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    I’m an opinionated Grumpy Old Man. I enjoy the intellectual give and take that goes along with that, but have very little patience for stupid people (Note: there is a big difference between “stupid” and “educated”. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have a PhD…). Beside arguing, I like to build things in almost any media. Right now I’m mostly building in wood, Lego, and a bunch of different electronic media. I teach in a number of different venues - from preschool all the way through graduate school. Subjects range from talmud to neuroscience to engineering.

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party politics and why Health care reform will never happen – or any other significant legislation

While listening to yet another media report (I refuse to call it news anymore) flogging the whole “kennedy was god” crap, I actually heard an intelligent comment. The talking head commented that without Teddy, significant health care reform had no chance of succeeding. The other talking head commented that not only health reform, but pretty much ANY significant legislation had almost no chance of passing. She was claiming that without Teddy, no legislation could succeed, which I think is simply stupid – even for the kennedy worshippers, but there IS some truth to the statement.

Of course, it has nothing to do with Kennedy, it is all about how politics work in the USA, and health care is a great example. Pretty much everybody agrees that major reform is needed, and pretty much everybody agrees as to what should be done. The problem is that our political system requires the two parties to take “opposing” stands instead of working cooperatively. This is because the american people need something simple to associate with the political parties. Democrats help the poor, and are socially and politically correct. Republicans represent big business, don’t care about the people, and are all about making sure that the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. The two parties can’t work together because it would shatter the illusion that they are actually any different. Then, the people (and the parties) would actually have to think, make decisions, and figure out what and who to vote for.

Sure, some of you are going to scream that dems and reps are really different. Republicans have affairs, cheat on their wives, and only pretend to care about family values to keep the religious right on their side. Get real. For starters: Bill Clinton. By all “family values” measures he should be a ‘republican’. Take a good look at the sex scandals, mistress scandals, and all the other trash about politicians, and you’ll find it on both sides of the aisle in equal amounts.

Others will scream that the dems really care about the people, and that the republicans only care about the rich and corporations. If you really think this is true, you should go take a look at the folks that these politicians spend their time with and get their money from. Both parties will make token visits to Podunk village, and make sure that they get lots of photo ops with ‘normal folk’ – especially during election season. The rest of the year, they rubbing elbows with folks that can sling around 5 and six figure campaign contributions, and no one else matters. If they played the game any other way, they’d be out of office PDQ.

As far as the republicans working to keep the rich rich, while the dems work to make sure the poor get a fair shake, simply reread the last paragraph, and put it into context. The main job of any politician is NOT to represent ‘the people’, it is to get re-elected. In today’s world, that means making sure that you’ve got the backing of either the democratic or republican party. What you do is pretty much irrelevant, because a bit of slander, a good add campaign, and a thinly wrapped pack of lies and misinformation is all that really matters – something that we call by the euphemism “campaigning”. And for campaigning to work, there has to be an “us” and a “them”.

So there ya have it. Any real change is destined to fail, or at best get so watered down as to be irrelevant simply because if something DOES get done, one party or the other will be able to take the credit for it. And of course, if one party gets the credit, it means that the other party is left short. The democrats are starting to realize that without absolute control over the house, senate, and presidency, they are stuck in the same mire that they used to try and keep Bush under control.

So, is there any real hope? well, it depends on your point of view. If you have a bazillion bucks to throw into lobbyists on both sides of the aisle, you can pull off fiascoes like the latest GM bailout, the bank bailout, the blackwater (renamed to Xe) cover-up, etc. These work because the folks behind the decisions can line the politicians pockets and campaign chests well enough to throw up a smoke screen hiding what is really happening. A good two-sided campaign of misinformation can confuse the issues so much that anyone can believe whatever they want, and justify their opinion based on “expert opinions”.

Of course, if your particular cause does NOT have those gigabucks to toss around chances are that it’ll never get anywhere. So what are your options? Armed rebellion is a good one. The french revolution is a great example of what a truly pissed off population can do. You can vote third party – it will probably make you feel better, but won’t actually accomplish anything. Or, you can be a Good American, and simply sit there and shut up. When the time comes to vote, you can try and tell yourself that your vote matters, makes a difference, and may even be counted (maybe, if you’re lucky). Then go home, and watch the results on TV with the millions of other delusional sheep. Meaning that there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Ain’t america great?

Oh yeah, on the whole kennedy thing – in my last post, I referred to him as ‘compost’. I must admit my error. That dude was so packed with alcohol and other chemicals that he’ll never be compost. Toxic waste maybe, but not compost…

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more police abuse: Proffesor Gates and Crowley the thug.

