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Friday, November 28, 2008

Princeton Proposition 8

Holiday season has seen Tiro and I being... well... lazy.

But in the spirit of me-not-stopping-my-devouring-of-turkey and you-still-getting-to-read-stuff, I think this deserves a special vote from us:

Give it a look-see, it's the best protest idea I've seen in years.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Funny Animals

What funny animals we be.

It takes some effort to accomplish this, but try, just for a moment. Look at yourself in the mirror, or at a friend (it's actually harder with strangers) and try not to see them as people. Try to see them as animals.

If you accomplish this, you will see what I mean. We are ugly, weirdly-colored, inconsistently hairy apes with bad posture. Compared to the sleek functional lines of a Lion or a Wolf, we look freakish and lame. I was noticing this today, and it made me wonder why I hadn't ever noticed it before. I dropped it, then manually reassembled the ability to see through the gauze, and was amazed at what the process made clear to me.

Essentially, every time we look at someone, we make a series of assumptions. Their posture, their clothing, their color, their expression, their hair-do, the state of their makeup... all these things become information. We don't even see them, we see what they mean.

If you can't get this exercise to work, there's a similar exercise that can help train your brain up for it. Look at the words you're reading right now and try to let them mean nothing. Attempt to actually see the words. See their shape. Reduce them to meaningless pictographs, and then attempt to make a decision about how pretty (or ugly) our written language is.

Hard, isn't it? When you look at these symbols, you don't see the symbols, you see what they mean.

Well, it's the same when you look at a person.

This is intuitive, if you think about it, and explains how cultures vary so widely in what they find attractive and unattractive, and even how our sense of what is attractive can change over time. It's all about what a certain appearance means to us.

But think about the greater implications of this.

Not only is everyone racist... Everyone is racist, sexist, and everything-else-ist (is that a word, yet?) against everyone else, including themselves (oddly enough) and their best friends. It is so damn hard not to see stereotypes when we look at people that we never realize we're seeing them. We see them all the time, and everywhere we look. We can't see the wall because the wall is so big that we've never seen anything else.

Snakes and Lions are both bloodthirsty predators, but lion cubs are "cute" and snake babies are "gross" or "scary." Odd, huh?

Even your friends suffer from a stereotyping of a sort. Think about it. You know someone really, really well. They go away for a year, become a totally different person, and come back. Who do you see, when you see them again? I run into this all the time with old friends (and enemies) from high school. I run into them, they presume I am the person I was when I last saw them, and everything becomes awkward and weird because they're talking to someone who isn't there. When I think about it, the feeling of bitter resentment, annoyance and (strangely) long-suffering paternal patience that boils up when I run into those situations is extremely similar to what I feel when I tell someone overseas that I'm Canadian to avoid a beating. It all comes from the same place and accomplishes the same thing.

On the other hand, with effort, you can sit down and stare at someone, and peel away those layers, and get down to that ugly-looking animal. It gets easier with time.

So maybe with practice we can learn to peel away only the layers we want to peel.

It's a dangerous process. Get in the habit of looking at pretty girls and seeing ugly animals, and you'll live a miserable life. But it might be worth experimenting with, because in stripping away those layers, sometimes you learn where, and what, they are.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mixed Heritage Addendum

I forgot to mention this in the "Mixed Heritage" article, and I feel it is a little too important to be added there as a comment:

In a proportional system, if the percentage of the vote backing the president drops too near 50%, small interest groups have incredible amounts of pull in the coalition. If a president has 51% of the vote and a group represents 2% of the population, they can make unreasonable demands and have them met, so long as the president wishes to retain his post.

Since in Israel, at least, government posts offer immunity to criminal prosecution (it can be voted out, but it's tough), and since (as aforementioned) corruption tends to be a problem in proportional systems, it is very *likely* that the president wants to hold onto power at almost any cost.

This is actually the chief reason why I am not the biggest fan of proportional systems, and why I would never suggest that the U.S. should adopt Israel's system. Components of that system are clever, but the consequences sometimes outweigh the benefits.


In the last eight years, America has lost sight of something.

America was never a nation. There's a nation named "The United States of America" but, of course, the nation itself is not America. America isn't a continent either. Sure, there's a continent named "North America" and a continent named "South America," but that isn't what America means when someone says it.

America is an idea.

When did we start fearing that America would go away, or be crushed by terrorism or oil addiction or any of these other petty problems. Sure, failure to coexist with our environment, failure to convert to alternative energy sources, failure to keep our government in line and our rights reserved... these things may one day destroy "The United States of America," but America is immune to them, much as the idea of Rome survived to this day, and the idea of Sparta still invokes images of Three Hundred.

Ideas are more important than actualities. Actualities are only the limited attempts by mankind to emulate ideas. Rome was only a free nation if you didn't happen to be a slave or a resident foreigner, and Sparta was one of the nastiest places to live in the history of the world, even for Spartans. People will live, fight and die for actualities only so far as they can be convinced that those actualities are the best existing representation of the idea they're looking to live, fight and die for.

The real crisis in America today is that people are starting to look at what we have become, and wonder if we're straying a little too far from the idea.

According to Gallup, about 10 days ago 84% of Americans thought the nation was headed in the wrong direction. The average on RCP for the time period leading up to 11/11 is 65.8%. That number is improved over previous averages.

The only way to get back on track is to start thinking about what America (the idea) really is. How do we get there? In what ways have we strayed?

