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Archive for August, 2011

Blog, The Irene Edition, Possibly Part 1

with 5 comments

I say possibly because Irene isn’t supposed to get to this state until about midnight tonight, so I may be speaking prematurely.  It’s about four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and all we’ve seen up here so far is a few periods of rain, all short but heavy, and a few periods of minor thunder, also short.

Of the people I know in New York–city, that is–about half have taken Bloomberg seriously and evacuated the city, and the other half have decided that the man is delusional and stayed put.  The subways have stopped operating, though, and so have the buses.  So this could be interesting.

Some places, of course, are being genuinely hard hit.  The Outer Banks got pounded, which sometimes seems to me to be what they were designed for. 

Other places are simply assuming that they are going to get pounded.  My older son’s school, which is in Philadelphia, has pushed back Freshman registration from Sunday to Tuesday and the start of classes until later in the week. 

I’ve been spending the day at home trying to get work done and watching DVDs of stuff from the Fifties, I don’t know why.   The last hurricane I remember, personally, having a significant impact on the state of Connecticut was in the late Sixties, or possibly early seventies.  It did no significant damage to the state that I know of.

One of the things I got a chance to watch was a black and white John Wayne movie called Big Jim McLain, a black and white masterpiece in which HUAC agents are the good guys and Communists are trying to infiltrate the labor unions in a Hawaii that is not yet a state.

You probably think I used the term “masterpiece” as sarcasm, but I didn’t, exactly.   There’s an entire genre of movies of this kind from that particular period of film history–black and white, opening with a voice over narration, focussed on a threat to the Republic and proclaiming the cooperation of various government departments.

Wayne produced this one himself, and I think he was entirely sincere–both in his assessment of what actual members of the actual Communist Party were doing at the time, and in his support for HUAC and the anti-Communist hearings.

Richard Condon wrote two wonderful books–The Manchurian Candidate and (I think) Winter Kills–that both had the same premise:  that Joseph McCarthy was himself a Communist plot, the idea being that the whole Red Scare thing was so over the top all it ever did was to make life safe for American Communism.

I think he had a point, although I’ve read enough in the years since I left school to know that the people who were worried about Soviet spying in the US government were not just overreacting. 

Watching this stuff, I always end up feeling that the investigators are asking the wrong questions.  If you’d asked people “have you ever given information to the Soviet government, or to an agent operating here to give to the Soviet government,”  they would have been asking a question it was unambiguously Constitutional to ask, and possibly even giving themselves a chance in Hell of getting the answers they actually needed.

Instead, they seemed to have simply assumed that anybody who had ever belonged to the Communist Party must also have been engaging in espionage.   And, God knows, a lot of them were, but a lot of them weren’t–and they could have learned that much from Whitaker Chambers.

Later in the day, I got out my Perry Mason DVDs, to the extent that it’s been possible to collect them–they’re always my go-to discs for Fifties nostalgia.

Except that I’m not actually nostalgic for the Fifties.  There was a lot I didn’t like in the Fifties, and I wasn’t very happy there.

What I really miss is an odd little collection of things–

I miss that underlying sense that most people are decent and honest, and that somebody who does not believe that to be true is most likely not to be decent and honest himself.

There is, I think, something to this as a reading of human nature.  And that makes me very nervous thinking about how many people seem to be wedded to cynicism these days, including most of law enforcement and social services.

I miss, too, the relaxedness of law enforcement–okay, not the best way to put that.  But we forget that it wasn’t always automatic to cuff and shackle everybody we arrested, including fourteen year olds being hauled in for running away from home. 

We seem to have lost any distinction we ever had between seriously violent criminals and your average jerk you just tried to grab the money in the cash register at the convenience store.

I think I miss, as well, the general not-over-the-topness of the way everybody presented as living.  Perry Mason is a successful lawyer, so he has a Cadillac convertible, and the next guy’s car isn’t so nice–but there’s nothing like the insanity of Cribs or My Super Sweet Sixteen. 

I get tired, sometimes, of living in a world in which the only two modes seem to be either getting hold of as much stuff as you can lay your hands on or posturing around as the latest reincarnation of Ghandi, if not of Christ, based mostly on one’s ability to remember what vocabulary is supposed to be considered virtuous on Tuesday.

Welcome to the Right and the Left as they look to me this morning.

Okay.  This afternoon.  Practically this evening.  Writing syllabi makes my eyes glaze over.

This is, I think, another one of those cases where I imagine things to exist that do not and never have.  I was like that about ‘college’ and what I was supposed to find there.  I think I was like that about “writing,” too, at least as it existed in my favorite fantasy period, the Twenties to Fifties.  Well, maybe the Twenties to Forties.

Even so, it would be a nice place to live if you could live there–a kind of Cavanaugh Street of the mind.

I suppose that, like all the other Cavanaugh Streets of the mind, if you could actually move there–you’d hate it.

Sort of the way I ended up hating Paris.

If I don’t cook dinner, we’re not going to eat any.

So I’d better go.

Written by janeh

August 27th, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Weather Report

with 8 comments

Well, today was my first day back at teaching, and all I can say is that it was nowhere near as depressing as I thought it was going to be.  That’s something, of course, and I’m going to hold onto it.

In the meantime, Hurrican Irene–which is supposed to be down to a cat 1 storm when it hits Long Island, and not much more than a tropical storm when it gets up here–has caused our new governor to have some kind of massive anxiety attack.  The entire state is under a declaration of emergency in anticipation.

And Connecticut Light and Power is warning that there are likely to be massive and prolonged outages.

And nothing has happened yet.

This does not bode well.

