August 30, 2009

what I did on my summer vacation

Murdo, Badlands, Circle Park 1, Circle Park 2, grimy resort, Sunlight Basin, Yellowstone 1, Yellowstone 2, Idaho Falls, Additional Redfish 1, Additional Redfish 2, Bench Lakes, Redfish Inlet, Sunny Gulch, Morgan 1, Morgan 2, Boulder 1-2-3-4-5-6, Zion, Grand Canyon 1-2-3, Quaking Aspen, Laura's wedding 1-2-3, Two Guns, Flagstaff, Needles, Amelia.

Casualties: one multi-tool, one iPod, one iPod radio converter, two water bottles, one 1989 Volvo station wagon named Flash.

That's right, I sold my car for $30 and a ride to the airport to pick up a rental car.

Highlights: the farmers' markets in Des Moines, Idaho Falls (blackberries, apricots, cherries, tomatoes, pancake mix that starts with grinding your own flour), Shoshone (best sungold cherry tomatoes I've ever had), Salt Lake City (potato-green bean salad with purple basil, Asian sandwich with grass-fed beef), Boulder Utah (can I please give you some money for the cucumbers? please? and the apples - I really don't mind paying for my food), Albuquerque (chiles!), Bakersfield (fruit of all kinds, and technically a farmstand). Everything about Sunlight Basin. The wildlife in Yellowstone: baby bald eagle, baby bison, baby grizzly bear, grown-up grizzly bear, black bear, more bison, antelope, elk, wolf. Redfish Lake. Everything about Boulder. Escalante. The Navajo and Hopi nations. Meeting a ton of interesting people, including some of the Gardener's friends. The fact that the car made it to California - barely - before it died.

Now I'm moving into an apartment, starting grad school, fixing up a cabinet, seeing friends, eating ice cream, and trying to spend more time up in the hills. I'll write more eventually, I think. But not tonight.

July 2, 2009

other priorities

I have to let you know that this blog is just not at the top of my list right now. I've been thinking of a post on Shop Class as Soulcraft, another one about the community center in my neighborhood that used to be a church, plus a couple others I started writing a while ago. But in the rest of my life, I just packed up everything I own in the city I've lived in for 6 years (plus the preceding 4 in the metro area for college). We sold our furniture, cleaned the apartment, put the belongings that won't be useful for camping in storage, and drove out of town.

I'm on the first leg of a 5000 mile, six week road trip in the company of the Gardener, an elderly Volvo station wagon with a busted odometer, and a small mountain of our joint possessions. (The car's possessions include fuses, baling wire, motor oil, and retired climbing rope.) Right now I'm at my grandmother's. This weekend might see some writing - after I leave my parents' house, though, I have no idea when I'll have internet. Just so you're all forewarned out there.

The upside, which I must admit is better for me than for you, is that I think this trip is going to be AWESOME.

June 22, 2009

another article about Iran

A professor at the protests. Definitely worth reading. Two particularly intense moments in the annals of humans in bad situations:

There is a woman who is being beaten. She’s horrified and hysterical but not as much as the anti-riot police officer facing her. She shrieks, ‘Where can I go? You tell me go down the street and you beat me. Then you come up from the other side and beat me again. Where can I go?’ In sheer desperation, the officer hits his helmet several times hard with his baton. ‘Damn me! Damn me! What the hell do I know!

and later,
At Gisha, there’s a similar scene. Again the people have the whole crossing in their control and you can hear the uproar and horns. Motorcycles are burning in smoke. But I’m suddenly stunned. I see a red object, which later proves to be a man, about 50, his head covered with blood, crouching, people passing him by as if he was a garbage can. Then comes a guy with a long stick who wants to beat up the already beaten Basiji. People gather and stop him. He’s furious, ‘Why should I not? They beat tiny girls! They beat everyone! Bastard!’

via hilzoy.

June 21, 2009

read about Iran

One, by Roger Cohen from Tehran, is both opinion and reportage, and the writing is excellent.

The second is by someone I'm going to grad school with this fall, about her cousins in Iran and how she sees the current situation.

June 20, 2009

more important

You wouldn't know it from the blog, since I don't have much to say about it, but I've mostly been thinking about Iran.

Andrew Sullivan is the best Iran news aggregator I've found. The
liveblog of today's protests is full of raw information and links to unfolding stories and things pulled out of the #IranElection twitter feed. Also video of the deaths of protesters, which I did not watch.

June 19, 2009

not that hard

The DOJ is going to sit down with queer law organizations and try to strategize about the best way to deal with all the DOMA cases. This is the kind of thing they could have done beforehand to avoid the kind of fall-out the DOJ brief had last week. Not complicated. If you care about a policy issue, you make a strategy for dealing with it. Glad to see they're willing to do it now.

In some ways, I think it's better to have had this reason for people to get all riled up. It's being riled up that makes people organize, and leads to the kind of pressure that gets meaningful progress.

(via Dan Savage)

June 18, 2009

selective walkback

So, it seems pretty clear now, despite the NYT's assertion to the contrary, that the DOJ did have to defend DOMA. And John Aravosis at Americablog has been absurdly misleading and hysterical. But I still think this highlights Obama's lack of strategy on queer issues, and the importance of pressing the issue and not being patient. The hysteria may have been unwarranted, but it's the bad press that got Obama to act on federal partner benefits. Basically, Obama's been claiming he'll do something about this eventually, be patient, etc, but because he's a politician and not a hero, he'll respond to political incentives (especially if those political incentives get to work on Congress, as well.)

I disagree with Tammy Baldwin that he's gone as far as he can, though. Harry Reid, the embarrassingly incompetent Senate Majority Leader, says there are no Senate co-sponsors to repeal don't ask don't tell. Obama's famous congressional machine can't find a couple senators who want to sponsor a bill that 69% of Americans support? Puh leez.

bad cases make bad law, cont.

You have a defendant who won't claim he's innocent, but still wants DNA testing on the off-chance it might exonerate him? You get Supreme Court FAIL, and the worst effects are on other people who might have had stronger cases.

Choose your test cases wisely.

June 17, 2009

can't look away

Wow. No wonder this is a New York Times article. Fat panic? Check. The trivial concerns of the super rich? Check. Major league cat fights? Check.

What sets her off is the junk food served on special occasions: the cupcakes that come out for every birthday, the doughnuts her children were once given in gym, the sugary “Fun-Dip” packets that some parent provided the whole class on Valentine’s Day.
“Is there or is there not an obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country?”

When offered any food at school other than the school lunch, Ms. Roth’s children — who shall go nameless since it seems they have enough on, or off, their plates — are instructed to deposit the item into a piece of Tupperware their mother calls a “junk food collector.”

The reaction from other parents? "Please, consider moving." Her poor kids.


This is right on. Much as the DOJ shouldn't be defending DOMA with badly written briefs that insult queer people, and much as I think Obama failing to do anything on queer issues is bullshit, the people filing the DOMA lawsuits should stop. Now. The most likely outcome of a DOMA lawsuit right now is a lot of bad precedent, and that's probably why Lambda Legal won't touch them.

