Orbital Questions

A funny thing about being in a stationary orbit is that on the hand you are moving a zillion miles per hour, while on the other the countervailing forces are keeping you almost stationary while you ever so slowing approach your doom. What an analogy for the arguments about “gun control”…

Mental health? I could just argue it is an oxymoron, but frankly the entire concept of mental health is largely a fiction. After all, what is “health” when you get down to it other than a compromise between a statistic and an aspiration. Forget for a moment the biological aspects of the matter, and consider that virtually all of the DSM requires some element of subjective judgment.

Keeping guns out of the “wrong hands”? 1) There are no wrong hands; all humans of capable of doing something stupid enough to get another killed. It happens on a daily basis. 2) How would you begin to identify the wrong hands because a) yeah, that is the same gambit as the mental health scam, and b) sane today, nuts tomorrow…

Safe schools? Schools are never going to be “safe” because humans are not “safe”. Mandating greater distance (figuratively speaking) between dangerous instrumentalities and humans  is the only way we have made life any safer. But there are two possible measures that could be pursued: building secure classrooms and adopting legislation (see, e.g. Santaella-Tenorio, Julian, Magdalena Cerdá, Andrés Villaveces, and Sandro Galea. “What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?” Epidemiologic Reviews 38, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 140–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/epirev/mxv012.

Putting more guns in school? Why not arm the kids (http://opinion.alaskapolicy.net/pardonme/?p=94) Good guys with guns? I think you will find that a recent stat being flashed about suggests that police hit their targets 20% of the time in dynamic situations (some reports argue as “high” as 35%, rofl! http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/weekinreview/09baker.html) for people trained to shoot under stress – are you going to exceed the training police officers receive? Likely not, which means that at least 2/3 of the rounds discharged will likely hit someone other than the perpetrator (and in a school, who might that be?) Sounds like a party!!!!!! And securing the gun lockers in a school? Now that sounds like a real gas…

Yeah, I am a teacher, a parent, an owner of class 3 weapons, a registered Republican, and an old lawyer, and the amount of bandwidth on inane rationalizations about our current firearm policies is simply obscene. We require more attention to the ownership of automobiles than we do to firearms (at least we require, half heartedly, a license and insurance, kind of, rofl…..) How about a mandatory strict liability no fault policy in the amount of $2M per firearm that pays off in full without question if anyone is injured in any way as a result of the discharge of a weapon, funds payable to a victims’ trust? Yup, that policy might run you more than your health insurance policy

“Separate But Equal” Has No Place

The highest court of this land, in the words of Chief Justice Warren, stated in no uncertain terms:

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Yes, “in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place”. But today, especially in public education, we are seeing a rise in segregated education, and along with it, a clear attack on the values so clearly espoused by the Brown Court.

While race was the basis for the Brown decision, race is, as arguably IQ is, just a matter of a few genes. But it is, in a very real sense, a fiction. It is a fiction that was broadly employed in our country (and some argue its use is now rising again, see The Resegregation of Jefferson County and Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination) to maintain what were argued variously as “cultural” or “ability” differences. It was fairly common to allege that as some races were less amenable to education (slower?) they did better in their own schools, with their own kind.

It was this kind of thinking that was found unacceptable as to race, and then, in a striking partial reversal of Rowley, it was applied in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist. RE–1, 580 U.S. ____ (2017).  You cannot have equality of education where you are segregating populations, and that applies to the entire gamut of actual (or perceived) differences.

In that light, of course, tracking should raise a number of concerns. While tracking may be a very effective tool for pedagogy, it can easily become a very effective tool to promote social segregation (and has done just that). Charter schools are being created specifically to keep the “wrong child” elsewhere, and how “Native” charter schools could survive a Brown challenge would rest solely on the dubious claim that separate but equal is acceptable if the separated agree? Really?

When I was young I was tracked (with excellent results) but I was also required to take a half a dozen different shop classes (where many of my academic peers were far from performance leaders). This had a counterbalancing effect to the academic tracking, and promoted the mixing of all students in the school. As a teacher I was able to help coach a US FIRST Robotics Team that likewise included a broad range of students, and it was this breadth that was the aspect of the team most celebrated by the team members.

Slowly but surely though, financial pressure has been brought to bear to move “non-academic” “career-oriented” students to programs focused on “getting them a job”. I think one of the worst aspects of such programs is that it gives up on these students when these students have yet to demonstrate that they are literate.  That is on its face unacceptable.  What we see in test after test is that we are graduating students who have NOT mastered the adopted curriculum. To essentially accept that has an acceptable “truth” and thereupon to decide that we can then spend a couple of years not teaching them to read, but teaching them to do medical filing, is obscene.

But more importantly, and why I write today, such “vocational” schools promote class segregation at a time when such polarization is perhaps the biggest crisis facing this nation. Nor do the inclusion of a few well chosen “academic courses” remove the separate identity (whether one wants to call it stigmatization or not) as the students are still segregated.  And see Cain Polidano and Domenico Tabasso, “Fully Integrating Upper-Secondary Vocational and Academic Courses: A Flexible New Way?,” Economics of Education Review 55 (December 1, 2016): 117–131, accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272775716300012; John H Bishop and Ferran Mane, “The Impacts of Career-Technical Education on High School Labor Market Success,” Economics of Education Review 23, no. 4, Special Issue In Honor of Lewis C. Solman (August 1, 2004): 381–402, accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272775704000287. And we have yet to address the gender segregation that is typical of Voc-Ed, VET, and/or CTE programs

In creating “vocational schools” we are promoting the “deplorable”, if you will, as a viable segment of our population, and frankly, I don’t think pride in ignorance is anything to ever be proud of.