Here we go again. Yet another case of some cop acting like a mindless thug. Lets take a look at what happened:

A lady calls in to the cops, reporting that 2 large black men are trying to force open her neighbors door. Officer Crowley shows up, and finds an elderly black man, who walks with a cane sitting on the front porch of the house. Crowley asks for ID, and the old guy presents his drivers license (which shows that address as his residence), and his Harvard University Faculty ID. Now in any sort of rational world, that would be the end of it. The cop would politely thank the guy, and move on. Of course, that would assume that the cop was capable of acting like a rational person.

Instead, thug Crowley refuses to let the matter drop, things escalate, and after putting up with crowley’s abuse, Professor Gates actually has the nerve to yell at him. Apparently, this is grounds for arrest. Because (according to crowley) the fact that crowley is alone, places him in dire danger of being attacked by a lame old man he’s been harassing. This particular incident is making national headlines because the victim is black. Unfortunately, what is getting lost in the race issue is the fact that this cop was completely out of line. If the victim had been a white Harvard professor, it wouldn’t be newsworthy. It is important to keep in mind that the problem is crowley’s behavior and his abuse of authority. Yes, the fact that he chose to act like a pig to a black guy does raise the specter of racism, but the underlying problem is Crowley’s willingness to use his badge to justify harassment, bullying and abuse.

Kudos to Obama for actually being willing to say to the nation that the cops actions were stupid. He’s right (although the cops action were a lot more than stupid, they were criminal). Unfortunately, he has since buckled to the police unions, who are afraid that the people might start holding them accountable for their actions. Yes, we all know Obama is a politician, but he actually STARTED OUT on the right track. Too bad he couldn’t stand up for truth and dedcency in the face of a union.

In any case the police department decided to drop the charges against Professor Gates  – further proving that Crowley’s actions were not only unwarranted, but were unsupportable. If the cops thought that they could make the charges stick, they wouldn’t have dropped them so quickly. So what do we really have? A cop who KNOWS that he can act the thug, escalate a situation, arrest his victim for no reason, and have no real repercussions.

What should be happening is that Crowley himself should be brought up on charges of abuse of power, intimidation, and illegal arrest. It is time to start holding cops accountable for their abuses. Maybe there was a racial basis to his behavior – if there was, he should be nailed even harder. If race was a basis for his abuse, this should be prosecuted as a hate crime. If race wasn’t an issue, it should still be prosecuted.

Lets face it folks, Gates got arrested because he was sitting on his front porch, and got upset when a cop harassed him. If we allow this type of abuse to continue, we’re letting the cops know that they can abuse, intimidate and harass people whenever they want. Think about this next time you’re sitting in your yard or on your porch: at any time, a cop can walk up to you and arrest you just because they’re having a bad day and feel like giving someone some grief. Makes you feel nice and safe doesn’t it.

Government health care plans.

The feds are at it again. Health care reform. Yet another attempt to pretend that the government can do a better job at managing health care than private industry can. Lets be real folks, the government of the USA couldn’t figure out how to get out of a wet paper bag without spending a few trillion dollars on pork, bribes, bailouts, and a new Star Wars light saber space alien defense system (to keep the Russians at bay), etc.

Then again, the commercial, private sector health care providers haven’t managed to do any better. Health care costs are absolutely insane – prior to the meltdown, unexpected health care expenses caused something like 80% of all individual bankruptcies. The economic meltdown may have reduced that number a bit, but only because there are a lot more people going bankrupt – the number of medical bankruptcies is being diluted, but not reduced.

So, lets take a few minutes and compare a government run single payer system with current health insurance systems.

OK, first an easy one: we KNOW the government will waste huge amounts of money. The feds can’t pass any type of spending legislation without slipping in a bunch of pork, so lets take a look at private sector health insurance and see if they can do any better. We know that health care executives (who do NOTHING to actually provide health care) are among the highest paid executives in the country. I don’t know if that counts as pork, but it certainly does contribute to the insane costs of health care. Remember: we’re talking about the executives at the local hospital, lab company, health insurance carriers, etc. etc. etc.

Drug costs are also supported by the fact that US insurance companies are willing to pay a lot more for drugs (both name brand and generic) than any other country. The same pill, manufactured in the same plant, to the same spec will cost a fraction as much in any other country.  Why? Because the folks that pay for meds in other countries aren’t willing to pander to big Pharma.  They set prices that are competitive and rational. If the pharma company isn’t willing to accept the prices set, they aren’t allowed to sell ANY meds in that country. Hmmm. This is actually an example not only of how badly our insurance industry manages drug costs, but is an example of how well OTHER governments regulate it. Of course, they don’t have the Pharma companies contributing bazillions of dollars to their re-election campaigns like politicians here in the states do.