In the meantime, I’d like to point out that:

a) I never said a thing about punishing teachers.  In fact, I said tests should be used to assess students, NOT teachers.

b) I agree that children should be taught to read first, of course, and I VERY MUCH agree that if they don’t learn they should be required to repeat a grade.  More than once, if necessary.

c) However–nope, I won’t give up on the general knowledge thing.  I think we should set standards in reading, writing, mathematics, history and science and students should be rigorously–not multiple-choice–tested in each, by outside proctors, and be required to pass each one before they’re allowed to graduate from eighth grade and from high school.  AND

d) I do think we CAN test for knowledge in these areas. 

e) Plus, all that other stuff–teaching them how to think, or to find answers on the Internet, or to have a “love of learning”–leave me cold.  I’ve got nothing against them, but it’s not what I am willing to pay teachers to do.   What’s more

f) I think each separate district should be allowed to establish and enforce its own standards, and that these standards should be set by the voters in each district, NOT by educational experts of any kind, including teachers on their own.

So if you’re teaching in a district where I get to vote on the budget, you’re just going to have to teach that core curriculum.

Well, assuming I can get the rest of the district to go along with me.

But, even so, I don’t think what we’re doing now is the way we ought to do this.

In the meantime, I’m writing syllabi and going to faculty meetings and feeling, as I said a few days ago, that what we’re involved with is a monumental scam. 

In the straightforward voc training programs–nursing, dental hygiene, that kind of thing–we provide the necessary skills training.  In the rest of the curriculum, we’re “teaching” and “assessing” in a frantic attempt to make sure nobody notices the obvious–that when they get out of a two year or a four year “education,” they still won’t be able to write clear and grammatical English, decipher even low levels of extended reading materials, or do enough math to figure out whether it’s cheaper to buy plums or apricots at the supermarket.

And when we get one level above this one–but nowhere near the top–we send the kids through long “programs’ of make-work low-level scattershot stuff that not only won’t ‘teach them to think” but won’t give them any clear overview of the history of their own civilization, and then declare their “education” “valuable” because–it’s education!

I’ll stand by what I said on this blog over a year ago–the ACTUAL result of this new push to ‘get everyone to go to college’ has been to make it virtually impossible for anybody but rich people to get a real education at all.

Forty years ago, you could show up at Western Indiana State and still get a fully fleshed out liberal arts education, if you wanted one.  These days, you get into the flagship campus or, more probably, a “name” private school, or you get vo-tech and then only if you’re lucky.

We used to be proud that our Aggies and our Engineers had read Plato and could quote Cicero.  Now we waste their time on “Mass Media and Society” and “The Image of the Other in Comic Books” and charge them tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege.

I am NOT in a good mood about this stuff at the moment.

And we’re about to have weather.

Written by janeh

August 26th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Hmmm….

with 6 comments

I’ve been looking at the comments over the last couple of days and thinking that you’re all talking past each other.

So let me start with a few things.

First, I find it very odd that when we talk about testing these days, we talk about using those tests to evaluate teachers.

Why?

Traditionally, we use tests to evaluate students. 

And that’s as it should be.  The best teacher in the world can’t make her students learn.  What tests tell us is what the students know.

And I think that if failing those tests have serious consequences for the students–not being able to go on to the next grade, not being able to graduate from high school, not being able to go on to college–students and parents will make sure that any teacher not bothering to teach anything gets an earful.

Second, I don’t have much patience with the ‘all testing tells us is how well students take tests” approach.

But that may have something to do with something else I don’t share, and that is with the idea that the point of school is “teaching students how to think” or “instilling a love of learning.”

For one thing, I don’t think those things can be taught to begin with.  For another, I think they’re beside the point.

What I want from schools is to make sure that the students who end up in college classrooms–or on the job in the outside world–possess a certain set of facts and skills. 

And we CAN test for those. 

I don’t like mutiple choice tests, but we could certainly run short answer tests with pre-determined value levels (the correct answer must contain these 5 parts, etc) that would adequately tell us whether the students were in the possession of a set of facts. 

We could find out, for instance, if they knew what the branches of government were and what those branches did, or the wars fought by the United States from the Revolution on with their relevant dates, or the principle points in the philosophies of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

With English composition and reading comprehension, the tests would have to be more elaborate–but it isn’t true that there are just a whole lot of competing ideas about what is right or wrong in grammar, for instance, or sentence structure, or the order and composition of paragraphs in an argumentative or informative essay.

A test for those things would start by requiring students to write the essays–and the big danger is in falling for the “holistic” version of grading them, where a bunch of different people read them and just sort of get a “feel” and then we look to see if the grades all match.

The grading of such a test would have to be down strictly, with so much off for mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling, for incomplete sentences, for ideas out of order, and the rest of it.

For reading comprehension, it would require getting rid of multiple choice entirely and going to short answer in which we ask not only about vocabulary words–and we should ask about those–but about the ideas in the piece. 

A student who reaches the end of an essay by Richard Dawkins on science and religion by concluding that the author is trying to say that “we all have different ways of looking at things and what’s important is that we believe what’s right for us” is not proposing an “interpretation” of the piece.  She’s just plain wrong.

Once we’ve gotten students past all this, we can start thinking about getting them to think about it–but only AFTER.  UNTIL they have this stuff down, they have nothing to think about.

As for tenure–it is certainly true that there are administrators who fire at will because they don’t like some of their teachers, or who would if they were allowed to get away with it.

But why shouldn’t they be allowed to get away with it?

That’s the situation with every other job on earth–why, exactly, should teaching be different?

I work, after all, in academic circumstances where not even tenure protects you if you’re on the “wrong” side of such issues–it would not help any teacher who came out against affirmative action, for instance.

