Islamophobia or justified concern?

Islamophobia or justified concern?

Brigitte Gabriel of Act for America, and people like her, who speak out about the dangers of Muslim extremism are often branded as being Islamophobic.  Are they islamophobic or is it sensible and justified concern?  The Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkely defines Islamophobia as the “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”  Mirriam Webster defines it as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam.”

Let’s think about another phobia, ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes.  I’m a teacher and have been to many presentations about reptiles to school children.  Invariably the presenter brings out a non-venomous snake, drapes it around their neck and encourages children to pet it.  One time the presenter draped the snake over my shoulders and asked me to demonstrate how harmless the snake was.  The children were taught about how this kind of snake is harmless and a few common shibboleths are dispensed with such as, “See it’s not slimy.”  Many children overcome their general fear of snakes enough to pet the snake.  I certainly had no qualms about holding the snake when assured by someone who knew more about snakes, that it was safe to do so.  The children and I  had learned that the specific snake we had just met was not dangerous and so we didn’t need to be afraid of it.   I was happy to hold the snake given to me by the presenter, but other teachers in my school were quite unwilling to even touch the snake.  They could not overcome their generalized fear of snakes, even when they knew the snake was actually harmless.  I think that’s irrational fear, because not all snakes are dangerous.  That is ohidiophobia.  On the other hand, when I’m on my own in the wild, I don’t pick up snakes that I don’t know.  Some poisonous snakes and non-poisonous snakes look similar.  If you don’t know which snakes are poisonous and which aren’t, it’s smarter to err on the side of caution.

So let’s talk about Islamophobia.  Just as it is not phobia to recognize that some snakes are poisonous, it is not phobia to point out that some Muslims wish to wage jihad against non-Muslims, to subjugate us under Islamic rule or kill us if we refuse to follow their rules.  This has happened many times in history and it is still happening today.  Brigitte Gabriel was a Christian in Lebanon when the Muslims overran her country.  She managed to escape with her life but many Christians in her community were killed by the invading Muslim soldiers.  Certainly not all Muslims are soldiers or even support what happened in Lebanon.  But it is not Islamophobia to say that some Muslims are dangerous.  Certainly the ones pictured here are.

It is also not irrational fear or prejudice to be afraid of Muslims you do not know, thinking they might be of the kind that wish to subjugate all non-Muslims.  How would you know?  I have a neighbor, who I am friends with, who is a Muslim and he is neither dangerous nor interested in subjugating us.  Him I know, and he’s great.  But some Muslims, who are dangerous supporters of jihad and the subjugation of non-Muslims, look and act like they are harmless.  And here is where the problem really lies.  Until Muslims find a way to help us non-Muslims know who is who, until the peaceful, harmless, law-abiding Muslims stand up and find a way to publicly reject the Muslims who are not, how are we to know?

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Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Are state tests, such as the Smarter Balance Assessment an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality?  Do these tests truly reveal the quality or effectiveness of a school?  I say, “No,” emphatically, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills, even though many in education disagree.  I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned.  I agree that more learning is better.  I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity.  I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed one-size-fits-all tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality.  It has taken me several years to come to this position.  I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Let me explain what that means. Imagine you want to buy a sports car.  You look up your favorite sports car to see its rating.  You are shocked find low scores and an “F” grade on the rating system compared to other cars.  Unbeknownst to you the ratings are based largely on the size of the payload the vehicle can carry and the number of passengers that can fit in it.  Your dream two-seater is rated low on that account and there is nothing in there about how fun the car is to drive.  That’s an example of misalignment.

Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is irrelevant or actually wrong.  The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.  For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum.  I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling.  State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

An example of schools that do well on these basic academic pillars are the Arthur Academy charter schools.  Due to the use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), they mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which they reside. More importantly, they prepare their students for later success in schooling.  DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching.  The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing.  All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills.  DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but these charters love it, and so do their students and parents.

Curricula, such as DI, that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test—while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material.  A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests.  While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum.  Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire.  These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum.  But if schools that use DI taught what is in their curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools.  Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do.  Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests.  One is that the results have no consequences for the children.  Another is that these are children taking these tests.  Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances.  Schools routinely find children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test.  Yet they can reach not only “proficient” but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired.  Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test.  This is not cheating.  These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”  And it is an appropriate accommodation.  It just shows the best that the student can do.  Guess what?  Children don’t always do their best.  Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with.  If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year. Does that mean the school is bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean the school is good if they carefully accommodate all the children so they get their best scores?  Not at all.