(and yes I know the man has a lot on his plate, but don't ask don't tell? I mean come on. Unless this is a clever strategy to get the queers all riled up so we put enough pressure out there that Congress will actually pass things. In which case, awesome, but I gotta say I doubt it.)

smallest possible treat

During the same conversation with the Gardener and Stupendous Fish that brought us the piece about self-control, Stupendous Fish recommended Don't Shoot the Dog, which is about obedience training. I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so. In any case. The book apparently describes some of the results of operant conditioning studies on rats. It turns out that, while you can train a rat to press a lever for a treat, the rat eventually gets bored if it gets a treat every time. I would to. If you want the rat to keep pushing the lever, the trick is to give it a treat at random intervals, the longer the better. You want to give it a small treat - the smallest possible treat that still feels like a treat - because you don't want the rat to get full or feel satisfied: if it feels satisfied, it might stop pushing the lever. So: smallest possible treat, longest possible interval.1 If you time this right, the lever-pushing habit gets nearly impossible to break. It works for humans, too, and is one of the reasons it's so hard to get kids to break bad habits. Stupendous Fish described a pre-schooler who's whining a lot; attention itself is a reward, so if you even look at her for a second when you hear her start whining, you're reinforcing the behavior. But not very much. Smallest possible treat. Keeps her coming back for more forever.

But this post isn't just about operant conditioning! No, no, it's actually about gay politics. Because I can't leave it alone. Obama's reaction to the indignation over the DOMA brief isn't to explain that it was a mistake, it isn't to introduce legislation to repeal don't ask don't tell (which, did I mention, would be a popular thing to do? large majorities of conservatives support repealing don't ask don't tell), it isn't to do anything substantive: instead, Obama plans to sign a presidential memorandum (which expires when he leaves office; not even an executive order) giving partner benefits to same-sex couples employed by the federal government. Some partner benefits. Not health insurance.

Oh, and the administration flat-out admits that they only did it because there's been so much fuss, and because there's a GLBT fundraiser for the DNC coming up next week.

I think Obama's thought process in this was, give them the smallest possible treat so they'll shut up and go to the fundraiser. But I think he miscalculated. He's not reinforcing support for his presidency among queers. He's reinforcing making a fuss. Because this treat exists - so we know it's worth pushing that lever - but it's nothing. It barely whets the appetite. It's not even health insurance for the .06% of Americans who are gay partners of federal employees. Perpetual fuss, here we come.

I think, by the way, that there was a time for putting queer issues off to the side, and not worrying about them temporarily. But I think that time is over. Policy is actually lagging public opinion in some places. Time to expect better, and then demand it.

1. As an aside, this is creepily similar to slot machines; they probably both invoke what Temple Grandin calls the SEEKING system.

annals of cookery

"Spear the garlic with a fork, and use it to beat the eggs, egg yolks, cream, and goat cheese together."

OK, Deborah Madison. If you say so.

June 16, 2009

build a better protest

I love this idea.

"Here's the idea: one gay or lesbian couple—a couple currently denied their rights under DOMA—shows up at the entrance to the White House grounds. A different couple every day. They ask to speak to the president about DOMA. They're refused. They sit down. They refuse to leave. They're arrested, carried away by the police. Couples would be recruited from all over the country, demonstrating that gay marriage isn't just an issue in liberal California or godless New England, and the media in each couple's home city and state would be notified in advance of their arrest. The occasional famous couple—Rosie and Kelli? Ellen and Portia?—would participate to pull in celeb media. But most of the couples who come to D.C. to get arrested would be average folks. The couples would need support, legal and logistical, and we would need someone to organize media outreach and maintain a website. The website would include a photo and profile of each couple that comes to D.C. to get arrested, collect all the press, and be used to recruit couples willing to travel to D.C. and get arrested.

"The action would be small scale—it would be human scale—and it would go on and on and on. It would demonstrate better than another gay march just how seriously we take this issue: we take it seriously that we're willing to travel to D.C. and get arrested. It wouldn't be a one-day event that the White House could ignore or bluff its way through with some lame statement about its "commitment" to ending DOMA. The couples would keep coming. Every day an arrest. Drip, drip, drip. Members of the White House press corps would see couples getting arrested every day on their way to work. Gibbs would be forced to address DOMA on a near-daily basis. The president would be asked about the issue again and again."

If this turns into a reasonably well-organized process, with legal support and everything, look for the Gardener and me to get arrested. Dan Savage, whose idea it is, says that his publicity-shy boyfriend will do the same. I'm tired of being patient.


I actually was planning to write about Obama and queer issues a few weeks ago, when Rachel Maddow was inviting Daniel Choi - gay soldier fluent in Arabic - on her show. Choi came out on the air, and is now getting kicked out of the Army. Obama could do something about this, by ordering the military to stop issuing determinations that soldiers are gay or invoking his powers while stop-loss is in use, but he won't. And hasn't. He won't even say anything about it himself. Dan Savage has been calling this "the fierce urgency of whenever."

Now something else has happened: one of the many DOMA challenge cases currently working their way through federal court has gotten to the point where the Justice Department files a brief. DOJ normally supports federal law - it's their job - but in unusual cases may decide not to support the law when an important policy issue is at stake. I'm not a lawyer, and have a slightly hazy grasp on these details, but this much is vouched for by other people who know this better than I do. If DOJ does choose to defend the law even though the administration opposes it on policy grounds, they can tailor the defense so it is as narrow as possible, and thus not imperil future efforts to exercise those rights. In this case, DOJ decided to file the brief; they also assigned the task of writing it to a Mormon Bush hold-over.

Bet you can guess how that worked out. It's an extremely broad defense of DOMA - "scattershot" has been mentioned; "kitchen sink" as well - which compares same-sex marriage to incest and child rape, claims that same-sex marriage is too expensive given scarce government resources, and anyway, gay people can just have straight marriages. Seriously. I'm not joking. It's a fucking disaster, and there is no way in a million years that any fierce advocate of gay rights would write something like that.

Like Andrew Sullivan, I doubt that Obama personally wants to screw over gay people. But it's not like no one knew there were DOMA suits being filed, or like no one had ever heard him mention that he's opposed to DOMA. I suspect that Obama supports gay marriage, himself. He said he did in the 90s, when he was running for something smaller and more local. He can't come out in favor of it right now, because it's too politically expensive, and honestly, that's fine with me.

What's not fine is this: Obama ran partly on a claim that he got it, and that queer people would not be second-class citizens in his administration. He hasn't delivered. Not at all. He hasn't mentioned the Iowa court decision except in a joke, he hasn't done thing one about don't ask don't tell, and he hasn't bothered to get someone to coordinate his administration's response to a major set of civil rights litigation. That's bullshit. I know the man is busy: I don't expect him to personally sit around writing the DOMA brief for the DOJ. But nothing? Nothing at all? And then this bullshit? If I were running HRC and this were an election year, I'd be looking for another candidate. Not saying I wouldn't vote for him myself, just that if you're a single issue gay rights group, this isn't your man. (And they have pulled out of the LGBT DNC fundraiser. As well they should.)

I think this amounts to cowardice. Obama's not willing to stake even a tiny amount of prestige - even the tiny amount required to get rid of don't ask don't tell, which a majority of conservatives want to get rid of - on queers. Ta-Nehisi Coates points to Jelani's comparison of Obama and JFK, one fo the few that makes neither of them look good. And I can't tell you how disappointed and sad I am to agree.

June 13, 2009


I'm really mad at Barack Obama.

I'll have more about this, and what Dan Savage is calling the fierce urgency of whenever, tomorrow, when I haven't been out drinking with a bunch of queers. Just fyi, that means the post has to show before 3 pm if it's going to.

After that, I'll be drinking with a bunch of people who can't marry their partners. At a march. Because what's a march in Philadelphia without beer?

