects effects can ensue.

Specter provides Martin J. Blaser, chairman of the Department of Medicine at New York University as a guide to this burgeoning field of study. He explains how the practice of medicine itself can be responsible for perturbing our microbial content—our microbiome.

"For the past hundred and fifty million years, nearly all mammals have acquired their microbiome by passing through their mother’s vagina, which is colonized by an enormous range of bacterial species. Babies delivered by Cesarean section lack many microbes that are routinely transferred from mother to child. Last year, nearly a third of the four million children born in the United States were delivered by Cesarean section. (In China, the figure was closer to fifty percent.) The incidence of allergies and asthma is far higher among those children than it is for vaginal-birth babies."

Cesarean sections had the unintended effect of altering a child’s bacterial makeup.

The usage of antibiotics is dominant in producing bacterial losses that accumulate and grow over successive generations.

"By the age of eighteen, the average American child has received from ten to twenty courses of antibiotics. forty-three million courses were dispensed in 2010 alone....’Those drugs have saved countless lives, and it is very important that we not lose sight of that fact,’ Blaser said. ‘Whenever they are used, though, there is collateral damage. And we are only now fully learning how severe that damage has been’."

Blaser adds:

"The rise in obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the worldwide explosion in obesity."
"We are not talking about illnesses that are increasing by ten percent....They are doubling and tripling and quadrupling. With each generation, there is a heavier impact on early-life microbiome. And it means that we are less and less able to metabolize the food we eat."

Specter focuses on one microbe as an example of how complex the task of understanding our microbiome will be: H. pylori. This bacterium also provides a cautionary tale for those who would rush in with cures.

"Heliobacter pylori may be the most successful pathogen in human history. While not as deadly as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, cholera, and the plague, it infects more people than all the others combined. H. pylori, which migrated out of Africa along with our ancestors, has been intertwined with our species for at least two hundred thousand years."

This is the bacterium that was identified in 1982 as the cause of gastritis and peptic ulcers. This discovery led to effective treatments of these conditions using antibiotics. It was so successful that people talked about eliminating it entirely. Few people stopped to question how natural selection allowed this bacterium to survive in humans when it had such ill effects. Further research has shown that H. pylori actually provides a number of beneficial effects, particularly at a young age.

"At the beginning of the twentieth century, H. pylori occupied the stomach of nearly every person in the world. Although it remains prevalent in developing countries, where sanitation is often poor and antibiotic use less common, it is found in just five percent of children born in the United States—a dramatic change echoed in many other Western countries."

Consequences from the disappearance of H. pylori are beginning to emerge from research activities.

"Blaser and his N.Y.U. colleague Yu Chen reported that people who didn’t have H. pylori in their guts were far more likely to have had asthma as children than those who did."

"There is equally convincing evidence that destroying H. pylori could alter metabolism in ways that increase the risk of obesity. Several research groups, including Blaser’s, have found a strong relationship in humans between the bacterium and two stomach hormones, ghrelin and leptin, both of which play central roles in regulating our appetites....The more ghrelin you have in your bloodstream, the more likely you are to overeat. Leptin functions in the opposite way, suppressing appetite and increasing energy levels. For people whose stomachs are infected by H. pylori, ghrelin became far less detectable after a meal. For the others, levels of the hormone remained high, and the effects are evident."

It would seem that we have created a generation of children whose mechanism for controlling food consumption has been damaged, making it more difficult for them to avoid overeating.

If this research holds up, it has profound implications for our nation as it contends with rising healthcare costs. While potentially a medical disaster, it also holds out the promise that there might be simple and inexpensive corrective steps that could be taken.

A probiotic would be something that attempts to alter the microbiome in a beneficial manner, perhaps by introducing strains of bacteria. Products that claim to be probiotics are readily available. There doesn’t seem to be any science behind any of the products or their claims, and regulators have refused to recognize their efficacy at this point.

"....instead, probiotics are sold as dietary supplements or as foods like yogurt. This permits supplement manufacturers to make almost any claim about the benefits of the products as long as the packaging includes, usually in the tiniest possible type, this disclaimer: ‘These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease’."

The potential for making money with products labeled as probiotics has not gone unnoticed in the commercial sector. Many companies have found more lenient controls in Asian countries and are developing growing markets for their products there. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek addressed the global market that has arisen for these proclaimed probiotics.

"The global market for foods containing probiotics will probably grow 51 percent, to $42 billion, by 2016, figures Euromonitor. For fortified drinks such as Actimel and Yakult, the Asia-Pacific region is the No. 2 market after North America, generating about $18 billion in sales last year, Euromonitor says. Western Europe ranks third at $11 billion."

We seem to be emerging from a period in which we aggressively tried to kill any microbe we encountered without understanding what the consequences might be, and have entered a period in which we are being induced to stuff ourselves with all kinds of microbes without understanding what the consequences might be.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Congress and Corruption: Compensation and the Revolving Door

Lawrence Lessig has produced a fascinating book that provides valuable insights into the ways in which our government functions: Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. Lessig indicates the need for legislators to be continually seeking funds for their reelection campaigns as the core of that corruption. That concept was previously discussed in Congress and Corruption: Campaign Funds. The impact of that perpetual need for money on legislators’ activities and priorities was discussed in Congress and Corruption: Regulations and Taxes. Here we will discuss Lessig’s description of how a more personal form of corruption has grown within Congress.

We have decided to assemble a group of highly educated, talented, and very ambitious individuals and put them in positions of great power while deciding to pay them very little in a relative sense. One can find here the compensation structure for senators and congresspersons. It is less impressive than one might think. All legislators received a base salary of $174,000 for the year 2011-2012. Congressional leaders received slightly more. Retirement benefits are consistent with other federal employees.