Third is the issue of students’ ability.   This may not be obvious to everyone, but the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn.  The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them.   Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach.  It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad.  That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ—which is never the case.  It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know which school is stronger or more effective.  If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers—just as it happens in every other service industry.  Arthur Academy could do it easily in their schools, without a state test. If they gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of their DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what the children have learned.   Few students outside of their schools could match that performance.  That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.


Posted by in Education
Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

There is currently a movement underway to reverse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Those opposed to the Common Core have a wide variety of reasons, ranging from fear of federal control of curriculum, to privacy concerns about intrusive data collection planned, and controversy about whether the standards are more or less rigorous than the former state standards which are being replaced.  While these details can be debated, the more fundamental question is whether “standards and accountability” can reform or improve education.

The idea of “standards and accountability” begins by attempting to define rigorous standards of what K-12 students at each grade level ought to know and be able to do.  [Missing the important point that some students should be held to higher expectations, shouldn’t they?]  The idea goes that if these standards are good enough, then if students can meet them, we can be happy that our schools are doing a good job.  The accountability part of the equation is to give tests that measure whether or not students can meet the standard expectations.  Supposedly then schools that help nearly all students meet the standards are doing a good job.  Conversely schools in which many students don’t meet the standards must necessarily be doing a poor job.  If the standards are too easy, the schools are getting off with doing a poor job.  If the standards are rigorous enough we can force the schools to do a better job—the threats of accountability will cause the schools to self-reform and improve student scores on the tests and thereby achievement.  That’s the idea.  But, in real life it doesn’t work that way.  Why not?  There are several reasons.

First of all, the standards are too vague to be measured as met or not met in any objective sense.  For example, such standards as, “Understand addition and subtraction of fractions as joining and separating parts referring to the same whole.” is not measurable.  There are an infinite number of ways one could try to measure that and how well a student would have to do on such a test to show they “understood.” And on top of that, there are hundreds of these unmeasurable standards in the Common Core.

Secondly, because the standards themselves aren’t measurable, proficiency is not based on pre-established criteria, standard by standard. Students don’t have to pass all the different standards, or even pass a set number of them.  Instead proficiency is randomly defined by a cut-off score on the entire test.  Unfortunately, because the details of the test are secret, teachers don’t really know exactly which skills are tested, and what students must know or how well they should know them to be considered proficient.  They are trying to hit the target, but they aren’t actually allowed to see it.

Finally, everyone wants to raise the cut-off scores, to expect the lowest students to do more to be considered proficient.  If everyone can do it, then it must not be rigorous enough.

Raising the bar–doesn’t make you a better jumper.

Making the standards more rigorous (which many people want to do) is quite commonly referred to as “raising the bar.”  This metaphor compares academic standards to the bar over which high jumpers sail.  Raising the bar occurs each round in a track meet, as the bar is placed higher, and then the competitors must jump higher each round.  But what is the effect of raising the bar in a track meet?

The effect of raising the bar is to gradually eliminate the less able competitors each round, until only the best is left to win the meet.  Raising the bar does not make everyone equal.  Raising the bar does not make everyone better.  Raising the bar has the effect of sorting out the athletes on the basis of their skill.  No one dreams of using it to rank the coaches, because a large portion of a high jumper’s success has to do with innate ability, rather than just the quality of the coach.  Interestingly, before federal involvement in education and before standards and accountability, standardized academic tests were perceived in exactly the same way.  The results on an academic achievement test told you how accomplished the student was, and were never used to make judgments about the quality of the teacher or the school.

If raising the bar does not make everyone a better jumper, why is it even imagined as a method to reform schools?  Standards would operate, if they work at all, about as well as track meets work to make track coaches better.  In my experience most coaches hope to recruit athletes with more ability—so their performance makes the coach look good.

The same thing happens with schools.  Schools that enroll students with greater ability have high tests scores and are considered good.  Schools that enroll students with more learning challenges and less ability have lower test scores and are considered bad.  Nothing useful is accomplished by this exercise. Absolutely nothing.

I know from first-hand experience that parents can tell whether the school their child is attending is challenging, motivating and effectively teaching their child.  Not all schools are right for all children.  Often siblings need and thrive in very different kinds of schools. The average test scores in the whole school is irrelevant to whether the school is doing a good job for their child.  We don’t need this whole standards and accountability regimen, we need to give parents the freedom to choose schools and give educators a chance to create a variety of new, innovative schools that operate free of the bureaucratic restraints of our current one-size-fits-all system.

