Monday, April 25, 2011

Notes on Afghanistan

Back in February, Tim Hetherington came to Colgate and talked about his career photographing war and about how things aren't working out in Afghanistan. Then last week he was killed in Libya, and I'm left looking at this signed copy of Infidel. He was a good guy. Today Candace Rondeaux came to Colgate and talked about her career as journalist/analyst, and about how things aren't working out in Afghanistan. It's a drug-cartel war, it's a civil war, it's a religious war, and it's a war in which we're supporting the thoroughly corrupt side which many citizens decide they just can't deal with. (Of course we're also supporting the other side via drug money and oil money.) She did offer a specific, concrete suggestion: she suggested that many of the Afghan officials most responsible for corruption hold dual passports which could be pulled by their other countries. Hmm....

Bob Kraynak asked her to comment on possible silver linings, both in the short-term "decimation" of Al-Qaeda and in the long-term change in regional culture so that in several countries now we're seeing possible democratization and in a generation or so we might see a lot of it. Rondeaux does not believe A-Q has been decimated (Bob's term, here) because Taliban forces seem frequently to be guided by A-Q advisors; she admits the possibility that in a generation, or two generations, we may think the whole thing was worthwhile, but it's only a possibility if we "face reality" and stay in, but not in the way we're doing now; it's only a possibility if we take nation-building seriously.

Well, if decimated still means killing one in ten, I think it's likely that Al-Qaeda's leadership has been decimated, for what that's worth -- and I think our situation would be a lot worse if that decimation hadn't happened. I suspect that the TSA has done little or nothing to prevent terrorist attacks since 9/11, but it's not that the bad guys thought they'd done enough. They're far from gone, but they've been hurt; just as important, their friends in the Taliban got hurt. In the short run, I do think that's a silver lining on some very stormy clouds.

Democratization is more problematic; the long run is more problematic. As I've said many times, I think we're likely to be in really bad trouble somewhere in the ten-to-thirty-year time frame because a variety of technological destructive possibilities "improve" in Moore's Law style but human destructive tendencies change slowly if at all. We can withdraw from Afghanistan, and fewer Americans will be killed for a year or five thereafter, but some of the nuts we'd be leaving as we bolt are already nuclear. Things will get worse; three thousand dying at once is not guaranteed to stay maximal, or even to seem like a bad day. 9/11 may yet be recognized as the wake-up call for which we groped around, banging around the alarm clock, before finally hitting the snooze button -- for just a little too long. There are times when I agree that the reason we don't hear radio communications from the stars is simply that no intelligent species survive their inevitable development of really bad technology. "Intelligent?" Well, you (probably) know what I mean.

So what can we do? As usual, I'm left looking over what I said before, thinking that it still looks reasonable -- but maybe it's too late. I would certainly

  • cut bad-guy funding
    • in the short term, by calling a halt to the drug war -- opium should be moderately taxed and treated like nicotine, not pushing immense profit into the hands of those who hate us;
    • in the longer term, by initiatives like intrinsically blow-up proof nuclear reactors to reduce world-wide oil usage. (I'm not even thinking about carbon.)
  • improve good-guy funding
    • directly, via free trade, and
    • indirectly, by pushing transparent basic message, repeated millions of times at immense expense even in the midst of our own economic troubles, would still be close to what I said before:
      here is your RFID/bar code/photo/fingerprint/biometric ID, linked to a bank account which already has a couple of bucks in it, and here is your personal cell phone....
      (and everything has a URL)
    And there would still be a somewhat-internationalized Barnett-style SysAdmin force behind that, as before...
But of course it's not going to happen, and I don't see why any more practical plan is likely to happen either. Some nights are less cheerful than others.

clarification: A random reader might well think it's insane to think of free trade as direct support for good guys--direct support is arms and material for them what's shooting at bad guys. No, those who shoot at bad guys may be our allies, probably some good guys and some -- well, Stalin was an ally in WWII. Aid for them is necessary, but it's not the same as aid for good guys. The good guys mostly just want to live their lives with family, friends, neighbors and perhaps letting others live their lives too, sometimes even helping. Support for them is mainly lowered transaction cost for doing business, which I loosely call "free trade".

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

It's all about healthcare. Well, and signaling.

This afternoon I was sitting in the third row, right behind the woman who placed the winning bid -- $13,000 -- on the auction of Harry Potter's bow tie. Well, of J. Pierpont Finch's bow tie, Finch being the lead character of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Finch is played by Daniel Radcliffe, a talented young actor/singer/dancer (well, a bit weaker as a dancer, I thought, but I'm no judge) who will probably be plagued for the rest of his life by people who can't help but think of him as Harry Potter. And he and his co-star were trying to raise money for a Good Cause, namely healthcare, after the performance. (Okay, a specific healthcare cause, but I'm still fussing about healthcare in general.) So....