"Members of Congress receive retirement and health benefits under the same plans available to other federal employees. They become vested after five years of full participation."

"As it is for all other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and the participants' contributions. Members of Congress under FERS [Federal Employees’ Retirement System] contribute 1.3 percent of their salary into the FERS retirement plan and pay 6.2 percent of their salary in Social Security taxes."

Lessig tells us that 44% of the members of Congress are millionaires, many have wealthy spouses who can supplement their income, and some come from districts where $174,000 is considered a lot of money. The rest are put in the position of being surrounded by people living a lavish lifestyle that they are unable to emulate. This is not a stable configuration.

"What we know from economics, and from experience with governments across the world, is that if you underpay government officials relative to their talents or to their peers, they will find ways to supplement their income."

Some of these ways are merely venal and do not necessarily corrupt the legislative process, others introduce extreme risk to the integrity of our system.

Many have used the requirement to raise campaign funds as a means to siphon off a fraction of that money to augment their lifestyles. Consider the popularity of Political Action Committees (PACs).

"Many members of Congress (at least 397, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) have leadership PACs. A leadership PAC....raises money from individuals and other PACS, and then spends it to support candidates for office."

A leadership PAC is then a vehicle by which a legislator can raise money in order to have money to spend in the act of raising money. It is common for members to use PAC funds to provide expensive meals and trips to extravagant locations and label those activities as "fund raising." Often such activities are just what they seem, but the opportunity for abuse is large. One only has to receive a single campaign contribution from the exercise to justify the expenditure.

Here is a bipartisan list of suspicious activities.

"[Thirty] Democrats and 17 Republicans....collected $1.07 million collectively without spending a dime on other candidates."

"Two-thirds of expenditures of then-House minority leader John Boehner [R]....have gone toward fund-raising costs, which included ‘fine meals and trips to luxurious resorts,’....’including $70,403 at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples Florida, and more than $30,000 at Disney’ resorts."

"House majority leader Steny Hoyer [D] spent more than $50,000 on ‘travel with donors to resorts’ in the 2010 election cycle, including $9,800 on entertainment tickets and limousines."

Perhaps the unseemliness is best exemplified by this.

"Members of our Congress stand in the well of the House handing one another checks for up to $5,000. Such checks are the glue that keeps the system together."

Another approach has grown more common: the revolving door between industry and government. This one is aimed at ultimately enhancing one’s wealth as well as one’s life style. It is much more troubling.

Legislators, regulators, and congressional staffers are all in the position of affecting the activities of those who are no more capable than them, but who make enormously more than them. Lessig claims that some legislators, regulators, and staff members view their positions as opportunities to audition for higher paying jobs in the private sector after they leave office. Others see a high paying job after years of public service at low pay as their just reward.

If one is overseeing activities in the pharmaceutical industry, one becomes knowledgeable of the industry and could be valuable as a lobbyist or as a "consultant." How likely is such a legislator to butt heads with industry executives in quest of the common good if he/she anticipates working for the industry one day?

Consider the case of former congressman Billy Tauzin. From Wikipedia:

"[Tauzin] is an American lobbyist and politician. He was President and CEO of PhRMA, a pharmaceutical company lobby group. He was also a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1980 to 2005, representing Louisiana's 3rd congressional district."

"Two months before resigning as chair of the committee which oversees the drug industry, Tauzin had played a key role in shepherding through Congress the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, a bill which had been criticized by opponents for being too generous to the pharmaceutical industry. The switch from regulator to lobbyist was widely noted."

"This link was explored at great length in an April 1, 2007 interview by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. The report, Under the Influence, pitted Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) against Tauzin and accused him of using unethical tactics to push a bill that "the pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote". Along with Tauzin, many of the other individuals who worked on the bill are now lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry."

While it is conceivable that Tauzin’s actions were honorable, how many people would believe that to be the case?

Lessig provides these data:

"In the 1970s, 3 percent of retiring members became lobbyists. Thirty years later, that number has increased by an order of magnitude. Between 1998 and 2004, more than 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of House members made that career transition. As of June 2010, 172 former members of Congress were registered lobbyists. In 2009 the financial sector alone had 70 former members of Congress lobbying on its behalf."

These forms of corruption have two disturbing effects. First, they lead people to mistrust the intentions and honesty of our legislators and diminish respect for our government. Second, they become institutionalized and their very success generates resistance to any attempt at reform.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Congress and Corruption: Regulations and Taxes

Lawrence Lessig has produced a fascinating book that provides valuable insights into the ways in which our government functions: Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. Lessig points to the continuous need for legislators to be looking for means to acquire funds for their reelection campaigns as the source of that corruption. That concept was previously discussed in Congress and Corruption: Campaign Funds. Here we will discuss Lessig’s description of how that lust for funds affects Congress’s legislative activities, with a focus on taxes and regulations.

It is important to recognize that there are few innocent actors in the campaign-funding scramble. Lessig makes it clear that this is really a two-way street. A corporation contributing funds to a candidate can be interpreted as an indirect request for a favor, but a candidate requesting funds from a corporation can also be interpreted as an indirect offer of a favor. It can also be interpreted as a threat that a favor will be withheld if money is not forthcoming. From one perspective, special-interest parties are throwing around their money to buy government favors. From an opposing perspective, legislators are using the threat of disadvantageous legislative outcomes to extort campaign money from stake holders. Both interpretations are correct.

One is better able to understand why some programs are hard to kill, even when everyone seems to recognize that they have outlived their usefulness, if one considers the dependencies that laws and programs create. Lessig refers to the continuing role that government plays in agricultural policy as an example of co-dependency. Every so often an agriculture bill must be passed. Each time it comes up there is the threat that it won’t be passed or that it will be modified in ways that eliminate benefits for some. Is this procedure a contentious struggle between opposing groups of lawmakers trying to attain a better bill, or is it a ritual dance that legislators do in order to extract funds from those who could be affected? The ease with which bad legislation or bad programs get propagated year after year makes one suspicious as to what process is dominant.

