Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Poorly Chosen Example?

After taking on the subject of "what women want", and suggesting that it isn't success at the highest levels of business and industry, John Tierney is now attempting to buttress his thesis with the results of Scrabble tournaments.
For a quarter-century, women have outnumbered men at Scrabble clubs and tournaments in America, but a woman has won the national championship only once, and all the world champions have been men. Among the world's 50 top-ranked players, typically about 45 are men.
And my guess is that pretty much any of the women Tierney just referenced could beat him in at least four games out of five... which might have been an interesting subject for his column, but instead we get something else entirely.
The top players, both male and female, point to a simple explanation for the disparity: more men are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the top. You need more than intelligence and a good vocabulary to become champion. You have to spend hours a day learning words like "khat," doing computerized drills and memorizing long lists of letter combinations, called alphagrams, that can form high-scoring seven-letter words.

Suppose you draw the letters AELNRST. A mid-level player could shuffle the tiles for a while and find one or two seven-letter words. If the T in that rack were a U instead, the player might spend a couple of minutes fruitlessly looking for an anagram of AELNRSU.
Tierney suggests that women are inclined to chase after the genes of victorious men with the means to support children. "And when women pursued what's called a short-term reproductive strategy - a quick fling - then presumably evolution favored the woman who was attracted to a man with good genes, as manifest either in his looks or in some display of prowess." He then suggests that guys at the bottom often end up alone, giving them an incentive to complete, and attempts to close the circle: "It has been noted at Scrabble tournaments that some of the best players are single guys with wide-open social calendars."

Perhaps Mr. Tierney should consult with some of the male leaders of government, business, and industry, to see how many of them can compete at the highest levels of Scrabble, which of them read dictionaries to relax, which of them memorize lists of anagrams for fun... And perhaps he should consider why people with those traits are more inclined to have wide-open social calendars despite their tournament success. Giving Tierney's claim of "Scrabble groupies" (who presumably lust after tournament winners) its due, he may also wish to inquire how many of the leaders he interviews (the guys he describes as "the few rich winners [who] have gotten more than their share of wives (through polygamy or a series of trophy wives)") have Scrabble groupie wives.

If Mr. Tierney doesn't recognize the difference between the competitive behaviors which lead to wealth, power, and a succession of trophy wives, and those which lead to remarkable success at Scrabble with an empty social calendar, he doesn't know enough to be writing about this subject. (I don't mean to neglect the occasional socially inept CEO who is obsessed with words or numbers, or to diminish the possibility of a Rudolph Valentinos of the Scrabble set - I'm speaking in generalities, which I believe hold.) As Tierney himself suggests in his terminal sentence, the traits and interests which put you at the pinnacle of Scrabble play aren't those which are likely to make you a prime candidate as a CEO.

Salon des Refusés

For lovers of Jackson Pollack... genuine, not genuine, or does it matter?

Another possibility that the author perhaps overlooked... Maybe somebody was painting a gallery, and the tarps were accidentally boxed as art. Not that I want to diminish Pollack's "drip" period.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Chris Tucker In Court

Reading about Chris Tucker's demeanor on the witness stand,
Mr Tucker's demeanour was calm and serious, in stark contrast to his outrageous character in the Rush Hour films, in which he co-stars with Jackie Chan
I thought Tucker's character in the Rush Hour fillms was his calm, serious demeanor. Perhaps the author of that article, though, hasn't seen The Fifth Element.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


In the past few years in the U.K., an increasing number of people are being subjected to "Anti-Social Behavior Orders", or Asbos. These are similar in some respects to personal protection orders (PPO) or restraining orders in the U.S., but the threshold for obtaining such an order is much lower. Most notably, it seems that the largest criterion for obtaining an Asbo is that somebody be offended by the target's conduct. Although an Asbo (like a PPO) is a civil order, the violation of an ASBO can result in a custodial sentence (similar to a contempt sentence that might result from violating an PPO). But given the lower threshold for issuance, there have been some peculiar results.