So I would call the winning bid rather impressive; I think most people would. Radcliffe commented that we were "well over the record", some time before the auction closed---I presume he does this with a fresh bow tie for each performance. But I couldn't help but be reminded of the cost of my own appendectomy, not quite a year ago: it was in fact a little over the bow tie's price. Consider what that audience pays for healthcare each year...the auction was a Good Thing to Do, an Exercise in Nobility, a demonstration of the Brotherhood of Man (that being the last song&dance) but as a contribution to healthcare it was a teaspoonful in a lake.

Yes, I understand that's not the point. It's not really about healthcare, even healthcare is not really about healthcare. Robin Hanson put it rather well, some time ago, in his argument that it's about Showing That You Care:

I can explain these puzzles moderately well by assuming that humans evolved deep medical habits long ago in an environment where people gained higher status by having more allies, honestly cared about those who remained allies, were unsure ... These ancient habits would induce modern humans to treat medical care as a way to show that you care. Medical care provided by our allies would reassure us of their concern, and allies would want you and other allies to see that they had pay enough to distinguish themselves from posers who didn’t care as much as they.

That makes sense to me as the beginning of a model, and it certainly isn't a criticism of the woman who paid so much for the bow tie. She evidently does care, and presumably cares that it's evident that she cares, and that's a good thing.

Nonetheless, if you want to use healthcare provision to show you care, I think it would be a good idea to spend some time looking for actual ways to provide actual healthcare; a few more teaspoons of water in the lake won't do it. So I'd like to go back over my proposal of a bit more than a year ago. I'd organize it a bit differently now, but I don't seem to have moved all that far.

If I were (heaven forfend) In Charge, I would crowd-source as much as possible of the decision-making by pushing it into a market, with participants being given as much data for decision-making as possible, and being simultaneously milked for as much data as possible. I want incentives for innovation, to reduce the death-rate for billions yet unborn; I also want incentives for good performance now, not for the sort of regulatory capture our current system maximizes. Specifically I would:

  1. Allow unlicensed health care, wherever it's clearly labeled as such; it won't get public support but people can choose to spend their money on it. The argument against this is apparently that people will make bad choices. Yeah, some will, probably including me and you. So? I've never understood the way some people believe that they (or those they select) can make good choices for others; in fact I'm moderately cynical about licensure requirements as they are now structured, whether for medics or morticians or cosmetologists.
  2. Require transparent pricing, uniform no-bargaining pricing, from all providers of licensed health care. (The services producing my appendectomy really don't do this.)
  3. Require that "licensing" be independent of geography; if the best/cheapest supplier of a particular treatment is two states over or on another continent, that's fine. As I've said before, I believe that telepresence medicine can enable the specialization and trade that has made markets work in other contexts since before Adam Smith wrote about it, so I expect this as the usual case, not an exception.
  4. Take away the employer-based tax exemption; health care shouldn't be an employment issue.
  5. Add a universal tax-funded "insurance" policy (insulation, actually): if your expenditures for "proven procedures" from licensed health care providers exceed the overall 16% (of GDP) average, then the taxpayers contribute some. Maybe if your cost is 30% of your income, then the taxpayers kick in (30-16)/2=7%, half of the overage, and the maximum you can pay is 50% of your income whether that's $0/year or $10M/year. Is that too generous? Not enough? I dunno. The point is to combine protection from catastrophe (but not from serious pain) with making sure that market prices are set by people or groups who are actually bargaining in that market, i.e. the better-off people for whom procedure X will not be covered. I want to do that combination with some simple, less-than-perfect-but-better-than-nothing rule with which I can trust a government. (Democrats and Republicans trust government on different things; just figure you want a better-than-nothing rule with which you'd trust a politician of the party you despise.)
  6. If you want "unproven procedures" and you can pay for them, that's fine too; the licensed health care providers should have a strong motive to come up with new stuff and document/publish that it works. The FDA should not be able to keep you from paying for these likely-to-fail treatments, but it should keep you from charging it to the rest of us. If procedure X has no accepted studies supporting it, then it's up to you to pay for it.
  7. Whatever additional insurance/insulation you want to buy for proven or unproven procedures is just fine, and can be bought across state lines. It's your problem. You want to save your money in a special bank account? Feel free.
  8. Any care that has been paid or partly paid by public funds goes into an anonymized public database, so that we learn more about which treatments have what effects on which conditions. Organizations promoting not-yet-approved treatments will be encouraged to contribute data.
And that's really it, for me. I'm even less confident of this than I was when I wrote the first version, but I still don't see anything else I like as well. I think that the market I'm describing would probably evolve rather quickly into a market in which people choose and buy packaged health plans from "insurance" agents, and web sites build up crowd-sourced ratings of those health plans; there would be quite a bit of overlap with the better parts of what we have now. I hope. And I care, and I suppose I'd like to signal that I care.