Most importantly, the next time someone tries to take away our rights to provide us with more "safety" we need to ask ourselves if we'd rather live free, or live long enough to die in the pages of the book "1984."

Which brings us to the point, more or less: If Bush gets his way in his last few weeks of lame-duck-ness, that "next time" will be pretty soon. Please to be writing angry letters to your congressmen and women.

(Even if you're a firm believer that warrantless domestic surveillance is in the best interests of the Nation, you should probably consider that surveillance is costly, and that the warrant system is the method by which competent minds are allowed to determine which surveillance operations are worth spending money on. A friend of mine put it best last night over a board game: "If surveillance for terrorism is like searching for a needle in a haystack, Warrantless [surveillance] is like increasing the amount of hay.")

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On Great Oratory

"Great is our admiration of the orator who speaks with fluency and discretion." - Cicero

"Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions. We should be talking about a permanent revolution." - Aaron Sorkin via Sam Seaborn, The West Wing

Just a short post today, as I've been rather quiet lately.

As Maxwell mentioned, we're working on an article on the subject of same-sex marriage, which is requiring a lot more effort than many of the other posts here. In my work on the piece, I've been studying a number of speeches, articles and letters, and have even picked up a copy of "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student" (Connors & Corbett, 4th ed., 1999). Although I've had my share of formal and informal training in writing, most of it has been either creative writing and literary analysis or technical writing. Aside from a brief flirtation with debate in elementary school and a required public speaking course in high school, I have had almost no training in 'classical rhetoric.'

The more I study it now, the more I regret this. We often talk about the (supposedly) vital role of science and mathematics in our educational system, but what about rhetoric?

Personally, I believe that great orators themselves are the best teachers - and in my recent studies, the work of two individuals have consistently reappeared: that of John F. Kennedy and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While their names have both been in the news lately (you all know why - and I adamantly refuse to get any more into the subject that has so thoroughly dominated our entire national discourse that that!), I realize that I am still simply blown away by the power of their work every time I read it. And while both have their sound bytes and classic quotes, practically any sentence out of their work stands on its own as a monument to great oratory. I'll leave you with this, a line I came across recently, from Dr. King's Nobel Lecture, The Quest for Peace and Justice (the full text can be found here), and with a question: aside from these two greats, who are your favorite orators?


"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


- Tiro

Monday, November 17, 2008

Going through Oklahoma? A tip for you.

Today may be a little off-the-usual, but I've little else to do here and I don't have access to any of my reference materials or a library, so I'm not going to tackle anything serious until I get home tomorrow. It may be a couple days before you see the fruit of the upcoming article, incidentally. Tiro and I are diving into the subject of gay marriage headlong, and you can expect some exciting results. I expect Tiro's article should be ready soon, my own will probably come some time thereafter (traveling kills any attempt at conducting research).

As an aside, if anyone lives in a rural area or knows of an organization in a rural area who might be interested in spreading some articles around, Tiro and I are looking to make an actual tangible impact with these upcoming articles, and that means reaching an audience that doesn't already agree with us.

But that's all for later. Today, I am writing a review.

A hotel review, to be specific, for a place called "Travel Inn" in Claremore, Oklahoma.

And I should specify, I don't usually bother. This case is special.

After a long drive, there are really only a few things I require of a hotel. A bed, a bathroom, and an internally-controlled AC unit (if the weather isn't ideal). An internet connection isn't precisely necessary, but I do tend to prefer one, if I have options.

I expect to pay somewhere around 50 dollars per night to receive these basics, and if these are all taken care of, I don't consider that I have been ripped off.

So when the man behind the desk informed me that my night at Travel Inn would cost me 40 flat, I was initially slightly concerned. After all, a rate that low usually means something is terribly wrong with the room you're about to be given, or the competition in the area offers something they don't.

When I walked into the room, I wasn't surprised to see that the dresser was standing free in the middle of the room. ... but then I realized something, or rather a series of somethings.

1. The dresser was also the TV stand, and was positioned deliberately to allow one to watch TV while in bed.
2. The room came with both a refrigerator and a microwave, and no annoying mini-bar or taped door.
3. There were plenty of power outlets available because someone had gone to the trouble of actually plugging a surge-protector into the wall (You would think this would be common in hotels, it isn't, and it's amazing)
4. The decor is obviously all home-job, which explains the rate, but it's a pretty good home-job, and everything is clean, including (and especially) the bathroom.
5. The alarm clock is far enough from the bed that I can't whack the "snooze" button while I'm still sleeping.
6. Rather than a plethora of nonsensical adds, coupons and TV guides, the room comes with a simple (roughly 6x8) stand-up card with a Papa-Johns number (room delivery), a list of all channels, the check-out time, an assurance that there is coffee in the lobby and the number for the hotel.
7. When they said free wireless, they meant it, and if you don't like the hotel's wireless (who knows, you might just be that way), you have three others to choose from in the local area that reach your room.

The list rambles on a bit, but the essential point is that "Travel Inn" in Claremore OK is amazing, all the basics are handled and more, the room is clean, the rate is (much more than) reasonable and the next time I go to Houston I'm stopping here both ways.

This isn't bought or paid for, I just think it's nice to support businesses that are going above and beyond, and besides... as far as I'm concerned, this hotel totally redeems Oklahoma for that "scenic overlook" and puts the state back in my good graces.