June 11, 2009

a field guide to health insurance

We're moving, so the Gardener is leaving her job, which means she needs health insurance. Grad school doesn't cover partner benefits (for anyone, not just for queer partners), so it's the private market. Have I ever mentioned how godawful it is to buy private health insurance? Even though we're both young and healthy - and thus privately insurable - it's a damn mess. There's no standard format for the policy description, so it's practically impossible to directly compare plans: ehealthinsurance is the closest I've found to something that will do that, but it's sometimes hard to interpret. For example: the Kaiser plan lists out of network services as "not covered." What that actually means, according to the Kaiser representative I called, is that only emergency and urgent care are covered out of network. Which is good, because insurance that doesn't cover you in an accident when you're out of town doesn't hedge your risk very effectively.

So this is a half-genius idea. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wants to create some kind of guide to health insurance via a non-profit trust. The plan is to give letter grades in categories like adequacy of coverage, affordability, transparency, blah blah blah. Great idea. I'd love to have some real reputational data on the insurers I've been looking into. But even more than that, what I need is a standard format for the underlying coverage data. I need to be able to know exactly what I'm comparing to what. Kind of like a nutrition label, but with money.

I've spent a lot of time on the phone researching this, so let me tell you how to pick your health insurance (on the off-chance that it's useful to one of this blog's 2 readers):

1. Look at the premium, then stop looking at the premium. This is the least useful piece of information available, except insofar as it rules out the plans that are far too expensive for you. More expensive plans are not always better.

2. The deductible. That's how much you have to pay, right off, if you get hospitalized/seriously ill/whatever. It should be an amount that will not destroy you financially, because in fact that's a major reason for having health insurance. But plan that if you get hit by a truck, you will be out this money right away. In fact, if you're the sort of person who keeps money around for emergencies, it would totally make sense to keep that money in your emergency cash account. If you have solid savings and usually use minimal medical care, it might make sense to have a high deductible plan; but you're making a bet that you won't need to pay the deductible.

3. But that's not all! What services have the deductible waived? Many plans waive the deductible for primary care or specialist visits, so if you have a suspicious mole and need to go to the dermatologist, you don't have to pay the full office fee yourself.

Some plans waive the deductible for only a certain number of visits: Anthem Blue Cross has a plan that's directly aimed at young healthy people and covers only 4 doctor visits/year. Basically, you can get a pap smear and go to the doctor to get your strep throat checked out, but anything chronic or weird or hard to diagnose is going to cost you the deductible. So if you take a plan like this, you're essentially betting that you're not going to develop a chronic or complicated health problem: it's good for catastrophic situations and preventive care, but not for things that are in between.

4. Still not all! What you really need to keep your eye on is the Out of Pocket Maximum. Even after you've paid the deductible, you're still responsible for co-insurance. Frankly, I don't really worry about the co-insurance percentage: you end up having to pay between 20% and 50% of your costs other than office visits once you've hit the deductible, but once you're in the hospital or getting surgery everything is so damn expensive that I figure I'll end up hitting the Out of Pocket Max if something like that happens. So. That's what I worry about. And here, you need to be careful. Sometimes the OOPM is listed as an additional amount after the deductible; sometimes it includes the deductible. I looked at an Aetna plan that listed the OOPM as $8000 in network or $12,500 out of network when you figure the deductible in. I figured that would mean the total OOPM - the amount I'd be liable for in a real health problem - would be $12,500, but I called to check and boy was I wrong. The in network and out of network costs rack up separately, so the real OOPM was $20,500.

The OOPM should also be an amount that will not destroy you financially, that you could come up with via credit cards or loans from family or a payment plan from the hospital, and that would not force you to declare bankruptcy. We looked for plans with an OOPM between $3000 and $5000. It would suck to come up with that, but I bet we could. $20,500? Not so much.

5. Lifetime maximum benefit does matter. If something really bad happens (cancer, etc), you can run through a low lifetime max in a couple of years. I would prefer to have a plan with no lifetime maximum benefit, and am actually a little worried about the fact that my grad school health insurance has a $400,000 lifetime max. If I had to choose a plan with a lifetime max, I'd rather have it be over $5 million.

6. How much do you hate referrals? If you really hate them - if they keep you from going to specialists because you hate them so much - get a PPO instead of an HMO. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry that much about the distinction (unless you have a particular doctor/specialist you really need to see).

7. Here's my theory on mental health coverage: if you need it, because you have a mental health condition that requires ongoing management, worry about mental health coverage, but worry about prescription coverage more. I basically think bad therapy is useless, and that it's hard enough to find a good therapist that even if your insurance covers therapy, there's a good chance you'll end up paying out of pocket anyway. If you're the kind of person who sometimes likes to see a therapist to talk about your family, get advice about transitions, etc, don't bother worrying about mental health coverage. (All of this, of course, is for people who have a fairly clear handle on their own mental states: sometimes these change, and you suddenly need more treatment than you used to. And if you have kids, it probably really is worth worrying about mental health coverage, because you never know how they're going to turn out.)

8. Speaking of prescriptions, I found several plans that cover only generic drugs. This doesn't really make sense to me, because it leaves you exposed to substantial risk of very expensive medical bills.

9. Try calling the insurer to ask questions. If the person you reach isn't helpful, they're not going to get any more helpful once you've bought the insurance.

10. Insurance is more expensive for women. I don't really have anything to say about this, other than that it sucks and is dumb.

June 9, 2009

fish in a barrel

I am so tired of hating on New York Times columnists. Sort of. It's also kinda fun. They've managed to replace Bill Kristol, who was spectacularly wrong on matters of political strategy, with Ross Douthat, who's spectacularly wrong on gender issues, which he writes about with some frequency.

Why does he inflict his ideas about gender on us? I don't know, because he likes showing off both his ignorance and his poor reasoning skills? Because he thinks dudes with penises have an obligation to us poor bereft ladies to show us the way and the light? Per latest example: Douthat thinks (or perhaps merely claims) abortion is nearly unregulated in the second and third trimester. Why he thinks this, I cannot say; why his editors allow him to claim this, I cannot imagine.

He also recognizes the moral complexity and particularity of each individual decision to abort or continue a pregnancy, but then claims that this is an appropriate subject for public debate. Because when 300 million people try to come up with a set of rules for when people should stay pregnant, they're likely to be able to make very subtle distinctions that don't push people into miserable positions. Not! Just kidding! Douthat never claims that the decisions 300 million of us will come to in our clumsy attempt at Jeffersonian deliberative democracy will be good ones; he just thinks there'll be more restrictions on women's rights to abortion, and that this will somehow satisfy pro-lifers and they'll pack up their bloody fetus signs and go home, never to murder another doctor.

To which I have 3 responses:

1. Bitch, Ph.D. has nailed my view on this over and over again in saying that abortion is a highly personal moral decision, and that the best decisions are the ones made by a woman who has good medical advice and care, and good social support. You have to trust women. Yes, sometimes people will make bad decisions. But that's true about all kinds of things, and the fact that people will sometimes make bad decisions is not a reason to deny women - and only women - the right to full sovereignty over their bodies, to the decision of whether to allow their uteruses and the rest of their bodies to bring another person into the world. And you have to trust them to make those decisions in the moment, because bright-line rules almost always end up putting someone in an untenable situation. That's why Douthat is wrong, and this isn't an appropriate subject for public debate. We shouldn't argue about fetal abnormality rules, or whether the exemptions should count mental health (and, if they didn't, what we would do with suicidal pregnant women), whether it's just innocent virgins who were raped who can have abortions or whether the rest of us sluts get health care too, how severe the health threat has to be, or whatever else Douthat thinks he should get some say in. No. We should help women make good decisions, and LEAVE IT. And Ross Douthat, who's never going to be pregnant, isn't a parent, and has shown a truly remarkable lack of empathy for women in his previous writings, should well and truly leave it.