Or then again, maybe not.

update:I never actually mentioned that this post was prompted by thinking about Mark Thoma's Economist's View: Discussion Question: How Can We Reduce the Growth of Health Care Costs?

there is far too much discussion of cutting services, and not enough about how to control costs without affecting services (e.g., using the government's purchasing power to reduce the amount the government pays for drugs, reducing the cost of insurance companies fighting over who pays bills, etc.)
You see, I doubt the premise: if you use government power as I believe Thoma wants, you are increasing the incentives for regulatory capture, crony capitalism, rent-seeking... you are putting yourself on a path where you have signaled your concern but healthcare is not what you're rewarding. Of course government power needs to be used -- to collect the money for treatments which research results say are crucial and which markets say are expensive. And government power needs to be used to maintain a context for innovation (rather than squelch it, as I believe our recent trends in "intellectual property" law tend to do.) But if bargaining-on-prices-with-the-government is the multi-billion$ activity you focus on, then that's what companies will have to invest in. That's a bad bad bad bad thing. I commented here.

Well, it's Easter morning. Maybe we're all saved?

Or then again, maybe not.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Colgate v. Consolidation -- maybe. For now.

At last night's budget meeting, Superintendent Bowers had very good news to announce. As Radio Free Hamilton put it, Colgate Contributes $300,000 More to HCS

HCS is able to restore the equivalent of 3.5 teaching positions scheduled to be cut from the 2011-2012 budget thanks to a $300,000 contribution from Colgate.
The state had planned to cut $486K; a last-minute cut reduction had restored $94K of this; now we're back within $92K of last year's situation, except that various expenses have risen. But the immediate layoffs of teachers are deferred. Yay!

RFH continues

Colgate's donation, which will be followed by a similar one next year, was announced at the HCS Board of Education budget presentation Tuesday night. Superintendent Dr. Diana Bowers said Colgate is willing to make two more similar donations in the future depending on need and the outcome of a potential merger with Morrisville-Eaton Central School.
Actually I'm not sure she mentioned M-E by name, but the point was clear; Colgate's extra support is not forever, but might continue for two more years, unless the Hamilton district had become part of a larger district "funded in a different way." Colgate has an interest in supporting HCS as the kind of school it now is.

This doesn't take consolidation off the table, even in the short run; it does provide a substantial incentive counter-balancing the state pro-consolidation incentive, at least for now. For me as a parent whose youngest child is an 8th grader, whose grandchildren will almost certainly grow up elsewhere -- gee, I can reasonably hope that takes care of it. Probably. We'll probably muddle through for several years.

For me as a local citizen, one who wants things to go well even for current elementary school students and maybe even for those who haven't been born yet....hmm.... the upstate NY demographic prospects are still what they were. Things that can't go on forever, won't.

Is there an answer? Sure. This local school, like many similar local schools, will not go on as it is -- that's a given. But that doesn't mean that there will be no local school, just that there will be no local school based on the current model of school organization. Personally that thought doesn't bother me, because even without financial pressures I would expect the current model of schools to change. It's really not a great model; it's a 19th-century factory model, as stretched in various directions by good people trying to work inside that model.

If I were trying to get a community school model that would last for a while, I'd try to follow the people in this region and others that I talked about in Budgets, Consolidations, Charters. A charter school might work better against consolidation pressure; might be better able to adopt the sort of technology that would help it work at a smaller scale. I'd like to know what my neighbors would think about that. Of course most of the ones I know are parents of 8th-graders, or older -- maybe they'll settle for a solution that will last a few years. “Après moi, le déluge.”