Scofflaw Heaven?

Wickersham’s Conscience pulls out Ferguson as his whipping boy in a diatribe about Beauregard bringing back debtors’ prisons. The specifics on how the legal system “took advantage of” poor people have been beat to death, but were resurrected January 2017 by WC to paint Mr. Sessions as a Dickensian fiend. Well, I am no fan of Sessions, but there are very good reasons for his actions here, whether those actions are the result of racist ideology, or “Trumpist philosophy” (what an oxymoron that is).

To deal with the last bit first, Session pared away “guidance” by which the executive branch appeared to pre-empt local discretion under the law.  Nothing unlawful or reprehensible about that, on its face, is there? I may find that frustrating, because I endorse the policies behind the “guidance”, but in essence Sessions is correct in finding that such accretions are problematic.

Now, let’s put aside for a moment the outrage and excesses seen in Ferguson and what you arguably have (as in, what you can argue you could arrive at legitimately) is a “system” that is trying to impose order on a community of scofflaws. Let’s compare what we learned about Ferguson with what happened in Anchorage with respect to automated speed enforcement, so that our analysis isn’t contaminated by extrinsic outrage. Anchorage has an horrendous problem with people violating traffic laws. The apparent solution (photo radar) resulted in a huge hue and cry, however. Why? Because everyone was speeding, everyone was getting hefty fines, and no one wanted to pay said fines. Well, the good folk who wanted the speed limits enforced argued, “If you don’t want to pay the fine, don’t do the crime”.  But the Anchorage scofflaws were not about to be undone by technology. They beat photo radar in criminal court on a resolvable technicality, and the outrage over the program precluded politically it being implemented as a even a civil measure. We have lots more people dead from speeding vehicles. If you REALLY want to control behavior, what are you to do?

Clearly, if you want to put an end to Behavior X (whether that is speeding, running red lights or beating up on your wife) there has to be a clear ban on the behavior, and a set of actually enforced consequences. The liberal tripwire here is the concern that the consequence is intentionally being contrived such that the “perp” can never escape the the circle of ever rising debt or imprisonment. Yes, yes, yes! We can all agree that this is problematic, and yet day fines are still not widely implemented in the US. Day fines gob smacked many Americans for the first time when The Atlantic carried a story about a monstrous Finnish fine. Day fines impose fines that are proportionate to ones ability to pay (see, for example, How To Use Structured Fines (Day Fines) as an Intermediate Sanction . The question for the outraged, as far as I am concerned, is whether a system of days fines in a place like Ferguson would remediate the issues decried.

“Nay, nay, nay,” I say. Lets face it, the folk in Ferguson would not have paid the fines under any circumstances. Sorry, but if you make the day fine just a copper, you will have those who appear with a hapenny. Why? For the same reason you can impose a 45 mph speed limit and someone caught doing 60 will complain. While the Ferguson situation is clearly “over the top”, go to any court system in the country and visit the “wants and warrants section” and you will see the same thing. Review the collection of fines, and you will recognize that our judicial system is largely ignored until you hear that loud clack as the electronic door lock on the jail sets, or you are made to empty your pockets on the witness stand. I know. I have had to do debtor hearings where the debtor, claiming poverty, is wearing $30K in jewelry. Yah, tools of their trade….. 

“WHOA!”, you say, “I never never knew you to be such a retro asshole!” Sorry, but as we promote an “open” society, we are also promoting a society where there are few norms outside of the law; i. e. the law exists to set the norm. While you may have cleaned up after your dog, and controlled him while out walking in the past out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility, once such a shared sense is lost, the only thing that keeps you from letting your dog shit on my porch is enforcement of the law. Enter civil fines. You violate the norm you get assessed a fine. You fail to pay the fine, your action gets criminalized, and the monkey chases the weasel.

The fly in that ointment is a constabulary that won’t enforce the law (which in many cases is what we have in Anchorage). If you don’t want to simply punish offenders (punishment is really not conducive to alleviating criminal behavior) then we could try to tax them, and the ultimate taxing of an individual who simply refuses to comport themselves with society is to put them to work paying off their debt, lol. And that is a debtor’s prison. With or without day fines.

Perhaps instead of being outraged by the concept, we should explore ways to make it viable. Or we could just say, “You can break the law all you want, because we don’t care.” Your choice….

Billing, Finnish Style

I was recently whisked off to Scandinavia for a couple of weeks courtesy of my wonderful daughter. Unfortunately, I was having a bit of a problem with my sinuses, which necessitated a visit to a doctor in Helsinki. Friends there lined me up to see a doctor at a private clinic. He asked what the problem was, and I started in. Within a couple of seconds he stopped me.

“Look,” he said. “You clearly know what the problem is and I concur.  Let me get the medical business done and then we can chat.” Perhaps more out of astonishment than compliance, I shut my trap and he started typing away. In a minute or so he looked up from his keyboard and gave me the medical spiel – I was getting an assortment of meds to be used as necessary, an EU version of Clarinex, codeine cough syrup, and an antibiotic if things did not clear up on their own in a week. He asked if all was clear, I confirmed, and he hit a button on the keypad.  Then he explained….

He worked for the clinic and he billed based on the amount of time he spent with the client. Materials were extra at cost plus, as were pharmaceuticals. The whole trip to the doc plus the meds ran be $160.  Since he wasn’t pressed with patients at the moment he had time to chat, and there was no reason to bill me for the time he was amusing me with his dry Finnish wit. And that was PRIVATE care!