2. Moderate restrictions on late-term abortion will not satisfy the pro-life movement. They claim to believe that abortion is murder and we're living through a modern-day mass slaughter. Most members of the pro-life movement are also ineradicably opposed to birth control and are deeply committed to enacting controls over women's sexuality via legal or cultural means. There's no way they would be satisfied with mostly banning second and third trimester abortion, because guess what? If they could be satisfied that way, they'd already have called off the protests.

This doesn't mean there are no pro-life or 'with reservations about abortion' people who couldn't live with that solution; just that for any measure that allowed elective abortions the pro-life movement would keep right on working, and the debate would stay just as highly charged and contentious, and people like Tiller's murderer would have everything they need to become radicalized. And if they ever won, we'd be right back to the days of septic abortion wards in hospitals and a lot of dead women who didn't want to be pregnant. Douthat's claims that we can compromise our way out of the abortion debate are patently disingenuous. He brings up other countries with legal restrictions, as if to say his strategy worked there; but in most of those countries abortion is actually easier to get because it's paid for by the universal health care system, and the real issue is that they just don't have organized fundamentalist political groups. If Douthat can get rid of our organized fundamentalist political groups, maybe then we can talk. Absolute best case scenario, if most pro-life activists and politicians weren't also anti-tax movement conservatives, it might be possible to find some common ground on social services; but slim fucking odds on that too.

3. Where is my NYT column? I could clearly do a hell of a lot better than their current line-up. I'm even willing to frequently mention Aristotle and virtue, too, if it makes me seem conservative and thus acceptable.

Update: Also, of course, see hilzoy. Who not only dismantles Douthat's argument (which, let's be honest, is a little beneath her formidable skills), but also makes a fantastic statement of my first point. Only more clearly, and in one sentence: "When it's not easy to tell the exceptions from the rest, whether or not it's OK to have a rule depends on how bad it is to miss those exceptions, and how bad it is not to have a rule." (And I think the consequences of missing the exceptions are, in the case of abortion, really bad.)

how it's done

This interview with Barney Frank has got to be one of the best examples of how to respond to leading questions I've ever seen. The man is a bulldog: every time the interviewer tries to get him to broaden his claim that Scalia is a homophobe to a claim that people who oppose same-sex marriage are homophobes, he returns to his original point and explains why it's not the one the interviewer is attributing to him.

It's old news, obviously - I wrote something about it ages ago, and was reminded of it when I saw GQ's interview with Frank. He does the same thing: the reporter asks why bonuses and pay on Wall St are back up, Frank explains that although he'd prefer they stayed low that's not how the system works, and the reporter pushes him, saying it's a crappy way for the system to work. Frank says,

"I have to have one rule: If you want me to explain something, and if you’re gonna assume that when I explain it I support it, then I can’t explain it to you."
The other thing he does is that when he decides what he's saying, he sticks to it. If the reporter kept pushing him that way, I have no doubt that Frank would have said, hey, I'm not talking about this any more. He has near-perfect control over whatever message he's putting out. It's a hard skill to master.

June 8, 2009

the perils of data

When this article ran in the NYT magazine, several months ago, I had a whole post planned out about one particular thread. Joe Nocera describes the evolution of Value at Risk - VaR - which was a system JPMorgan developed for measuring risk. It became the financial industry standard for measuring risk for a number of reasons: it gave a single number for the primary riskiness, JPMorgan developed it and then gave it away, and it gave bank regulators a simple thing to look at to figure out if banks were taking on too much risk.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that there's a whole set of events out beyond the 99% of normal variation that VaR covered which, over time, became very significant; there were also several critiques of Nocera's article which pointed out that VaR assumed that prices essentially varied randomly, and couldn't account for real-world events that affected risk. I've lost the links to those articles, or I'd link to them - they were by actual economists who actually know things.

But here's what's more interesting to me than the near-collapse of the financial system: it's a problem that Nocera does cover, by summarizing what Till Guldimann, a former JPMorgan banker involved in creating VaR, told him:

"The big problem was that it turned out that VaR could be gamed. That is what happened when banks began reporting their VaRs. To motivate managers, the banks began to compensate them not just for making big profits but also for making profits with low risks. That sounds good in principle, but managers began to manipulate the VaR by loading up on what Guldimann calls 'asymmetric risk positions.' These are products or contracts that, in general, generate small gains and very rarely have losses. But when they do have losses, they are huge. These positions made a manager’s VaR look good because VaR ignored the slim likelihood of giant losses, which could only come about in the event of a true catastrophe."

In other words, the people who created the policy environment built incentive structures around a particular data point. So the people operating in the policy environment privileged that data point over all others. Turns out that credit default swaps look very good in a VaR model; turns out they also create huge systemic risks by entangling many financial actors into any particular problem.

Can anyone think of any other time this has happened? Like maybe in higher education, with a set of rankings? Or how about in K-12 education? Oh that's right, it's called "accountability." It's what NCLB would be doing, if it had more teeth.

We live in an age where people are very interested in data, and in a lot of ways that's great. We should try to figure out how to measure things: the same NYT article mentions a situation in which a recurring data point tripped some managers' attention at Goldman Sachs, and as a result they met, discussed the mortgage market, and decided to take on less risk. That's a good use of data. But blindly privileging any particular data point will leave any system vulnerable to being gamed. I guarantee you that there are schools out there that are figuring out how to game - not cheat, but game - the testing system. Some of those schools are also doing a good job on other things; others are focusing on specific tests, at a real cost to their students. My school tried to game the test by setting up a special academy for students they thought might make 'proficient,' and having higher behavior and academic standards for that academy. It may or may not have helped those students; it certainly didn't help anyone else.

The same thing is happening with Clemson University in the Inside Higher Ed article: some of the reforms they're making are good for their students, others are attempts to game the system, but none of them proceed from an honest evaluation of what would make Clemson a better university. It's schmality instead of quality, and I wish the data evangelists would be honest about the way a laser-like focus on data makes the pursuit of schmality worse.

June 5, 2009

Christianity and war

I know there are at least two people who read this blog who actually know stuff about Christianity, and I'm wondering if you (or other people! people I don't know!) could help me with something I find confusing. I've read the New Testament, and I know a little about the early history of the Christian church, but I know more or less nothing about more recent theology. Jesus is very clear in the New Testament, mostly. "Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also." (from Luke, and also from Matthew.) He hangs out with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors, and I don't remember a single instance in which he does anything violent (though I'm ready to be corrected on this). There's some talk of how God will judge people, but really nothing about how anyone should carry out that judgment now, and in fact various injunctions against judging, more or less on the concept that it's God's job to do that and we're not God. At least that's how I remember it, from my New Testament class seven years ago.