... Oh! Also, I didn't have to haggle for that rate. I have worked at a hotel desk before, and I am more than capable of haggling if I need to, but honestly, if someone leads with their rack rate, I really appreciate not having to waste the time. I made one halfhearted attempt to add triple-A (reflex, but let's be honest, if you're running a clean, well-run hotel with in-room refrigerators and microwaves and your rate drops under 40, you aren't even making a profit on average) and then just signed myself in. It was nice not to have to expend the effort, so to speak.

And yes, that $40.00 included the tax, which was another nice surprise. My card was charged for exactly $40.00.

Never been quite this pleased with a stop on a long trip, before. ... halfway inclined to stay an extra day and check out the neighborhood (the price is right, after all) but I should be getting back if I want to have the prints ready for the Christmas stocking-stuffer rush, and I still need to find a laminating machine before I can do that. So, home I go.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


There's a peculiar comfort to traveling that comes from knowing that you aren't obligated to do any work at all. I remember it from my youth, when traveling meant a break from practicing the cello and doing homework. It wasn't that I never blew off my obligations while not traveling (quite the opposite), but while traveling there was no sense that I should feel guilty about the time I spent in that back seat reading a good book or toying around on a Gameboy. It wasn't as though I could really be doing anything else. Tetris is still a warm-fuzzy for me.

Traveling alone is rewarding for other reasons as well. Your schedule is broadly your own, particularly on the first day of a two-day trip. How long you drive for and where you stop for the night, these are things you have control over, and no one is on hand to second-guess you. You may pay for it in the morning but the reward can be worth it. In this period of enforced inactivity, you realize what things are really important to you. They are the things (and people) you miss while traveling.

The people you miss might surprise you. I remember trips where I found myself missing people I thought I disliked. I enjoy arguing, perhaps that's why. This trip the list failed to surprise me, however, as I've been missing them for quite some time now. I suppose in a sense I've been traveling for months now.

The things you miss usually don't surprise you... conveniences, things you forgot to bring, games, TV, books. This time I'm missing shampoo, but that's easy enough to fix. The activities you miss tend also to be about what you'd expect.

But the people I missed this time around really got me thinking.

I really do think I'm in a constant state of traveling. Really, the trips of the last few weeks have not come as a terribly great system shock, because in one sense or another I've been living as a guest for months, be it a guest on a sofa or a guest in my own house. I don't mind too terribly much and I don't feel too terribly guilty. After all, this time was given to me as a graduation gift where others received cars or (in a few rare cases) houses or expensive whatsits. I wanted time, and received it.

Economically, it may be an insensible option. I am teaching and writing, yes, but in general I'm racking up a rather large deficit which will eventually need to be handled. I am also, however, learning. I am becoming (through practice) a better writer. I am becoming (through teaching a five-year-old) a better teacher. In writing articles I educate myself more often than I suspect I educate my audience.

Travel time is a miraculous thing.

Really though, I think I'm turning this into an article because I wonder, from a philosophical standpoint, how many people are traveling, even now, without realizing it. How many people are sitting in apartments because buying a house feels like settling down? How many people are living out of suitcases, or breaking up relationships because they're getting too serious? It's an interesting conundrum. What makes a person happy enough that they want to settle down? People settle down because they have to all the time, that's not the same thing. I think people who get settled, rather than settling themselves, are stuck traveling for the rest of their lives. But really settling down, wanting to settle down in a place, I think that's a function of people.

Really, in all this time I've been traveling, I've had all the other comforts of life at hand. I've had the internet, soap, clean water, a bed (albeit a "borrowed" mattress on the floor, it is a rather nice "borrowed" mattress on the floor), clothing and a roof over my head. But people have been scarce. I've traveled literally thousands of miles on wheels in the last couple weeks to see people, and I'll likely travel a few thousand more (on wings) in the coming months to see more.

It really drives home the point, I think, which is that home has nothing to do with a place, or a particular pub, or a particular grove of trees. Home is where your people are.

And sometimes, you have to travel for a good long while to figure out who those people are.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2)

" I add this, that rational ability without education has oftener raised man to glory and virtue, than education without natural ability." - Cicero

As promised, the conclusion of the previous post.


The Anti-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Although many goods are better provided by the free market, opponents of voucher programs claim, education is not one of them. Direct competition for tax dollars would encourage schools not to develop innovating new ways of educating students, but rather to devote increasing amounts of funding to marketing and recruitment, while providing the minimum amount of educational quality necessary to attract students.

Additionally, as in other highly regulated markets, such as medical care, 'asymmetric information' problems may exist. In other words, parents may not know what an appropriate measure of 'quality' in education is, or they may not be able to determine the validity of claims made by schools.

As competition relies on the open market to set prices, it is almost certain that different programs will be available at different prices. If voucher programs are set up so that schools are paid a set per-student fee, parents would likely be required to pay the difference themselves, and thus schools would become stratified by socioeconomic status, with wealthier children receiving better educations. Conversely, if voucher programs pay either whatever is asked by schools, or if prices are negotiated between school administrators and government representatives, we no longer have a market based system; prices will become arbitrarily large in the first case, and the second case essentially puts us back where we started with publicly run schools.

2. Improving the current system

Another central pillar of the anti-voucher argument is that many of the benefits promised by voucher programs do not actually require such a program to exist; instead, they can be reaped by simply fixing the current system.