Posted by in Education
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I fell in love with the left wing of the Democratic Party because they, alone, opposed the Vietnam War.  And of course, because they were the party of compassion for the poor.  Over the years, I fell out of love because they wanted credit for their good intentions rather than for what they actually accomplished.

Although the Democrats started the war in Vietnam and a Republican president ended it, I didn’t blame the Democrats or give credit to Nixon.  I didn’t begin to question my love for the left wing until someone I knew and cared for began to get the “help” and “compassion” that were a trademark of the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson began the “War on Poverty.”

What I discovered, to my shock, was that welfare assistance from the government was not a helping hand, or a hand up.  To the contrary, welfare assistance was a sentence to dependency and poverty without an exit.   The details of how the system ran meant that gradually working one’s way back to self-sufficiency was made harder, not easier, by the so-called “safety net.”  The first step out of dependence is part-time work and jobs that don’t last more than a couple of months.  But all the money you make in such jobs goes against your benefits.  Everything with the government is slow, and so the reckoning takes months.  This means that you have to pay back the benefits you received a couple of months ago, just about the time you’re out of work again. So when you need assistance desperately, you can’t get it, but only because you took a job and tried to better yourself.  If you hadn’t tried to take a job you would still be entitled.  So the lesson is—don’t take a job.

It turns out all of the forms of help and compassion run by government agencies have the same basic structure.  You “qualify” by virtue of having little or no income and you “lose” benefits as soon as you get some income or try to get some.  I have another friend who was unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits because he couldn’t find work in his profession in the local community.  When he went out of town to a trade conference (so he could network with people in his profession from all over the country and hopefully find work) his unemployment benefits were cut off.  He hadn’t stayed in the local community “available for work.” Go figure.

I had learned from personal experience that government assistance, as championed by the left, did not actually help to reduce poverty.  Governmental help does not have the right structure, knowledge, or flexibility needed to really help anyone. It is simply a trap. Not surprisingly, data now show (see the graph to the right) that the poverty rate has stopped falling since we began trapping more and more people in these dependency programs.  They have almost no way out.  That was one nail in the coffin of my love for the left-wing.

The next nail in the coffin came as a result of what I learned as a teacher.  At one point as a special education teacher I had a caseload of 28 third grade children with dyslexia—none of whom could read.  I found and used a curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI) that taught every one of them to read.  My school district was uninterested in my success.  DI used phonics and was labeled “harmful.”  DI was removed from the district, without regard to data.  When I realized that the public school system was unresponsive to important outcomes (like whether or not children learned to read!), I began to learn about school choice—in which parents, who do care about outcomes, get to choose a school.

Charter schools, which are public schools freed from the constraints of the administrative bureaucracy of districts and sometimes from the teacher’s union as well, have to attract all their clients.  I went to work for charter schools, and of course, the charter schools in which I was involved used DI. In our schools we taught every one of our students how to read, and we filled our schools, located in poor neighborhoods, with students.  Parents, especially poor parents, were finally able to choose a school that would teach their children to read.  But our schools were not allowed to grow because of deliberate political obstacles.

When I realized that left wing Democrats were the primary obstacle to increased school choice, I was done.  The left wing says it cares about children and the poor.  The left wants to be judged by its good intentions.  But the policies the left supports do not help, and actually hurt children and the poor.  I think results speak louder than words.  I do think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Posted by in Political philosophy
Differentiation and the problem of missing skills

Differentiation and the problem of missing skills

As people are being trained to be teachers in our schools of education they are taught that justice and fairness require that they teach all students together in a classroom with their peers.  Furthermore, they are taught that all the students should be taught the same material that is appropriate for their grade level.  When they go out into schools, the administration of most district schools promotes the same philosophy—that all students should be taught the “core curriculum” that is appropriate for their grade level.  The Common Core now specifies what should be taught at each level and school districts monitor closely to see that teachers are teaching exactly what is supposed to be taught at each grade level—without regard for the skill level of the students.

The student pictured is counting on her fingers to do math when she should be well beyond that problem.  So what about the problem of students who are lacking skills that were presumed to be taught in prior grades?  What are teachers supposed to do with students who have difficulty spelling, or decoding, or doing simple math?  How about students who can’t write with reasonable grammar and punctuation or who fail to add or multiply correctly when they try?  As anyone who has spent time in public school classrooms, this is a huge and glaring problem.  What is the expected solution?