A couple of days ago, The Observer described how "Children with autism and other serious psychological conditions are being targetted by the government's controversial anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), according to mental health charities and professionals." The examples they give include:
  • "In one case in the South West, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome, an autistic disorder, was given an Asbo which stated he was not to stare over his neighbours' fence into their garden."
  • "In one example discovered by BIBIC, an Asbo was given to a 15-year-old with Tourette syndrome, which can involve an inability to stop shouting out profanities. The order banned the teenager from swearing in public, something made impossible by the gravity of his disorder."
  • "In one case in the Midlands, the authorities applied for an Asbo against a 12-year-old girl with Asperger's who had been swearing in the street. It later emerged that she had heard her parents arguing with neighbours and had simply mimicked them."
I'm certainly no defender of public anti-social behavior, but c'mon. Whatever I may think of the neighbors who petition for Asbos under such circumstances, perhaps the larger question is what's wrong with the judges who apparently hand these things out like candy.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Practicing What You Preach

Here's James Watt, telling people not to make sweeping generalizations about the religious right, falsely attribute radical beliefs to people associated with the religious right, and not to divide people of faith. But in his editorial, Lies of the Religious Left, he seems to adopt the very tack he pretends to condemn.

Mike at Crime & Federalism

Not really a suprise, but I'm sure one heck of a relief - the verdict is in and Mike passed the bar. Congratulations!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Buying a House

The Washington Post today addresses some efforts by traditional real estate companies to impede competition from their electronic competitors. But I think they're missing the forest for the trees. We make the buying and selling of real estate excessively complicated, with a flurry of required documents, deeds, and associated title searches. Yet there is no reason why a real estate deed, and its transfer, needs to be significantly more complicated than that for an automobile. The success of the real estate industry in preventing a more efficient system for titling and transferring real estate significantly raises the cost of every home transaction. Yes, Internet competition can help lower those costs, but perhaps it is also time to explore modern alternatives to the archaic system of land title used in every state but Iowa.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Justice in Rural America

Okay, so perhaps that was too obvious... but I do think that the story of Della Mae Justice is worth reading.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Bet You Didn't See This Coming....

According to Ian Black in the London Guardian:
Ariel Sharon's decision to put off Israel's "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip is just the latest worrying sign that the path to peace with the Palestinians is going to be a lot bumpier than expected.
I'm shocked - after all, there is nothing in the history of the region or the peace process which would have suggested even the slightest possibility of bumps in the road....

Granted, he did say "bumpier than expected", but given the history of the region did he really expect something less bumpy than one of Cambodia's "dancing roads"?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Law Blogs

Just thought I should mention.... The law-related blogs I've been enjoying most lately are:Visit them for many fascinating posts by Evan, Mike, and Norm.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Valid Observation from David Brooks

David Brooks notes,
Poorer Republicans support government programs that offer security, so long as they don't undermine the work ethic. Eighty percent believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. Only 19 percent of affluent Republicans believe that.
I think that the political left should take note of that observation which, although not entirely true, does hold true for a significant block of potential swing voters. A Democratic strategy to make the "Horatio Alger" story at least slightly less a myth, while focusing social assistance efforts on programs which help people rise out of poverty, may well win over some swing voters. But as long as the working poor see welfare benefits as primarily benefiting the indolent poor, and run into perplexing situations where it appears that they would be "better off" by not getting married - because their combined household income disqualifies them for social assistance programs that would be available were they single - that particular block of Republican-leaning voters will likely remain allied with the Republican Party. Even if you don't agree with the perception, it should be understandable why the working poor resent seeing their incomes taxed such that others can receive health care, food and housing subsidies.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Falling Behind....

According to Thomas Friedman, the U.S. is at risk of falling behind the rest of the world. (Perhaps you don't see that as a new argument, but with books to push, it's pretty much the focus on everything Mr. Friedman presently says or does.) Friedman states,
I helped teach a course at Harvard last semester on globalization, and one day a student told me this story: He was part of a student-run collaboration between students in the U.S. and China. The American and Chinese students had recently started working together by using Skype, the popular, freely downloadable, software that enables you to make free phone calls over the Internet to other Skype users. But what was most interesting, the student told me, was that it was the Chinese students who introduced their U.S. counterparts to Skype. And, he noted, these Chinese students were not from major cities, like Beijing, but from smaller towns.
Now granted, Skype is not a U.S. company, but it is a European company. Perhaps this didn't occur to Mr. Friedman: U.S. students typically have "land lines" at their places of residence, and may (perhaps by now most) have cellular phones with them most of the time. They have little need to find and use a free Internet phone service. Contrast this with rural China, and perhaps there's a different explanation for the Chinese students' reliance upon Skype than Friedman's implicit suggestion that they're more tech-savvy.
"Students are getting A's and B's, but without studying much," Martha McCarthy, the Indiana University professor who headed the study, told me. "Our fear," she added, "is that when you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need," in part because "the colleges are not getting students with the skills they need." Ms. McCarthy said one of the main reasons Indiana did this study is to better inform high school educators what is going on in their own schools so they can find remedies. All of these shortcomings developed over time, Ms. McCarthy said, but "we as a nation became complacent about them."
I can recall similar stories about the wonders of the Japanese educational system, from back when I was a kid. Arguments to the effect that Western education is too soft; that Asian students come to eclipse us in math and science by the end of high school. There was some truth to it then, and there's some truth to it now. But when we make No Child Left Behind the mantra of our national drive toward academic mediocrity, we consistently ignore, underfund, and underutilize initiatives that might let the best students get ahead.

