26 May 2011

Vonnegut Graphs Fiction

from Robert Krulwich on NPR.

23 May 2011

More Funny Math

I'll skip the humorous tut-tutting Professor Krugman does in this post about another person's lack of civility. I'll disregard his almost pathological need to misrepresent facts and insult the intelligence and good faith of those not smart enough to agree with him. Par for the course.

I'll focus on one tidbit, Krugman writing: "He repeats the idea that nobody collected benefits in the beginning because life expectancy at birth was only 63 (life expectancy at age 65, which is what matters, was almost 80 for women and 78 for men)." emphasis added.

Retirement was set at 65 when Social Security was started because you were expected to die by then. Yes, it was well known that if you lived to 65, which you weren't expected to do, then the actuaries did account for the fact that you would live a few years longer. Good genes, non-risky behavior, diet and, again, good genes all played a roll in deciding how long after 65 you would live had you made it. But, and here's a very important point that Professor Super Genius* not only knows but purposely and maliciously misrepresents, you were not expected to live to see the age of 65. A majority of people would live (to 63), working usually 2/3 of that time and having a percentage of their wages taken from them and given to those lucky enough to keep going past the median mortality rate. This number has gone up significantly over the decades since it was instituted while we have only nibbled around the "retirement" age.

Why? Because it is politically risky to mess with a program where you take a little bit of money from a whole lot of people (via the payroll tax) and give it to others, but under the guise of the federal government "saving" it for you. An idea that was known all to well by the man we have to thank for this poorly run Ponzi scheme, Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

"I guess you’re right on the economics, but those taxes were never a problem of economics. They were politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program."**

Krugman knows he is full of blarney (trying to keep it clean). And FDR knew he was creating a system that would be impossible, politically, to fix. It was established to create a political class of citizens who would then be beholden to and dependent upon, the federal government. The workers will feel trapped into continued support because of the money already taken from them and "invested" into the system.


**Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, vol. 2, The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), p. 308-309

New Flash...

Teachers Unions work for the benefit of the teachers and not the children. No kidding.

06 May 2011

More on Teaching

An old friend posted a link to this article published by the New York Times. I take exception to some of the arguments made by the authors, specifically that simply paying teachers more would increase performance. A similar idea was floated by the mayor of Newark, NJ last fall, (link and comments here).

Wages are set by the market, and they are already distorted by the teachers' unions. Arbitrarily and artificially inflating wages would no more lead to better results in the classroom than increased wages for soldiers would have won Vietnam (to use the authors' analogy to the military).
The 20% of teachers who leave urban school districts (no source for the data is provided) are replaced by others willing and able to do the job at the wage provided.
The authors cite the old trope of equivalency between other jobs for which "degrees are required." Since when and why are bachelor's degrees required to teach elementary education? When was a primary or secondary teaching job ever considered a sole breadwinner job?
They also conflate aggregates and apply them to specifics (The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.) First, which salary prices the teacher out of home ownership, the beginning or the final? Teachers in small, rural communities, of which this country has thousands, probably don't make enough to purchase an average home in LA or New York City where the supply of housing is limited. But then, most of the people who also live and work in those communities probably can't afford to buy a home in those 32 metropolitan areas (again, this is tough to tell though, because the authors don't cite a source for the data).
Further, I can only say that in my school district (not affluent) teachers with more than 25 years make more than $100k. This doesn't include the fact that, yes, they do get summers off and have a pension that is nonexistent in the private working world, guaranteed by current and future taxpayers. They also went on strike a few years ago because the district wanted them to contribute 7% to their healthcare costs, up from 2%. This, according to the union and therefore the teachers that refused to work, amounted to an unacceptable "wage cut" because the automatic wage increases in the proposed contract wouldn't be a bottom line increase in wages.
Oh, and they are about to go on strike again.
I am not "anti-teacher." There is an obvious advantage to having personnel around who have experience and wisdom and who know how to do a specific job better than someone with identical training and desire but no experience. There is also the added benefit of the mentoring that takes place. But there is also a limit on that cost, and the wage structure in many school districts exceeds that cost.
To go back to the authors contention that we don't blame the soldiers for failure during war, I would agree. We blame the government. Schools are not performing well. Performance has declined (in aggregate) while costs have increased at a pace far ahead of inflation. So, let's blame the government for getting involved in education. I know a lot of public school teachers, and they all argue that tenure (dismissed as "worthy of debate" in the piece) is necessary because of the political, and thus capricious, nature of school boards. This also is an argument for eliminating government as the provider for this particular service.
Let's allow parents to decide where to send their children. Allow them to decide where they feel they would get the best return on their investment. This would allow for many more schools. Allowing more people who want to teach to do so. Teaching is a noble profession; this would lead to more people teaching. This is good, no? It would also lead to reduced costs for taxpayers.
Teachers' unions are against this because they know that even if teachers decide to unionize at a private institution, they will not be able to get the wages and benefits they can from a purely public-run institution because, by necessity, privately held firms are budgeted and run more efficiently. Or they disappear. This doesn't mean public school have to disappear, but the unions don't want the option of sending a child to another school because they know which option most parents would take.
Competition and choice will improve the American education system. Merely throwing more money at the problem will not fix it. The logic employed by the authors is fatally flawed.