Of course, what it really boils down to is quality of care. I constantly hear rants about how bad the medical care in countries with government run health care is. I only have limited experience with this – Canada, the UK, and Israel. In all three cases, there are problems – long waits to see doctors is one of the most common complaints. However, a trip to the emergency room always results in quick treatment…. Of course, we also have good emergency rooms here, with private health insurance. The problem is, so many people who do not have health insurance use the ER as their primary care providers, and avoid going to the doctor until they have no choice. I’ve spent a lot of time in emergency rooms (for a lot of reasons), and I’ve found that in the states, I can pretty much always count on at least one person being there because they didn’t get some basic treatment when they needed it. I’ve never seen that in other countries. (note that this doesn’t mean it never happens, it just indicates that it is a lot less common.)

Of course, if you happen to HAVE private insurance, you are only covered if you see a doctor that is covered by that particular program, so if you happen to have an illness that is beyond their ability, you’re left high and dry. Unless you can afford to pay for it yourself. So we’re back to paying. The simple reality is that folks that have more money will ALWAYS get better care. In the countries with socialized medicine, they are the ones that can afford private doctors and hospitals. In the US, the rich are also the ones that can afford private care, or can go overseas to other countries to get care that is not available here. Instead of looking at the top of the scale, we have to look at the average, and bottom of the scale.

At the bottom, there is no real question: the US already has socialized medicine. Medicare and medicaid provide some of the best (and most cost-efficient) medical coverage in the country. About the only better coverage is the health care plans that the government provides to its top employees (the  ones we vote into office). Yes, there are people that fall through the cracks, and yes, the upper limit of eligibility is so low that a lot of people that need medicare/aid can’t get it, but for the folks that do get it, it works.

That leaves those that are too rich to qualify for medicare/aid, but not rich enough to be able to afford private hospitals and medical care. The vast majority of americans. The same ones that are being forced into bankruptcy because their insurance doesn’t cover their kids broken leg (or whatever the unexpected emergency was). The same ones that are livid because their health insurance premiums have risen to as much as 50% of their take-home pay. The ones that select employment based on the health insurance plan – not pay, working conditions, or anything else. The same ones that voted Obama into office – in part because of his health care platform.

Sounds to me like there is a pretty strong call for major health care reform.

Of course, the health care industry – and the insurance industry in particular  – are lobbying hard to convince us that reform is a Bad Thing. “You won’t be able to keep the health care plans you have and love”they say. OK, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know ANYBODY that is currently satisfied with the way their health care plans work, or what they cost. What they’re really saying is “don’t do anything to make us operate more efficiently”.

So, here’s my idea of how to give everyone a fair shake. the insurance companies insist that the people (that would be you) want to continue with their existing policies, and will continue to accept double digit percentage premium increases every year. They insist that the government couldn’t possibly operate as efficiently as the “free market” economy. They claim that the creation of a single payer system will force them to shut down.

So here’s the gig: they claim that their customers love them, and that they are doing a better job, more cost effectively, and with better care than the government ever could. The solution is just too easy. Let the government set up its own health care systems. Let the private industry continue the way it is. Let the people choose what program they like better.

Now THAT is something that terrifies the insurance companies. They know that even with all the pork, mismanagement, and bureaucracy, the cost of running a federal medical insurance company is a lot lower than the bloated profit centered commercial health insurance industry. The real issue is that the private insurance industry sees real competition coming along, and they know that if it happens, they are going to have to tighten their belts, and stop paying their investors and executives huge bonuses and dividends.

Of course, the best solution would be for a respectable private entity to start offering health care coverage at rational pricing, but that would mean no big bonuses for execs, no big dividends for the stock market, and no money for lobbying. The truth is that the government can’t begin to operate a single payer health care system efficiently. The reality is that the ‘free market’ has proved that it can’t either.

Why Obama’s Education plan is destined to fail.

President Obama gave a wonderful speech yesterday, which included an overview of his plans for education. He has some ideas that actually have some merit (such as merit based pay for teachers, school/teacher accountability,  and penalizing/taking over failing schools). The problem is, his ideas are all based on “improving” the existing infrastructure, when the existing infrastructure itself is the problem. There’s an old adage that goes “f it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The inverse of this adage is “if it’s broke beyond repair, you CAN’T fix it. U.S. Education is “broke beyond repair”.