Friedman concludes,
America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal. We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves.

And we think we don't need to get focused and play together like a team, with Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Well, on the basketball court - and in a flat world, where everyone now has access to all the same coaching techniques, training methods and scouting reports - a more focused, motivated team always beats a collection of more talented but complacent individuals.
Perhaps Mr. Friedman should take note of the fact that teams typically pick their players. And sure, the "turtle and the hare" story can apply to a motivatived team in competition with a more talented, complacent team. But the best team will be both skilled and motivated. Sure, it's fun to pretend that everybody has equal capacity, and if we motivate the mediocre they can beat the best, but that is not what is happening in Friedman's "flat" world. Nations like China have a long history of plucking promising child athletes out of their homes and raising them in an environment that maximizes their athletic prowess. Nations like China are applying similar principles (albeit in a less aggressive form) to identifying and advancing their brightest students, no matter where they live. Can a variant of that happen here?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Another Carefully Chosen Name

After all, if you are "The Smart Attorneys", what is more persuasive than declaring it in a banner?

Changes in Terminology

In my school days, if "SOL Man" came to school to help the teachers, that would have presumably been as a cautionary tale to help us avoid vagrancy. And the teachers would probably have picked a name for him other than "SOL Man", and probably would not have had us create "SOL" hats in art class. How times have changed - now SOL Man shows up "in superhero garb that included a red cape and a lightning bolt across his chest."
As the students left the rally, the teachers and SOL man led them in a final cheer: "SOLs, who's going to pass? Every single student in every single class!"
The reference is to the carefully chosen acronym for Virginia's "Standards of Learning" test.... It is good to hear that teachers are explaining to students that even if they do poorly on the SOL's they won't be SOL, er, I mean, held back.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Horrific Case

I am going to be more than a bit judgmental here. Two little girls, brutally murdered by a pscyhopath (who just happens to be the "father" to one of them), with this background:
Just last month, [the father] was released from a Texas prison after serving time for an assault in 2001. He had argued with Laura's mother, Sheila Hollabaugh, then grabbed a chain saw and chased neighbors until someone hit him in the back with a shovel, according to Rick Mahler, assistant district attorney for Wichita County, Texas. No one was injured.
I do not mean to belittle the psychological impact of domestic violence, but here we have a four year period during which psycho dad was in prison, during which the family apparently relocated from Texas to Illinois. And she took him back?

This guy reminds me of a somewhat less psychotic defendant I once represented on a parole violation hearing. He was charged with aggravated assault for chasing after sone neighborhood girls with a baseball bat, after they dared to pound on his door in response to his wife's cries for help. (She had locked herself in the bathroom to escape his drunken rampage, and she called for help through the window as he was in the process of breakind down the door in a manner probably not far removed from that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) The wife promised him repeatedly during the court hearings that she would not divorce him - but served him with divorce papers the day after he was sentenced to prison. She was scared to death of him, but realized that she had to take advantage of his prison time to protect herself and her child from a future that included him.

Prior Acts Evidence

I am loathe to discuss the Michael Jackson trial, for any number of reasons, but I think today's testimony merits mention:
[Actor Macaulay Culkin] said prosecutors never approached him about whether he had been molested and he only learned of the allegations that he had been molested by watching news coverage of the trial.