School choice programs already exist, both through charter school programs and through direct 'district wide' school systems, where students can attend any one of the districts public schools. For example, although primary and secondary education in New York City is run by a single Department of Education, different systems are in place in different boroughs. In Manhattan, the Bronx, and some areas of Brooklyn and Queens, students are not automatically sent to a specific high school, but must apply to the schools of their choice.

Such programs, opponents of voucher programs argue, deliver the benefits of competition promised by voucher programs, without many of their failings.

3. Subsidizing the wealthy

A central pillar of the pro-voucher argument is that, by giving parents a say in where their tax dollars are spent, vouchers offer parents and children a choice in where they will attend school - not necessarily so, opponents contend.

From an article by Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse, '[a]ccording to No Child Left expert Scott Young, 76% of the money handed
out for Arizona's voucher program has gone to children already in
private schools." (NOTE: As the article begins with a description of the various civil rights that the Bush administration has supposedly taken from US citizens, and proceeds to call NCLB everything from blatently racist to a tool of class warfare, I must be skeptical of this number. Personally, I'll give Mr. Palast the benefit of the doubt, and point out that even if the true number is different, there's still an important conceptual point to be had.)

The argument says that, in systems where private schools can still charge whatever they want, it's likely that, even with vouchers, lower income families that couldn't afford private schools still won't be able to afford them. Thus, children from wealthier families who were already in private schools will continue attending, but with government subsidized tuition, while children from poorer families will be left in public schools with even bigger financial troubles.

Of course, there are certain to be some families for whom private school will be affordable with the adoption of vouchers, but opponents claim that private schools can still discriminate based on "on the basis of prior academic achievement, standardized test scores,
interviews with applicants and parents, gender, religion, income,
special needs, and behavioral history" (from the NEA's Talking Points on vouchers).

4. Separation of Church and State

From a legal perspective, opponents of voucher programs argue that, as, according to one source, 85% of private schools are religious, voucher programs amount to an unconstitutional governmental subsidization of religious groups. (Strangely, I haven't seen much from voucher proponents claiming that requiring tax dollars to be spent on secular public (and especially charter schools) amounts to unconstitutional discrimination against religious groups.)

While many opponents may believe this whole-heartedly, at least as of 2002, the US Supreme Court does not. In the 2002 case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court constructed a 5-part 'Private Choice Test,' ruling that for a voucher program to be constitutional (quoted from the linked Wikipedia article):

- the program must have a valid secular purpose
- aid must go to parents, and not to the schools
- a board class of beneficiaries must be covered
- the program must be neutral with respect to religion
- there must be adequate nonreligious options

In the particular case argued, the court ruled that since non-religious schools were available, and parents were not required to choose a religious institution, the program was constitutional.

Of course, this ruling could be challenged, or the ruling as is could be used to argue that, if a specific program does not pass the Private Choice Test, it should be dissallowed.

5. Other arguments

As with the pro-voucher camp, there are many other arguments made in opposition to vouchers. Among them:

- Decentralized control of education may lead to disparities in education and educational quality.

- The creation of voucher programs may ultimately lead to more government control of private schools, and possibly to the teachings of the religious groups who sponsor many private schools. Some critics who espouse this argument oppose public funding of education altogether, on ideological grounds, and oppose voucher programs as well as the very existence of public schools.

- The use of free markets and consumer choice to allocate taxpayer money removes accountability to the actual payers (i.e. citizens in general), whereas the current public system keeps schools accountable to both federal and state governments as well as the local populace through the existance of school boards, and local referenda on budgets.

- On empirical grounds, opponents argue that there is no conclusive evidence that, all else equal, private schools actually do a better job of educating students, or, even if they do, if those benefits will be seen under various proposed voucher plans.


To conclude: as with many ideas, voucher programs seem great in theory, but may not actually work in practice.

There is empirical evidence on both sides of this argument (the literal question of "do voucher programs work?"), but results are often clouded by issues such as selection bias, methodological differences that make results incomparable, and other questions, such as "how do we define quality in education?"

The free-market conservative in me definately recognizes the possible benefits of actual competition between schools, but there are many troubling potential problems with essentially all voucher programs - personally, I think the most troubling is the possibility that vouchers will be largely spent on children who are already in private schools.

Then again, the conservative in me asks, "you mean, its a good thing that these people are paying for education twice?"

Once (or, if) we've agreed that education should be provided to all through a taxpayer funded system, it should simply be a question of asking what the best delivery mechanism is, and putting that in place. There are definite issues (not necessarily problems, but issues, certainly) with the current system, including the way allocation and pooling of funding affects quality, the effect of teachers' unions, the 'double taxation' of private school, and how, if at all, we should be using quantitative testing (standardized or not).

Hopefully, as more voucher programs, charter schools, and public system innovations are tried, and we gain access to more information on the results, the best course will become clearer.

For one particuluarly interesting example of this, take a look at The Equity Project (official site, Wikipedia article) -- the basic idea is to pay teachers $125,000 a year, and use teacher quality as the main driver of educational acheivement. The school is set to open September of 2009.

- Marcus Tullius Tiro

Miscellaneous Sources

School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 1)

"A mind without instruction can bear no more fruit than can a field, however fertile, without cultivation" - Cicero

Earlier, the subject of education was raised - among other subjects, the issue of school vouchers was raised. Like many issues in politics, the subject of school vouchers is a complex one, where reasonable people can disagree, and even the facts themselves are sometimes unclear.

