Silly Season

This picture got quite a bit of publicity during August and September, but seems to have made a comeback via email, albeit with the twist of alleging it to have taken place here in Massachusetts. As many may already know, this is actually the Connecticut House. But I want to use this viral email to make a larger point. A copy follows–

Nothing else need to be said.  This is one of their THREE DAY WORK WEEKS that we all pay for.  I am ready to start from the beginning by voting out all elected officials and not letting any of them stay in office for more than two terms.  No more lifelong healthcare, retirement, voting in their own pay raises, taking perks on our taxes, etc.

The guy sitting in the row in front of these two…  he’s on Facebook, and the guy behind Hennessy is checking out the baseball scores.

These are the folks that couldn’t get the budget out by Oct. 1,  Seriously!!! So, we’ve got a 30 day budget extension. Well, guess what, 30 days from then Massachusetts will be in the same boat. I guess this makes it easy for the news ‘reporters’ as all they have to do is recycle the same headlines from this week and from 2 years ago. And these yo-yo’s will still be playing SOLITAIRE!!!

Let me dispense with a bit of the obvious silliness. How many people play solitaire, check Facebook, browse the internet or check their personal email from work? Pretty much everyone but folks who work on an assembly line. Further, I’d guess that many of the people who have blogged about this “issue” were blogging from work, or were forwarding a link to this story from work. So, should we also take those people to the gallows? It is a simple fact that people waste time at work doing all sorts of things.

But the larger point raised is the notion of elected officials (and this argument usually extends to all government employees) are inveterate scofflaws, draining the lifeblood (taxes) from hard working Americans. I am not here to claim that all government employees or elected officials are hard-working and diligent. That would be just as ridiculous as claiming that all members of any employment group are. There are bad apples in any bunch. This should be obvious to anyone with even an ounce of sense.

Further, the notion of a three day work week for a member of any legislative body is silly. Sure, the legislature might only be in formal session three days per week, but that does not include informal session, committee meetings, and constituent-related duties. The vast majority of legislators that I have known (in Massachusetts and New York) commonly put in work weeks greater than 50 hours. They field phone calls from home on weekends, they attend civic events in the evenings, etc. As above, anyone with even the slightest bit of sense knows this already.

But the same people who make the laziness argument about government employees and elected officials are the same ones who pretend that teachers work only 6 hours per day and have summers and school vacation off. Talk to a good teacher and find out just how much time she spends preparing lessons, writing curriculum or grading papers on her “off” time.

Better yet, maybe people should go into the workplaces of the complainers and log every bit of time they waste and demand recompense in the name of the shareholders.

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A Risk Worth Spreading

It’s no secret that the bank bailouts were largely a way of socializing risk while largely keeping the rewards in private hands. People on both the political left and the political right have raised legitimate concerns about these policies, with the elites, by and large, turning a deaf ear to the masses. But there is a risk that I believe everyone concedes needs to be spread over a much larger population. That is the funding for special education.

As the system now stands, local education agencies (LEA’s) are responsible for providing special education services to the students who reside within their district. Although a large portion of these services are not prohibitively costly, many are. This puts school districts in the difficult position of balancing requirements contained within SPED laws and their regular education services. LEA’s do receive state and federal dollars to offset some of the costs of SPED, but no one believes these funding streams are adequate.

A more just system would diffuse the costs over a much larger population. In the case of the US, that would mean allocating the costs of SPED to the federal government. This would ensure that LEA’s would not be forced to choose between providing appropriate education to its SPED students or its regular education students. In reality, there is very little choice. Schools often shortchange both parties in an attempt to split the baby.

How would such a system be structured? First, the only costs that ought to be borne by the federal government should be those above a certain percentage of the district’s per pupil cost. A system that merely paid out 100% of all costs above district average per pupil runs the risk of incentivizing LEA’s to over-provide SPED services, as they are not facing any of the increased costs. A reasonable starting point might be 150% of average per pupil, though this might be too low. It should be set at a level such that LEA’s are not facing exorbitant residential placement costs, but not so low that costs for more routine services are passed on to the federal government.