"Somebody told me you should probably check out CNN because they're saying something about you," Culkin said. "I just couldn't believe it. … It was amazing to me that nobody even approached me and asked if these allegations were true."
Now, if you are from the Susan Estrich school of criminal law, you believe that Jackson has probably paid off a dozen or so parents over the years, and that evidence of past acts is "key to justice":
In retrospect, it may well turn out that the key decision in this case was the ruling on prior similar acts. Had this evidence been excluded, the boy and his family would have stood on their own, with all the inconsistencies and mixed motivations in their testimony. What the other accounts accomplish is to shift the focus of the case back to the man who is at the center of each of them, and what he did wrong, and not what his alleged victim in this case did. The testimony this week may have been old, but it was also ugly. This is no longer a case about childish play - the testimony this week spoke to shame, manipulation, humiliation.

One boy may be mistaken, foolish, confused, undercut on cross examination, bragging to his friends, reduced to tears by a smart lawyer, lying to his principal, angry, greedy, vengeful - but not a not a steady stream over the decade.
But here's the catch - if a prosecutor introduces "evidence" of past acts, and that evidence turns out to be as hazy and contradictory as the accusations in the present case, the prosecutor may well undermine both the credibility of its own witnesses and of its entire case. If in fact this prosecutor was so eager to get claims of past acts into evidence, that he didn't even bother to investigate those claims or to ask the identified victim if the claims were true.... Assuming Jackson is guilty, as with the O.J. Simpson case, as easy as it is to blame everybody else for a dubious acquittal, the actual cause of acquittal will be the incompetent tactics of the prosecution team.

One more thing, without wanting to sound too judgmental: I am uncomfortable with the fact that a parent would negotiate a settlement over the sexual abuse of their own child, whatever the amount, which would preclude criminal charges against the abuser. And that's before delving into the possibility that some parents might intentionally insinuate their children into the life of somebody like Jackson in order to obtain a settlement for abuse, real or imagined.

Wouldn't This Be Fair?

As United is excused from paying its pensions, and taxpayers are asked to effectively provide that company with a $5 billion subsidy, perhaps there should be a corporate bankruptcy reform analogous to that imposed on individuals.

Nothing too arduous - simply examine whether the corporation's executives make more than 25% of the state's median income, and whether the company can reasonably repay more than 25% of its otherwise dischargeable debts. And, if the answer to both questions is yes, forbid discharge. Oh yes - and the corporation's executives should be required to attend credit management classes at their own expense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

IQ's Rising Because Of....

Through an interesting book review in the New Yorker, I was introduced to "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" - a book which suggests that we get smarter (or, at least, get higher IQ's) by watching more television and playing more video games. Now, I will admit that I have not read the book, but I question some of its arguments as set forth in the review.

First, the review alludes to James Flynn, who reviewed historic IQ data and determined that, within the industrialized world, IQ has risen over time.
Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q. placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920 would today fall in the bottom third.
An important aspect of Flynn's findings was not mentioned - the increase was not in the learning-based aspects of IQ testing, such as vocabulary, math skills, or general knowledge, but was instead in the abstract problem solving or "lateral thinking" portion of the test. This is important in the context of the book review, as it helps explain why the author is proposing that various aspects of "pop culture" which test our problem-solving skills may be responsible for the IQ boost - what the author describes as cognitively demanding leisure. Granted, the review later states, "If Johnson’s book has a flaw, it is that he sometimes speaks of our culture being “smarter” when he’s really referring just to that fluid problem-solving facility." I just believe that the true nature of Flynn's findings should have been discussed explicitly, even if not up-front.

My trouble starts with the examples provided in the review. For example,
A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot.
The review continues by noting how many modern television shows require more "filling in" by the viewer to get a full understanding of the story. But, while I grant that TV shows of the 1970's were often tedious, for the "TV is getting harder" argument to work shouldn't it be the case that the TV programming of that era, or of the decades that preceded it, should have been "harder" than radio drama? In my opinion, producers of television used the visual aspects of the medium to shortcut the type of plot and character developments that were often found in radio drama, and a lot more "filling in" is required when you are listening to a drama and have to create the dramatized world in your head instead of watching it on a screen.

The "TV is hard" argument is the opposite to that advanced in an editorial I read a week or two ago, the source unfortunately forgotten, where the author proposed that today's "smart" television is an illusion - that we feel good about ourselves for getting the jokes on a show like Frasier, but that all the hard work was done by the show's authors and we are simply passive recipients. I tend to think the truth lies somewhere between the two positions - I do think that there are television shows which, by virtue of their plots and scripts, challenge the mind. However, for the most part, those same show can be watched passively, and not just by the intellectually incurious, but also by smart people who aren't challenged by the humor (even if they believe they appreciate it more than other viewers). In my opinion, there can be a lot more challenge in a single panel of "The Far Side" than in an entire episode of Seinfeld. It's not always the case, but it can be the case.