What it does do is simply protect people on on particular side of the political divide from the wrath of the legislature.

But the business of public schools is to teach what their communities want taught–and if teachers are not doing that, they should not continue to have jobs in that district. 

Any more than I should have a job with the PR department of BP if I spend my time telling the press how everything they do is deliberately to screw up the environment.

Sorry.

I’m having a very bad day on all subjects academic.

Written by janeh

August 23rd, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Rain

with 17 comments

So it’s Sunday, and outside it’s muggy and foggy and depressing.  It feels like I’ve been up forever, but I don’t have music on yet.  Some of the schools start up this week, at the very end of the week, although there seems to be a trend to go back to starting just after Labor Day for most of them. 

And I am, I think, in something of a slump. 

Part of it is just unhappiness with what we do at school and what we don’t do–at what has become increasingly a system obsessed with “assessment” at the same time as it’s become one where no actual progress takes place.

I’m sure that sounds more confusing than enlightening.

The mania for “assessment” is new even since I went back to teaching in 2000.  And it’s new on all levels.  It’s the very essence of No Child Left Behind. 

On the “college” level, it’s a weird set of confusions and contradictions that never seem to meet in the middle.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy with the people who want standardized testing to figure out whether schools are actually teaching what they’re supposed to be teaching.  Too much of the elementary and secondary system seems to have been erected in order to make it impossible to know whether anybody is learning anything.

The problem is that I’m not sure how we would test what we actually need to test.   Even in the cases where school districts are not cheating to make their results look better, students who score high on these tests are often incapable of doing what the tests are supposed to be testing.

I have sat in classrooms and watched students who are incapable of reading a paragraph in English and writing about it grammatically sail through “exit exams” meant to test just that while students I know can do the work fall apart and fail to pass.

I don’t see how any employer anywhere thinks that the “degree” we offer our students is evidence of any ability at all, good or bad.  And it seems to me that what we actually need is a way to tell if job applicants can actually do the work we want them to do. 

At the same time, I think that schools obsessed with constant “assessment” are not schools.  To think that the only point in a child or adolescent’s being “in school” is to be endlessly and unrelenting judged is repugnant to me on so many levels, I don’t know where to start. 

It changes the fundamental relationship between student and teacher, for one. 

There’s an enormous difference between “I’m here to teach you something” and “I’m here to judge you and everything else is irrelevant.”

And it’s that latter thing we’ve gotten to.  In elementary and secondary schools, the judging is not just on academics, but on every aspect of the child’s life.   The kid goes to school and is under a microscope at almost every moment–and any deviation from some abstract norm is automatically a “disorder” or a “disability.”

“College is different,” my father used to say, when the early stages of this sort of thing used to drive me completely crazy.  And college is different.  We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about their social inadequacies. 

In other ways, though, it’s exactly the same.  We don’t care if you’ve learned anything.  We only care that you can pass the test that says you’ve learned something. 

And the test isn’t really testing anything that anybody wants to know.

If we did this right, we could teach people what they needed to know to prosper at most jobs in the first eight grades–we could stop wasting their time and everybody else’s, and we could stop sticking them with loan bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.

We’d have to drop the whole child approach and let the “issues” be handled by other people in other places.  We’d have to change the curriculum and change the curriculum in the ed schools–or abolish the ed schools entirely, which makes more sense to me. 

And we’d have to be willing to risk the possibility that there would be a “disparate impact’  on children of different races.

I said risk it–I don’t actually think that, in the long run, it would come to pass. 

I do think that the fear that it would is what is killing education on every level these days. 

And I think that if you want to find Americans so racist as to think that black people are inherently intellectually inferior to white people, you shouldn’t look at backwoods hillbilly trailer parks. You should look at teachers and administrators on every educational level from Head Start to the Harvard Graduate School.

And this, you see, is why it’s always a bad idea to talk to me when I’m about to go back to school.

Written by janeh

August 21st, 2011 at 8:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Not The Great Awakening, Either One

with 26 comments

So, I’m having this very odd day. 

I am, for some reason, more “up” than I’ve been for a while–both more awake, and in a better mood.  The awakeness is probably just a function of having slept in a little–I didn’t get up until six!–and the better mood is probably at least in part having had a good few hours of work this morning.

But all of this cheeriness does, in fact, leave me with something of a dilemma. 

My intention as of a couple of days ago was to write a follow up to the last post, about the ways in which the time of the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening mirrored our own.

And the mirror is there.  There was a first rate culture war going on at the time, fought out by the men who wanted to emulate the French and make government and public life in America secular, and those who wanted to continue to Puritan tradition and uphold the state-established churches of New England as a model for the country.

And, I will admit, part of me is intrigued by all of this because both sides lost, which is largely what I think is going to happen when we come out of the other side of the time we’re in.

But, for some reason known only to my poor beleaguered brain, I don’t care this morning.  It’s going to be a wretched day in terms of weather.  We’ve already had three days of rain and more than a little flash flooding.  There’s now more rain, and lots of humidity.

And last night, I don’t know why, I started reading a Carl Hiassen novel called Native Tongue.

I have this sort of odd relationship to the novels of Carl Hiassen.  If I’m in the right mood, I absolutely love them.  They’re never “mysteries” in the sense of puzzles, and they’re not “crime novels” in the way the works of Dennis Lehane are.  

What they are is a kind of localized onrush of insanity, a sort of through the looking glass experience, that seems to work because Hiassen does absolutely nothing to make it all sound plausible. 