Or then again, maybe not.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sines of Spring

I'm a wee bit tired of consolidation, but I am happy this morning even though it's April 5th and I'm looking out the window at snow falling. (It's not sticking, yet, though there is a small patch of snow still remaining from the major snowfall of last month. Too small; our little doggie who has been looking for snow-patches to poop on, a couple of times each day, had to poop on the grass this morning.) Anyway, I am happy because I was looking at Hamilton, New York (13346) Conditions & Forecast : Weather Underground

Length of Day 12h 54m -- Tomorrow will be 2m 52s longer.
The days are getting longer, but that "2m 52s" is a few seconds less than it was at the equinox. Sure; day-length is quite close to a sine-wave, if you think of 12 hours as the "zero" point around which day-length oscillates, hitting a maximum at the summer solstice of about 15 hours in this part of the world, and a minimum of about 9 hours at the winter solstice. At the equinoctial points for spring and fall, day-length is changing as fast as it ever does: almost 3 minutes per day.

And it occurred to me, not for the first or the fortieth time, that the 3 minutes per day and the three hours offset ought to be mathematically connected. Of course.

But this time (while out with the small doggie, just before daybreak hence significantly before the sun actually gets over the eastward hill) I actually thought about it, and remembering that it's about 90 days to the solstice, so if 3 minutes per day were fixed we'd add 90*3=270 minutes, four and a half hours, to the basic 12 hours and that would be the day length. How do we get from that too-large to the actual? It's simple, divide that 270 by pi/2, i.e. multiply it by about 2/3rds, to get 180 minutes which is the three hours we actually observe. Why pi/2? Well, the three minutes per day actually shrink, being multiplied by the cosine of the number of degrees (almost equal to the number of days) we've traversed, as that cosine heads from 1.0 down to 0.0 on the 90th day[degree]. How to evaluate that?

Think about it as an ant crawling around a circle, starting at x=1,y=0 on the right and going counterclockwise to x=0,y=1 at the top. In order to crawl an upwards distance of 1.0 along this path, in which the upwards component of her motion is proportional to the cosine (and total motion-so-far to the sine), she has to crawl pi/2, right?

And for some reason I'm thinking of the rock that my eldest gave me when he was working for a landscaper; he engraved pi on one side, e on the other, and the note said "because some things really are written in stone."

And we now have an eighth of an inch of snow with more falling fast, and the doggie was happy to run in it and chase a robin -- but I called her back in before she started yapping at several deer on the golf course, just on the other side of our fence.

Of course the temperature is also a sine-wave, but it lags day-length by over a month; our average temperature is a little under 50.5F, I know because that's how it comes out of a well into the geothermal system, and so the actual temperature will average something like 50+40*cos(d-120) where d is the day-count in the year...

Or then again, maybe not.

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Budgets, Consolidations, Charters

The NY budget aftermath is not quite as painful as expected, but that's the best that can be said for it. N.Y. prepares for sharp pains from budget:

As of Friday, roughly 240 districts had announced plans to lay off 15,783 teachers and staff, said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers. Yonkers said this week it would lay off 732 employees.
The final number is expected to be between 18,000 and 20,000, Korn said.
A recent state School Boards Association survey found that many districts plan to increase class sizes, reduce or eliminate sports and other extracurricular activities, and offer fewer electives.
Some people think that consolidation will help a lot, and that even districts much larger than ours are simply too small to exist. Consider the NYT op-ed at How State Cuts to Education Affect Rich and Poor:
No district, no matter how wealthy, that has but 1,600 students in 13 grades, or roughly 125 students per grade, can offer as many AP classes as a much larger district.
The extremely small Ilion district should not exist, for both financial and educational reasons.

But even much larger districts are in trouble. Fulton school district budget cuts positions, programs

The proposed budget includes using up to $2 million in reserves and cutting about 21 staff positions, including the director of universal pre-kindergarten, a teacher on special assignment and nearly 15 teachers and teaching assistants....
Also being cut is $400,000 in software program purchases, all public relations from Oswego County BOCES, teacher aide positions at all buildings, totaling about $100,000 and some extracurricular activities.
He also is reducing... ... Lynch also said all of the unions were approached about taking pay freezes for the coming year. Five of the unions are still talking about the move, while the teachers union declined.

There probably isn't any "good" answer for most of this, but, well, we have to try. We have to try new things. One context for innovation is the charter school, like The Equity Project: "a New York charter school, that opened in September 2009". This week the Utica Observer-Dispatch reports Charter schools — idea praised, funding criticized:

The Mohawk Valley Charter School for Excellence last week submitted its book-sized application to the state...The worried that funds siphoned off by a charter school would make a bleak situation worse.
Charter schools are independent, like parochial schools, but are funded by taxpayers, like other public schools. They have been heralded by supporters as leaders in education reform because they allow big ideas to be tried out quickly. Detractors say they take resources, successful students and involved parents away from traditional public schools....
The school wants to give Utica parents a small school alternative to the Utica City School District. It would have longer days, a longer school year, and be math and English intensive. Students would wear uniforms, and each would have an individualized education plan called a “plan for excellence.”

