Quick hits (part II)

1) This nice post from the Economist on how females are out-classing males in education throughout the developed world has been sitting open in my browser deserving it’s own post for too long.  So, here it is.

2) Jamelle Bouie makes a good case that Patty Murray should be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

3) Republicans of late have been suggesting they actually care about inequality. John Cassidy just says follow the money in their latest proposed budget:

As long as a Democrat occupies the White House, there’s practically no chance that G.O.P. spending cuts will be enacted, marking the Price budget as more of a political wish list than an actual funding bill. But wish lists matter, too, especially for a Party that is supposedly trying to change its public image. And in 2015, it seems, the most that the Republicans can hope for is to shower more gifts on the wealthiest households in America, while depriving poor families of health care, food stamps, and college tuition.

4) So apparently “the left” has a problem with Mark Kleiman’s great idea for prison reform.  I’m very much with Kleiman.  It’s good to have people suggesting we need to radically re-think our incarceration nation, but I’m not a big fan of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And Kleiman’s proposals would be a very good improvement.

5) Back to John Cassidy as I enjoyed his take on Ted Cruz.   Also, I have to say that Cruz’s “imagine a world without the IRS” is just preposterous pandering to the most ignorant.  So, is that a world without any federal income tax (how does that work?) or a world where people get to cheat on their taxes with impunity (ask Greece how well that works out)?

6) I was just commenting in class the other day how the NFL is a model of socialism.

7) Philip Gourevetich sure knows how to write about tragedy (he wrote the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide), so he certainly has a thoughtful commentary on the recent horrible air crash tragedy.

8) As if our completely over-reliance on prison isn’t enough, we make life way too hard for former prisoners to get jobs.  Most importantly, we’re pretty stupid about what the statistics actually show:

Consider that over-reliance on background checks inevitably screens out qualified, trustworthy job applicants. More than one in four adults in America has a criminal record, and the vast majority of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future: Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest, and beyond that point, recidivism rates begin to decrease so dramatically that a criminal record no longer indicates that a person is more likely to be arrested than someone without a record. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes—such as the San Francisco Uber driver charged with attacking a passenger with a hammer—have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

9) America’s police kill way too many people. It doesn’t have to be this way.  And a great Vox interview with an enlightened police chief on how we need to change police training and culture so less people needlessly die.

10) With all the focus on the corrupting potential of money in campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the hugely distorting effects of all the money in lobbying.

Quick hits (part I)

[This was supposed to auto-publish this morning, as usual, but somehow didn’t]

1) Since it’s been Ted Cruz week, here’s a nice piece putting him into context of the Paranoid Style in American politics.

2) I’d read that redheads are typically more susceptible to pain, but I had not read before that it is tied to a particular genetic mutation in about 70% or redheads.  Not that I’m tough or anything, but I think I am in the other 30%.

3) Nice piece from Bill Ayers on how to make sense of scientific controversies.  Suffice it to say, that an understanding of the scientific method (yeah, social science in addition to “real” science) helps.

4) Nice to see at least one prosecutor who erroneously convicted an innocent man of murder feels bad about it.  Now, prosecutors need to read this and think about being more careful before it’s too late.

5) Totally deserving of it’s own post, but as you’ve noticed, I’ve had a hard time getting to things this week.  Any way, the way police handle the mentally ill in this country is just appalling.  Police were dispatched and told they were dealing with a mentally ill person.  Then, he basically seems to get shot (there’s a video) for carrying a screwdriver.  Worst part, the way police endlessly defend this action.  Whether legally justified or not, for this situation to end up with a man dead, is just horrible policing.

6) Adam Davidson on the myth of job-stealing immigrants.  My favorite part about this is that most of what Davidson does is summarize the research of mainstream economists from across the political spectrum, but oh boy does that enrage the commenters.

7) Some interesting research on receptiveness to scientific expertise.  So apparently, it’s not the Republicans are resistant to listening to science, just that Democrats are particularly receptive.  (Hmmm, something seems weird about that formulation).  Also, the religious not liking science so much.

8) Dogs can actually know the difference between words, not just tone of voice.  Cool.

9) A trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail cut in the form of a modern thriller.  Fun.

10) Enjoyed this NYT editorial on the coal industry versus the Clean Air Act.  For some reason I don’t really trust the coal industry’s preferred interpretation of the coal industry.

11) One of my great recent regrets?  That I got an episode behind on the Jinx and had the stunning, stunning ending ruined for me by the news coverage.  That was some ending even knowing it was coming.  Enjoyed this story about Durst’s younger brother.

12) Loved this essay from a Biology professor on what it’s like teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

If only we threatened public schools more!

It was education policy this week in Public Policy.  A nice reminder that so much of American education “reform” is based on vague notions of “running education like a business” and ignoring the fact that the dozens of nations that out-perform us do nothing of the sort.  Educating K-12 is very little like running a business.  Anyway, as further evidence, the latest proposal from (one of the most odious legislators) from here in NC gets an appropriately scathing review from Rob Schofield:

For the most recent example of this apparently irresistible tendency, check out the proposal in the North Carolina Senate to “bill” local schools for the cost of remediation courses that students take in Community College. As NC Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska reported this morning, one of the bill’s key sponsors, Senator Tom Apodaca, thinks this will make a difference:

The desire, Apodaca said, is to make sure the state’s K-12 system is turning out graduates ready to jump into the higher levels of education.