I mention all this because yesterday I received an EOB (Explanation of Benefits, for those either lucky – or unlucky – enough not to have to deal with them) which indicated that a specialist I see was dinging me and extra ~$30 for lidocaine and a cortico-steroid injected a YEAR AGO. Turns out that the specialist’s office had been billing for an office visit and a surgical procedure (for a total of ~$500) but had neglected to charge me for the contents of the syringe. I inquired when I called to ask about the incremental billing why they weren’t charging me an incremental fee for the needle and syringe.

In this country insurance companies make providers negotiate on a huge range of services – that’s what the CPT codes are about, because apparently we believe that if a doctor gives you a  flu shot, that has a different value then when he pulls a little wooden splinter out of your finger. Same person, doing what he was trained (and insured to do), and yet somehow the doctor is going to get twice the amount for the splinter than for giving the flu shot. No, it does NOT make a great deal of sense.

Lawyers will often debate whether to offer services, say for a simple adoption, as a flat fee as opposed to an hourly. Flat fees in some senses make it simpler, and in a very real sense its a gamble. We call the other side of that gamble, “insurance” – socializing the cost of the risk. Amortizing the risk may in fact be a great idea, but if we are going to do that, it is high time we stopped doing half of it. Otherwise, we might as well go to having doctors bill out their time by the tenth of the hour. The CPR that saved your life? .1 hr at $300/hr is $30; now that’s a bargain!

License and Insure the Shooter, Tax the Firearms

License and Insure the Shooter, Tax the Firearms,

and Do It Through State and Local Governments.

© Allen D. Blume, 2017

During the 2016 political campaign season, virtually any discussion of ending endemic gun violence in the United States was tantamount to touching a subway “third rail;” with the promise of immediate political death to anyone seeking a solution to the problem. In the wake of the militant takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; the rapidly escalating firearms attacks in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Madison Township, Ohio, and Glendale, Arizona; domestic terrorist assaults on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and county government workers in San Bernardino, California by “self-actualized” lone wolves, there were more demands to restrict Americans’ access to virtually all types of firearms. As with the slaughter of school children in Connecticut in 2012, Democrats in general, and to a lesser extent, the investment community, questioned the ready availability of such “weapons of mass destruction,” and, predictably called for restricting entire classes of firearms and limiting the availability of large capacity magazines. As expected, too, the Republican Party mouthed prayerful platitudes and offered nothing in the way of solutions to halt the rising body counts in every part of the United States.

Now, twelve months into 2017, following the particularly murderous assaults in Las Vegas, Nevada, with 59 dead and 441 injured; and Sutherland Springs, Texas, with 27 dead and 25 injured, the body counts continue to climb, the intensity of gun attacks are more savage, and the places of their occurrence appear even more randomly dispersed. The high-profile shootings that leave tens of people dead and hundreds more injured are signifiers of our increasing reliance on firearms to “settle scores” real or perceived. The data on places like Las Vegas or Sutherland or the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, obscure other shootings that should be high profile – but are now simply the background noises of a society in turmoil.

Date

Location Killed

Injured

Jan. 16, 2017

Miami, FL 0 8

Jan. 27

Brownsville, TN 0

10

Feb. 12

Caruthersville, MO 1

6

Mar. 26

Cleveland, OH 2

15

Apr. 16

Columbus, OH 0

9

Apr. 30

San Diego, CA 2

6

May 7

Chicago, IL 2

8

May 20

Philadelphia, PA 10

0

May 27

Washington, DC 1

7

May 28

Phenix City, AL 0

12

June 5

Orlando, FL 6

0

June 9

Fort Worth, TX 2 5

June 30

Little Rock, AR 0

25

June 30 The Bronx, NYC 2

6

July 9

Cincinnati, OH 1 8

Aug. 4

Lodge Grass, MT 3

2

Sep. 10 Plano, TX 9

1

Sep. 24

Antioch, TN 1 8
Oct. 22 Lanett, AL 2

7

Nov. 14 Corning, CA 6

12

(Source: Gun Violence Archive, Mass shootings, November 2017) [1]

The increasingly deep and wrathful divisions between those who favor an outright ban on firearms of any sort, and the barely checked threat of violence emanating from extremists in thrall to the National Rifle Association (NRA) guarantees deadlock and stalemate in addressing runaway gun violence in our society.

In the main, social justice liberals seek to address gun violence by mandating federal “one-size-fits-all” solutions that would create enormous and expensive databases on firearms, ammunition, magazines, and the piece-parts of firearms technology; while notably encroaching on the rights of individuals, states and/or communities to police themselves. Clearly, an increased emphasis on background checks is warranted, as evidenced in President Obama’s Executive Order, and increased attention from the Trump White House, requiring that individuals selling firearms at gun shows be licensed dealers and run background checks before selling a firearm to another person. However, the move is, at best, a tentative one and will certainly be tested by gun owner advocacy groups. Further, by seeking to reinstate semiautomatic weapons and magazine bans, Washington will again chase the minutiae of our violence problem to the exclusion of other and more effective solutions.

A careful reading of the Supreme Court decisions in Washington, DC v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) offers a more direct and manageable solution: Mandate licensure and liability insurance for shooters at state and/or local government levels, and levy appropriate taxes on firearms, magazines, ammunition, and other adjunctive technologies.

Just as states regulate driver’s licensing, they can as readily use their existing infrastructure to manage firearms, even to the extent of using the same departments of motor vehicles to provide for licensure and examination. Set by state statute and/or multi-state compacts, controls can be put in place to provide for categories of gun ownership and use that are comparable with existing automobile, motorcycle, or commercial vehicle licensing, and that do not violate constitutional standards for possession and use of firearms. While there would be some initial state and/or local government outlay to set up certified training and testing gun ranges or contract for their services, this approach would obviate the need for expanding the federal bureaucracy on a fool’s errand to track down and enumerate every Picatinny rail, large capacity magazine, or MilSpec round.