I’m blithering here, but I do in fact know what I mean.  Hiassen takes completely off the wall people and events and presents them flat, as if there’s no reason to think they’re out of the ordinary.  And in doing that, he makes things that are very much out of the ordinary seem–well, everyday.

Funny, but every day.

When I am not in the mood to read Carl Hiassen, I can’t read him at all. He does what I usually think of as everything wrong when he writes–there’s little or no backstory for any of the characters, and the characters are presented acting without explanation by themselves or the narrator.

The whole character-driven thing that is usually my only reason for wanting to read fiction isn’t there, but I can still read this man forever. 

And when I’m not, I can still tell that he writes well–using that now as a technical thing.

I admit to being surprised that Hiassen ever got as popular as he did.  He is good, but good isn’t enough, and I think these books must have been hell on wheels to publicize when they first came out.  They are like very little else that’s ever been out there–Don Westlake’s comic stuff, like Dancing Aztecs, is what comes close–and what, exactly, were people going to find to say?  This book is about these little rat like creatures with blue tongues, and there’s a theme park with staff dressed up in animal costumes, and…

Whatever.  I really do like this book, and I really do like people who can be funny when they write.  I seem to be better at being funny in person, although I never can see it myself. 

I’m going to go off and get some work done on syllabi and that sort of thing.

I just can’t get serious today.

Written by janeh

August 16th, 2011 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Awakenings, Of A Sort

with 2 comments

So.  It’s Sunday morning, and my work for the day is finished, and I have tea.  I should have Bach playing behind me, or Mozart, or that sort of thing, because that’s what I do on Sunday mornings.  That is not happening, right now, because, for some reason known only to itself, the machine on which I usually play my music has decided that it doesn’t like the CD with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony on it. 

In fact, it hates that particular CD so much, it refuses to even recognize that it’s there.  I put the CD in the machine and the message pops up:  open tray.  I open the tray and then close it again and the message pops up:  open tray.

After about 15 minutes of this, I got Matt up out of a sound sleep so that he could try it for a while and then explain to me that it probably just needed to “rest.”  The machine, that is.  You turn it off and leave it off for an hour or two, and then when you turn it back on…

And people wonder why I think of electronics as being a sentient race of …somethings.

Whatever.

I’ve been reading, over the past week, a book called New England’s Moral Legislator:  Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817 by John R. Fitzmier.

This is not, however, a book recommendation.  Oh, there’s nothing particularly awful about the book–except, possibly, the fact that the author feels compelled to write (sic) after every single quoted 18th century spelling–but it’s not the kind of thing most of you have indicated any interest in reading.  It’s also a published doctoral dissertation.

Some people, when they publish their doctoral dissertations, make a point of turning them into “real books.”  This, not so much.

I’ve had this book lying around my house for many years, part of my project to come to some systematic understanding of the history of New England and of the place of the American founding in it. 

That sounds very dry and academic, but all it really amounts to is that I was born and brought up here and the place interests me. 

And because the place has interested me for a long time, I’ve come increasingly to the suspicion that everything everybody says about the American founding and the separation of church and state is complete and utter crap. 

Okay.  That is more overly simplified than the other thing was overly academic.

But–Timothy Dwight.

In the first place, I should say that it would never have occurred to me to read anything about the man if it hadn’t been for an accident of geography.

When I was in high school and first moving out from fiction to other kinds of books–when Ayn Rand, of all people, got me interested in reading Aristotle, and Aristotle got me interested in reading Locke–the town in which I lived was not great at providing that kind of thing.  It was the days before Interlibrary Loan, so that didn’t help, either. 

What’s more, at fourteen, I couldn’t get into New York on my own, and my  mother was afraid of the place.   What she wasn’t afraid of was New Haven, where she herself had grown up and where her sister still lived, along with my cousins.

And New Haven has Yale.  And Yale has–or had?–the Co-op, where cheap editions of every philosopher you’d ever heard of could be found, stocked for students who needed them for classes.

And the place was open to the public.

It didn’t take me very long to figure all this out, and to establish a patter whereby my birthdays and the week after Christmas consisted of my father giving me a wad of cash and my mother dropping me off at the New Haven green while she went to visit my Aunt Dot. 

This worked really well, because I truly hated visiting my Aunt Dot and my New Haven cousins, and I truly loved spending hours on end in the Yale Co-op. 

I also liked wandering around the middle of New Haven, and through that part of it that is Yale.  Yale represented to me, at the time, everything I was hoping to reach after digging my way out of…well, my mother’s family.   It was beautiful Gothic buildings and books and people who spent all their time reading them and thinking about them and talking about them.  It was only a minor annoyance that the university, at the time, admitted only men.

It would be a major annoyance, later, when I found out that my ideal world did not exist on the Yale campus of that time, or of anywhere else of that time. 

A friend of mine once asked me if I didn’t have a place where I just fit in, and the answer is:  no.  I would fit in in my imaginary Yale, if it existed, but apparently it does not.

At any rate, my mother would drop me off at the Green and I would go wandering around the Yale part of New Haven, looking at the buildings and daydreaming, until I got to the Co-op and could go in to buy books.  One of the clusters I passed regularly was the gate to and buildings of Timothy Dwight College. 

Yale is arranged in residential “colleges,” in imitation of Oxford.  My favorite was Jonathan Edwards College, which is how I came to get hold of a copy of Edwards’s Freedom of the Will at a very young age.  That was because the book, published by the Yale University Press, was in the philosophy section of the Co-Op and I came across it one day.

I never came across anything by Dwight, and so, until fairly recently–say, twenty years ago–I had no idea who he was or what he had done to get a college at Yale named after him.