“We’re sending a message to our schools that we want quality coming out,” Apodaca said.

You got that? The premise of the law — as with so many other conservative education proposals in recent years — is that North Carolina can wring better results out of its public schools through sheer force. Rather than addressing poverty, providing universal pre-K, lowering class sizes or investing the money that it would really take to hire the teachers and counselors and other professionals who could perform the miracle of preparing millions of kids for the insanely competitive 21st Century economy (half of whom come from families too poor to afford lunch), the Senate would propose to get better K-12 grads by threatening to take away more money from their schools… [emphasis mine]

After that, who knows where such an innovative idea might lead? Maybe North Carolina could enact a law that forces prisons to pay for the cost of recidivism or perhaps one that cuts the environmental protection budget each time there’s a coal ash spill. How about a law that docks legislators’ pay for poor state job growth? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

The in-all-seriousness bottom line: North Carolina is never going to make any progress in improving its public education system through a threat-based “big stick” model. The only real, long-term solution is to abandon such “divide and conquer” policies based on blame, recognize the complexity of situations like the issue of college remediation and move forward with the understanding that we are all responsible for educating our children and all in the public education business together.

Now, I don’t actually think this absurd idea will become law (but who knows with this legislature), but the fact that this passes as education reform for one of the state’s more powerful legislators is scary enough and shows that the guys running this state either 1) don’t have a clue as to how to actually improve education, or 2) don’t actually care.  Sadly, I fear it’s both.

Campus liberalism amok

Well, damn, if this isn’t the stuff that gives academia and liberalism a bad name.  Somehow, there’s been an idea spreading among certain college campuses that you should never be made to feel “uncomfortable.”  Yikes.  Great piece from Judith Shulevitz in the NYT:

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said. [emphasis mine]

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.

Yowza.  A college student forced to face viewpoints which challenge her closely held beliefs?!  What horrors are next?

But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer…

I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril…

But plenty of others at universities are willing to dignify students’ fears, citing threats to their stability as reasons to cancel debates, disinvite commencement speakers and apologize for so-called mistakes.

The piece is full of jaw-dropping example after example, so it’s hard to pick just one (really, read it), but this one is pretty representative:

Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

I love this take:

The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them? [emphasis mine]

I’m not there to make my students feel safe or comfortable (not that I at all seek their fear or discomfort, mind you); my job is to help them learn to think critically and analytically.  And a big part of that is grappling with ideas you may disagree with in an intellectually honest manner.  That may be uncomfortable at times, but welcome to life and actually getting something meaningful out of your college education.  Those that would be subjective safety and comfort above all other values do a huge disservice to the actual mission of universities.

The health care “villains”? It’s the hospitals, not the insurers

Everybody loves to hate health insurance companies.  There are endless anecdotes about denying needed coverage and they aren’t the ones actually making us healthy– that’s the hospitals.  Thing is, it’s the hospitals that are the relative “villains” in our health care drama as they are the ones very much responsible for driving up the super-high prices that bedevil health care in this country.  Thus, a very nice piece from Reihan Salam that explains how it is that hospitals are able to so effectively drive up prices (for which we all pay one way or another):

As for why hospitals charge such high prices, it’s fairly simple: They do it because they can. In a competitive market, a provider who jacks up prices risks losing customers to competitors who charge less. But what if incumbent providers have the political muscle to keep competitors out of the market? What if regulators look the other way when incumbent providers buy up the competition, or even help the process along? That, in a nutshell, is the situation with America’s hospitals, as Chris Pope outlines in a recent Heritage Foundation paper onconsolidation in the health care market. Because most medical care is purchased not by consumers but by third parties, like Medicare and Medicaid or your insurance company, and because consumers rarely get access to reliable data on quality, they place an extremely high value on convenience. If you’re not saving money by shopping around for a better deal, and if you have no idea if you’re getting better care, you might as well go to the hospital closest to you. Hospitals that don’t face competition from other nearby hospitals thus have a huge amount of power in their local markets. If a private insurer refuses to pay a hospital’s exorbitant prices, a hospital can just walk and wait for the insurer’s customers to scream bloody murder over the fact that they can’t use their local hospital.