In addition, some sort of review process must be in place so that LEA’s are making reasonable decisions with respect to the services included in a student’s IEP. We should be careful that a student who might succeed in a mainstream classroom is not pushed off into a residential or other outside program, merely to reduce district enrollment and effort. This is probably the most difficult portion of the policy to get right. I’d imagine some sort of delegation by the US Department of Education to either state education agencies or some other contractor to provide evaluation services. But it still needs to be a process that respects the rights of the child and her family, such that an appropriate education is being provided.

Ideally, the payment system would be structured as a reimbursement as opposed to a grant. This would ensure that LEA’s are legitimately providing the services and placements. Given technological advancements, such reporting of claims for reimbursement would not place an excessive burden on LEA’s. It is also important that claims are paid within a reasonable time frame such that LEA’s and/or the municipalities in which they’re located are not disadvantaged, vis-a-vis cash flow.

None of these ideas are particularly new or even novel. We have known for decades that SPED funding is poorly designed. And that this structure needlessly pits SPED children and their families against LEA’s and regular education students and their families. There is simply no good reason for continuing such a flawed system.

Knocking Down Another?

Myth, that is.

Obama as messiah. This is one I do not quite understand. Take a gander at any right of center blog and you’ll see comment after comment referring to some sort of liberal hero worship of Obama. I read a fair number of liberal/left blogs and simply do not find evidence for their (our) supposed cult-like reverence for the One. If anything, the major liberal blogs criticize the administration on a daily basis.

Is this just a case of projection? I do not think it’s inaccurate to state that conservatives/Republicans were especially enamored of Bush/Cheney. Any criticism of the previous administration was met with allegations of insufficient patriotism to outright treason. L’etat, c’est Bush, indeed.

Of course, asserting that the other side did it, too is no defense. But I really am at a loss for an example of Obamessiah.

Chickens, Home, Roosting

This is what happens when so called “centrists” dictate policy outcomes. You get a stimulus package far smaller than needed and poorly constructed. Now we have a jobless recovery coupled with enormous state fiscal gaps. The latter will exacerbate the former, as states make cuts in order to balance their FY 2010 budgets.

At the time of the stimulus, most folks outside of the freshwater zealots were calling for a substantially larger package. To think that a $2-3 trillion output gap could be closed with less than $800 billion simply boggles the mind. But beyond the picayune approach was the composition of the stimulus.

It was clear to anyone with even an iota of fiscal policy experience that support to states needed to comprise a much more significant portion of the stimulus. Unlike the federal government, states are constricted in their efforts to pursue countercylical fiscal policies. Not only are they constrained by requirements for a balanced budget, but many of the services provided by the state have strong countercylical demands. States are thus facing pressures from all sides- declining revenue; balanced budget requirement; increase demand for services.

An idea floated by Joseph Stiglitz (if memory serves me, in an interview with the New Yorker) would be for the federal government to backstop states. This would mean that states would receive as much financial support as necessary from the federal government, such that the states would be level funded from the prior fiscal year. Although inflation is not a significant factor, the increased demand for state services, coupled with medical inflation, would still mean some cuts would be necessary. But we’d be spared the devastating cuts many states are now facing.

Politics of Animus

Politics can be a very personal affair. Although passions ought to be directed towards policies and goals, sometimes those feelings become focused on an individual politician or political party. I want to be careful here to differentiate between the sort of negative view that partisans of either party have towards each other, which I find to be similar to the passions surrounding the Sox-Yankees or Celtics-Lakers rivalries, and an intense personal dislike.

I have been on both sides of the Republican-Democrat divide, in addition to some pretty heated non-partisan divides. I cannot recall a time where I ever felt a pure pathological hatred towards those on the other side. (I do make some exception for the previous administration.) Generally, I have thought their positions wrong, maybe even profoundly wrong and without a shred of merit. Nevertheless, absent some deep personal connection, I simply do not know them well enough to determine if they are good or bad individuals. Simply put, being wrong does not make someone bad.