As discussed earlier, most governmental philosophies maintain a place for collectively funded education. If we agree on this, though, there is still the question of provision: should such education be directly provided by the government, in state-run schools, or should the government simply act as a 'single payer' (the fancy economics term for this, a sort of 'buyer side monopoly,' is monopsony) and purchase education on the open market, or should a combination of the two be used? Of course, the same question can be asked of any government service: should the government maintain its own military, or should it use taxes to hire private mercenaries, or both?

Ignoring the existence of school vouchers for the moment, the current system in the US follows mainly the first approach. To grossly oversimplify, all individuals are taxed, these monies are pooled at some level, and then spent to fund state-owned and operated schools for all the children in a community. Additionally, while students are required (under most circumstances) to attend school, parents can opt to send their children to a privately owned and operated school, so long as the school meets certain government standards, and the parents are willing to pay the prices charged by the private institution. Of course, should they choose this option, parents are essentially paying for their child's education twice, or are giving up the 'free' option of public schooling.

Voucher programs offer an alternative to this, with a simple mechanism - funding 'follows the child.' The specifics of programs are more complex in practice: some may place a cap on the tuition which may be charged, while others may simply pay a fixed amount of per-child funding to all schools. Regardless of the details, though, there are some fundamental concepts common to all voucher programs, and corresponding arguments for and against them.

(NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I attended a public magnet high school, the Bergen County Academies (school site, Wikipedia page). I leave it to you, our readers, to judge whether this has biased my view of the subject.)


The Pro-Voucher Arguments

1. Competition

Generally the central argument used by proponents of school choice, the 'competition' theory says that when schools, both public and private, must fight for students - and the government funding that follows them - tuition decreases, the quality increases, and innovation is encouraged. But is this really the case?

Testing this empirically is notoriously difficult, because of issues such as selection bias. Imagine a private school in a district has higher mean SAT scores than the public schools in the district. Does this mean that teacher quality is higher at the private school? Or does it mean that the students who tend to go there would score better no matter where they are? Or, does it mean that the private school simply teaches more to the SAT than to other tests or subjects? Or, do the students who go there tend to be from higher income families, and are therefore more likely to get outside tutoring and assistance for the SATs? Or, does the fact that a private school even exists reflect some factor unique to this community?

Nevertheless, we can examine these issues, and many studies have done so. In a review of the existing literature, Belfield and Levin (Belfield and Levin, 2002) examine 41 empirical studies, and find that "a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes." Of course, the study also cautions against the "validity of inference from point estimates to public policy."

Another natural consequence of the competition argument is that failing schools must be allowed to close, and, should a school close, both public and private entities should be given the opportunity to take over and reopen the school.

2. Empowerment

Another argument advanced by proponents of voucher programs is that of empowerment, on both an economic and a moral basis. Voucher programs, combined with policies that give public school administrators more freedom to develop their own curricula and approaches to education, allow the people 'on the ground,' those actually educating our children, to develop innovative approaches to the problems facing our educational system today. The needs of children in suburban Portland are different than the needs of children in south central L.A., proponents argue, and principles - and teachers as well - should have the freedom to address those needs differently, and they should be allowed to fail or succeed in the open market.

Additionally, supporters claim that voucher programs recognize that parents, not bureaucrats, are the ultimate judges of what is best for their children. By allowing parents to choose the school their children attend, voucher programs encourage parental involvement in education, which, according to some studies, has been found to have a significant, positive impact on educational outcomes (though there is at least one study, I believe, that has found the opposite result).

Incentives may be more properly aligned under a competitive system, as well. The past decade has seen a rise in the use of standardized testing and regulations, not least of all in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). Under such a system, powerful incentives exist to simply "teach to the test," a phenomenon that has been seen in response to NCLB, as well as the increasing importance of the Advance Placement (AP) Program, with its standardized exams. With a voucher program, as long as schools meet some minimum standards set by the government, the market - i.e. parents - ultimately decide what aspects are important, and may include standardized test scores, facilities, extracurricular offerings, job or college counselling and support, or a host of other factors.

3. Other arguments

There are many other arguments made in support of vouchers. Among them:

- Teacher unions hurt students, and may hurt teachers as well. As private school teachers are generally not unionized, this may also encourage public schools to be 'deregulated' away from being closed shops.

- Systems could be designed that reward parents for choosing less expensive schools, thus helping to control the costs of education on the whole. Such systems include Educational Savings Accounts, which allow parents to use the excess of the voucher minus school tuition to hire tutors, offset the cost of tuition later in the child's life, or cover other educational expenses.

- School choice teaches students democratic values through real-life experiences. Some proponents even point to studies that show private schools are more likely to teach civics than their public counterparts are direct evidence of this.

- Although the original idea of public education was to provide broad, universal education that would put all citizens on a more equal footing, the current system actually has the opposite effect, magnifying the socioeconomic disparities in our society.


Next post: School Vouchers, An Overview (Part 2), which covers the major anti-vouchers arguments, and includes some concluding remarks.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro

Announcing: Tiro Posting for himself!

I just now figured out how to add authors to blogs, which will make this whole frequent guest-article thing much, much simpler.

From here on out Tiro should be able to post under his own name, hallelujah.