Also, as the author suggests that more complex television and more complex and involved video games may be responsible for the rise in IQ, it should be noted that the rise commenced prior to the modern generation of video games and TV shows. Which is not to say that I don't believe that there are video games which can help kids develop their minds - even back in the 1970's, there were simple computer games which required application of problem-solving skills and, despite a simplicity or paucity of graphics, by the 1980's many such games were available, and some were quite sophisticated. The catch is perhaps revealed with the statement, "Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition." - well, no. But perhaps a majority of video game players of that era chose games like Tetris or Pac-Man over Infocom's text-based adventure games, NetHack, or Wizardry. And there is no guarantee that today's video game players are consistently choosing the more intellectually challenging games over "point and shoot" - while the sophistication of "point and shoot" games has increased, they still rely heavily on motor coordination and pattern recognition. Go figure. Meanwhile, a computer game-addicted friend of mine insists that most current strategy games are less challenging than some that he used to play on his Intellivision.

The book review quotes a few paragraphs where the author jokes, "but only in part", on the subject of books, which are described as understimulating, isolating, and linear, inspiring passivity - "books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children"; "You can’t control their narratives in any fashion - you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you." Well, it is certainly true that your senses are stimulated across a broader spectrum by watching a TV show or playing a modern video game, than from reading a book. But a book is no more passive than your first viewing of that TV show or first playing of the video game, when you passively experience what happens.

Even within the context of a sophisticated video game where you ultimately learn to control your environment and experience multiple "story lines", there's a lot more pattern and predictability than the author prefers to suggest. Players get comfortable with their "favorite character", master that character's special skills, and confront the puzzles and problems in a methodological fashion. (The author suggests that a video game which creates a simulated world represents "delayed gratification" - in fact, each time you do better than during your previous attempt, you get gratification.)

The book review also notes that, whatever progress we have been making in our entertainment culture, all is not equal:
When it comes to the other kind of intelligence [beyond fluid problem-solving facility], it is not clear at all what kind of progress we are making, as anyone who has read, say, the Gettysburg Address alongside any Presidential speech from the past twenty years can attest. The real question is what the right balance of these two forms of intelligence might look like.
And this is where I think it is important to note that, while many of my highly intelligent peers loved a challenging video game, sophisticated live role playing games, good television, theater, and film, there is also some truth to that stereotype of "the nerd with his nose stuck in a book". Most of the really smart people I know devoured books when they were kids. And whatever I am to make of an overall growth in problem-solving skills, or the increase in the challenge of certain aspects of our society, there are some very important areas of our culture which have been dumbed down to the point where you would think people would feel offended by the dripping condescension. (Perhaps particularly in the manner in which we are treated by our elected officials, or by the media.)

The book review closes with a subject I have previously discussed - mandatory homework policies - and the reviewer seems to share my low opinion of such policies. There, I think the review is completely correct - assigning pointless homework to be completed during time children would otherwise spend doing something else (or even "goofing off") may well be counter-productive to their development.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Catering to Special Interests

Although this piece in Slate is peripheral to my recent post on evidence-based public policy, it does provide some good examples of how both sides of the political fence tend to eschew evidence when advancing "public policy" based upon their ideology:
Instead of the Children's Defense Fund pushing to fully fund Head Start, we now have church-affiliated social service agencies lobbying to have faith-based drug treatment funded by HHS. Instead of Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts promoting a hate-crimes bill endorsed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, it's Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado introducing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on behalf of James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Instead of the Environmental Protection Agency proposing higher air-quality standards, it's the Federal Communications Commission levying fines and threatening broadcast licenses on the basis of profanity and indecency.
Now, I'm not arguing that one cannot find a basis in science or evidence for any agenda that happens to correspond to a political ideology - I am simply observing that any such basis is sometimes present only by coincidence, and is often completely absent from the policies being advanced.

The Slate piece suggests that catering to left-wing interest groups handicapped the Democrats in recent elections, but that catering to the religious right may not carry a similar consequence for the Republicans. I largely agree, but not for the reasons advanced by the Slate piece.