Bummer.  And if you are counting on politicians to save us, think again:

Forget about big cities—there is a hospital in every congressional district in America, and local hospitals are often among the largest employers in the district. One of the reasons President Clinton’s 1993 health reform effort failed is that he never won over the hospital lobby. President Obama learned from the Clinton debacle; hospitals were among his most important allies. Republicans get in on the act too. Right now, for example, a number of GOP lawmakers are pushing a Medicare “reform” that guarantees higher payments to doctors and hospitals today in exchange for the promise of spending reductions a decade or two from now. Good luck with that.
You can hardly blame them though. The health sector employs more than a tenth of all U.S. workers, most of whom are working- and middle-class people who serve as human shields for those who profit most from America’s obscenely high medical prices and an epidemic of overtreatment. If you aim for the crooks responsible for bleeding us dry, you risk hitting the nurses, technicians, and orderlies they employ. This is why politicians are so quick to bash insurers while catering to the powerful hospital systems, which dictate terms to insurers and have mastered the art of gaming Medicare and Medicaid to their advantage. Whether you’re for Obamacare or against it, you can’t afford to ignore the fact that America’s hospitals have become predatory monopolies. We have to break them before they break us.  [emphasis mine]
Hmmmm.  How do you break government monopolies.  Can you say, “government regulation”?  Of course, Salam is actually a “reform conservative” so he’s not about to openly admit government is the solution:

Curbing the power of the big hospitals isn’t a left-wing or a right-wing issue. Getting this right will make solving all of our health care woes much easier, regardless of where you fall on the wisdom of Obamacare. Let’s get to it.

Of course this is a left vs. right issue.  Who does Salam think will curb the power of the big hospitals?  A groundswell of populist revolt?  No.  Government.  When you look at all those modern democracy health systems that out-perform us, every last one does so, in part, by relying upon government to help keep prices down.  Until we make a serious effort at doing the same (the ACA is a partial effort) we are going to continue to be bankrupted by health care prices.

The future of incarceration?

Great piece by Mark Kleiman and colleagues in Vox about how to re-think incarceration.  I’m actually teaching Prisons in my Criminal Justice Policy class this week and this one goes straight into required reading.  It actually builds on ideas in Kleiman’s great book, When Brute Force Fails.  Our current system of incarcerating of way too many people is absurdly costly in both dollars and the needless damage to human lives.  So, here’s the proposal:

America’s prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars, and corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets. We have five times as many people in prison as we ever had before 1980, and five times as many (per capita) as any other advanced democracy.

What’s worse is that it is, in this era, a completely unnecessary disaster. It’s simply not true that to punish someone and control his behavior you need to lock him up and pay for his room and board.

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don’t get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years…

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock…

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars. [emphasis mine]

It’s well worth reading through the whole thing, but suffice it to say, this proposal is win, win, win, win.  Better for the prisoners, better for society, less recidivism, less financial expense, etc.  The only downside, if you see it that way, is that it is less punitive.  Alas, that certainly makes it harder (though not nearly as much as status quo bias).  I think most Americans (and polling suggests as much) would prefer a criminal justice system with much less recidivism that is less economically costly if the “cost” is that prisoners suffer less.

Anyway, the technology is there to make this feasible in a way it wasn’t not long ago.  Here’s somewhere where we can truly leverage technological advancements for substantial improvements over existing policy.  The only thing lacking at the moment, oh-so-sadly, seems to be political will.

Death panels live

Great piece in Vox today about public opinion on the Affordable Care Act five years after it’s passage.  Not suprisingly, misinformation/misunderstanding was far more common among Republicans (Fox News anyone?).  For example, many (and sadly many Democrats, too) still even believe in “death panels”

And here’s another whole chart of wrongness:

floating chart

If there’s any area of consensus, it’s in misperceptions of the law: 82 percent of Americans either say the price tag has gone up, or aren’t sure (the law’s price has actually decreased as compared with initial estimates), and only 13 percent know the law met its first-year enrollment goals.

The good news?  Some truth is getting through:

Obamacare’s insurance expansion arguably has three really important policies: the end of preexisting conditions, a mandate to purchase insurance, and subsidies to help low- and middle-income Americans purchase coverage.

The Vox poll shows that a majority of Americans know about these three parts of the health-care law. Three-quarters of Americans know there is a mandate to buy insurance in Obamacare; 64 percent are aware that preexisting conditions no longer exist; and a slim majority, 54 percent, know about the financial help now available to buy a plan.

Awareness levels are similar among Democrats and Republicans, suggesting that some facts about the health-care law have broken through — even if they’re not swaying how voters think about the law.

This article points out, that perhaps the most important misperception, though, is in costs, where there is massive misperception:

Forty-two percent of Americans think Obamacare has gotten more expensive over the past five years. Only 5 percent of poll respondents hit on the right answer: budget estimates for the Affordable Care Act have consistently fallen since it became a law.

Make no mistake: Obamacare spends a lot of money on its tax credits and Medicaid expansion. It recoups some, but not all, of that new spending with hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts, which reduce federal health spending. The bulk of the remainder is made up with tax increases. But back when the law was passing, Republicans argued up, down, and sideways that the Congressional Budget Office was sharply underestimating the amount of money Obamacare spends.

The big problem for Democrats is that they thought that once the law was actually in operation and working, Americans would come around.  Alas, it has remained politicized to an absurd degree (40+ votes for repeal, anyone), making it hard for a lot of the truth and successes to make it through to the public.  Frustrating, but the truly good news is that the law is actually working better than expected and a lot more people are getting a lot more needed health care.

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