I'm on vacation in Texas. Incidentally, Oklahoma's idea of a scenic overlook:

(apologies for the low quality of the panoramic, but frankly this scene wasn't worth the effort required to do a better stitching, so I just let Hugin do whatever it wanted)
is misguided, and should rather look more like this:

Which at least has a sort of nostalgic or symbolic effect, rather than being a sad attempt to be subtle about announcing the only place in your entire state where the ground swelled enough to necessitate a road-cut. (albeit a shallow road-cut, it was made somewhat more interesting by the retired-geologist-lady who happened to be at the overlook simultaneously and made good conversation... nonetheless I suspect they only did the road-cut out of boredom.)

But I'm not being fair. Not everyone can be Chicago at night:

and besides, it's not like oklahoma is any worse than Kansas.

No, I don't have any pictures of Kansas. That's right, I didn't even bother, the last time I was there. Kansas, you are officially less interesting than Oklahoma.

And now the Melatonin is kicking in and I'm getting a bit loopy, so please forgive whatever horrors I have visited upon you today, of which I am yet unaware.

Not you Kansas. You're not a real state until you have a hill. I don't want your forgiveness!

And that really shouldn't be my ten cents for the day.

... but apparently it is.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mixed Heritage: or Why our Government is so Messy-Looking.

I keep running across articles and polls and whatnot where people run off at the mouth about how a two party system “is bad” or how third parties “are useless” and on and on and so forth, and I thought I’d take today’s slot as an opportunity to offer up a different way of thinking about the problem.

Two party politics is a consequence of a winner-takes-all system.

In a proportional government (which the United States is not - Israel is though) parties are allocated seats in the house based on what percentage of the vote they accrued in the election. The system for selecting a president depends on the nation - In Israel's case (though it's not nearly this clean or simple in application, of course) the president's party needs to obtain a coalition of other parties, which "lend" the leading party their votes. So long as the coalition represents 51% of the nation, the president remains president. When he can no longer maintain the coalition, a new election is held at the first available opportunity.

In a winner-takes all system, however, you have complications. since you require 51% of the vote to get any power at all, your vote is better spent on one big party than on supporting minor third parties which will (as they prove year, after year, after year) accomplish nothing at all. Third parties can serve to occasionally lure votes away from the party they are most similar to (thereby theoretically forcing those parties to adjust their platforms to lure the lost votes back home), but in practice this mostly just results in the party least similar to the third party winning the election.

One could easily argue, in fact, that the easiest way to mop up the problems in the U.S. electoral system would be to eliminate third parties.

However, I think that this is a simple-minded and hackneyed approach to things. Yes, third parties often serve as nothing more than a protest vote, but protest votes are important, and people have a right to cast them. I would rather switch to a proportional representation system than narrow down to two parties... most notably because a two-party system tends towards polarizing the nation into two groups that hate each other irrationally.

But proportional systems have their own flaws. Which individuals hold each position is determined by the party, not by the people, and who has a job is important. When you take the power to punish culpable individuals out of the hands of the electorate, corruption becomes a very real and very significant problem. Israel is rife with it, and I think it’s fair to say that they’ve got it worse than we do.

There may be no easy solution. I’ll give it more thought, but I suspect that no democratic system of government is perfect. Perfection is something you seek, not something you obtain, and besides, no system of government is the right government for all things.

On a very local scale, for instance, communism works! Russian peasants living under the Tzar lived in communes, and the system was incredibly effective on a small scale. It shielded people from death should their own crops fail (as tended to happen in the unforgiving soil of Russia), and guilt and shame were ample motivators when you knew everyone you were failing when you failed.

It simply doesn’t work on the macro scale, because on the macro scale you don’t know everyone, and guilt, shame, personal trust and loyalty start to matter less and less the farther you get away from the people you ostensibly govern.

Democracy itself fails on the macro scale. It isn’t possible for everyone in a community the size of the United States to vote on every single issue, even if you concentrate those issues very locally. Instead, we elect sets of representatives. One set for local concerns, one for State concerns, and one for National concerns, and we tell them to vote for us, and they keep getting our vote so long as we feel they’re doing the job fairly well. This isn’t democracy, it’s a Republic.

But we do want to vote personally on certain things, so our ballots are long, and new taxes and amendments and whatnot come before our eyes personally for review. This part of our annual routine is democracy in the actual.

Welfare is a little bit of socialism, along with Medicare and Social Security. All these things just happen to be necessary, as well, so we find other words to describe their origins, or attribute them to “liberalism” in general.

Our government works as well as it does because it is a mutt. It is a mixed breed, and the mixed heritage goes back so many forks in the family tree it’s almost dizzying.

I will personally promise you (for what it’s worth) that there has never been a government (not one that lasted five minutes) that was only one “kind” of government. It just doesn’t work. Even the Feudal system needed the Church to remain semi-stable, and the church was (theoretically, if not always in practice) a meritocracy. People need different things at different times, and they need it delivered in different ways.

Being a mutt is okay. You’re not as pretty, but you’re lots less likely to die of weird, inbred genetic disorders.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


In re-reading an earlier article I wrote about welfare (in which I described it in the context of it being a “public good”) I stumbled upon a broader point I had failed to expand, and I would like to expand it today.

A community is defined not by the individual contributions of the members of the community, but rather by what the community accomplishes as a whole. An army would not work if each individual member of the army just pulled their own weight, they must also pull the weight of their brethren, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. We presume that this is an essential component of army life, but when that lesson is applied at home, in a domestic setting, someone always comes out of the woodwork screaming “socialist” or a variety of other words that have, over time, become epithets in spite of themselves (Liberal, communist, etc.).