Much is made of the so-called abuse of the regulatory power of the state, but taken at its most fundamental, such actions are a legitimate exercise of the policing powers inherent in every social compact. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ often cited prohibition against crying “Fire” in a crowded theater is an example of the state asserting authority over the exercise of our First Amendment rights; and just as it is in the people’s and government’s interest to regulate explosives and hazardous materials, physicians and health care providers, pet and animal welfare, and restaurants and food vendors, state and local government licensure of shooters is well within the purview of that lawful exercise of regulatory authority.

By licensing the gunner instead of the gun, a more direct accountability can be established between the state and the individual, thereby requiring standards of competence and levels of certification that can be subject to periodic review and testing. An added advantage comes in requiring gunners of any level of competency to have insurance consistent with the same legal standard that requires a driver to have motor vehicle insurance. Again, there is no need to create an elaborate infrastructure, as it would be in the financial interests of insurance underwriters to offer policies for shooters that would include indemnification, risk management, and competency testing (i.e., mental health as well as weapons proficiency); and to avoid overlap and bureaucratization as noted earlier, state and local governments can make use of their existing agencies to manage the licensure process. Finally, and particularly for financially strapped governments, the taxes generated can be directed to mental health and violence reduction activities; or their general fund.

The upshot is that while there is a presumption, constitutionally derived, of an individual’s “natural right” to keep, carry, and use weapons in self-defense, it is not a right that comes without expressly stated costs. In short, for an individual to fail to exert prudent control over his or her firearms, the cost could range from insurance premium hikes to outright policy cancellation. An unlawful act by a licensed shooter could nullify the insurance policy and make the perpetrator subject to material and criminal damages, and failure to have insurance would be fundamental grounds to prohibit a gun sale. Further, an unlicensed person in possession of a firearm would be presumptively in violation of state or local law and subject to such fines and penalties as legislatures might impose. Finally, there will be an open policy consideration in whether a state or other jurisdiction can or will “grandfather” firearms owners or provide for incremental imposition of these proposed standards. Imperatively it is time to move the focus of the divisive gun rights/gun control debate off the center stage of national politics, and vest its solutions in the so-called “laboratory of the states.”

Such a process will not eliminate the role of the federal government to oversee regulation of fully automatic and/or exclusively military weapons and explosives, monitoring and enforcing laws against illegal trading in stolen firearms, and maintaining national registers of felons and others not permitted to own or possess guns.

This approach will not completely stop traffic in illegal firearms, nor will it absolutely keep firearms out of the hands of criminals or emotionally unstable individuals; but it will provide a matrix whereby law-abiding citizens are presumptively determined to be acting within the law in the exercise of their Second Amendment rights. An additional benefit can be realized by working through organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the National Governors Association (NGA), the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), et al, to develop model legislation that provides for the specifics of any given gun-owning state or community; and acts presumptively in favor of firearms owners who might otherwise be in violation of a federal law because they own a firearm or other item subject to national regulatory controls. By licensing and insuring the gunner, a singularly more powerful means of controlling and compelling lawful behavior can be accomplished at a level well below those federally-based laws that would have to be, in the main, confiscatory.

Predictably, more extreme gun owners will claim government overreach and intrusion into their Second Amendment and/or unstated rights of privacy. The immediate and most absurd comparisons will be made to Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin’s totalitarian gun laws, while conveniently overlooking that during the Vietnam War, virtually every person above a certain age in Communist North Vietnam was armed and instructed to shoot down American aircraft. Far more absurdly will be the argument that by making up lists of licensed shooters, the government will then easily be able to round up licensees. (In a nation of roughly 350 million people, a full third of the population are gun owners, and according to the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, the leading source of international public information about firearms, the United States has “the best armed civilian population in the world,” with an estimated 270 to 315 million total guns. That’s an average of 89 firearms for every 100 residents. Information courtesy of the Statistic Brain and the Gallup Poll, 2015; and The Blaze, and Cleveland State University, 2013.) The point, of course, is that the likelihood of any such “roundup” borders on the absurd.

Notwithstanding the absurdist attacks from extremists on the right and left of the American political spectrum, by indemnifying lawful gun owners at the closest appropriate level of governance, the effect will strengthen their fundamental rights while concurrently mandating standards of behavior, performance, and competency, and provide a significantly different means to attenuate the frequency and extremity of gun violence in the United States.

-/-

[1] Ed. Note: The table is not scientifically selected or weighted, save only to show relatively large incidents. NO state is missing from the data in the source cited.

When is Insurance for Dependents a Bad Idea?

In a recent social media discussion about the adoption of Alaska HB23, “Creating a fund in the Department of Public Safety; providing for payment of certain medical insurance premiums for surviving dependents of certain peace officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty; relating to contributions from permanent fund dividends to the peace officer and firefighter survivors’ fund; and providing for an effective date”, Andy Holman (past Anchorage Education Association President and presently Anchorage School Board Member) stated, “Way too long coming.” While I am typically a fan of Representative Andrew Josephson (the bill’s primary sponsor), this bill was and will continue to prove to be, a mistake.

The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s “Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries” tells us that there are as many job related teacher deaths as there are job related fire department deaths [OK, I will come clean about the appropriate consideration of the BLS data below]. Does that mean that Andrew will soon be fast-tracking a similar bill for teachers? Somehow I think not.

One can dramatize the situation as much as one wishes, but where there are as many occupational fatalities among teachers as among firefighters, the actuarial impact on their families is THE SAME. In fact, in many schools teachers DO walk towards the fire, as it were, but I don’t think we should be ensuring health care coverage because of the nature of the job someone is doing (even if we misperceive the dangers inherent in that job because we are emotionally involved), but because it is the right thing to do.