Taxes and regulations are two areas in which this "dance" between lawmakers and special-interests parties has been ritualized.

Consider the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit. This was initially funded as a temporary credit because there were real questions about its effectiveness. It turned out to be a popular and successful piece of legislation. Given that, why was it never made permanent? Why does it have to be renewed every few years? If you have been paying attention, the answer will be obvious. Big corporations are the primary beneficiaries of this credit. It is worth many millions of dollars to them so they are in a position to contribute the necessary campaign funds to keep the legislators happy. And the lobbyists who act as the intermediaries are appreciated by both sides.

Lessig provides the term "tax extenders" to describe temporary tax provisions. The number of such provisions has grown dramatically in recent years.

"In December 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported on ‘extender mania.’ As they described, in the 1990s there were ‘fewer than a dozen’ tax extenders in the U.S. tax code. Now there are more than 140."

This is an example of Congress recognizing a good opportunity when it presents itself.

"The system is learning, evolving, developing an ever-more-efficient way to create the incentive for people to contribute to campaign coffers: create a mechanism that threatens a tax increase unless a reprieve can be bought...."

Lessig provides us with a great quote.

"To understand the nature of tax law in America, you have to understand one simple point: its complexity is a feature, not a bug."

There is an analogous situation with respect to government regulation. Small government advocates come in to Congress and quickly learn that there is money to be garnered by working the system.

"But souls on the Right....should recognize that it is more likely Congress’s thinking about targets of fund-raising that affects the scope of government power rather than bureaucrats angling to increase the scope of their work. That having lots of targets of regulation is actually a good way to have lots of targets for fund-raising. And thus, so long as fund-raising is a central obligation for members of Congress, there is a conflict between the interests of small government activists and the interests of the fund-raising-dependent congressmen."

Lest this discussion paint a too dark moral picture of our lawmakers, Lessig continually reminds us that it is the system, not the individuals who are at fault. People generally make tremendous sacrifices to get elected and serve. Their official compensation is minimal and there are very few cases of people taking advantage of their position for direct personal gain. Lessig would argue that it is the campaign funding requirement that demands these behaviors.

Lessig fears that this broken system has diminished our country in terms of being a functional Republic. He also fears that this ineffectiveness has caused the voters to lose faith in the government, a situation that is never healthy for a nation.

Lessig provides an intriguing perspective:

"As I write these words, Gallup’s latest ‘confidence in Congress’ poll finds only 11 percent who have confidence in this Congress. Eleven percent. At what point do we declare an institution politically bankrupt, especially an institution that depends fundamentally upon public trust and confidence to do its work? When the czar of Russia was ousted by the Bolsheviks, he had the confidence of more than 11 percent of the Russian people. When Louis XVI was deposed by the French Revolution, he had the confidence of more than 11 percent of the French. And when we waged a Revolutionary War against the British Crown, more than 11 percent of the American people had confidence in King George III."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Congress and Corruption: Campaign Funds

Lawrence Lessig has produced a fascinating book that provides valuable insights into the ways in which our government functions: Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It

In Lessig’s view, the corruption we need worry about is not the obvious form in which money is exchanged for favors. While not unheard of, this type of corruption is extremely rare. Rather, Lessig argues, the most common form arises in a set of inappropriate dependencies—"dependency corruption" in his words. The basis for this dependency corruption is the need to raise very large amounts of money for the next election campaign. Lessig states that members of Congress "spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money."

Lessig explains how we arrived at this state. The "good old days" might be viewed as the several decades when Democrats controlled Congress with a party that was a mixture of liberals and conservatives, while the Republicans occupied the minority position with a party that filled in the center position. With this mixture of viewpoints, legislation became possible by assembling alliances appropriate for whatever was the topic. This system worked rather well. Lessig tells us that everything changed with the election of 1994 when the Republicans managed to take control of Congress for the first time since 1954.

"The Gingrich election changed everything: By putting the control of Congress in play, it gave both Republicans and Democrats something to fight to the death about."

"It was at this moment that the modern Congress—call it the "Fund-raising Congress"—was born. The Republicans came to power raising an unheard of amount of money to defeat the Democrats. Republicans in 1994 received $618.42 million (up from $534.64 million in 1992) in contrast to Democrats$488.68 million (down from $498.45 million in 1992). In the four years between 1994 and 1998, Republican candidates and party committees raised over $1 billion. Never before had a party come anywhere close."

If money wins elections, and elections determined who controlled Congress, then money becomes a dominant political consideration. Candidates also became dependent on pollsters, consultants and media advertising, things that greatly increased the cost of campaigns. One also was required to worry not just about one’s election, but also about the campaign of the party as a whole.

Where was all this extra money going to come from? The inevitable answer was that much of it would come from those who had money to spend and who had an interest in what the government was up to.

One group consisted of the individual party partisans who were willing to contribute. These tended to be those with the most extreme positions within the given party. The need to be acceptable to these sources of funds contributed in no small way to the increased polarization that has developed in Congress.

"Fund raising happens among the politically active and the extreme, and that puts pressure on the extremists to become even more extreme. As Fiorina and Adams put it, ‘the natural place to look for campaign money is in the ranks of the single-issue groups, and a natural strategy to motivate their members is to exaggerate the threats their enemies pose’."

The more dangerous group consisted of those who wanted or needed something from the government. It was at this point that the modern lobbyist entered the picture.