A number of years ago, the Republicans learned that if they did not give the religious right the care and feeding they believe they deserve, religious right voters would stay home or vote for a third party candidate such as Pat Buchanan. The Republicans have since carefully cultivated policies which they depict as neutral or centrist, but which are actually very friendly to the religious right. President Bush has proved very adept at catering to the religious right, whether through action or inaction, while paying no political penalty. For example, when he stands behind a John Cornyn, Bill Frist or General Boykin, it is depicted not as catering to the religious right but as "loyalty". If he took a public stance against them, the religious right would protest. But he can successfully support them, and immplicitly support the statements or actions they take on behalf of the religous right, while paying no political price.

The Democrats have no similar ability to cater to the political far-left while pretending that they are neutral. A Democratic President or presidential hopeful has to distance himself from any policy deemed "soft on crime", "detrimental to the national defense", "pro-welfare", or "anti-religion", often even when the accusation is unfounded, because the political center is skeptical of the public policy advanced by the political left, and because there are many religious moderates in this nation who perceive hostility toward religion from segments of the political left. And those people are the "swing voters" a Democrat requires in order to win an election.

But it's worse than that. The Republicans know that if the religious right feels comfortable with their Presidential candidate, they get the vote of the religious right, and in some states that can amount to 20% or more of the vote. The Democrats know that if the political far-left feels comfortable with their Presidential candidate, they will not only lose a significant segment of the swing vote, in many states those on the far left still won't bother to show up to vote - they lose at both ends.

In Britain, the Labour Party reinvented itself under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, casting off a lot of the policies which justified its being identified as a "labor" party, and adopting a very centrist course. This is essentially the same tactic Clinton adopted. It has often been suggested that the political positions of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are actually on the conservative site of center, even as they at least nominally advance some liberal social policy. Yet that approach permitted them to capture enough of the swing vote to win multiple elections.

In England, Tony Blair has done something pretty amazing with the Labour Party, in that he cast off the leftist policies which he viewed as anchors on the party's ability to win elections, and adopted enough conservative policies to win over most swing voters. As a consequence, some within the Conservative Party are suggesting that they will have to do much the same thing - cast off the once popular, but now publicly unacceptable social policies they advanced under Thatcher - in order to regain power.

To the extent that those on the political far-left don't want to engage in compromise with the Democratic Party, they contribute to the party's electoral losses. If the political far-left wants to guarantee itself a voice within the Democratic Party, it needs to do two things: first, prove itself a viable, sizeable, and reliable voting block, and second, accept that if it wants any part of its agenda advanced, it will have to persuade the rest of the electorate of the merits of its ideas, be willing to compromise when those efforts are only partially successful, and be willing to adjourn its efforts to advance policies which the public at large does not support. If it cannot do that, then the Clinton/Blair approach is the approach that the Democratic Party should follow, because you can do a lot more as a moderate party in control of government than you can do by shaking your fist and threatening a filibuster.

"You Can't Give Me Advice..."

I recall many times in the past hearing parents evade any challenge to their parenting skills or tactics with, "Do you have kids? If not, you can't question my parenting." Well, as a parent, I have this to say....

If you have good parenting instincts, whether or not you are a parent, your advice may well be both helpful and correct.

If you have bad parenting instincts, whether or not you are a parent, the question of how many kids you have is irrelevant to the fact that your parenting skills are wanting.

Experience helps - no matter how good your instincts, you can't really know whether you are correct until you test them in practice. (But inadequate parents often seem immune from noticing or acknowledging, let alone learning from, their mistakes.)

Whether or not you have kids, whether or not you have good parenting instincts, and whether or not you are speaking to a parent with good parenting instincts, you can reasonably expect that you won't be thanked for your "contribution" of uninvited parenting advice.

If you ever find yourself saying, "My parents did [questioned parenting conduct] and I turned out okay", you probably didn't. (That's an intentional overstatement - but you know the type of person I'm talking about.)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Evidence Based Public Policy

In the field of medicine, a great deal of attention has been paid in recent years to evidence-based or science-based medicine, in which doctors attempt to apply the following steps to medical diagnosis and treatment:
  1. Accurately define the medical condition;
  2. Investigate the medical literature, ferreting out that which is scientifically valid and clinically relevant; and
  3. Apply the best available evidence and science to treatment of the medical condition.
This approach is not perfect, and counter-arguments include the allegation that it underestimates the value of clinical experience, and that it can be misleading to apply epidemiological techniques to diagnosing and treating the conditions of individual patients. Also, as the available evidence may be insufficient, it may be premature to attempt to discern an evidence-based solution. But, whatever the drawbacks, significant advances can result from the application of evidence-based medicine, and from the aggregation of data which can be used to evaluate and improve the efficacies of various treatments in particular populations of patient.