But we should back up a bit and ask first why this was necessary, or more importantly, whether there was some way to avoid the unforeseen consequences presented by the bill, while still providing health care for the families of deceased firefighters and cops. And that means answering the question, “Why is it that legislators supposed that firefighters could not provide for medical insurance premiums for an eligible surviving spouse or dependent child through an IRA, life insurance, or related instrument?” And if such options were available (and they were), instead of carving exceptions into state law, wouldn’t it have made more sense to transition state medical care to health trusts, and allow the health trust to provide such services until the covered parties are otherwise eligible?

All persons covered under this bill would already be entitled to COBRA  (which, at a cost no more than 105% of the existing premium, provides for continuation of coverage on the occurrence of a qualifying event, like death of the policyholder).  All employees through whom coverage would be realized through this bill are also provided or offered life insurance. The longest that COBRA (or alternative program) would have to be paid for would be 18 years, the time it would take an infant to reach majority (26 if we want to look at current insurance “standards” for parental coverage). A rational response to this situation might well be to provide adequate life insurance or similar instrument that would cover COBRA (technically COBRA today only runs 18 or 36 months) or alternative.  The cost for such insurance would be about $50/month. Yes, I said $50/mo.

The demonstration above gives rise to the possibility that some are seeking to “double-dip” based on milking an emotive response. How is it “double-dipping”? The covered employee class already negotiates for a salary and benefits based on their “heroic” status (walking towards the fire, as it is argued). Stripped bear of the chest beating, we are really talking about a way to avoid asking the employer for an additional $50/month, or more to the point, moving part of the employment cost away from the employer directly (but as we might expect, this will have an indirect effect on dollars available for other purposes, and the current situation, where the Senate Majority is unwilling to adequately fund education in the State, is just one example). So the fireman gets paid on the basis of his heroism, and then we also provide additional remuneration (off the books, as it were, on the same basis), while denying that benefit to every other public employee.

The fact of the matter is that whatever the reason for the loss of the employee’s life, it will result in the loss of medical benefits for their dependents, and that will present a family crisis to a family already in crisis. No responsible family member would leave his or her family in such a precarious position, so we really have to assume that all such persons are already implementing a solution such as described above. The issue, then, is not really providing the tools for coverage, but providing additional benefits to one occupation, not provided to another occupation on the basis of something other than risk of occupational fatality for that occupation. That, to be blunt, is an emotional response that carves exceptions with unforeseen consequences and promotes making non-data driven decisions.

An emotive response should have nothing to do with the need to make sure that the families of anyone who dies on the job retain their health insurance until otherwise covered. By emotive response I am referencing the perception that someone deserves something “extra” because of the perceived nature of the risk, despite whatever the stats might reveal about the actual risk, the actual risk being determine actuarially. As noted, public safety personnel negotiate compensation on the basis of the risk they experience (one of the reasons people argue about the fact that the job is less risky than people like you believe) – and we should not promote this “double dipping”  while the employee could provide for family coverage on the employee’s death.

But teachers? Look, if you want to reward public safety personnel for being “heroes”  that is fine (though remember, you are also doing that when they negotiate for pay), but I (and thousands of others) think that teachers are heroes too. If you really want to extend benefits based on heroism, your policy should be based on actual risk, and the actual risk is far from your perceptions of the risk.

When comparing US schools to Finnish, the difference, again and again, comes back to Disrespect that the population holds for teachers, and the ramification of that disrespect eventually “blossoms”. In addressing teacher victimization, the American Psychological Association states:

According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 2011-12 , approximately:

  • 20% of public school teachers reported being verbally abused.
  • 10% reported being physically threatened.
  • 5% reported being physically attacked in schools.

From 1997-2001 1.3 million nonfatal crimes (including 473,000 violent crimes) were committed against America’s teachers.

Yes,  the fatal injury rate is actually some 5 times greater for firefighters than for teachers (the rate for firefighters is 4 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) but the rate for firefighters is still a third of that for bus drivers! The point I am trying to make is that actuarially the fatal injury rate for firemen is actually lower than many other possible public employee sectors, so to single out a sector with a lower rate for extra benefits is emotional and not data driven, and as such would also arguably inappropriate public policy.  It would make more sense, I suppose, to use the occupational fatality rate as a multiplier to address public subsidy for COBRA or some such.

I think instead of this law, which is a mistake, the families should have clearly identified the cost of life insurance necessary for COBRA for 18 (or 26) years and negotiated for that. In the alternative, the legislature should have made the coverage available to everyone, which is to say, instead of me, me, we should be talking about us us 😉 And, of course, instead of trying to kill the health trusts functioning so well in this State, the State should be promoting the expansion and networking of such trusts. At that point we have coherent policy that meets the long range needs of Alaska residents. What we have now is a poor knee-jerk emotional response to what is really a non-problem, and legislation that really does need to be adopted as been sidelined instead.

 

MOC’d ACCOMODATIONS

In our post-abusive all-inclusive society, it appears that we may have neglected to address the needs of a specific demographic that is now crying out in need.  Yes, I am talking about the MOC’d, the Morbidly Obese Challenged. You see these people every day. They are the ones who have no trouble sitting in chairs, manage to walk through doors (even two at a time in some cases), and have clothes not covered with crumbs. Yes, you may have stopped your snickering, and you may have ceased talking about these people behind their backs, but do you really know how they suffer.

It is high time we had a frank discussion of some of the typical accommodations that are necessary to make the MOC’d feel part of the group, and to get the ball rolling I am going to talk about the three “ph”s: Food, Fat, and Physicality.