"The demand for campaign cash has turned the lobbyist into a supplier. Not so much from the money that lobbyists give directly....But instead from the funding they secure indirectly—from the very interests that hire them to produce the policy results that benefit those interests."

"’Lobbyists are in the driver’s seat’ observed Leon Panetta. ‘They basically know that the members had nowhere else to turn’ for money....Lobbyists had become indispensible to politicians."

Lessig cites earmarks as a central part of this money-raising economy. An earmark is a specific funding request slipped by a legislator into a bill in order, ostensibly, to meet some need of constituents.

"The important question is how easily the value of these earmarks can be privatized, so that, in turn, they can benefit the (campaign cash) interest of the congressman: If a congresswoman could secure a $10 million earmark benefiting company X, how easily can some of the value of that $10 million be channeled back to her campaign?"

Actual conversations between legislator and beneficiary along these lines would be unethical and legally challenging. But if there is an intermediary who can provide the communication link, then everything becomes simpler. That is the role that lobbyists play. Their activities are transparent and legal, and they provide a legal and ethical buffer for the participants. They can suggest that clients are interested in certain earmarks being proposed and funded, and the legislators can remind the lobbyist of the services they have provided. Both legislator and beneficiary can feel that they have benefited without having any ethical misgivings—or at least they seem to be able to convince themselves that it is the case.

The same process can be applied to any activity or legislation that government gets involved in: procurements, tax rules, regulations.... Lobbyists are always available to play the role of intermediary.

One tends to think of legislators who provide services for campaign contributions as having been corrupted by evil special-interest parties. Lessig makes it clear that this is really a two-way street. A corporation contributing funds to a candidate can be interpreted as an indirect request for a favor, but a candidate requesting funds from a corporation can also be interpreted as an offer of a favor. It can also be interpreted as a threat that a favor will be withheld if money is not forthcoming. Powerful politicians are not above specifying exactly what amount they expect in campaign contributions.

"’The longer I stay in Washington,’ reporter Jeff Birnbaum writes, ‘the more I believe the protection-money-racket is a good metaphor for what a lot of campaign giving is about’."

Lessig concludes that the problem is not that legislators are personally corrupt, but that they are enmeshed in a system that not only encourages corruption, but one that demands it.

Lessig describes the myriad ways in which this constant need to search for campaign funding disrupts and distorts the governance of our country. We will discuss some of these in the future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Meritocracy, Oligarchy, and Inequality

This discussion is based on the book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes.

Hayes refers to the work of Robert Michels who produced a book titled Political Parties early in the last century. Michels sampled many of the political movements that were current at that time and tried to determine if the parties of the left, ideologically committed to equality and democracy, were more or less oligarchic in their operation than the unabashed elitist and aristocratic parties of the right. He came to a most definite conclusion.

"Michels grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to actually bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable."

Michels’ reasoning was based on the need for any entity to organize itself in order to be effective. Organization requires delegation of responsibility to specific individuals. The vast majority of participants will have neither the time not the talents to contribute at a significant level, and will be forced to trust and depend on those to whom authority has been delegated.

"’Without wishing it,’ Michels says, there grows up a great ‘gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.’ The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. ‘Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control’."

Based on this interpretation of the very nature of organizations, Michels formulated what he referred to as "The Iron Law of Oligarchy:"

"It is organization that gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy."

Given Michels's view, it is inevitable that some form of an "aristocracy" will arise to control our institutions, be they in government, in business, or merely social in nature. Hayes describes our general situation as we entered the 1960s as one in which most of our institutions were controlled by a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment based mainly on birthright and inherited wealth. The tumultuous ‘60s would end up replacing that aristocracy with a system destined to be fairer.

"....the country was grossly unequal along lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and controlled by a relatively small, self-contained set of white Anglo-Saxon men. By waging a sustained assault on the establishment responsible for perpetuating the Vietnam War, patriarchy, and racial discrimination, the social movements of that era permanently transformed American society for the better."

The system that would be better is what Hayes refers to as meritocracy. He attributes the definition of that term to Michael Young who produced a book titled The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958. Young describes a Britain on the year 2034 that had been transformed into a state in which the talented and the intelligent are efficiently gathered up and given special treatment as they are destined to become the leaders of the nation. Of course, efficiency demands that the slow and the less talented not be accorded a wasteful amount of consideration.

Young apparently intended his work to be a satire on a society gone terribly wrong, but its humor and moral lesson were lost on most.

Hayes describes meritocracy as the system chosen to correct the inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation.....

"Here in the United States, ‘meritocracy’ was adopted as the perfect name for the American system of testing, schooling, and social differentiation that, in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, would produce a new, more diverse elite to replace the inbred Eastern WASP establishment."

The concept of an elite based on talent has been a constant theme throughout our country’s development. Hayes quotes Thomas Jefferson:

"I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents....May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into offices of the government?"

The concept of meritocracy finds favor with both liberals and conservatives.

"From the right it draws its embrace of inequality....and from the left it draws its cosmopolitan ethos, a disregard for inheritance and old established order, a commitment to diversity and openness and hostility to the faith, flag, family credo of traditional conservatism."

Hayes describes meritocracy as resting on two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference:

"....which holds that there is a vast differentiation among people in their ability, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks."

The second is the Principle of Mobility:

"....over time, there must be some continuous competitive selection process that insures that performance is rewarded and failure punished....People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures."

Hayes’s observation of meritocracy at work compelled him to derive "The Iron Law of Meritocracy" which states:

"....eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: ‘Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy’."

The type of society that inevitably emerges from a meritocracy is described as:

"It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated by and presided over by group of hypereducated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition, and accountability, a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers, and their progeny will stay there."

Hayes is, of course, describing our nation as he views it today.

Hayes provides some thought-provoking insights into the manner in which meritocracy helps breed inequality.