In our nation, we ostensibly have a federal system, where states are free to experiment with their own solutions to problems, and where the good solutions can be emulated by other states. The reality, it seems, is a bit different, with state legislatures often seeming inclined to jump on a public policy bandwagon rather than looking at what in fact works, and the federal government finding a variety of means to impose its will on the states. And significant changes in public policy often result not from evidence of what might work better, but from raw political ideology.

Now, whether or not they are willing to admit it, everybody has prejudices and political perspectives which color their opinions on various issues of public policy. But what is more important? Being true to a political ideology, or finding the best possible solution for a public policy issue? Too often, our nation seems to prioritize ideology. I think it is long past time we focused on the science and evidence, and where inadequate that we focus on improving the body evidence and scientific knowledge we require to form the best solution. Granted, it is easier to shortcut the thinking process by declaring your ideology as a sufficient reason to support or oppose a particular policy. But if you have to experiment on society, I would rather turn to the evidence.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

No Child Left Behind

When I hear columnists wringing their hands over Bill Gates' criticisms of American high school education, or lamenting that Bill Gates finds himself unable to hire high school graduates (as if that was his point), I hardly know what to say. The punditry's love of "No Child Left Behind", a "reform" which probably sets back what I would estimate to be Gates' vision of what U.S. public schools should achieve, seems inconsistent with its acceptance of Bill Gates' critique. That is, if you seriously want high schools to be able to produce graduates that Bill Gates would immediately hire into Microsoft, you shouldn't be standing behind a bill which aims instead to promote a culture of uniform mediocrity.

I am reminded of Harper Lee's narrative, as presented by Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbord:
One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious - because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe - some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others - some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
Bill Gates, for all of his quirkiness (what do they say, again, about genius and madness), falls into that last category of person. And I can't help but believe that he wants our schools to identify and foster genius. He seems to want high schools which prepare kids for college, as opposed to preparing them for college remedial programs. And he probably does feel that there are kids like him in our nation's high schools who need to be identified and fostered, such that we can hear of a few six and seven figure salaries given to high school graduates for reasons other than their ability to consistently place a round ball through a small hoop suspended above their heads.

So when our nation's educators literally spend weeks testing even a single special education student, so severely mentally disabled that his regular classroom focus is on learning to feed himself or sit up properly, while the gifted continue to be told to fend for themselves - their test scores are plenty high already, thankyouverymuch - no matter how staunch an advocate you are for the rights of the disabled, can you regard that as a wise use of time, money, and resources?

There's More To Life Than The Entry Level Job

One of the things that strikes me when people complain about low wages at "restaurants" like McDonalds or retailers like WalMart, is that they focus on the entry level wage. Now, granted, it isn't as if supervisors and low-level management positions at such businesses pay enormous salaries, but they are available and they do pay better than entry level jobs. And where an employee displays a decent attitude, a willingness to work, and enough self-discipline to show up on time for scheduled shifts, it is hard for me to imagine that those jobs aren't available by way of promotion.

Now I will grant, by nature, nurture, or both, some people don't have the aptitude to rise above an entry level position. But for those people, should we really be asking why it is that their employer doesn't pay more? Sure, everybody wants to make more money for the same work, but it is safe to assume that the typical entry level worker has already chosen the employer who will pay the highest available wage. If you want to boost entry level wages, the best approach is probably to ignore the squawkings of the "chicken little" types who claim that any such increase will ruin the economy, and raise the minimum wage. But, whatever you may think of the moral aspect of low wage employment, it is probably not realistic to ask that a business, which is already paying more than the minimum wage, voluntarily pay an even greater sum so as to improve the lot of its entry level workers.