So obviously Tiller's murder raises some questions for me, but so do the Crusades and pretty much every war that any Christian organization has blessed or waged. What's up with that? How do Christian theologians justify war and retribution? There's plenty of bloodthirsty behavior in the Old Testament, so I can see where Jews are getting it. I know basically nothing about Muslim theology, but it does seem like there's not the same crazy pacifism in Muslim tradition. I mean, it seems like it's mostly a situation of "people will be people, no matter what the scriptures actually say," but I do wonder how the people who claim to buy into that scripture then square it with their own desires for violence and retribution. Especially if there are people who grapple with it in a serious and honest way.

June 4, 2009

what I've been reading (abortion edition)

One more thing about late-term abortions: people tend to sneer at mental health reasons for abortion. They think that means "I'd rather not have a baby." I tend to think that these people have never met anyone suffering from mental health difficulties - or at least have never known what it meant. Being suicidal is a direct threat to a person's life. Depression is not the same as being kind of unhappy, and I can't imagine anyone who has known someone suffering from depression who would then think it wasn't a big deal to inflict that on someone else. And adoption is not a simple solution. The outcomes for women who relinquish children for adoption are BAD. Lots of suicidal ideation, lots of depression, feelings of grief which are often more intense and persistent than the grief of women whose children have died. A teen-ager who is suicidal about her pregnancy is someone with a life-threatening mental health condition which can be resolved by abortion. I would hope that even people who don't believe she should get that care would understand and accept the seriousness of what they're asking.

I've been reading a lot the last few days. Some of it:

Dr. Tiller was a remarkable person

Violence and rhetoric:
One anti-choice activist from Kansas, and another who's given it up. Plus one more ex-anti-choice activist. Ellen Goodman and m. leblanc. Sara Robinson ties the murder - appropriately, I think - to other far-right organizations.

More about late-term abortion
Helping teenagers navigate the system. Two stories from Andrew Sullivan.

Hilzoy posts stories about Tiller's work and a description of how Operation Rescue harassed Tiller's staff. She proposes legal changes that would make us all safer, and argues with Megan McArdle about whether this sort of thing is justifiable, if you are sufficiently opposed to abortion (and there's a second part, also very much worth reading). Also: the logical consequences of suspending civil rights.

Anne Lamott talks about her abortion.

June 1, 2009

George Tiller

I'm a lot angrier about George Tiller's death than I would have expected, and I think it has to do with the way my thinking about abortion has changed over the last few years.

I don't think abortion should be legally restricted. Pretty much at all, with the exception of the same kinds of ordinary, minor restrictions we have on all medical procedures. I don't really understand how people can argue that a woman should be legally compelled to donate her uterus to another human being when they wouldn't argue that she should be legally compelled to donate her kidney once that child is born. I mostly have minimal respect for the arguments for criminalization, or rather for the people who make those arguments, because they're so tremendously unwilling to support measures that actually reduce the number of abortions, like contraceptive access and a social welfare net. I heard a woman on Radio Times recently describing her experience bearing a disabled child while she was a member of a very active evangelical church - she and her husband felt completely abandoned by her church, which in her view had a commitment to children which ended at birth. She was furious that the same politicians who vote to restrict abortion also vote to gut funding for health and education of already born children. That's par for the course with anti-choice politicians. (I'm especially disgusted by anyone who thinks it's relevant how someone got pregnant. Pregnancy and childbirth are the ways another human being is created, and human beings shouldn't be turned into punishments or consequences for having sex. It'd be a terrible way to treat a child. See m. leblanc's comments in this thread for more.)

But what I really don't understand is the particular discomfort with third-trimester abortions. No one wants to have a third-trimester abortion. There are about 100 third-trimester abortions a year in the US, and I would be astonished if any of them are elective. The second trimester is different. Women end up getting pushed into the second trimester because they're having trouble coming up with the money for an abortion, or because they're trying to work out a way to raise the child that falls through, or because they don't realize they're pregnant. But very few women don't realize they're pregnant for 6 months (those who do are often children - 9, 10, 11 - who had been raped, had never menstruated, and learned they had ovulated for the first time when they suddenly realize they are very pregnant). Third trimester abortions are so difficult and expensive to arrange that it takes something pretty serious for a woman to make that particular decision. Something like finding out that her child is developing with no face, and will die shortly after birth regardless. That she is carrying conjoined twins, one of whom might be saved for a short life of surgery and organ transplants. Something like learning that her pregnancy has a good chance of killing both her and the baby, or that giving birth to a doomed child would jeopardize her ability to ever have another child. There are problems that develop or show for the first time late in pregnancy, and George Tiller's willingness to perform late-term abortions at a risk to his safety and his life helped these women in desperate situations. Not only that, but it sounds like he did so with tremendous care and kindness to each woman helped: one person says, "I remember he spent over six hours in one-on-one care with my wife when there was concern she had an infection. We're talking about a physician here. Six hours." (That link, by the way, is really worth following if you want a sense of what kind of doctor he was.)

There are a few people - mostly the sort of "consistent ethic of life" Catholics who also work very hard against the death penalty, war, and poverty, and routinely get themselves arrested protesting on military bases - who oppose intervening in such cases because they believe it devalues human life, and that in such cases a woman's moral responsibility is still to do her best to allow that life to continue. It's not my own moral view, but I can respect it, especially since the people I've known who espouse it vigorously tend to have turned over their own lives to fighting injustice and violence. But I bet that most people who read the stories of Tiller's late-term abortion patients will think that these are people who did the best they could in terrible situations; that Tiller really, truly, helped them; and that should they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they would want to have that option. I would hope that even people who oppose abortion - even "consistent ethic of life" Catholics - could have sympathy for the women who have late-term abortions, and see that actually these are the absolute last situations we should try to make more difficult. Protesting Tiller's clinic, harassing his staff, and murdering him look to me like pretty low-yield ways to end exactly the kinds of abortions that, when you really know the stories in question, seem like some of the hardest to really be angry about.

This is without even mentioning the fact that if all obstetricians knew how to perform late-term abortions, women whose fetuses die in utero would not have to spend days risking hemorrhage while they carry around a dead fetus because no one within a distance they can travel knows how to safely remove the fetus.

I think my anger about Tiller's death, like my increasing anger that women constantly find their own reproductive decisions (from contraception to pregnancy to childbirth) interfered with and denied, has to do with my increasing realization that this is the kind of thing that could affect me. I know that six women I know - in my and my parents' generation - have had abortions; I'm sure there are many more. I'm not likely these days to get pregnant accidentally, but if I do want to have kids I don't want to find that, thanks to a bunch of white men desperate to hold on to their own power, I can't get health care in an emergency.

If you're in Philadelphia, come to the Love Park rally even though it's raining.

p.s. go read everything at Bitch, Ph.D., and Obsidian Wings about Tiller and abortion. I'll put together some abortion-related links soon, too.

May 27, 2009

do your job

Remember being a pain-in-the-ass teen-ager? Remember thinking something was unfair at your high school, and making a fuss about it? Remember the minor thrill of rebelling for what you thought was a good cause, and pissing off your parents and teachers in the name of progress?

Feeling good about being confrontational like that is one of the great rewards of being a teen-ager. These kids in Georgia, with their segregated prom that they all go to, won't have it. Especially the white kids. It's their job. They could decide, en masse, at the provocation of one popular but socially conscious kid, that they won't go to the white prom. The hell with the prom dress, or the limo, or whatever else it is your parents pay for that makes prom night so special. This is the chance to poke a stick in the eye of your whole town, and do it for a really good reason, and maybe even get some national media attention. I got no respect for the white kids who just go along with the segregated prom. It'd only take one year to get rid of it forever, and it'd be a little nerve-wracking, but it'd be really fun, and you'd be the kids who got rid of the segregated prom.