As for the traditional goals of the liberal left:

"Michael Young paints the meritocracy as an idea that originated on the left but came to devour it."

The left’s embrace of meritocracy has produced gains, but has failed in a fundamental way.

"The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress—gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside of meritocracy’s purview."

The institution of meritocracy effectively subverts the left’s attempts to generate a sense of common purpose based on economic status. Those among the disadvantaged who might have the talent and the ability to provide leadership within that class, are gathered up and taken away to be groomed as a potential member of the elite. The few who make it, serve as an example that instills a debilitating hope in those left behind.

"Like the lottery, the meritocracy allows everyone to imagine the possibility of deliverance, to readily conjure the image of a lavish and wildly successful future."

The concept of "The American Dream" remains alive in the minds of many, although its realization is becoming increasingly rare.

Hayes points to our society as an instantiation of Michels's "Iron Law of Oligarchy." The thesis of his book is that the beneficiaries of our meritocracy have become our oligarchs and they have failed us as leaders. He tells us that we suffer from a crisis in confidence based on our lack of trust in those who are running our institutions.

We will discuss Hayes’s discussion of the failure of our elites and his suggested solutions in a subsequent post.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The History of Dealing with Excessive Government Debt: Monetary Policy

An article in The Economist reviews the findings of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report that surveyed the past history of how governments dealt with excessive debt. The IMF study found 26 instances where a country had a debt that exceeded 100% of GDP. The data went all the way back to 1875.

What conclusions can be drawn from the IMF study?

"Growth, spending cuts and tax increases did their bit, but the make-or-break factor was monetary policy. Low or falling nominal interest rates and inflation were crucial to reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio. When interest rates were high and deflation rife, consolidation failed."

Note that that while growth, spending cuts, and tax increases can all contribute to lowering the debt, they can also be mutually exclusive. Growth is inconsistent with excessive spending cuts and large tax increases. Note also that a little inflation can be a good thing.

The article uses Britain’s austerity response to its debt after World War I as an example of how not to do things.

"Britain emerged from the first world war with debt at 140% of GDP and prices more than double their pre-war level, but it was determined to pay off its debt and return the pound to its pre-war value against gold. This required excruciatingly tight fiscal and monetary policy. The primary budget balance (which excludes interest) rose to a surplus of 7% of GDP. The Bank of England raised interest rates to 7%, and deflation meant that real interest rates were even higher. The results were awful: output was lower in 1928 than in 1918. And the debt ratio actually rose, to 170% of GDP in 1930 and 190% in 1933, as high real rates and declining output wiped out the benefits of a primary surplus."

Apparently, the lesson from Britain’s experience was not learned. A regimen of austerity is being imposed on the high-debt countries of Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal by their wealthier Eurozone partners, and the option of currency devaluation is not available to them.

"This experience may be similar to what peripheral euro-zone countries such as Spain and Italy now face. They can restore competitiveness only through domestic deflation, not devaluation, and reduce debt only through austerity, not inflation. This combination is likely to hold back growth for years. Debt ratios may actually rise."

Paul Krugman has been arguing long and loud that austerity in a falling growth scenario is madness. He has been suggesting what is essentially a monetary policy response to ease the situation. A bit of austerity combined with a bit of growth and a little inflation is how to address the problem. Stimulus in the strong countries causes growth throughout the sector plus a little inflation. Applied for several years, this would bring down the debt costs and the debt in the affected countries without the severe disruptions caused by austerity alone. Krugman would seem to have history on his side—and also The Economist.

What does history tell us about countries like the United States?

"America after the second world war offers a different lesson. Bouts of inflation, and a ceiling on bond yields imposed by the Federal Reserve, chopped 35 percentage points off the debt-to-GDP ratio. Yet such tactics may be unavailable in today’s flightier financial markets."

The article suggests that the more recent experiences of Belgium, Italy, and Canada may be more relevant in this era.

"Consolidation began with structural cuts in spending and higher taxes, and was then helped by falling real interest rates. Low real interest rates in Britain and America can be similarly helpful to stabilise debt. Clearly, the two countries’ options are better than the euro zone’s."

A little growth, a little austerity, and a little inflation can do wonders.

Beer: A Quality of Life Indicator in Which the US Excels

Wikipedia provides us with this insight:
"Beer is one of the world's oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeologists speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilisations."

If beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations, then mightn’t one judge the quality of a civilization by the ease of access it provides to this civilization-generating quantity?

An article in The Economist provides us with this data on the state of civilization around the world.

It takes only about 5 minutes of labor for the average US worker to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a half liter of beer. What more could one want from their country? We are at the pinnacle of civilization!

So if you are depressed about crazy politicians, an economy that sucks, disappearing savings, children who graduated from college in order reestablish residency in your home.... Take heart, your nation has provided a mechanism by which you can put all that behind you. And it will only take about 10-20 minutes of healthy labor to activate it. Daily usage is recommended for best results.

Friday, October 12, 2012

ADHD, Education, and Drugs

The term ADHD refers to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD has become a commonly diagnosed condition in young children. Children so diagnosed seem to have trouble concentrating, are easily distracted, and cause disruptions or diversions in the classroom. The typical approach now is to medicate the children with amphetamines or variations on amphetamines. Amphetamines have a long history in public consciousness, having often been used to maintain alertness in dull and dreary tasks. This ability to help maintain concentration has generated some unintended uses.