For what it’s worth, what he’d done was to be President of Yale for a while, something that his grandfather had also done.  His grandfather was that same Jonathan Edwards whose college I’d loved and whose book had introduced me, for the first time, to Protestant theology. 

Granted, I hadn’t actually learned much about Protestant theology, but it was a start.  And it turned the history of New England into a lifelong obsession.

There turn out, in fact, to be some interesting things about Timothy Dwight.

He wrote one of the earliest true crime accounts in American literature, for one.  He was one of the earliest promoters of conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, for another.  He was one of the earliest Americans to excoriate all things French.   “The touch of France is pollution,” he said.  “Her enbrace is death.”

Dwight is not the kind of writer I usually consider as important for those lists I’m always making up.  He wrote allegorical poems about the founding of America in heroic couplets.  And they were long.  He wrote endless sermons whose tone was essentially scolding.

But he did something else, and that something else is why he is not a waste of time for me.

He became the lynchpin of the conservative side in a national conversation about the place of religion in American society and government–and in a conversation so eerily similar to what we have now that it feels like an hallucination when I read it.

But I’ll get on to that, secularism and religion, the Second Great Awakening, the drive of secularism–and how both sides lost.

Right now, I’d better eat something.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2011 at 10:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Rewind

with 14 comments

Sometimes when the comments go haywire, I’m completely surprised.  Sometimes, I know it even as I’m typing the original post.  Yesterday was one of those second times.

So, to be clearer here:

I DO NOT want to return to the Fifties.

I was just trying to give a clear example of the difference between structural conditions in society and government initiatives. 

Structural conditions can be affected by, and sometimes wholly subverted by, government initiatives–but it’s more likely that the conditions subvert the initiatives rather than the other way around.

But on top of everything else, I don’t think it would be a good idea to go back to the days when most women did not work outside the home, at least as that was backed up by direct discrimination in education and employment.

There are, of course, some changes in social structure I’d be happy to see if we could get them back:  the conviction that it’s better to live on less than to leave the kids all day with that very nice Guatamalan woman who doesn’t actually speak English but couldn’t really be inpacted the children’s ability to cope in school.

Maybe all I really want back is the willingness to cope with less. 

Every time I read one of those long rants–there was one by Michael Moore a couple of days ago–about how everything was so much better in the Fifties and Sixties when families could afford to have one parent stay home full time because everybody was unionized and there were lots of “progressive” policies in place–I remind myself that “afford to stay home” meant “willing to put up with 900 square feet, one bathroom, only one coat and only once a year for the children and once every five for the parents,  eating in restaurants maybe twice a year if you were lucky…and all the rest of it.”

To a certain extent, families in the Fifties could “afford” to have one parent stay home because they were willing to put up with what it took to do that.

And we’re largely not.

Nor was I trying to say that government programs were unnecessary.  Both government programs and policy affect what we choose to do. 

I just think they are a sort of ham handed way of going about things, and likely to produce lots of unintended consequences.

To the extent that conditions on the ground determine these things, then, the more stable and workable they will be.

That being said, I have one thing I want from whatever social program we attempt to put in place–I want them to be more like social security than like welfare, whatever we want to call welfare these days.

By saying I want them more like social security than like welfare, what I mean is not that people should pay into them, but that they should be a matter of handing out the money, period.

You get your social security check.  You use it for what you want.  Government workers do not come to your house trying to figure out how you spent it.  You will not be assigned to a mandatory program about how to run your finances, nor asked to produce evidence you did something the government approves of in order to get your benefits.  You buy liquor and cigarettes and lottery tickets if that’s what you want.  It’s none of anybody’s business.

That makes social security both infinitely less expensive per person benefited than something like TANF, and not a threat to the liberty of individuals. 

And yes, the Earned Income Tax Credit would be a good paradigm.

But right now, welfare is more about attempting to coerce people into being “good” than it is about helping families in need, and no employer in the country would be allowed to demand the kind of minute, intimate accounting the welfare people are allowed to make if you use their services.

It makes “helping the poor” cost much more than it has to.

But I also think we should accept, going in, what is inevitable–in any system that provides such help, from welfare payments to unemployment insurance, there will be free riders.

Somebody brought to my attention the other day that Obama said, during the last Presidential campaign, that people who milk the system for all they can get and postpone going back to work until the benefits dry up are “mythical.” 

Well, the myth lives among my own relatives, who do plenty of that.  The trick to understanding it is to understand that different people have different standards for what makes a pleasurable life.  You might not be able to stand living hand to mouth just in order not to show up at a job, but you may have a different kind of job, or be a different kind of person.

There is no answer to the free rider dilemma.  It will come up whenever anybody–private charities as well as government programs–offers help, and there’s not much we can do about it.

What we can do something about is the fact that we make it very expensive to hire people in this country–although not as expensive as it is in France or Germany–that we take too much of the power to make decisions away from localities, and that we have a problem with illegal immigration that nobody wants to deal with because the people who live above that 40% see advantages in it for themselves.

But that’s all for another time, and another day.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2011 at 6:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

About the Architecture

with 6 comments

I think it’s interesting that, in what comments there were, what I got was:  oh, okay, we should do social programs, and that kind of thing.

But I specifically didn’t say social programs–I said that society should be structured in a way that made a decent life possible for the vast majority of people who work and save and act like responsible adults.

Stucture is a lot different than a program.

The earned income tax credit–invented, by the way, by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman and called then the “negative income tax”–is a program.

The America of the 1950s, however, represents a structure:  immigration was minimal to the point of being almost nonexistent; most women automatically quit work when they were married and were often restricted from entry into the professions; decisions about what went on in public schools were made locally; almost nobody had health insurance, rich or poor, except for unionized workers in large industries.