Thus, any attempt to discuss the ways in which our community at home has become xenophobic and lonely tends to be brought to an abrupt, awkward end without accomplishing anything.

This came to my mind earlier today when engaged in a conversation with the mother of one of my mother’s student’s. We were discussing Chicago on the night of the election. I expressed how surprised I was to see that people seemed, for that one night, to be giving each other the benefit of the doubt. She said that a friend of hers had noticed the same thing in New York, that people on the subway were actually looking at each other and engaging with the people around them.

Think about that. We live in a place where looking at and/or talking to the people around you is so strange that people remember it when it happens.

That’s wrong.

Why does being a nation involve being scared of our compatriots? Sure, one in every few thousand are going to turn out to be racist bigots or mindless criminals, but every time you fly you take a bigger risk than you take when you smile at the man across the bus from you, or shake hands with a stranger. Yet people will fly thousands of miles, hours and hours and hours bumping elbows with a man or woman next to them, and never even say hello.

When did other people become so uninteresting to us?

When did our people become so uninteresting to us?

We should be a people. Our government is of us, for us, and by us. We should be a community which, together, accomplishes great things. Yet we have fallen to a level where we view each other only as competition, as speed bumps. The potential for our neighbors to be an asset really never crosses our minds. People die in their homes and sometimes aren’t found for weeks. What the hell happened here?

I think communism scared us and we rebounded too far from it. Someone drowned in the lake, so we took our children out into the desert and never taught them to swim. Here we are, all watching porn, dating over the internet but too afraid to meet, forming web communities for the acquisition of random casual sex with total strangers of unknown age. On the subway, we fantasize about the girl on the other side of the car, but we will never, ever, ask her what her name is. We are all dying of thirst, but too afraid of water to drink.

We need to consider how much of our political jargon these days is knee-jerk, and how much of it is well grounded. We’ve gotten too far from the 60s for our own good health.

Where’s the love, man?

It’s time to start taking care of our own, and before you start equivocating consider that by being born American, you implicitly agreed that your own was anyone who happened to turn up on your shore with his family in tow, willing to work for a living. Even if you don’t like his or her “type.”

For anyone for whom this didn’t jive back in the day, the motto was inscribed in stone as a reminder: “give us your hungry, your sick and your poor.” If you don’t like the motto, you’re free to go live in one of the other great free nations of the world that aren’t in any way dependent on the prosperity of America. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m sure you’re more creative than I.

We are a nation built on the idea that a mass of immigrant thieves, religious nuts, political exiles and greedy merchants could come together under one banner and agree to disagree. The sons and daughters of this ragged band of criminals and outcasts turned out okay, I think. We’re a bit ugly, but we get the job done. It sure is a whole lot of work though, remembering that our ancestors were every bit as downtrodden, dirty and unwholesome as the people jumping our southern border today. The greater part of them didn’t even speak the same language as one another. Hell, English became our nation’s language by a pretty narrow vote advantage over German, if I remember correctly.

We are a community. Communities do right by their own. We haven’t been. This is unhealthy and wrong. If adding a dash of socialism is the answer, so be it.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

p.s.: If you're wondering about the picture, it's the South Grand coffee-shop, back before they "cleaned it up" (it subsequently went out of business. The thought of there being no more "Jane's Addiction" milk shakes caused me to literally tear out some hair in grief).

Thursday, November 6, 2008

For Fuck's Sake

I have returned from Chicago, and we have a new president. My own home state has added another diversion from its 104 year record of only having voted for the losing candidate once. I should probably say something about how we've “made history” by putting the first black man in the white house, but honestly I find those kinds of assertions droll and demeaning. We have an educated, well-spoken, stable, proven and reliable new president, and that is what matters right now.

In the next four years, he will be faced with the worst financial situation in our history and be expected to “fix” it, something no one, even a president, can do on his own. An economy is, after all, a sum of parts, not just of the nation's, but of the world's. In order to repair what is broken, Obama will need the support (and to an unprecedented degree, the trust) of all Americans, but he will also need the support and trust of the world.

Fortuitously, Obama seems to have no difficulty inspiring people at home or abroad. It is important, however, to realize that while this makes his job possible, it does not make it easy.

If nothing else, it seems highly likely that someone is going to try to kill him while he's in office. One attempt has already made news, I'm certain others have been suppressed. He has a capable and trustworthy (and healthy and white) vice president ready to step in should the secret service fail to protect him. I suspect he had his own death in mind when he picked a VP so obviously ready to be president, and I suspect Biden would do an adequate job of carrying on the task at hand, should the job fall to him.

But he would not do the job Obama would, because he would not inspire us the way Obama does. He would not inspire the world the way Obama does.

Even if you think McCain was the man for the job. Even if you're mad as hell about how the election went...

When Bush faced 9/11, the nation (even the Democrats) stood behind him because he was The President of the United States of America and the crisis was bigger than party lines. The crises we face today are no smaller. If anything, they are larger, because they impact the entire world, and because they will kill more people before they are over. These deaths will be mostly quiet and anonymous, and there will be no one obvious to blame, and no one to go to war with. There will be no vengeance for these deaths.