The current buzz-word that is supposed to solve this problem is called differentiation.  Anyone who wants to sell materials to schools now includes information about how to “differentiate” lessons so as to accommodate the wide variety of skills levels in every classroom.  The theory is that lessons can be presented about a concept or idea and then students will be allowed to respond or complete assignments about the lesson at a variety of skill levels.  So some students who cannot write are allowed to draw pictures to express their answers, while others will write with invented spelling, and still others will complete essays with correct spelling and punctuation.  A differentiated assignment in math might include students who use calculators, others who do computation, and still others who write a long-hand explanation of how to find the answer—without having to do it.

Unfortunately, as in much of educational rhetoric these days, the emperor has no clothes.  Differentiation is a method of coping with the problem of missing skills.  Differentiation does not provide the instruction needed by students who are missing those skills.  When students don’t know basic skills, they failed to benefit from (or receive) instruction on those skills.  The fact that the student didn’t learn it the “first time” tells you something about how difficult it will be for this student to learn that skill.  Not learning it the “first time” means these students will need more intensive, focused and effective instruction than is typically provided at the grade level where that skill is normally taught.  The student will need more explanation, more examples, and more practice to master the skill than was even in the textbook the first time the skill was taught.  Because it didn’t take the first time, more is needed.

But here’s the rub.  Now that the student has moved past the grade level where this skill is supposed to be taught, there is no time allotted for instruction on this skill.  Don’t learn how to decode in first grade?  Well once you’re in second grade, good luck getting that really basic instruction you missed in first grade.  The teacher has to be teaching the skills of second grade and really has no time to teach those prior skills.  This is a problem in second grade.  Imagine how crazy it is in the typical sixth grade, where students are missing skills from the past six years!

A previous buzz-word was “mini-lessons.”  Teachers were supposed to teach missing skills on an ad-hoc basis, when they came up, in little mini-lessons that only took a couple of minutes.  Not surprisingly, mini-lessons don’t work, because students who hadn’t learned those skills in prior years needed longer, more carefully designed lessons, with more examples and more practice in order to learn the skills that have eluded them for years.

The only solution to the problem of missing skills is to explicitly address them.  Identify students who need to learn the skills regardless of grade level, get them together with a teacher, design strong lessons with clear rules, lots of examples, and plenty of practice.  It can be done.  It is the job of teachers and schools.  But in this era of Common Core dictated curriculum there’s no time and no freedom in the schools to do the job.  We need educators in the trenches to have both the freedom and the responsibility to devise solutions to this basic and fundamental problem.  Parents need the ability to hold schools accountable for solving this problem, by having the ability to move their child to a school that knows how to solve this problem.  (I know it is a soluble problem because I have worked in charter schools that have solved it.)  Right now parents have no choice.  They are forced to patronize schools that fail to education their children. Until we change this, all the hoopla in the world isn’t going to improve outcomes in our schools.

Posted by in Education
Let’s end dependence rather than poverty

Let’s end dependence rather than poverty


Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless.   “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused.  “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”

What would that do for them, I wondered?

According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the “homeless”:

Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing.  Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management.  Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.

So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn’t afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.”   The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live.  Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse.   This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.

Some time back, the Cato Institute released a report entitled, “The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty—and Fail.”  Their estimate is that we spend about $15,000 per person below the poverty line on anti-poverty programs without eliminating poverty.  Michael Tanner noted that most of our efforts are designed not so much to fight poverty, but to make it more comfortable to be poor.  I’d like to suggest that we fight a war to eliminate dependence, rather than to fight poverty.

Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on “the dole.”   People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life.  There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and  worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner.   Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.

According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur.  As a result of this ‘earned benefit’ status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.”

That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs.  Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone.  Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government.  Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable.  (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.)   We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits.  Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.

Here lies the problem–and also the solution to the problem.  Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence.  All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.  They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won!  We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.

How would that look different from today’s social programs?

For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves.  We would hold them up and give them recognition.  We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance.  They would become our role models.  We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”

For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare.   Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can.  So right now we are forcing dependency—but the War on Dependence would change that.

We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well.  Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes.  If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby.  If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent.   What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents’ retirement fund.  As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans.  Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.

One of the sad by-products of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was.  Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them.  What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself.  Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad.  People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent.  We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.

Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help.    Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized.  Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.  Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees.   Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own.  This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college.  Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools’ own worth.

Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family.  Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored.  People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain—instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.

Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor.  It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person.  We might find that we had already eliminated poverty–that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line.   But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.