I’m not saying that any of these aspects of Fifties America was a good idea.  I was only saying that structures produce effects and these effects were all, by and large, good for that 40%

Why?

First, because large-scale immigration puts downward pressure on wages.  This is part one of the law of supply and demand in the above.  These days, we’re constantly being told that immigrants (and especially illegal immigrants) take jobs “Americans won’t do.”

That’s not quite true.

Illegal immigrants take jobs Americans won’t do at those wages. 

As long as there are more people willing to do those jobs than jobs to be filled, wages in those jobs will be low.  In a Fifties social structure,  the number of people willing to do those jobs is distinctly limited, and to get somebody to work for you you have to pay more.

This was not a zero sum equation. With the cost of labor higher, some jobs that exist now didn’t exist.  These days, for instance, virtually everybody I know has a lawn service at the very least, and there’s barely a woman on the Connecticut Gold Coast willing to do her own housework. 

In the Fifties, men mowed their own lawns and women cleaned their own houses, at least in New England, unless they were upper-level executives at the least, and sometimes even then. 

This did not cause significant unemployment because of number two:

Most women did not work after they were married.

Women in the working class did work, of course, but women in the middle and upper middle and upper almost never did, and that did two things.

First, it meant that to fill the ranks of workers above the working class, in medicine and law, in the executive and middle management ranks of businesses, half the competition for jobs was gone. 

There were, of course, fewer of such jobs than there are now, but there was still only half as much competition, and that meant that men who would otherwise have stayed on lower ranks ended up on upper ones, pulling the whole food chain with them. 

And to make that effect even more pronounced, the assumption that women quit work when they married meant the companion assumption that women who worked worked for themselves, while men worked for families. 

That brought us the “family wage,” where not just men in general, but specifically men with families, were paid more on the assumption that they needed more.

Then we have health insurance, and the lack of it.  Health insurance sounds like a great idea, and it is.  But here’s the thing:  third party payment systems drive prices up. 

And any area of life in which third party payment becomes the majority form of payment for the service will be an area where prices are rapidly out of reach for almost everybody.

In the pre-insurance landscape of Fifties America, medical costs were expensive but not impossible, because if they had been impossible, nobody would have gotten paid.  Doctors who charge $485 for an annual physical would see their supply of patients dry up. 

No matter how rich a doctor wants to be, he’s  not going to get that way if nobody can pay for his services.  He’s just going to be unemployed.

In a third party payer system of any kind, private or public, the only brake on costs is the intransigence of the third party institutions doing the paying–and, if history is any judge, they’re bad at it.

In the Fifties, men and women went to the doctor and paid not much more than the $5 copay my insurance demands now.  That was a lot more money in the Fifties than it is now, but it was not out of the reach of parents with a parent with a child with the chickenpox. 

And don’t even get me started on house calls.

And finally, we have the public schools.

The 40% depend on public institutions. They have to. 

But saying that they depend on public institutions is not the same thing as saying that they’ll take whatever they can get and be happy with it.

Far from it.

The issue in those public institutions is not whether they’re “good” by some abstract and academic standard, but whether they’re “good” by the standards of the people who use them.

And it is here where we start having some problems, because the standards of the people who use the public schools in Palm Harbor, Florida, or Colchester, Connecticut, or Kirkwood, Illinois are likely to be very different from the professional standards of the Ed Schools and to have very different priorities from the agendas of state lawmakers. 

In a Fifties world, however, where decisions about the local public schools are made by the localities themselves, there’s much less of this sort of mismatch.  The schools reflect their communities, and because they do, the parent who use them trust them, and it is trust that is the key here.

That, above, is a structure–not a program.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good structure, as things go. 

I know there were problems with it, even at the time.   In fact, there were big problems of it.

And there have been substantive social changes that would make going back to some of it, even if it were desirable–and a lot of it isn’t.

But what is needed is still, first and foremost, a structure, not a set of programs.

And that will have to wait for later.

Postscript:  I noted the comments about group homes yesterday, but they were not the kind of group homes I was talking about.  In the one I know best, two normal intelligence adults live full time in a house with eight mentally challenged people.  The mentally challenged people all have full time jobs, usually at local grocery stores as baggers and sweepers and cart-rescue people.   They go to work on their own, often walking their by themselves, and attend their churches on their own.  They have freedom of movement.  They’re not in a “facility,” if that makes sense.  They get paid, and after deductions for their rent for the home and a stipulated percentage for savings, their money is their own to spend as they like. 

It may or may not be a good deal for the two mentally normal house parents, but it’s a wonderful idea for the mentally challenged people, who are able to live something very close to the kind of life you and I call normal. 

I think this is a very good idea.

Written by janeh

August 10th, 2011 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Devil in the Details

with 4 comments

So, back to the original question–some people can fend for themselves, and some people can’t.  What do we do about them?

For the moment, I want to put aside the issue of how to define “can’t,” at least in terms of who should get aid.

I don’t much like the idea of things like “the deserving poor” and “the undeserving poor.”  It seems to me to put government right back to where I don’t want it to be–making moral judgments about its citizens and responding accordingly.  There’s just as much coercion in “you can’t have food stamps for your children if you don’t get off the heroin” as there is in a mandatory seat belt law or regulations on smoking in privately owned restaurants.

Hell, there’s more.  And if I had to change “social services” in one way today, it would be to get rid of that entire idea that they’re empowered to “fix” people in exchange for giving them material aid. 

But let me back up a little.

First question:  helping the needy isn’t a core function of government.  Is it a necessary one?