A recent article by Alan Schwarz in the New York Times discussed the use of drugs prescribed for ADHD by high school students as an aid in studying for and taking tests: Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill. One of the problems with this is that amphetamines and their variations are categorized as Schedule II drugs because they are highly addictive. Other chemicals in this class are the ever popular cocaine, codeine, opium, and morphine. Distributing these drugs without a prescription classifies one as a drug dealer and a felon. Many acquire the drug by feigning ADHD symptoms to obtain a prescription. They can then use the pills for their own purposes or sell the unneeded to others. Not surprisingly, many of the students taking the drug in an uncontrolled environment develop a dependency, or move on to other, more dangerous drugs. The issues associated with this article and with this topic were discussed previously in Amphetamines, Good Grades, ADHD, Addiction, and Drug Abuse.

It has become widely accepted that these ADHD-issued drugs can help students perform better on tests. What is astonishing is that some physicians have extended this experience to conclude that these drugs can improve academic performance in general, and that they should be administered to children who are struggling academically even if they do not have the symptoms of ADHD. A more recent article in the New York Times—again authored by Alan Schwarz— discusses this new development: Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School.

"’I don’t have a whole lot of choice,’ said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. ‘We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid’."

"Dr. Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance."

"It is not yet clear whether Dr. Anderson is representative of a widening trend. But some experts note that as wealthy students abuse stimulants to raise already-good grades in colleges and high schools, the medications are being used on low-income elementary school children with faltering grades and parents eager to see them succeed."

To avoid legal issues the Dr. Andersons of the world wish to claim that everyone issued the drug has the appropriate set of symptoms for ADHD. However, the article quotes parents of some patients that claim they have children taking the drugs who do not have ADHD. It is easy for a child to feign symptoms or for parents to report false symptoms if they believe it will help their child. This article and the previous referenced article by Schwarz would seem to make doctors about the most easily bamboozled species on earth. One suspects that there is more than a little complicity involved in the doctors’ actions.

Anderson certainly realizes that there are risks in the path he has chosen to take. The article describes the situation of one family of patients.

"On the Rocafort family’s kitchen shelf in Ball Ground, Ga., next to the peanut butter and chicken broth, sits a wire basket brimming with bottles of the children’s medications, prescribed by Dr. Anderson: Adderall for Alexis, 12; and Ethan, 9; Risperdal (an antipsychotic for mood stabilization) for Quintn and Perry, both 11; and Clonidine (a sleep aid to counteract the other medications) for all four, taken nightly."

"Quintn began taking Adderall for A.D.H.D. about five years ago, when his disruptive school behavior led to calls home and in-school suspensions. He immediately settled down and became a more earnest, attentive student — a little bit more like Perry, who also took Adderall for his A.D.H.D. "

"When puberty’s chemical maelstrom began at about 10, though, Quintn got into fights at school because, he said, other children were insulting his mother. The problem was, they were not; Quintn was seeing people and hearing voices that were not there, a rare but recognized side effect of Adderall. After Quintn admitted to being suicidal, Dr. Anderson prescribed a week in a local psychiatric hospital, and a switch to Risperdal."

Like other Schedule II drugs, one has to increase the dose as the body becomes accustomed to it in order to have the same effect. These drugs also have side effects, and the easiest way to counter a side effect is by adding a drug to counter the effect. Hopefully, that drug does not produce another side effect. It often requires a "cocktail" of mind-altering drugs to "stabilize" a psychiatric patient.

Dr. Anderson seems to believe the chemicals can be a substitute for a good educational environment: good teachers, healthy learning environment, supportive parents.... It is not explained how long the children are expected to take their drugs in order to achieve whatever it is they are expected to achieve.

Is there any evidence that what Anderson is doing makes sense?

L. Alan Sroufe discusses the use and misuse of ADHD drugs in another context, but his findings are relevant here. His article, Ritalin Gone Wrong, also appeared in the New York Times.

"Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects, including stunting growth."

"Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs."

"Moreover, while the drugs helped children settle down in class, they actually increased activity in the playground. Stimulants generally have the same effects for all children and adults. They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don’t improve broader learning abilities."

The emphasis is mine.

"To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve. Until recently, most studies of these drugs had not been properly randomized, and some of them had other methodological flaws."

"But in 2009, findings were published from a well-controlled study that had been going on for more than a decade, and the results were very clear. The study randomly assigned almost 600 children with attention problems to four treatment conditions. Some received medication alone, some cognitive-behavior therapy alone, some medication plus therapy, and some were in a community-care control group that received no systematic treatment. At first this study suggested that medication, or medication plus therapy, produced the best results. However, after three years, these effects had faded, and by eight years there was no evidence that medication produced any academic or behavioral benefits."

It seems Dr. Anderson is risking the lives of his young patients in seeking something that is unattainable. Perhaps the cure for a bad educational environment remains the traditional one: a good educational environment.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

School Vouchers: Inequality is Inevitable

The usage of state-provided vouchers that students can use to pay for their education at a school of their choice—presumably private—is a contentious issue. Proponents claim it is a way to provide better education for students in substandard public schools and that it is particularly helpful for minority students. Opponents see the use of vouchers as a threat to traditional public school education and point to inconclusive results from studies of its effectiveness.

For those interested in the status of the debate at the national level, a review can be found here. A recent study of a small New York City program that appears to have had positive, although limited, benefits for students is reported here. Milwaukee, Wisconsin has had a large voucher program for many years. It is struggling mightily to determine the efficacy of the effort. As reported here, the debate now seems to be centered over whether students granted vouchers for use at private schools perform as well, or less well than their peers left behind on standardized tests.

Education is a complex issue. Perhaps it is not too surprising that a program that sends mainly poor and minority students off to private schools might yield equivocal results. But that is not the topic here. The issue being addressed here is the contention by some that private education is superior to public education. Implicit in the initiation of a voucher system or a system of charter schools is the assumption that public schools have failed and public funds should be transferred to private schools.