Go to any corporate training program anywhere in the country and you will find, of course, a table laden with the carbohydrates most of us need to stay bulked up (let’s face it, it’s not easy to keep yourself morbidly obese if you have to manage that without the help of biological assistance).  While we are accustomed to the constant movement of our compatriots back and forth to the table, and to the constant chomping, crunching, grinding and general snorfling that accompany this tide of bodies, the MOC’s are seriously disturbed by the sound and fury of our social mandate.  What to do? I really think this can be addressed through technology! Assistive devices can provide audio filtering, as well as narrow visual focus and directional cues for when the MOC person is tempted to look away from the presenter.

We all know, of course, that fat (we call it blubber in our marine cousins) provides an effective thermal barrier to environmental temperatures, and that we require constant cooling to address the insulating layers we proudly bear. Unfortunately, our MOC’d colleagues become agitated when asked to deal with a 5 knot breeze in the conference room, or with 55F temperatures.  Here again, I see no great challenge as the problem is quickly solved with a few extra articles of clothing, and as a side benefit, the parka offers lots of pockets! I almost wish I could wear one!

More problematic is that MOC’d persons take offense at the perceived intrusions into their “personal space” they claim by the rest of us. They get all purple in the face if our butts bump them, go pale if our boobs hit them, and start screaming if their materials are nudged on to the floor because they were not adequately anchored. Many would simply argue that the best thing to do is find the little snowflakes a “safe place” at the back of the class where they can stay. We know, however, that such arrangements are inappropriate – separate but equal is no longer the law! But I believe there IS a solution.  Some of you may have heard about Bubble Football!

That’s the key! All we need to do is provide the MOC with a bubble suit! In fact, we could laminate the bubble with solar panel material and use that to power the audio and video accommodations. Additional, the bubble would also likely alleviate the need for additional clothing, so it would become an all-in-one wholly self-contained accommodation.

Yes, this IS a Brave New World, and thankfully, we are really well equipped to deal with it.

MALTHUS AND TODAY

***This essay and others also found at The Intellectual Plane

“It is an acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment. Yet so much friction, and so many minute circumstances occur in practice, which it is next to impossible for the most enlarged and penetrating mind to foresee, that on few subjects can any theory be pronounced just, till all the arguments against it have been maturely weighed and clearly and consistently refuted.”
– Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

As with all great thinkers the work of the economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) has been the subject of both praise and criticism. Both in life and long after his death Malthus’s ideas on political economy have been dismissed by both free-market ideologues on the Right and partisans on the Left as either unrealistically pessimistic or even inordinately optimistic.

Much like the work of Adam Smith, Malthus’s ideas on political economy have either been vilified or celebrated. As with Smith, ideologues have cherry-picked his arguments for their own purposes. Malthus has been decried by ideological publications like the Economist magazine as a “false prophet”. With typical corporatist rhetoric the Economist often argues that technological improvements pertaining to the status quo of agriculture and manufacturing will offset the negative externalities caused by corporate capitalism, thus rendering Malthus wrong on all points.

Ironically left wing thinkers like Friedrich Engels shared a similar technocratic contempt for Malthus. Engels, who spent much of his life working in a Manchester cotton mill saw the beneficial possibilities of technology as labour saving devices when combined with socialist practice and argued for sharing the gains of technology across the wider society.

Yet the reality of technological advances over the past three hundred years is that said advances have been largely directionless or employed against the majority of society. Undirected technology has and continues to displace workers and impact the natural environment.

Worse, the gains of technology – in terms of labour saving and wealth creation- have been creamed off by individuals and corporations at the expense of human dignity and environmental destruction.

An honest appraisal of Malthus (or anyone for that matter), his works and his critics must occur by also considering both the context of his time and ours and and to do so in a holistic manner. Also the wider historical realities that occurred after Malthus’s death must be weighed against the abstract thinking employed by both his admirers and detractors.

But first a little about the man himself.

A PHILOSOPHICAL CLERIC

Thomas Malthus was born in 1766 in Surrey in southern England. He was a prize student at Cambridge University and was later ordained into the Church of England.

Malthus had a deep interest in human society and in population growth in particular. His 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population argued that the growth in human population was subject to resource limits. In times of plenty, human populations would expand until shortages of food and other resources limited that growth or in many cases reduced the population through starvation, disease or war. He declared that there were two categories of checks on population: positive checks which increased the death rate (hunger) among the population and preventative checks that decreased the birthrate (birth control, celibacy).

At the heart of Malthus’s argument was the belief that the use of positive checks on population would create socioeconomic volatility and misery for the population. He was a staunch critic of the Poor Laws, arguing that they promoted inflation and undermined the purchasing power of the poorest sections of the society.

Malthus was sceptical of the idea that agricultural improvements could expand production without reference to the physical limits of environment. In many cases history would prove him correct.

From a modern sociological perspective Malthus can be criticized for his belief that populations will expand only in times of plenty. In the case of some Third World societies where there is a dearth of social safety nets such as social welfare, pensions and affordable medical care, poor families will have more children in order to ensure more income earners and future care for elderly family members.

Yet Malthus must be viewed in a historical context and in a period of rapid industrialisation and cartel behaviour by English landowners. His was the era of the Corn Laws and the Enclosure Acts. Technological advances in agriculture and industry had forced thousands of agrarian labourers into urban areas and slum housing. He was right to be pessimistic – as we should be today.

A CENTURY OF FAMINE

“A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted. For few persons will leave their families, connections, friends, and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages in the place to which they are going.”
-Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

Malthus died in 1834 but just over ten years later, the commercialisation of agriculture and laissez-faire economic thought led to the single greatest catastrophe ever to befall modern Ireland. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland lost a quarter of its population due to famine and displacement. The response of the British government and business was largely indifferent. Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant most directly responsible for organising what limited relief efforts were provided by Westminster and Lord Fitzwilliam were among many in government who bastardized Malthus’s idea of positive checks on population control by suggesting that Ireland’s problems were the result of “surplus people.”