That's your job, teen-agers. Get out there and do it.

(with acknowledgments to the Gardener, who brought up this point, and who went to her high school prom with a girl before she was gay.)

May 14, 2009

what are you going to do with that self-control?

I like this New Yorker article about self-control and meta-cognition, both of which are things I think about a lot (why am I able to delay just about anything, but sometimes totally unable to start things, like the report I should be working on right now?). They're also both trendy education research topics - see the typically ill-informed David Brooks piece on the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides a simple, elegant summary of why people worry about this: "The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values." The article in the New Yorker is about how self-control works (via the directed use of attention), how it affects the rest of your life (by making it easier to study, save for retirement, etc), and how people can learn it (by practicing the directed use of attention).

Which actually mostly reminds me of a conversation I had with Stupendous Fish and the Gardener two weeks ago over a lovely steak dinner. We were talking about cause and effect, and how there's actually a fairly narrow window in early childhood when you learn, easily, how cause and effect works. It's the period described in the Baby Scientists episode on This American Life. If you don't learn it then, you have to painstakingly assemble an understanding of it later in life. A lot of the students I worked with in wilderness therapy lacked this understanding, and as a result kept making the same decisions (just a little cocaine, run away from home, sleep with someone when you don't want to, skip school today) despite their dislike for the consequences of those decisions. Someone who understands cause and effect at an intuitive level is eventually going to realize that the way to avoid those negative consequences - fights with parents, arrests, drug addiction - is to stop choosing the things that create those consequences, and the kids who made that basic connection tended to do much better much faster. They'd gotten trapped in a pattern they didn't like, but as soon as they got some distance they could identify the pattern and start making different decisions.

One of the most common reasons that kids miss out on developing that understanding is that they're being abused in some way. One key feature of abuse is that it's illogical - that you are praised or punished or criticized or loved not because of anything you did or didn't do, but because your parent (or whoever) is in a good or bad mood at that particular moment. I once had a boss like that, who would respond to the same exact piece of work totally differently depending on how he felt, and it made me crazy. I hated him, and I quit as soon as I could afford to; there was another person working there who had the opposite reaction, constantly trying to please him and feeling terrible about herself because she couldn't. It was a miserable workplace. Anyway: that kind of abuse doesn't usually wreck an adult's view of the world, but when you're 3 it totally prevents you from learning that your actions can affect what happens to you; that meta-cognition is actually worth doing.

And this is, in my view, one of the weak spots in the New Yorker article about self-control - and from what I can tell, in the underlying research. In order to control yourself, you have to think it's worth doing. Part of that comes from the home environment, of course. But my guess is that economic instability can also affect how you see delayed gratification. The researcher in the story, Walter Mischel, describes testing delayed gratification with kids in Trinidad by offering them a small chocolate bar now, or a much larger bar in a few days; later, he tested kids in Palo Alto by offering them one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows when he came back. It struck me that kids raised in an unstable economic situation might rationally believe that the much larger chocolate bar - or even the second marshmallow - would never materialize. And with a several day lag, they might be right. Maybe Walter Mischel would have a family emergency and have to return to the US; maybe the kid would for some reason not be able to come to school (or wherever the testing location was) that day. No chocolate for you! Inner-city schools are, honestly, often so disorganized that promised rewards and punishments never materialize; part of what the KIPP schools are doing is not just encouraging students to delay gratification, but establishing an environment in which it is rational to delay gratification because you will actually get the reward later on.

The same thing is true for high school students who can see cause and effect - they're not damaged that way - but don't rationally believe that they'll get the rewards of knuckling down and doing the schoolwork. And why should they? They are surrounded by people who have not been economically successful, and the people they know who are successful are not usually that way because of their academic success. Part of reconnecting that logic has to be making sure that it observably, demonstrably makes sense for a kid to delay gratification, to play by the rules, to work hard in order to get somewhere. The somewhere has to be there. That it's not, for some students, is the hard legacy of institutional racism, and the reason that teaching kids self-control - helpful as it is in a sane, well-organized school - isn't enough to create equality of opportunity.

May 2, 2009

pedantry and pet peeves

You cannot tow a line. Where would you tow it to? Rather, you must TOE the line.

You may give someone his or her due, but not his or her do. Unless you are a hairdresser.

Please commiserate with me, and consider posting the usages that make you crazy. Unless you're one of those damn kids who plays the rock music too loud. In that case, get off my lawn.

April 24, 2009

dear internet

Today has been great so far. I have biked downtown, done small amounts of paid work, eaten soft pretzels and gelato, drunk espresso, done more paid work, biked to the south side of town, drunk two blood-orange margaritas outside, eaten some nachos, and biked to my girlfriend's office to wait for her to be done with work. Then we will bike home together.

IT'S SPRING!!! Could I be any more excited?

April 22, 2009

something short about education

The Economix blog at the NYT recently posted, describing the comparative inefficiency of the US educational system. Which, if you look at the graph, is true. But it's more complicated than that. (I posted a chunk of this as a comment on that blog.)

Two major issues: spending per student in the US is in fact very split between wealthy and poor districts. Philadelphia spends $11,000 per student per year, almost $10,000 less than nearby Lower Merion, and is constantly short of funds. Not that there isn’t waste in Philly’s system, but money certainly isn’t easy to come by for teachers.

Second, the other countries which do well tend to have strong, generous social support networks. My guess (as a former teacher) is that schools there don’t have to provide health care, counseling, food, etc to students who have trouble getting them at home. One huge difference between my experience going to school and my experience teaching was that, by and large, the kids I went to school with got glasses when they needed them, and if they fell way behind in reading or math, their parents noticed (were equipped to notice by their own educational success) and got them tutoring or other assistance (because they had either time or money with which to provide those things).

There are still huge problems within our educational system that are matters of educational policy rather than social policy more broadly defined: we lack a unified set of national standards, the standards we do have (especially in math, though this may also be true in other subjects where I know the debates less well) are less rigorous and more connected to rote memorization than the standards in other countries, and teachers have far less prep and development time than teachers in, for example, Japan.

I’m routinely astonished, though, by the number of non-educators (and sometimes educators) who think that failing students is somehow the key. This always, always comes up in comments on articles about education, and usually some version of this will also come up in a professional development workshop. Yes, students need accountability, and yes, it makes your job a lot harder when students don't know the earlier material. But making them repeat the same material in the same context without additional supports doesn’t help - it just leads to a bored, frustrated kid who thinks he or she has already learned this (and has, in the sense of having sat in a classroom while it was being taught). The evidence also just doesn't support a claim that making students repeat a grade improves their achievement - mostly it makes them more likely to drop out, and lowers over-all achievement. You can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

April 13, 2009

I still like the Iowa Supreme Court

In Iowa, as in California but not Massachusetts, Supreme Court justices face retention elections periodically - every 8 years in Iowa, every 12 years in California. This means that a justice who supported Varnum v. Brien, the same-sex marriage decision, is taking some actual risk that there will be an organized campaign to boot him or her. Per Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, support for same-sex marriage is increasing about 2 points a year. Nate's model claims that Iowans will vote for same-sex marriage in 2013. (Electoral outcomes would presumably be more positive for "a justice who supports same-sex marriage among other qualities" than "same-sex marriage," but if you know something about public opinion that contradicts this, you should feel free to jump in.) You might thus predict that the further away a justice's retention election, the easier it would be for that justice to support Varnum v. Brien. In fact, of the seven justices who unanimously voted for the decision, three have retention elections in 2010, including one who was only appointed in 2008. That suggests they were willing to risk their own positions on the court for same-sex marriage, which I just find very endearing. And brave.