Our Declaration of Independence contains these often quoted words "all men are created equal." They do not literally mean that everyone is equal, but rather that all men should be treated as though they are equal, and in the context of the time, there be no aristocracy established within the land. What that sentiment boils down to in the current context is that we will strive to insure that everyone has equality of opportunity; there is a level playing field from which all get their start.

The only means we have to reach that idealized goal is via our education system. Universal public education was one of our greatest accomplishments as a nation. It meant that everyone could acquire the fundamental skills needed to compete economically. If public education had been truly universal it would have approximated that level playing field.

One cannot be compelled to send a child to public school. There have always been private schools for the children of those with the means to afford them. The main intent of private schools was to provide better education than could be attained in the public system. Wealth can always attract better teachers and provide better facilities, so the wealthy will have their better schools.

Given this dual system, how does one maintain a level playing field? The only way to perform that function is to provide public education that is "good enough" so that students that emerge from it are not at a significant disadvantage with respect to those from private schools. In other words, private education has reached a region of diminishing returns. That is the ideal.

Transitioning to a system of private education is the opposite of the ideal. Providing a voucher to everyone that could be applied to educational costs would encourage the capitalists in the private sector to set up a system whereby schools are categorized by their expenses and populated by those who are able to pay. If capitalism is working properly, the more you pay the better the education. That is not in any way equivalent to a level playing field. The voucher amount would provide the minimum level of education; those of greater means would use it as a subsidy to purchase a higher level of education.

There are modifications that could be applied to attempt to dampen the wealth effect. The voucher could be means tested but that seems somehow discriminatory in a reverse sense, and is not likely to change much. The voucher could be made larger for the poor, but that would seem to entail ever rising costs to attain anything like parity.

If one doubts this end result, we have one data point to examine. Chile has a universal voucher system, and all schools are private. An article in The Economist discusses Chile, its school system, and its travails. What did this approach yield?

"....points out that, by the time they are ten years old, pupils' performance already varies sharply with household income. That is partly because less than half of Chilean children receive any pre-school education. But it is also because the poor go to worse schools."

What characterizes a system where quality can only be purchased?

"In a ritual marking the start of the academic year, last month the streets of Santiago were full of students dressed in colourful combinations of rags and body paint politely seeking donations from passers-by in the late-summer sunshine. Many of their predecessors had spent their summer holidays swotting, having devoted last year to occupying classrooms and taking to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands, in sometimes violent demonstrations to demand free and better higher education."

And what is Chile’s most unique characteristic? Consider this chart provided by the article.

Chile has managed to develop the most unequal society of any developed nation on earth.

Our public school system should be cherished, nurtured, and maintained. Some truly believe that privatization is a good thing. Others see it as a way to make money. The people who brought us subprime mortgages and the Great Recession are still out there, looking for the next big thing. Let’s not let it be our children’s education.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Germany: The Peril in Mixing Religion, Government, and Money

A situation has arisen in Germany that is an absolute surprise to those of us in the US. An article in the New York Times by Melissa Eddy provides the details. The European countries are known to be drifting ever more in a secular direction with religion having little role to play in political affairs. Yet, these countries often had state religions in the past, and the remnants of those state ties persist to this day. Many nations continue to tax their citizens to collect funds that are transferred to the religious organizations to support their activities. 
"In Belgium, Greece and Norway, churches are financed by the state. Churches in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden all use the state to collect taxes from members, but the contributions are either predetermined amounts or, compared with Germany, a more modest 1 to 2 percent of the annual assessed income tax. Spain and Italy allow congregants to decide whether they would like a percentage of their income to flow to religious organizations or be earmarked for civic projects."

"In Germany, roughly a third of its 82 million people are Roman Catholics, and about the same number belong to the country’s Protestant churches. All of these members, as well as the estimated 120,000 Jews, pay taxes to the state. Muslim organizations rely on donations or support from outside sources, often based in countries abroad."

In Germany this tax is exceptionally large, and therein the problem has developed.

"Income from church taxes in Germany amounted to about $6.3 billion for the Roman Catholic Church in 2011, and $5.5 billion for the Protestant, mostly Lutheran, churches in 2010, official statistics show. The money goes to support hospitals, schools, day care and myriad other social services, but a sizable amount of the Catholic money is also channeled to the Vatican."

"The German church tax — which is 8 to 9 percent of the annual income tax — is so steep, however, that many people formally quit the church to avoid paying, while nevertheless remaining active in their faith. That is what is angering Catholic Church officials."

Recently a German court ruled that members of a church did, in fact, have the right to leave the Catholic Church and be relieved of the need to pay the church tax. It was a matter of religious freedom proclaimed the court. The court also allowed that as a matter of religious freedom a person could formally quit the church, but continue to attend services. This latter conclusion made the church leaders furious.

"....a decision that so rankled religious leaders fearful of losing a lucrative revenue stream that they made clear, right away, that taxes are the price for participation in the church’s most sacred rituals: no payments, no sacraments."

The Catholic Church formally initiated what might be called a "no pay, no pray" policy. If you want to get to heaven, you are expected to purchase a ticket.

"The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany issued a crystal clear, uncompromising edict, endorsed by the Vatican. It detailed that a member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they ‘give some sign of repentance,’ it read."

This seems vaguely reminiscent of the ancient habit of selling indulgences to those who wished speedy entry into heaven. Didn’t some guy named Martin Luther once get angry about that? Didn’t he used to live around there?

Perhaps the unkindest comment on this church policy is this:

"Norbert Lüdecke, a professor of canon law at Bonn University, said that while every disobedient Catholic is to be punished based on the sin committed, the bishops’ decree effectively placed refusal to pay church taxes nearly on par with the most severe offenses in the church."

"’Now refusing to pay taxes is considered an offense only slightly less bad than denial that Jesus Christ is the son of God,’ Mr. Lüdecke said. ‘While at the same time, there is no specific punishment for other offenses, such as, for example, the sexual abuse of minors by clerics’."