Of course, this statement is predicated on my view of what education is. I believe that the purpose of education is to teach students what they need to succeed in life. A simple statement, but one that has some very complicated implications, and is (unfortunately) completely at odds with U.S. education.  Our “schools” have moved on from providing education to providing social counseling, mental health counseling, anger management, day care, and pretty much every other social program you can think of. In other words, they have attempted to replace a lot of the functions that parents are responsible for. It is simply impossible for ANY organization to accomplish all of those goals if it is pretending to be a school.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the need for some sort of organization to provide social services. I just don’t think it is the school. The first thing we need to do to make schools work is let them be schools. this is actually fairly simple to accomplish. All we need to do is define a minimal set of skills for each grade (or maybe cluster a few grades together to reduce testing). At the end of each school year, every single student takes an exam. If they pass, they continue on to the next year of school. If they don’t, they stay back until they CAN pass the exam. But wait! that isn’t fair to the poor student that can’t pass the exam! Well, actually, it is. If the student can’t pass the exam, there is clearly some failure, either on the students part, or the teacher/schools part. If the fault is with the student, this is a “learning experience”, and hopefully the kid will get the idea and get serious about learning. If not, well, one of the things our schools fail to teach is that decisions kids make have consequences….. If the problem is with the school or teacher, it will be self correcting. Once parents realize that their kids are going to be held back if they don’t perform, they’ll start paying attention to what is going on in the classes. Imagine how a principle/school board will react when parents start refusing to allow their kid to be in the class with the teacher that somehow can’t seem to teach their students the curriculum. Somehow, I suspect that that particular teacher will be out looking for work PDQ.

Of course, there ARE students that are simply incapable of learning the material. ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, pick your reason. Unfortunately, the reality is that attempting to accommodate these students in the “normal” classroom is a large part of the problem with our current schools. By forcing teachers, staff and resources into “corrective” programs, we simply reduce the ability to provide services to the students that CAN succeed. There are many options for these students, but the primary responsibility lies with their parents. The student can be enrolled in a special school that is targeted to meet the special needs of the student. I know that this is politically incorrect, but the simple fact is that no matter how education is approached, the “one size fits all” approach is guaranteed to do nothing except reduce education meet the abilities of the lowest performing student. “Tracking” – the idea of having different tracks for students that perform at different levels is extremely effective at allowing students to work to their ability.

So how do you segregate the students (yep that IS the right word. The concept of homogeneous student body is fiction)? How do you make sure that non-performing schools and teachers are punted out of the system? How do you pay for it all? Where does parental responsibility and involvement fit in? These are the questions that policy wonks have been kicking around for decades. Here’s my solution (Knew I’d have one, didn’t you?).

First, parental responsibility and involvement is key. A critical step is to make it possible for parents to have direct input into their children’s education. Some parents want their kids to have great sports programs, some want their kids to have great academics, some parents simply don’t care. How to provide a solution that fits them all is simple: accept the fact taht a single solution won’t work. Every head in a school (or out of it for that matter) carries a particular financial load – the “cost of education” for a given year. Instead of forcing the taxpayers to pay for whatever school happens to be in their town, allow the parents to choose what school their kid goes to, and make sure that those tax dollars (federal, state, local, whatever) go with the kid. Let the parents vote with their pocketbooks. Schools that don’t meet the parents needs (don’t forget about those skill tests at the end of each year) will disappear pretty quickly when they suddenly can’t afford to pay their staff. Of Course, in a model like this, parents with money will have the option of sending their kids to schools where tuition is higher than the base rate, but if we’re at all realistic, we already know that parents with money (at least those that care about education) make sure their kids get a better education than the current schools offer.

Wow, by simply requiring the parents to be responsible for their kids education, and making sure that they have the power to control what school their education tax dollars support, we’ve suddenly addressed ALL of the issues.

Kids will self-segregate into schools that provide what the kids parents think is important, simply because the parents will choose the schools that best fit their priorities. If the kid can’t perform, the parents have the option of putting the screws to the kid, letting the kid move at its own pace, or moving to another school that may be a better fit. Schools that can’t keep students enrolled will fail. Of course, the ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, etc. population are left in a tough place. This is where parental responsibility kinda sucks. They’re YOUR kids. YOU figure out what’ best for them, and (just like the rich folks that make sure their kid gets to go to the expensive school), YOU are responsible for paying any additional costs for their education. The “normal” kids will be able to ride along on the”;normal” cost of education. The “special” and “advanced”; kids will have to pony up the extra bucks for their “out of the normal” needs, or will have to muddle along in the “normal” school. Kinda sucks, but that reality.