Independence is the solution–and we need to return to the habit of valuing it.  There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it.  A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.





Posted by in Social problems
Pre-existing conditions: My house is on fire!

Pre-existing conditions: My house is on fire!

Congress and the national media are discussing the Republican attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.  One of the thorniest issues is how to care for people with pre-existing conditions.  The media portray this as clearly a humanitarian crisis brought on by the heartless conservatives.  They put on camera a woman with cancer who begins to cry talking about what will happen to her entire family if she cannot get health insurance now that she has been diagnosed with cancer.  Cancer treatments are so expensive that a family faces financial ruin if they don’t have medical insurance.  Taking away coverage for pre-existing conditions is so mean spirited, even President Trump can’t stomach it.  There’s a huge problem with it, however.

Requiring that health insurance companies sell insurance to cover a catastrophic event, such as cancer, after it has occurred is the same as asking insurance companies to sell you fire insurance after your house is on fire!  It defeats the whole purpose and intent of insurance.  The idea of insurance is that all sensible people buy it, most of whom won’t need it.  Lots of people pay for it for years and years and all of those pooled premiums are enough to cover the cost of the catastrophic event, for the unlucky person it happens to.   No one likes paying premiums year after year for something that only might happen, but prudence says it’s better to be covered for those catastrophes than to be facing them without insurance.  If you could wait to buy “insurance” until after your house is on fire, or after you’ve had a car accident, or after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, then everybody would.  But then everyone who took out a policy would be getting a huge payout, and the premiums would have to reflect that.  Eventually, homeowners insurance would be as expensive as a house, car insurance would be as expensive as a car, and so on.  Not everyone is waiting to buy health insurance until after they are diagnosed with a pre-existing condition, but many people have pre-existing conditions and so under the wonderfully generous Obamacare system premiums are going through the roof, and insurance companies are dropping out of the business.

Interestingly enough, in a single-payer, socialist system of health care everyone has to pay in taxes for the healthcare so the costs are distributed evenly over the healthy and unhealthy evenly.  So that system is more economically viable than Obamacare.   The question is, can a free market take care of people, of everybody, as well as socialism?  Getting back to a free market from where we are now would be difficult and tricky, even if we were behaving in a smart way and understanding economics correctly–which our congressmen apparently do not.

In a free economy, health insurance, like life insurance, is something everyone should buy early in life so it is affordable and to be prudent about protecting yourself and your family from financial ruin should you get cancer (or some other expensive medical condition) later in life.  The deal between you and the insurance company should be that you carry the policy your whole life and maybe they have to pay out if you have a catastrophe.  That means you have one policy your whole life and the fact that you’ve kept it in force means the insurance company has to pay if something terrible happens to you.  That’s a fair bet and lots of insurance companies would be willing to cover you.

Health insurance should not be provided by your employer, because you need to keep the policy if you change jobs or your employer goes out of business.  You might end up looking for coverage after you have an expensive health condition and now you’d have to pay excessively high premiums.  It should not be provided by the government as a benefit for being poor because if you get a job you’ll lose that benefit and that insurance and you might end up having to get coverage when you can’t.  It really shouldn’t be provided by the government when you’re old, because you were paying into a policy all your life and the insurance company should be on the hook as you age, not taxpayers.

But that is not the world we live in.  We have ruined the health care insurance market in many ways.  So what do we do now, particularly about the people with pre-existing conditions?  We should look at ways to 1) pare that problem down as much as possible and 2) incentivize everyone else to prudently acquire health insurance before they get pre-existing conditions.

Allow insurance companies to cover everything but the pre-existing condition, so everyone can afford the rest of their insurance.  Maybe have the government and/or charities pay for the care (not the insurance, but the actual care) for people with pre-existing conditions.  Make it like Medicare, which isn’t that generous, so everyone could see that they would be better off if they buy coverage for themselves early before pre-existing conditions.  End the employer and government provided health coverage and have everyone buy private insurance.  Give vouchers or cash assistance to those who can’t afford insurance, but get them out into the same private market as everyone else.  More people in the pool, the lower the premiums will be.  The earlier you buy health coverage, the cheaper it will be.  The healthier you are, the cheaper it will be.  We will have to take care of the people for whom it is too late to be prudent–the people whose houses caught fire before they bought insurance.  However, we should work to decrease the number of those people, not set up the rules to reward people who wait to buy coverage with pre-existing conditions.  That’s a recipe to bankrupt the entire private health insurance system.  Maybe that’s what Obama really wanted?