I’d say that that depends–well, all necessary functions of government that are not also core function depend on circumstances.

I’d say that two things are necessary to a free society than is going to function well:

All government institutions, at the least, should treat each citizen as someone of full worth and dignity.

That would mean an end to any government entity–public schools, social welfare programs, you name it–insisting that they were going to “help” over the objections of the individual to be helped.  Ever.   To tell somebody he doesn’t REALLY want what he says he wants, because you know better, is to show the worst kind of disrespect.

The second thing, however, is this: it must be possible for the vast majority of citizens to build a decent life–not extravagant, decent–by his own work.

In other words, society will not function well unless everybody can, if he or she is willing, provide for his or her family by going out and doing the right things:  having a job and being diligent about it, saving his money, practicing deferred gratification at least some of the time, etc.

It is true that some people cannot do this because they are truly incapable.  CT has a wonderful state system for the educably mentally handicapped.  Instead of institutionalizing them, or shuffling them around to make-up “jobs,” we give them the education they are capable of handling, then train them for real jobs in the community–grocery store bagger, for instance–that they can actually do.  They get paid, and we provide them with group homes that operate like actual homes.  They’re houses.  The people in them can come and go as they like.  The relatively more difficult functions of being a homeowner are taken over by a couple of adults who serve as house parents.  We make it possible, in fact, for such people to live pretty much a regular life.

I love practically everything this program does.  And it’s also obviously necessary for the people involved, because even on the strictest definition, they could not make it on their own.

But there are other senses in which people may not be able to make it on their own.  For one thing, we go back to the choices we want people to make that will at least possibly make it more difficult for them to cope for themselves in the future.  We want our firefighters to rush into burning houses, our police officers to catch violent criminals, and our innocent bystanders to jump in when a child is drowning and nobody is around to save her.

But, in fact, we want more than that.  We want our families to look after their old and sick, to care for their children with handicaps, to see their old people through the early stages of Alzheimers, and all the rest.   Most of us do not want families to abort when they know a child will be born with handicaps.

Individuals and families who do this sort of thing, though, almost always do it at great expense to themselves, not only in actual money but in the loss of income that comes with spending your time taking care of Grandma instead of working for Walmart.  A family that might be perfectly capable of getting by on its own when all its members are healthy may not be able to if one of its members need extra care.

But even this doesn’t completely cover it. What do we do about people who work in necessary professions that for reasons of the market value of labor will not make enough money to do the following:

a) put a roof over the heads of the family

b) put food on the table of a quantity sufficient for what THE FAMILY ITSELF feels it needs

c) provide clothing for the family

d) provide an education that THE FAMILY ITSELF feels is adequate or better for the children

e) provide medical care as needed, and dental care as needed, for the family.

In other words, if I get up every day and go to work and do my job, I should be able to feed, clothe, house, educate and medically care for my family, whether I’m working the stock room at the pickle factory or practicing law.

The BASIC elements of a decent life ought to be available to all the citizens of a country as long as they’re willing and able to work for it. 

I don’t, as I’ve said before, really care that much about “gaps” between “rich and poor.”  I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with Warren Buffet having billions of dollars and Billy Bob down at the the drive-in making minimum wage.

I do, however, think that we get ourselves into a lot of trouble, long term and short, when it becomes no longer possible for a significant hunk of people to, as my late father in law put it, “make an honest living.”

And I think that there are structural reasons why that may be difficult for what are called “the 40%.”

In case you haven’t run across this–the 40% are those adults in this country who work blue collar jobs.   For all the talk about “middle class,” they’re not middle class, they’re working class.  They’re the people you hear about working two and three jobs and often still fighting to make ends meet. 

They’re the people who, when polled, express enthusiastic support for most of the New Deal–social security and medicare in particular–and for public schools, universal health insurance, and most of the rest of the Democratic Party agenda.

They’re also the people who then go right out and vote Republican.

And no, I don’t think they’re addled, or stupid, or voting “against their own interests.” 

But I’ll continue this tomorrow, because I have, alas, got work to do.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2011 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Vice Squad

with 10 comments

Well, what can I say?  It took only about a day for Charlou and Judy to show why libertarians reject social programs.  Although Charlou may have changed her mind.  I’m a little unsure about that.

But let’s go to Judy’s question–it’s fine for everybody to make their own choices if they have to pay out of pocket for the consequences, but why should she have to pay for the consequences of other people’s bad choices?

There are actually several good answers to that one, not all of which we’ll get to here.

But I do want to point out one thing:  the resistence to Obamacare, and earlier to Hillarycare, was on exactly this point–lots of people expected that a unversal health care system would automatically give people the idea that “since they were paying for it, they got to regulate it.”  Given the choice of fending on their own with the consequences, or not being left free to make the choice–they want to fend.

Most of the people who want to end laws against driving without a helmet on a motorcyle or restricting smoking in bars ALSO don’t want universal health care.  They do not, in fact, ask you to pay for the consequences of their decisions.

Which brings me to my first point.

1) These programs are instituted by a majority, but not by a universality.  It is not legitimate to use  the existence of such programs as an excuse to regulat private life, because people do not have a choice as to whether or not to participate in them.   The people who have been vigorously opposing the new health insurance reform bill will be required to follow it whether they wanted it or not, and will, in the resulting system, be required to “benefit” from it.

The “benefit” is in quotes because they don’t think they’ll be benefiting.  In the calculus of something gained and something lost, they think they will have majorly lost–giving up their autonomy is a much bigger harm than any good that can come from universal health care.

So pick:  either don’t regulate private life, or eliminate all the programs so that you don’t feel like  you’re paying for other people’s bad choices.