The economy has crashed. We see numbers that go up and down, and people in suits whining. What we don't see is people losing their homes and starving to death on the street. Even here. In the rest of the world, it will be worse.

The climate is changing. Warming, cooling, these terms are misleading and foolish. They are narrow. The currents are changing, and this is killing the whales (migration patterns rely on currents). The warm air moves places it didn't before, and this is bombarding our coasts with hurricanes. Deserts are expanding, the ice caps are melting, waterways are drying up and filling with silt. Some of this is nature, some of it isn't, but the causes are irrelevant when considering the effects. People are going to die. We must do what we can to limit the devastation, and that will broadly be Obama's job too.

So for fuck's sake, whatever party you align with, when he needs you,

Help him.

That's my ten cents for the day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

To Orson Scott Card, regarding Energy

I feel compelled to respond to an article Orson Scott Card wrote today regarding Obama’s energy plan. I freely admit that I idolize Card as a writer and as a thinker, and it’s frankly painful to disagree with him as wholeheartedly as I do today. But nonetheless, I do.

(his article can be read at

Coal presently accounts for 55% of our electricity, which we (all of us) spend brashly and foolishly because it is cheaper (much cheaper) than it should be. I myself leave my computer on at night when I’m not using it at all. I leave my phone charger plugged in when the phone isn’t plugged into it. I sleep with the light on some nights, without ever considering the bill at the end of the month. My family is on the bottom rung of the middle class and a few years ago we nearly lost our house. We often need to borrow from extended family to make ends meet. Electricity should be a more visible concern than it is.

Energy has resisted market pressures because the true costs are hidden. Nuclear power plants produce waste by the barrel and need to store it in hollowed out mountains so it doesn’t kill us all in our sleep. This is a cost people can see and understand, and so the cost of nuclear power includes the cost of shipping and storing and otherwise dealing with the waste-product of nuclear power.

Coal power, at present, is cheaper than it should be, because the waste is simply dumped into the air around us as though by putting it there we magically make it disappear. This is not the case. Eventually, someone is going to have to pay the market value of that waste, and the issue at hand is not paying it or not paying it, but whether we pay it now, or our grandchildren pay it later.

Frankly, I’d rather handle my own debts. Coal and Oil (though natural gas is cleaner - we could do with a little more utilization of that resource) are both limited resources and resources that generate invisible waste byproducts. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t cut it anymore. It is a direct violation of the market. When we pay cheap prices for our coal and oil energy, we are literally being lied to. The market value of those products has been artificially deflated, which is making it impossible for cleaner, easier alternatives to get a share of that market.

As the price of energy rises (and whoever takes office, the price of energy will rise in the coming decade), it will become cost-effective to turn to alternative sources of energy. Under Obama’s plan, that will happen sooner rather than later, and this is a very, very good thing.

Here’s why.

China is presently chewing up a great percentage of the world’s energy resources. While they are doing their level best to install dams and solar panels, they are handcuffed by a variety of complicated circumstances, one of them being simply their level of industrial development.

We do not share in those handcuffs. If we turn to alternative energy sources, not only do we shed our dependence on foreign oil, we also drive down the cost of those resources for China and for other developing nations. This will make it easier for their markets to grow in the short-run, and might allow them to make the curve in time. If they do not, their markets will crash when oil and coal inevitably run out. Both are limited resources.

If we remain dependent on oil and coal, the day when it runs out will come that much sooner, and it seems very unlikely that anyone, including ourselves, will have made a sufficient transferal to alternative energy sources in time to prevent the resulting crash. Since people will see these resources coming to a close, part of this crash will inevitably be a massive world war resulting in the deaths of millions, as nations fight desperately to the death over the remaining sources of power.

I do not want this future, and neither do you. It is better to bite the bullet now, when we can take it. Later, it will take us.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Stephen Colbert

[message 11/02/08 - toy with this one awhile if you would, I'm going to be spending my writing time the next few days on my novel, just got over my block, somehow]

So the original plan was to come up with a 101-things list like those that exist for Chuck Norris, but as it turns out, Tiro and I are woefully insufficient to the task, working alone.

So instead, here's a few starters. Click on Comments below this article and give us a hand filling out the list. I figured Halloween was a good day for an article like this, since it involves almost no work on our part.

The starter list:

1. When Stephen Colbert ran for president, the president ran away.
2. Stephen Colbert is a Republican. Everyone else is a Republican't.
3. Stephen Colbert has razed the bar.
4. In Soviet Russia, America is Stephen Colbert.
5. Stephen Colbert is the reason all the rum is gone.
6. Stephen Colbert is so hot the Smithsonian Institute leaves the AC on through winter.
(Matt)7. If you look up Stephen Colbert in the dictionary, the dictionary turns to solid gold.
(Matt)8. Stephen Colbert was not born in a hospital, he delivered himself by C-section... without leaving a scar on his mother!
(Matt)9. If you're ever caught in an avalanche, say "Stephen Colbert" three times and the snow will instantly melt in awe.
(Matt)10. If you trick-or-treat in a Stephen Colbert mask, you will not receive candy, you will receive car keys.
(Matt)11. Stephen Colbert can spin straw into gold in exchange for your future children who will also be spun into gold.
(Matt)12. Stephen Colbert can cure cancer with the Mr. Miyagi hand rub.

I'll edit the list as you add things, and yes, on the main list, I'll credit your registered name 'n all that. Get crackin'.