There are obviously real advantages and disadvantages to the charter-school approach; it's an option, something to be remembered. It may be that charter schools have a natural advantage when districts shrink. From Michigan we hear Why are charter schools not part of the consolidation debate?

Each of the state’s more than 200 charter schools is smaller than the smallest Kent County school district.
But ... leaders from President Barack Obama to state Superintendent Michael Flanagan have included expanding the role of charter schools as part of their Race to the Top education reform measures.
About 111,000 Michigan students attend 243 charter schools, including 7,500 students in Kent County and 2,760 students within the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. Charter school backers said their operations are efficient despite their small size.
Also in Michigan, charters are growing -- Sound Off: What's Your Reaction To Detroit Public School Plan
DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb on Wednesday released a list of 45 Detroit public schools that could be converted to charter schools. It's part of the district's Renaissance 2012 Plan.

In Oklahoma school consolidation, it seems okay for closed schools to become charter Vacant TPS schools to go up for bid after Project Schoolhouse closings | Tulsa World

"Our plan is to try to be sensitive to what the repurpose would be. If a charter school asked for a building, we would probably consider that to be an acceptable reuse of the building," he said.
Previous consolidation efforts in TPS have resulted in long-term vacancy at some former school buildings, but McCarthy offered several examples of how old schools have been successfully converted for other uses....

And in Obama's home state, his ex-aide seems to be pushing charters in the context of consolidation -- CPS brass considers school consolidation - Chicago Sun-Times

The discussion comes as Andrew Broy, head of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, complained that one dozen to 18 charter schools that share buildings with traditional public schools “are on the cusp of outgrowing their facilities and need a solution.” Consolidating an underused school into another school would theoretically free up a building for a charter.
... Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel is a charter proponent and has packed his education transition team with charter operators, funders and supporters.

Obama is not the first President to like charters. The DOE in 2004 reported on Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools -- TOC

Elements of effective charter schools and stories of eight successful charter schools are presented in this report, the third in our Innovations in Education series.

My thoughts are obviously going to focus on charters that emphasize technology, in a variety of ways. A charter that made heavy use of online resources might run into regulatory trouble, as seems to be the case Colorado Charter Schools: Blended or Hybrid?

There is a broad array of online educational options for students. The type of online education delivery models has changed as school leaders realize that most students, particularly at-risk students, do better with a combination of online learning and meeting face-to-face with a teacher. People call this either blended or hybrid learning ...
In Colorado, hybrid/blended schools cannot get funding to operate.
In Tennessee, there seems to be some experimentation in progress -- Memphis Parents May Have New Charter School Options
“[We want to] build a stem elementary school - stem meaning science, technology, engineering, mathematics,” Wingood said. "The design of this school will be to focus on science and mathematics, in addition to literacy and social studies and so forth, but with a real emphasis on science and math at an early age to get students interested in and excited about mathematics and science.”
It's a busy year for charter school applications in Memphis.
Charter schools are still public schools, but they often have smaller classrooms, and a specialized curriculum. The schools have been “very well received” across the state, ... “We have individuals that oppose charter schools or aren’t sure what they are, but when they open, [the schools] fill right up,” ... In Tennessee, local school boards authorize new charter schools, and funnel money to them.
As underused schools consolidate and people start charter schools, emotions rise in New Jersey -- NJ Spotlight | Newark's Public Schools: Overcrowded or Underutilized?
As much of Newark’s education and political community has gone into a tizzy in the last month over a plan to consolidate some of these schools and potentially move charters into others, these numbers lay bare the heart of the matter.
The bottom-line claim... on the consolidation plans: There is room to spare in the New Jersey’s largest school system, why not share it and save money at the same time?
But even in a district that has lost 5,000 students in the last 15 years and could lose another 3,000 next year alone to new charter schools, the discussion about whether there even is extra space is not a calm one.

Even after a transition, it's not necessarily clear which caused what. Lessons from Erie County's charter schools:

When charter schools came to Pennsylvania in 1997, advocates said school districts would make up any lost funds by not having to spend that amount of money to educate charter-school children in regular schools.
Erie School District officials said that's not the reality, and that charter schools leave the district at a disadvantage.
Local charter-school leaders say the opposite is true. They argue their schools have been doing more with less and avoiding the politics they say plague the Erie School District. Their success, the charter school officials said, isn't the reason for the school district's failures.

Well, maybe not.

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