2) If the actual rationale for the regulation of private life is that some choices cost us money, then we ought to be consistant–we ought to regulate ALL the choices that cost us money, and not just the ones we personally don’t like.

And I would therefore call for the regulation of childbirth, specifically as it regards the birth of children with Down Syndrome and spina bifuda, and any other birth defects that cause long term consequences and that can be detected before birth by amniocentesis or genetic testing.

Like, for instance, children who will be born with the genes that will cause eventual Tay-Sachs, Huntingdon’s, or Cooley’s anemia.

Please note:  all of the above can be determined well before birth with widely available testing, and abortion is legal and available.  The choice to carry such a child to term is just that–a choice.  And such children are enormously expensive, far more expensive than seeing a 2 pack a day 30 year smoker through lung cancer. 

The most egregiously handicapped spina bifuda children can cost upwards of $400,000 a year to care for.  They will never lead “normal” lives or be self-supporting.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, they need expensive and round the clock care.  And their parents knew that when they decided to bring that child into the world.  Why should I have to pay for their choice?

We should be able to insist that all pregnant women receive the proper testing, and to refuse to care for any child that results if that testing is positive and the mother refuses to abort.

And, of course, on the other end of life–people with severe dementia or other forms of debilitating old age who could live for years but only if they’re given more of that expensive round the clock care–why should I have to pay for their choice?  If they want to pay for it out of their own pocket, fine, but we should stop taxing me to pay for it. 

Welcome, by the way, to “death panels.’  It wasn’t irrational hysteria.  It was fear of the reasoning above, which is not all that unusual even now.

The reason why people responded to Judy’s post by saying she wanted to “punish” certain behavior is that, in absence of a consistent, universal policy to regulate all behavior that might end up costing us money, what is going on IS punishment. It’s essentially moral legislation, and its purpose is to get government backing to encourage styles of life we approve (or tolerate) and those we have decided are indefensible.

3) And none of the above addresses the problems of either pseudoscience or the extension of putative damage from extreme behavior to more moderate forms.

Most of the mothers of my generation–the women who were our mothers–had a cocktail before dinner and wine with right through pregancy, and smoked, too, and yet didn’t produce children with birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome.

In fact, the entire generation of the Founders was gestated in the wombs of women who drank almost nothing but beer and wine, all day, every day–the water supply was not considered safe in most places in the Colonial and newly national US. 

These days, though, even asking for a glass of wine in a restaurant while pregnant will get you a lecture by the bartender at the least, and if the nurses on the maternity floor know you did it–even just once–you’ll be immediately reported to CPS. 

The reason for all this is not that we have a new and better understanding of pregnancy, it’s that we have moved from a society where cigarette smoking and a few nips to relax at night were considered understandable and civilized, to one that excoriates both behavior as sin.  Except we don’t call it sin.  We call it “unhealthy.”

And to justify regulating the behavior, we point to unusual and extreme cases–women who drink a fifth of vodka a day, for instance–and imply that the consequences from a cocktail or a glass of wine will be just as bad at that. It’s all the same.  It’s all drinking while pregnant.

Our present understanding of “obesity” and the way it relates to health is virtually all pseudoscience.  Go take a look at the studies everybody touts, and what you’ll find, first, is that they’re all correlation results–that is, we know that X and Y are more likely to happen at the same time, but we don’t know why that is.  Maybe X causes Y.  Maybe Y causes X.  Or maybe there’s a third factor that causes both.  We have no idea. 

And, on top of that, we’ve changed the definition of “obesity” three or four times, so that now even people who in my own school days would have been called “chubby” are suddenly “obese.”

But, but, but!  you say.  Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease!

All “risk factor” means is that the two things correlate–what it does NOT mean is that “obesity” CAUSES heart disease. 

What’s more, virtually everything we’ve been told about “weight control” is wrong, and even the experts will say so–privately.  A few months ago, there was a push by some nutritionists to revise the food pyramid to reflect the latest research about what tends to put weight on people and what not.  The revision was rejected because, um, well, people aren’t listening to us now, what’s going to happen if they find out we’ve been giving that advice that actually makes they fatter?  They won’t listen to us at all any more!   They’ll go hog wild!

As for diet and exercise–exercise makes plenty of people gain weight, not lose it.  And the single most effective treatment for extreme UNDERweight is a calorie-controlled diet. 

That’s right.  If for some reason the doctors need to put weight on you, and fast, and keep it on–if you’ve lost a ton due to catastrophic illness or accident, say–what they’ll do to get you there is to put you on exactly the same kind of diet you’re now following from the pages of Cosmo. 

No matter what we tell ourselves, we don’t pass laws forbidding toys in happy meals, or requiring restaurants to put calorie counts on menus, in order to respond to “a crisis of obesity” or to make everybody healthier so they won’t cost the health care system so much money.

We do it because “letting yourself go” has become a hallmark of the people we call “trailer trash,” and we disapprove of them. 

If that was not the reason we were doing it, we would stop doing it when we realized it didn’t work, and we would try to implement policies that did work, even if those policies were not things we liked, or interfered with our private prejudices.

Children are definitely heavier than they used to be, but the problem is more likely to be lack of vigorous exercises than McD’s fries once or twice a week.   That’s not going to get us to change our concerns about children’s “safety” and put back dodge ball at recess, never mind shoving the kid out the door after school and telling him to play outside.  Kids might get hurt!

I pay for the consequences of your motorcycle accident because I expect you to pay for the consequences of my parent’s decision to have me even though I might get Cooley’s anemia. 

None of our choices are revenue neutral, and that fact is not an excuse for regulating them.

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2011 at 8:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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