The uncompromising, abstract economic model employed in Ireland left the population vulnerable to the harsh realities of the world’s climate. Ireland experienced a series of warmer, wetter summers in the years leading up to and during the Famine. The conditions were ideal for a bloom in Potato blight that wiped out the principle staple crop for most of the population. Despite that, the warmer weather actually led to bumper crops of Irish grain and other foodstuffs, but since these were reserved for the export market, much of the population was left to starve. It is hard to imagine that Malthus, the moral churchmen who held only a lukewarm belief in free trade would have approved of the economic barbarism being meted out in Ireland. Small wonder then, that Engels upon realising the dangerous misuse of Malthus’s ideas would condemn Malthus himself

The British employed the same cruel, moralistic indifference in their other colonies. The Madras Famine of 1877 was responsible for the deaths of between five and ten million people, despite record exports of Indian grains to the world market. Like Trevelyan in Ireland the British Viceroy Lord Lytton and his subordinate Richard Temple held the opinion that relief efforts would lead to moral “dependency”, a view still held by many prominent conservative thinkers today when issues like food stamps and social welfare are considered.

The root causes of the 1877 Madras Famine were environmental and economic. The years 1876 to 1878 were El Nino years and the monsoons in India failed. The economic and moral causes of the Madras Famine were laissez-faire trade and racist indifference towards the Indian population.

There were other famines in the nineteenth century. The same El Nino cycle combined with inadequate maintenance of traditional irrigation systems and colonial “free” trade in Northern China was responsible for the deaths of twenty million Chinese.

Brazil also suffered appalling loss of life in the Sertão and over a hundred years later the region still suffers the ravages of the El Nino cycle.

The famines that tortured the Russian countryside throughout the 1880’s were also the result of climactic events aggravated by harsh Tsarist policies. The long term result of the famines in Russia was the 1905 Russian Revolution that led to an even more violent upheaval in 1917.

TECHNOLOGY AS A FALSE REMEDY

The modern corporatist economist and free-market ideologue still clings to the misguided notion that these events were aberrations and that today’s technology can prevent such tragedies.

Yet the application of agricultural and industrial technology not only exacerbated problems, but ensured environmental catastrophe.

The expansion of railways in India served two purposes. The first was military. The second was economic. Railways were the means for moving massive quantities of grain and other food-stuffs out of famine stricken areas in southern India.

The steam ship enabled the rapid exporting of these goods.

The spread of steam powered tractors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to deeper ploughing and the disruption of fragile soils in both the Russian black soils and the American Great Plains.

That the fossil record indicates that these regions are vulnerable to prolonged periods of drought was never considered by the farmers ploughing up the prairies in Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico – the epicentre of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

Instead in the United States, technology and an irrational, religious optimism pervaded the development of the Southern Plains. Quoting the Bible, many religious agriculturalists in places like the Oklahoma panhandle declared with no scientific basis, that where the plough went, the rains would follow.

When El Nino brought drought to the west of the 100th Meridian in the 1930’s the result was the most significant environmental disaster in the history of the United States. One hundred million acres of farmland was devastated as high winds carried top-soils from Kansas and other southern plains states into the atmosphere before dumping their contents onto neighbouring states and distant countries alike. Recent tests performed in the Himalayas found traces of plains dust on Mount Everest. In some areas up to seventy five percent of the top-soil was blown away.

The Southern Plains was hit by another Dust Bowl in the 1970’s that was an unfortunate side effect of geopolitics. During the Détente between the US and the former Soviet Union, the Carter Administration agreed to supply the Soviet Union with grain in exchange for security guarantees for Western Europe. The result was a boom in US wheat production and exports and the further degradation of the Southern Plains.

Today, technological advances in irrigation wells have been posited as solutions to future Dust Bowls. Yet these wells are reliant on ever decreasing quantities of aquifer, which in turn are dependent on rain for replenishment. Droughts on the Southern Plains can last for decades.

THE RELEVANCE OF MALTHUS TODAY

Therefore from a historical context, Malthus was in many ways correct to be pessimistic about the ability of the human population to grow exponentially without limit or environmental intervention.

While critics of Malthus may deride him for suggesting that 19th century Britain would be unable to feed itself a more cynical analyst might point out that Britain’s population growth and food supply in the same period was secured by the deaths of millions in Ireland, India and China.

Similarly the remarkable growth of the United States was predicated on the environmental degradation and destruction of the centre of the North American continent.

A further lesson, identified by Malthus and proved by historic events is the failure of technology alone to ameliorate the condition of society or to safeguard it from food scarcity.

Despite the proliferation of tractors, combines, improved irrigation and ploughing techniques, the underlying soils are vulnerable and require increasing amounts of oil-based fertilizers to produce the food we need.

Neither soil conditions nor crude oil are infinite resources, nor is the amount of available arable land. In fact in parts of the Middle East water shortages have led to a decrease in the amount of arable land available for agricultural production. Rising food prices were a catalyst for the Syrian Civil War that began in 2014 and continues at the time of writing.

Rather than accept that humans are limited by physical reality, the Trump Administration has, in recent days opted to deny reality by choosing to leave the Paris Accords. Like George W Bush with the Kyoto Protocol, Trump and his cabinet of reactionaries are unwilling to accept or adhere to a fundamental humane principle of Malthus:

“I believe that it is the intention of the Creator that the earth should be replenished; but certainly with a healthy, virtuous and happy population, not an unhealthy, vicious and miserable one.”
– Thomas Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population

Sensible people today would do well not just to comprehend and challenge Malthus, but also to question the assumptions of our technocracy and the irrational optimism that it peddles. Furthermore instead of operating under the assumption that infinite economic and population growth without reference to physical limits is either possible or desirable, we might choose a more sensible socioeconomic order based on reasonable, compassionate stability.