To change the employment picture, governments and workers' organizations should focus on educational opportunity and labor laws, not singling out particular businesses as "evil". Even if you believe Wal-Mart to be an "evil" company, it does no good to shake your finger at it, or even to splash it with holy water. It is unlikely to change anything it does if it means unnecessarily lowering its margins or decreasing its profits. And it is perfectly reasonable for Wal-Mart to respond that it should not be expected to do something at its own expense, where no similar demand is placed upon its competitors.

(If there is anybody out there who "hates unions" and also "hates Wal-Mart for the way it treats its employees", I would love to hear you comment.)

Monday, May 02, 2005

Kids in Cuffs

William Raspberry takes on the question of a handcuffed five-year-old, but from a different perspective.
It's funny how the videotapes have divided us. Some of us saw the footage of the 5-year-old girl gone berserk in her St. Petersburg, Fla., classroom and decided we'd been too harsh in our judgment of the school officials for calling the police. Others saw the cops handcuffing the tiny child and decided it was the grown-ups who had gone nuts.

I look at the tape and tremble for fear that I'm looking at a fledgling outlaw whose path, if uninterrupted, could land her in jail -- or worse. And it can't be a 5-year-old's fault.
And yes, if you talk to elementary school teachers, you will learn that those on track to do time in jail or prison are usually identified at a very early age. But efforts to formalize the identification, channel the kids or their families into counseling programs, or to otherwise provide the type of support and intervention necessary to prevent that outcome are typically rejected as too costly or too controvercial. Or both.

I'm not ascribing any particular brilliance or insight to teachers. It is just that they happen to be exposed to their students (and their student's behaviors and attitudes) on a daily basis for the majority of the year. If you think about people you knew who dropped out of school, or ended up in jail or prison, how old were they when you first recognized that something was wrong?

Of course, there's another problem with intervention - with the minimal resources we have put into this issue, even if we correctly identify the kids we seemingly have no knowledge of what type of intervention will be helpful, and what type will be counter-productive. Despite the pouring millions upon millions of dollars into our nation's child welfare systems, there seems to be a general disinterest in finding out what actually works. I guess, as opposed to finding and implementing what is likely to work, it's bureaucratically easier to set specific hurdles in front of parents - parenting skills classes, anger management classes, periodic home inspections, drug and alcohol testing - to see who trips, with "foster care" as the "solution" when the parents are deemed inadequate.


I blame this on Mike over at Crime and Federalism, as I learned of Bloglines from him. Since I started to use Bloglines, I've not paid much attention to who I should be listing on my so-called blogroll. If you have any suggestions, please share them through this form. (No personal info required, if you don't want to share. You only need to fill out the middle portion - "Please describe the services you require" - with the name and URL of the blog or site at issue.)

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If you haven't submitted your site here, don't come cryin' to me. Free listings in DMOZ lead to free listings in the Google directory.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Will on Health Care Costs

Today, George Will informs us that General Motors is a "failed welfare state", because it offers health insurance coverage to its employees and that coverage is expensive. (He presents another complaint as an afterthought - that many GM brands and cars are unattractive to consumers. So perhaps he means that GM is like Lada, except Lada didn't have to pay its employees' health care costs.) I'm still trying to figure out what he means here:
But remember: Employer-provided health insurance is employee compensation. It became important during World War II, when there were wage controls and a shortage of workers. Because wages could not be bid up, companies competed for workers by offering the untaxed benefit of health care. If GM's $5.6 billion were given not as untaxed workers' compensation in the form of health care but as taxable cash compensation of equal after-tax value, it would cost GM substantially more than $5.6 billion. Which means that soon -- GM's UAW contract is up in 2007 -- GM's workers may have to give back a value of at least $1,500 a year.
Hm. So, but for the wage controls of WWII, no GM worker would have cared about having health insurance? (Perhaps that explains why no corporation which has come into existence since the end of WWII's price controls offers health insurance to its employees.) Is he suggesting that if GM were to convince the government to offer a national health care plan, worker wages should increase by approximately the $6,500/year GM presently spends on their care, but due to tax considerations that GM might have to wrestle with the UAW about offering only a $5,000 raise to substitute for health care coverage? Even accepting Will's argument, I somehow don't see it as likely that the UAW would strike over "only" achieving a $5,000 per worker raise.

In any event, what I found most interesting about this piece was Will's notion that any company that offers health insurance to otherwise uninsured workers is a "welfare state". Presumably, in Will's world (although he certainly would not surrender his own employer-paid health insurance) everybody else should be uninsured.