April 3, 2009

Iowa rules, your state drools

Unless your state is Massachusetts or Connecticut.

"In a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court today held that the Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution."

The decision itself (PDF) is lovely. From the background facts:

"This lawsuit is a civil rights action by twelve individuals who reside in six communities across Iowa. Like most Iowans, they are responsible, caring, and productive individuals. They maintain important jobs, or are retired, and are contributing, benevolent members of their communities. They include a nurse, business manager, insurance analyst, bank agent, stay-at-home parent, church organist and piano teacher, museum director, federal employee, social worker, teacher, and two retired teachers. Like many Iowans, some have children and others hope to have children. Some are foster parents. Like all Iowans, they prize their liberties and live within the borders of this state with the expectation that their rights will be maintained and protected—a belief embraced by our state motto. Despite the commonality shared with other Iowans, the twelve plaintiffs are different from most in one way. They are sexually and romantically attracted to members of their own sex. The twelve plaintiffs comprise six same-sex couples who live in committed relationships. Each maintains a hope of getting married one day, an aspiration shared by many throughout Iowa.

"Unlike opposite-sex couples in Iowa, same-sex couples are not permitted to marry in Iowa. The Iowa legislature amended the marriage statute in 1998 to define marriage as a union between only a man and a woman. Despite this law, the six same-sex couples in this litigation asked the Polk County recorder to issue marriage licenses to them. The recorder, following the law, refused to issue the licenses, and the six couples have been unable to be married in this state. Except for the statutory restriction that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the twelve plaintiffs met the legal requirements to marry in Iowa.

"As other Iowans have done in the past when faced with the enforcement of a law that prohibits them from engaging in an activity or achieving a status enjoyed by other Iowans, the twelve plaintiffs turned to the courts to challenge the statute. They seek to declare the marriage statute unconstitutional so they can obtain the array of benefits of marriage enjoyed by heterosexual couples, protect themselves and their children, and demonstrate to one another and to society their mutual commitment."

I love the rhetorical trick of describing plaintiffs in terms of their similarities to other (hypothetical and semi-mythologized) Iowans, a trick which of course tells you where the decision is going. And in fact, there it goes, after pausing to take stock of the evidence related to child-raising in same-sex households, the diversity of religious views on same-sex marriage, and the claim that gay and lesbian people can get married (to someone they're not interested in marrying): "The language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage."

Nice work, Iowa Supreme Court.

p.s. I totally had a new media moment this morning: I knew the decision was due out at 8:30 and there was nothing on the Des Moines Register homepage, but there was a hash tag (#iagaymarriage) to search twitter with. So I sat around refreshing the twitter search until someone at the courthouse found out what the decision said, and twittered it. Nice work, new media.

March 31, 2009

identity politics

Ezra Klein just wrote a piece arguing that we should ensure that food prices reflect the various externalities (health, environmental, etc) so that consumers can make good choices. It's a policy concept I definitely favor, but I still hated the piece. Why? Because the thrust of his argument is that "[a]t the end of the day, the best information a consumer has is always the price of a good." That, in fact, we are consumers first, and that it makes little sense to ask people to think about food in any way other than as a commodity. This is a philosophy of human identity that I hate, that feeds into the sense that our lives are and should be primarily oriented around a marketplace rather than around relationships or ideas or values. It's capitalism as identity. One lovely aspect of the food movement - and especially about local food from farmers we can meet - is that it gets people to think about the whole web of interactions that happen when you buy a half-gallon of milk or a chicken sausage or a basket of potatoes, and to see those as not simply a matter of exchanging cash for commodities. I find it pretty condescending for Ezra to claim that people (presumably people other than him and other foodies) just can't understand those connections and thus have to be told what to buy via price, and that there's no hope for moving in a different direction. And yes. Yes I realize that the anti-commodity food movement is often very elitist, but it doesn't have to be; and I think living in Philadelphia, where local food is much more practical and accessible has helped me realize that.

Changing price signals is great policy, but it's crap philosophy.

March 25, 2009

the cost of self-righteousness

Read this post of Ta-Nehisi's about the costs of being tough on crime.

"This is more than theory for me. Ten years ago, my college friend Prince Jones was followed by a cop from Prince George's county Maryland, into the District, and out into the suburbs of Virginia, where he was going to see his young daughter and girlfriend. The police officer was allegedly looking for a drug dealer--a short man with long dreads. Prince was about 6'3 and wore a low caesar. The officer and Prince ended up in a confrontation, merely yards away from the home of Prince's girlfriend. He produced no badge, just a gun and a claim that he was a cop. Prince didn't believe him (and without a badge, I wouldn't have either) and rammed the guy's car. The cop shot Prince eight times, killing him.


"Despite a botched operation, that spanned three jurisdictions, and resulted in the death of an innocent man, and orphaned a girl who will have no memories of her father, the officer was neither prosecuted, nor bounced off the force."

1 in 100 adult Americans in jail. 1 in 31 adults under correctional control. 1 in 11 black adults. Those are not trivial costs, and they speak only to those directly legally sanctioned. Those legal sanctions have a corrosive effect on the willingness of African-Americans (and anyone disproportionately affected by them) to trust the criminal justice system, but Ta-Nehisi's friend was the child of a radiologist, a college student, someone who might have been expected to escape those costs. Because of his color, he did not. When people talk about the "success" of the war on drugs, those costs - and who pays them - deserve to be remembered.

March 20, 2009

with minimal comment

Hilzoy is right. As usual.

A couple of years ago, it would have been hyperbole to suggest that we would all be better off if the senior executives at all our major financial firms were people picked entirely at random out of the phone book. Now, it's arguably true. People picked at random would, admittedly, be likely not to have been to business school. They might not know a lot about futures or derivatives or put options. But so what? At least they might have been more likely to know that they were clueless, and a few of them might have had the common sense to ask questions like: will housing prices really go up indefinitely?

In any case, what's the worst they could have done? Bankrupted their companies with ludicrously risky gambles that fell apart once markets went south? Destroyed trillions of dollars in value? Brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse? Left taxpayers across the globe on the hook for trillions of dollars? Bankrupted entire countries?

Oh, right.

"Getting it" means understanding that the entire story that some people on Wall Street have told themselves about why they got such obscene levels of compensation is false. As a group, they were not uniquely talented. They did not make a lot more money for their company than they earned, at least not in the long run. Their salaries were not fair compensation for the value they produced. It would not have been worse if they had been replaced by people chosen at random.

And really? We would probably still be better off, because at least people picked at random out of a phone book wouldn't have highly negotiated contracts allowing them to loot their companies - which are not in bankruptcy today only because we, the people who pay taxes, gave them billions of dollars - via bonuses, insider trades, etc. I read something a while ago, maybe the article I linked to about how hard it is to live on half a million in Manhattan, in which a banker argued that if he creates $30 million in value for a company, he should get a chunk of that. Which I'm all for, as long as he shares the risk when things go badly. If you are responsible for the good times, you've got to take responsibility for the bad times; and no one arguing on Wall Street's side in the media has given the slightest indication that they realize that. (This is also why I find James Kwak's argument that we should blame Greenspan so compelling.)