But, as alluded to above, even the most nonjudgmental person can become inflamed with a passion that leads to hatred. Though it’s likely always existed in our politics, it seemed to have gotten much more pronounced over the Clinton and Bush II administrations and now into the Obama presidency. A not insignificant number of people truly felt/feel a pure pathological hatred towards these people.

Aside from the general public, though, there are other politicians whose behavior is driven by a sense of personal animus. Perhaps the two most prominent individuals are Senators McCain and Lieberman. After his 2000 primary defeat, McCain seemed to be driven, in at least some measure, by his deep hatred for George W. Bush. McCain seemed to revel in tweaking the administration by taking “mavericky” positions on tax cuts and torture. It’s difficult for me to make the normative statement that this was inherently bad. In fact, this hatred caused McCain to take positions that I believe were ultimately correct. But is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons still good? (It should be noted that McCain’s animus took a back seat to his desire for the GOP nomination in 2008 and, post 2004, he was quite a bit less “mavericky.”)

A more recent example is “Holy” Joe Lieberman. His 2006 primary defeat by Ned Lamont certainly left him with quite a bit of animus towards the Democratic Party writ large. In matters large and small, Lieberman has done his best to annoy and thwart the Democratic leadership in the Senate. But, after Obama beat his good friend McCain, Lieberman seemed to focus more on sidetracking the President than Harry Reid (though he obviously does that, too). It is quite obvious that Lieberman takes great personal pleasure in screwing the administration solely for the sake of doing it.

The problem with this type of politics is that it places the particular legislator’s personal animus above ideological principles, party loyalty and the good of his/her constituents. In other words, it is objectively bad for democracy. A democracy may survive having a small number of the general public driven by animus, but it cannot flourish if its highest levels of state are controlled by such small people.

Death Penalty Exceptions

Not all who oppose capital punishment are absolutist in their beliefs. Many proffer up some cases in which execution is acceptable. Among these, the most prominent are (in the wake of 9-11) cases of terrorism, mass murder/serial killer, and cop killers.

The case of terrorism is perhaps unique. To begin with, if the terrorist(s) are not a member of the just society in which they engage in terrorist killings, then there is no conflict with a rule stating a just society does not take the lives of its own members. If, however, the locus of the terrorist activity and the terrorist are both situated within the same just society, then it is not dissimilar to the second case of mass murder or serial killing. (I’ll come back to another issue pertaining to terrorism later in this piece.)

The exception carved out for mass killings is based largely on social contract theory. That is, the act is outside of the bounds set by the social contract, and thus this actor has forfeited his citizenship in the just society (I think this can be fit into both an Hobbesian contractarianism as well as the contractualism of Kant, Rawls or Scanlon). This would place him outside of the protection of a rule that holds a just society does not take the lives of its own members.

Our final exception- that of the cop killer- is an argument based more on symbolism and/or emotion. In its symbolic role, it’s a means for politicians, and others, to show that they are “tough on crime.” At the emotional level, it is a visceral reaction to what some perceive as an especial affront to public morality.

But are those valid reasons? Might we not make the argument that our police officers, as our military, are engaged in an activity (protecting us) that inescapably places them in harm’s way? And that these individuals have accepted such potential dangers. Is there a societal interest in offering special punishment to the killer of Officer John Doe as opposed to the punishment meted out to the killer of citizen Jane Doe? If there is, I fail to see it.

Now, back to our terrorist situation. Is there a way to still use our notions of a just society in such a way that terrorist activity, no matter its locus, would be a breach of our social contract? I believe there is, if we expand the concept of a just society to include all humans. Now, making such an expansion would not fit into a contractualist account (as evidence by Nagel’s criticisms). Nevertheless, this thought experiment really underlies most international law with respect to human rights.