Posted by in Medicine
What should replace Obamacare?

What should replace Obamacare?

The Republicans can’t seem to agree upon the principles for replacing Obamacare.  You may have heard that some conservatives want to base the replacement on “free market principles” and “competition.”  What does that mean?  The problem is that medical care costs continue to spiral out of control because we are insulated from the real costs, two layers deep.  Those two layers make thinking about free market reforms confusing.  The first layer is medical insurance insulating us from the costs of medical care.  The second layer insulates us from the costs of insurance—by having others buy it for us. Eliminating those two layers of insulation and creating a free market in medicine would give us more control and actually make healthcare more affordable.  Here’s how we could get there from here.

First, fix the way we pay for insurance.  (The Republicans are afraid of embracing this change, but it is essential.)  Having the employer or the government pay for health insurance as a “benefit,” means that most people assume that the more expensive their health insurance is, the better it is. WRONG!  We should turn employer-provided health insurance premiums into salary instead.  Let employers admit that the cost of health insurance is really salary, and free everyone to buy their own health insurance.  This would allow us to keep our health insurance when we change jobs.  (Some day we’ll think, “My God, what a stupid idea that was, to tie health insurance to your job!”)

Second we should be able to buy whatever health insurance we want—without mandating what it covers.  So start with eliminating the federally imposed mandates on what health insurance must cover.  Second, we should be able to buy plans offered in other states—eliminate those fences between the states.  Some states don’t have expensive coverage mandates in their policies.  Buying from other states means we could buy cheaper insurance policies that don’t cover things we don’t want to pay for.

Third, we need to bring everyone into the situation of choosing their own private health insurance so the free market can provide a lot of options to choose from.  Seniors on Medicare should get money equal to the average amount now being spent on health care for seniors, and then they should be free to purchase health insurance coverage with that money.  People on Medicaid should do the same thing.  If the amount they are given is equal to the average cost of their medical care, it will be enough to buy insurance to cover the services they are currently getting.  (That’s the basic idea behind insurance—the costs averaged out over many people.) It would just be an offer to give them the money and allow them to choose their own insurance, but within a short period of time, the options in the free market would offer more for the same money.

Young and healthy people who don’t want to buy health insurance would be encouraged to buy health status insurance that guarantees the right to buy health insurance in the future without being rated or denied for a medical condition.  People who are healthy and can prove it should be able to buy insurance less expensively.  People who have a pre-existing condition should be able to buy health insurance but at higher cost.  We may have to help them.  If there was a 100% tax credit for all contributions to charitable health organizations, those organizations could assist with medical costs for people with really expensive pre-existing conditions like cancer and diabetes.  But people who bought their health insurance early (remember fire insurance) while they were healthy could be guaranteed a steady premium even when they do get sick.  (And they wouldn’t lose it when they change jobs!)

The first layer of insulation would now have been peeled away.  Everyone would be paying for their own health insurance with money they could spend in other ways.  We would now have an incentive to look for ways to economize on the cost of health insurance, just as we do with car and fire insurance now.  The best way to economize on health insurance is to choose high deductible insurance with a health savings account.**  High deductible health insurance is so much cheaper that the consumer can put the savings into a health savings account (HSA) which would be more than enough to pay medical costs up to the deductible.  With more saved in the health savings account, a higher deductible can be chosen, lowering the premiums, and allowing for more savings in the HSA.  Perhaps a “high” deductible in the first year would be $4,000, but it could climb over the years to $20,000 or more. [Another innovation that would come along is to make the deductible like it is in auto insurance where it is “per claim.”  So you might have a $1,000 per claim deductible so that you don’t even turn in a claim unless it is over a grand–and then you can spend your HSA without having to accumulate records of all health insurance expenses.] 

Using high deductible health insurance and our own HSA money to pay the first several thousand dollars of medical costs peels away that second layer of insulation between the customer and the cost of medicine.  This puts us in the position of wanting to save on those first dollar costs of medical care.  Why use a brand name prescription at $100 a month, when there is a generic for $10 a month?  Why not have a $70 EKG instead of the new, fancy treadmill EKG for $3,000?  Amazingly enough, most of us can keep our medical costs under a couple of thousand a year if we have a reason to do so.  Once we are asking questions about the prices of things (because the costs are not being paid by a third party), doctors will have to be prepared to discuss cost with us.  One we are spending our own money we can switch to a different doctor’s office to get something at a cheaper rate.  We can drastically bring down the cost of our medical care the same way we bring down the costs of other things—by paying attention to the price.  That’s the basic idea of free market competition in health care.  This is the solution to the problems of Obamacare. All of these reforms have to be put into place at once to achieve the lowering of costs, but these are what should replace Obamacare.