March 19, 2009

March 14, 2009

symbolic regulation

Let's talk about raw milk and regulation. I drink raw milk. I buy it at one of two retail outlets; there are three brands available in Philadelphia, one from each of three very small farms that raise three different heritage breeds of dairy cattle. It's totally delicious. I stopped having cereal with milk years ago because I felt like the milk had a weird aftertaste; raw milk doesn't have it. The Gardener also finds it much easier to digest than pasteurized milk. I also feel pretty good about the food safety of raw milk. In Pennsylvania, raw milk is licensed, inspected, and regularly tested for contamination; more importantly, the farmers treat their reputation like gold. One of them recently recalled its weeks' production because they found bacteria (listeria or campylobacter, I don't remember which) somewhere in the bottling facility. Not in the milk, and no one got sick, but they recalled it immediately. Their relationship with their retail outlets and customers is direct and traceable, and unlike the Peanut Corporation of America, if there is so much as a breath that one of those farms isn't careful, they'll lose customers. The retail outlets will stop ordering, and the customers will stop buying. They are certainly far more careful than basically any large-scale dairy, and the testing they do is more comprehensive.

All of which makes me really annoyed with most parties in the article linked above, which talks about an E. coli outbreak in Connecticut linked to raw milk, and the new regulations the state is planning: namely, raw milk will be restricted to on farm and farmers' market sales. Now. That's the law in most states, actually. And it's certainly sad that several children got quite sick, and may have long-term kidney damage. (Although, ok, one of those kids got E. coli from another kid, which means she was interacting with that other kid's poop, so it's hard for me to see raw milk as the primary health issue; and the other parent was all, "I didn't know raw milk could have any health problems ever," which made me a little irritated with how she totally missed the part in middle school science where everyone talks about Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease.) But requiring that sales be made directly by the farmer will do nothing whatsoever for public health, unless you believe that raw milk is intrinsically a health threat and reducing its consumption is in and of itself good for public health. It's symbolic: hey, it's sad that kids got sick! Let's do something! When a better option would be to think about whether Connecticut does have adequate testing and inspection. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since PA makes you test twice a month, and CT doesn't seem to make you test even once a month, there's some room for actually useful changes in there.

(Apparently the state did consider such a bill, but since it required farmers to pay more, it got nowhere. Which makes me wonder: isn't there a compromise? Don't Connecticut's raw dairy farmers want to have evidence that their dairies are safe? Testing and permitting, done right, are really good for the credibility and safety of raw milk. They're apparently trying to raise funding for monthly testing via a non-profit, but having it be state-mandated really does improve credibility, because it helps prevent situations like this one in which a single farm's problem becomes an issue for every raw dairy in the state.)

March 13, 2009

so classic! and so wrong!

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

There's so much wrong with this as a statement of policy that I don't even know where to start. You know who wrote it, right? David Brooks. Who seems to believe that emotional bonds with students are both the real measure of success in teaching, and that they can easily be measured using standardized tests. Honestly, there are a lot of people who believe both of these things. They're all wrong.

Meaningful, personal relationships with students are great. They were and are the lifeblood of any success I ever had as a teacher, in no small part because they were by far the most rewarding part of teaching and I would never have lasted without them. I still run into my students occasionally - on the trolley, on Facebook, and outside the deli by my house - and the ones I see, for some reason, are students I had a real relationship with. Every so often I get a phone call or an email. I love knowing how my students are, and sometimes they tell me that my role meant something. But - and I know this is true - this is only one of the many ways to be a good teacher, and it is not enough. I knew plenty of teachers who had real relationships with their students, who did not treat them like cattle to be processed, and who nevertheless did not expect their students to do well academically and were unable to get them to do so. In fact, there were plenty of my students - the students of someone who unambiguously cared about her students, and tried to have meaningful relationships with them - who for various reasons, didn't learn that much in my class. For some of those kids, I know why: untreated mental illness, chaotic life situations, illiteracy, a rational calculation that summer school would be less work. For others, I don't. There were kids with whom I had real connections who didn't learn much.

While I didn't have kids who couldn't connect, but nevertheless learned, those kids - and those teachers - exist. It's a different teaching style, and while it's unlikely to help a kid supersede crazy obstacles outside of school, that impersonal quality can be its own powerful center for a classroom culture. I had plenty of teachers like that in high school, and some of them were excellent: they devoted tremendous attention to planning their lessons, communicating material, and offering academic feedback, with minimal interest in your personal affairs. In some situations, this is a great teaching method, though I'm not surprised that David Brooks, decades from any personal experience as a teacher or student, can't remember the value of these teachers. I will agree that many students need to have a few teachers who develop a personal connection and use that to motivate that individual student, and that students from unstable home situations can especially benefit from that kind of mentoring, but it is nevertheless not the only valuable teaching method.

Brooks's worst mistake is to claim that merit pay will reward caring teachers over impersonal ones. The obstacles to implementing merit pay are enormous: most systems give good teachers even more incentive to find a well-run, high-performing school serving students with stable home resources, and even less incentive to work with the most difficult students. At any given school, the obsessive focus on standardized test scores takes time: teachers who are interested in how their students will do on standardized tests, and thus what their merit pay will look like, need to teach lessons focused on standardized tests, research the standards, grade practice tests, etc. None of those things involve real connection with students. And real connection with students will continue to go unrewarded, because it is remarkably difficult to measure, and in and of itself not sufficient.

It's no surprise that David Brooks is incoherent, and the rest of the article (where he tries to talk about policy) is worse. But this tiny example - one sentence in one column - seems extraordinarily apt to me as a representation of just how poorly thought out his views on education are.

(I should probably leave this alone, but I just can't:
Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.
There is practically no evidence that vouchers work. They do not provide adequate funding for most students to attend wealthy, fancy private schools, and they disproportionately benefit students with well-organized, stable family situations who are in the best position to take advantage of it. Plus, vouchers are expensive. I'm not deeply opposed to grandfathering in students who already have vouchers, but it's fucking irresponsible for David Brooks to talk about it this way. Education is complicated, and there's a lot of real information out there. He needs to shut up til he understands it.)

March 9, 2009

shockingly similar to us!

So apparently, if you want medical care in Romania, you need to pay bribes - to the doctor, the medical orderly, the nurse, etc. And the New York Times runs an article about this SHOCKING practice, and how the low salaries Romanian doctors make contribute to its prevalence, and includes the usual array of horror stories about people being denied care.

Because that would never happen in the US. Not to that kid who died of sepsis because no one would fix his abscessed tooth, not to someone with kidney failure whose sister is a health policy advocate, not to THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of uninsured and underinsured people IN THE UNITED STATES who can't afford the preventive care they need and therefore get worse or die. Not to African Americans in Mississippi, who have an infant mortality rate about the same as that in Sri Lanka, Albania, and Colombia.

Seriously, what are they smoking? Yeah, there are some differences between not getting care unless you can bribe medical providers and not getting care unless you can pay medical providers (some gain in transparency, and some ability to subsidize care for people who can't afford bribes payments), but to get all high and mighty about this terrible terrible problem when it's not that different from what's happening ALL AROUND THEM?

(Sorry for all the caps. They, ah, express my sentiments toward the health care system.)

March 4, 2009


Well, I guess we're not moving to Iceland. Contra the previous plan.

Actually, that story mostly tells me that I don't want to invest money in stocks or corporations. Don't worry, Iceland. We're still cool.