The fate of our population, indeed of our planet depends on it.

Select Bibliography:

Thomas Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

One of the most biased articles in mainstream publication against Malthus in recent years can be found in The Economist – “Malthus, the false prophet” May 17th 2008

On Friedrich Engel’s criticism of Malthus see Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” (1844)

On the Irish Famine and Lord Fitzwilliam see Surplus People: From Wicklow to Canada by Jim Rees (2014) and This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52 by Christine Kineally (1994)

On 19th century famines in India, Brazil and China see Mike Davis Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2002)

On the Dust Bowl see Donald Worster Dust Bowl : the southern plains in the 1930s (2004)

US/Soviet relations, detente and the Carter Administrations agreement to sell wheat to the the Soviet Union are described ibid and in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy (1988) and Richards Rhodes Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007)

On the Russian Revolution and the impact of the populists in addressing the famines in the 1880’s see Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924(1997)

John Henry Will Not Save Me

The premise I found most disturbing in reading Whitehead’s “John Henry Days” was the List, the super-secret roll of press junketeers who are called on to crank out media fill.  It still haunts me. And every time I read some crap by some little wet behind the ears twit I have to take a moment and breathe, and ponder how that kid came to that juncture in their life. I want to find fault, lots and lots of fault, in someone, anyone, for filling our bitstreams with arrant juvenile nonsense, but the entire enterprise sometimes appears as Kabuki, a media dance, richly stylized, engaged in for the purpose of exploring the cultural themes on which the dance is constructed. If only.
 
Perhaps we should not blame those who are giving the kids a chance, nor chastise them for leaving it to their consumers to differentiate content (which we consumers so often are wholly unable to do, which doesn’t not offer much in the way of counter-pressure, does it?) Maybe I am just suffering, as so many antique cranks do, from a surfeit of papers graded – I suppose it is possible that when you wield a red pen, all the world looks like a hackneyed essay.
 
And why blame the kids, when we have “senior correspondents” and “seasoned experts” who are incorrigible in their myopic provincialism, grotesque in their wild posturing, and intemperate in their broken prose.

Work: Serious and Absurd

**Below is the first in a two part series of essays about work and life. The second installment, much less serious and NSFW (not safe for work),  is also available on this site.

Such is the screwed up nature of our society that most of us spend more time with people we work with than then we do with our loved ones and friends. Sadly the nature of modern employment is that much of what we do, be it at the office, the store, or on the road is largely pointless.

As the anthropologist David Graeber correctly points out, most of us are employed in “bullshit jobs.” There are many reasons for this, but the two principle causes are technological determinism and the moral and political failure of governments and societies to sensibly integrate and offset gains and losses caused by technological advances for the well-being of society.

Japan is one of the few countries to have attempted a balanced approach to technological changes. Prior to their amalgamation in 2001 into the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, state agencies such as the Industrial Science and Technology Policy and Environment Bureau were influential in seeking sensible solutions to problems caused by technology. The ISTP worked in concert with many private and public agencies to identify prevailing economic trends and developments in manufacturing and science. With this knowledge the Japanese gradually wound down industries that were becoming obsolete and provided retraining to displaced workers in order that they could find jobs in new areas of employment.

Consequently, many socioeconomic problems caused by technology were mitigated against or ameliorated. Combined with extensive funding for research and development, Japan’s cohesive approach to science enabled the Japanese to overtake most world powers in the economic sphere during the post-World War II period.

Critics will argue that Japanese socioeconomic policies aren’t without their faults and in many cases they are correct. However, it can also be pointed out to those same critics that most western societies in the same period endured considerably more social unrest, higher unemployment and slower economic growth. This occurred because western societies allowed technological advances to be implemented without consideration for wider consequences.

Worse, these sweeping technological changes have been brutally aggravated by political attitudes. A historic case in point is the Thatcher government’s treatment of coal workers during the 1980’s. In fact since the 1970’s concerning technology and economic changes, most western governments have out of lazy ideological convictions outsourced these problems to the marketplace with disastrous consequences. The free-market reforms implemented by the IMF and World Bank in the former Soviet Eastern Bloc resulted in enormous hardship to those populations.

Richard Nixon’s destruction of the Bretton Woods Agreement contributed to massive world-wide inflation. The collapse of the US/Canada Auto Pact – the bedrock of Canada’s postwar industrial growth – and its replacement by NAFTA has led to high unemployment, inferior and costly telecommunications, reduced public transport and an increase in illegal drug imports across North America. Many Mexican farmers, forced to compete with subsidized US counterparts have turned from corn production to the cultivation of cash crops like marijuana, heroin and cocaine.

Protest groups such as Occupy Wall Street and far right populist movements are as much a response to political problems as to socioeconomic changes caused by technology. Writing in 1995, the philosopher Jeremy Rifkin accurately predicted the rise of such protest movements in his book The End of Work.

There isn’t a blanket solution to these problems but sensible points made by Rifkin and John Maynard Keynes are worth discussing. To start Keynes predicted that technology would reduce the work-week to fifteen hours by the beginning of the 21st century and as David Graeber correctly notes Keynes was right.

Rifkin suggests that a twenty hour work week where employees are paid for forty hours would sensibly reduce unemployment, stimulate demand for consumer goods, increase workplace productivity, reduce poverty and unburden overstretched health care systems. The result would be a happier, more socially engaged citizenry and a wealthier society.

Something