**Note: The effect of allowing people with “pre-existing” conditions to buy health insurance has driven up the cost of health insurance a huge amount.  The costs went up much so that they put in high-deductibles on all the policies.  High-deductible policies used to be really inexpensive and will again, once the Obamacare regulations are lifted.

Posted by in Medicine
Why not just “fix” Obamacare?

Why not just “fix” Obamacare?

People are beginning to say, “Well, can’t we just fix the bad parts of Obamacare, and leave the good parts?”   When you ask about what they think are the good parts, they usually name the fact that people can’t be denied health insurance for pre-existing conditions and they can’t be charged more for their insurance because of pre-existing conditions.  Unfortunately, the bad part, the high prices that are going through the roof, are a direct result of the good part.  So we can’t lower the cost of medical insurance if we want to have these “good parts.”  Let me explain.

Let’s talk about fire insurance on your home.  We usually understand that we have to pay for fire insurance year after year, even though we don’t have fires, so we will pay enough to the insurance company so they have the money to pay to replace our house if it does catch fire.  Now imagine if we decided to put the “good parts” of Obamacare into our fire insurance policies.  So the rule would now be that you can buy fire insurance at any time, even after your house catches fire, and you can’t be asked to pay more because of the fact your house is on fire.  (Not to mention that everyone pays the same regardless of the size of their house–e.g., community rating.)  As you could predict, if people could wait to buy fire insurance until after their house caught fire, everyone would skip paying for years on fire insurance policies and call the minute the house caught on fire.  The insurance companies would have to pay thousands every policy, and the prices would go through the roof, and/or fire insurance companies would go out of business.  That is exactly what is happening in health insurance now as a direct result of the “good parts” of Obamacare, and for the same inescapable economic reasons.

Many people will say, “But health insurance is more important than fire insurance.  It is not fair to require people to pay more for health insurance if they get sick through no fault of their own.  People need to have access to health care or else they could die. We are a rich country.  We can’t let so many people go without medical care and the insurance to pay for it.”

Regardless of how important something is someone has to pay for it.  Medical care does not become free because we really want it.  It does not even become “affordable” if someone else pays for it or other taxpayers subsidize it.  Medical care is no exception.  Every medical procedure, prescription and practice has to be paid for in real money.  We want to have a system where “price is no object” and everyone can have anything they want.  The problem is that humans have unlimited wants, even when it comes to medical care.  This demand is driving up the cost of medical care.  This is the cause of the fact that the prices for medical care and medical insurance have been rising, even faster than inflation, as we have all noticed.  In fact, the prices will keep going up until we cannot afford to pay them.

The cost of Medicare and Medicaid and Obamacare and all medical insurance are all going to keep rising until we put on the brakes and say, “No we don’t want to pay for that.”  In other words the value of medical procedures has to balanced against the cost.  If the price is too high, the customer has to say, “It’s not worth it.”  Well, actually the government is already trying to do that somewhat with Medicare and Medicaid by limiting what they will pay for.  Everyone is incensed by this denial of the procedures and services they want, but it is the only way to stop the rising costs.  If we want the government to pay for our medical care, so we don’t have to, then the government must ration what healthcare we are going to receive.  Medical care is either going to be rationed by price (only buy what you can afford) or by government edict.

A better way is to let us decide what we will pay for and what we won’t.  That is how the marketplace works best.  Prices can come down when individuals decide what they are willing to pay for and what they are not willing to pay for.  But we have to be deciding this with our own money, not someone else’s money.  No one is very careful or frugal with someone else’s money!  That’s why if we want to help poor people we need to give them more money not free health insurance.

In some areas of our economy, notably where government subsidies are absent, and government regulation and micromanagement is minimal we see competition drive down the actual prices of things.  Computers, cell phones, TVs, and clothes at WalMart have all gone down in price.  They are today more affordable than they were 20 years ago.  Even “non-covered” medical costs like the cost of Lasik or cosmetic surgery have dropped.  These things have become more affordable.

How do things like computers become more affordable–actually come down in price?  The people with less money to burn don’t buy the newest computer at the high price.  When the computer manufacturers have sold all the computers they can at the high price, they then lower the price.  They’ve probably covered their startup costs or perhaps have learned ways to make their product more efficiently.  If they haven’t figured it out, their competitors probably will.   However it happens, the producer sees that with a lower price it is possible to keep selling more and keep making a profit.  So the price comes down as the volume goes up.    As the computer becomes really more affordable, more and more people can buy it.