Can There Be an Effective Labor Movement in the United States?

Harold Meyerson has written a long and reflective article for The American Prospect: If Labor Dies, What’s Next? The labor movement and the union movement have long been identical. Meyerson presents a status report on the union movement that indicates a bleak future, if any future at all. However, he concludes on a note that suggests a new form of a labor movement might yet emerge.

Meyerson presents a depressing picture of the state of the union movement. Anti-union legislation and lax enforcement of labor laws have made it possible for companies to prevent union representation if they should choose to. They have sufficient legal and illegal means at their disposal to ensure that workers can be coerced into refusing to vote for union representation if necessary. Unions tried to turn the rules more in their favor by supporting Democratic control of the White House and the two houses of Congress. They contributed "$400 million and hundreds of thousands of volunteers" to that effort.

"....they pushed legislation that would authorize the NLRB to recognize a union if a majority of workers simply signed affiliation cards—a process called ‘card check’—rather than go through an election that management had learned how to game. Once more the effort died in the Senate."

"It didn’t matter that without a change in labor law, private-sector unions might fade to oblivion. ‘We didn’t move a single Democrat who wasn’t already with labor to move on our behalf,’ says Andy Stern, SEIU president during the 2010 battle."

That failure was followed by the resurgence of Republicans in the 2010 election and the deliverance to them of control of several critical state legislatures. Recognizing unions as their staunchest opponents, they used the fiscal crisis as an excuse to limit the power and influence of the public-sector unions. Some of the Republican actions were effectively countered, but it still represented a net loss for the unions.

Meyerson’s most troubling claim is that the tie between the union movement and the Democratic Party might be unraveling.

"Some leading Democrats believe their party can build an enduring majority that doesn’t have much of a place for unions. Their strategy is based on demography—that through the growing numerical strength of Latinos and Asians and the steady support of blacks and highly-educated white professionals, Democrats can put together an electoral coalition that will sweep them into power for many decades."

"As for the unions’ ability to deliver white working-class votes to the Democrats—it’s not going to matter. The white working class is shrinking as a share of the electorate, and the union share of the white working class is shrinking alongside it. Who needs ‘em?"

Perhaps foreseeing the conflict between Chicago’s mayor and the teachers’ union, Meyerson included this comment:

"Already, some Democratic mayors, among them Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Newark’s Corey Booker, are building coalitions that array their city’s corporate elites and minority communities against their cities’ unions."

Meyerson describes union leaders as generally despondent about future prospects. They invested heavily in organizing and in politics and had little to show for it. The Great Recession might have generated interest on the part of workers, but it didn’t.

"Unlike the ‘30s when workers flocked to unions, the current recession has only intensified labor’s downward spiral and business’s ascent."

A detailed history of the union movement’s slide is provided. The ultimate issue to be faced now is not so much the lack of need for a strong labor movement, but the inability of the union movement to adapt to changing times.

"To the young, even to most campus activists, unions are a holdover from their great-grandparents’ generation, speaking a language as incomprehensible as Old English: solidarity, shop stewards, seniority, strikes. Where are unions in the new economy? Can a union do anything for a temp? A part-timer? A software writer? A barista? Will anyone under 30—will anyone over 30—even notice if unions cease to be?"

If one chooses to believe that the union movement is becoming irrelevant, does it follow that an effective labor movement is irrelevant or impossible? Meyerson does not believe so. The unions’ struggles of decades past raised the wages and living standards of everyone; the need for that struggle to continue is just as urgent today.

Meyerson twice resurrects this quote from long ago:

"’Class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved,’ historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his 1949 book, The Vital Center, ‘because it is the only barrier to class domination’."

Phrases like "class conflict" and "class domination" don’t easily roll off of peoples’ tongues these days, but a case can be made that we are in a state where class domination effectively exists. Employers have unlimited power to control wages and benefits. In most areas there is no market force to push wages higher in competition for scarce workers; rather there is a glut of workers. For them, the only floor is the federal or state mandated minimum wage. Meyerson points out that employers have taken advantage of their dominant position.

"Today, wages and benefits make up the lowest share of America’s gross domestic product since World War II. Wages have fallen from 53 percent of GDP in 1970 to 44 percent today. Profits have been growing at wages’ expense. Michael Cembalest, J.P. Morgan’s chief investment officer, has calculated that reductions in wages and benefits were responsible for about 75 percent of the increase in corporate profits between 2000 and 2007."

Given that traditional unions are not the answer, but that a labor movement is needed, what must happen? Meyerson suggests several approaches that are being considered. Most involve broadening the scope of union activities to become more involved in important social issues. There are a lot of people out there who are unhappy: homeowners, indebted students, and anyone who has to deal with banks, for example. Could they all be corralled into a single movement? Perhaps, but what would that have to do with unions per se?

The notion of a broad-based approach to gaining better conditions for wage-earners begins to resemble more traditional political organizing. Of Meyerson’s possible approaches, the most compelling is his description of local political activism in the Los Angeles area. He describes the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). This organization created programmatic platforms, recruited candidates, and waged successful campaigns for local political offices. The goal was to use the leverage provided by government assistance to businesses to force those businesses to be more supportive of workers and of the community in general.

"LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage....Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities."

This example seems suggestive of where the labor movement must go. There are many people who would never think of joining a union, but who would be in favor of a living-wage law—which is nothing more than a healthy rise in the minimum wage that is tied to a local cost of living. There are a number of social issues where there is popular support, but political blockage at the national level. Perhaps the most effective strategy in the long run is to return to working at local and state levels to establish conditions and laws that hopefully will set the example for broader implementation.
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