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.