Just the opposite happens when something is made “affordable” by subsidizing.  Nobody is saying “That’s too expensive,” and refusing to buy it.  [This is happening with college tuition as well.] In turn, the provider has no incentive to lower the price and, in fact, research into new and more cost effective methods of delivering product will slow down to a crawl.   So the goods or services never really become affordable.  They will have to be subsidized at higher and higher rates forever.  Economically speaking subsidies are an addictive drug.

Medical care costs continue to spiral out of control because we are insulated from the real costs, two layers deep.  Those two layers make thinking about free market reforms confusing.  The first layer is medical insurance insulating us from the costs of medical care.  The second layer insulates us from the costs of insurance—by having others buy it for us. Eliminating those two layers of insulation and creating a free market in medicine would give us more control and actually make healthcare more affordable.  See “What should replace Obamacare?” for how we get there from here.



Posted by in Medicine
What is the right direction?

What is the right direction?

The right vs. the wrong direction on 9 topics

Why can’t we end the gridlock in Washington, make some sensible compromises and get the Congress to solving some of our most important problems?   The reason is that there is no way to “compromise” or “negotiate” with someone who is advocating going in the exact wrong direction.  Most of the major problems our country faces have been created by us going in the wrong direction for too long.  The problems will not be solved by continuing the failed policies that have caused the problems in the first place.  Instead, there must be a complete change in direction which cannot be achieved by compromise with the wrong direction.  Here are nine major ways we are going in the wrong direction.

  1. Stop making stuff “free” for people.  First, a basic economic fact we must understand.  In our well-intentioned efforts to spare people the indignity of not being able to afford things such as health care or college, we drive up prices by subsidizing them. We pay for the service for them or give them vouchers that can only be used for that purpose. Prices will never come down when we are doing this.  Prices only come down when customers say, “No.  I won’t buy that because it is too expensive.”  The more money that taxpayers (through the government) make available to pay for health care or college tuition, the less the high cost matters, and the higher the prices are able to go.  The only way to help people and keep prices down is to give them cash they can spend in other ways if they wish.  Then they won’t waste money on things that are too expensive and that they don’t value because they are “free.”
  2. Stop buying health coverage for people.  When it comes to medical care, our goal should be to empower customers to drive prices down through free market competition rather than to try to insulate everyone from having to pay anything for health care.  More subsidies and more coverage paid for by the employer or the government keep making the problem worse.  That is the wrong direction.  Instead we have to move towards paying for more of it ourselves so we all become more sensitive to the price of health care.  If we keep going in this wrong direction, the price of medical care will grow until we can no longer afford it as a nation, and instead will have to rely on the government to ration care so it isn’t so expensive.  Again, if we gave people the money that they could spend in other ways they would begin to economize.
  3. Stop buying college for people.  When it comes to college tuition, our goal should be twofold: 1) to increase competition and alternatives to traditional college education and 2) to reduce the various government subsidies that drive up the cost of college.  If people could gain entry to various professions through other means, the colleges would have to compete for customers.  College tuition costs would have to come down if they weren’t being subsidized.  So making college “free” for students is the exact opposite of the direction we need to go.  If instead of scholarships and grants, we gave money that the recipients could spend however they want, e.g., to start a business or on any type of vocational training they wanted, the price of college would go down.
  4. Stop providing in-kind benefits.  In our well-intentioned efforts to help poor people, we put in place more and more programs and benefits that are available only while they are dependent.  When the poor make an effort to become self-supporting by earning money with a job, they lose as much or more than they gain.  That makes dependency a trap.  Most of what is being lobbied for when it comes to the poor is in the wrong direction. Give them money they can spend any way they wish and they can keep as they start earning money.
  5. Re-instate the starting rungs on the career ladder.  When it comes to poor people, our goal should be to help them become self-supporting and to make sure there are more rungs at the bottom of the ladder and strong incentives for getting off the dole—rather than supporting programs that trap them in dependence.   More rungs at the bottom of the ladder include eliminating the minimum wage, eliminating licensing requirements in most occupations, and eliminate all barriers to starting your own business.  Strong incentives for self-sufficiency means more private charitable help that can be flexible, fewer programs and services for the poor and more direct payments that do not cut off abruptly when you get a job.
  6. Eliminate the government monopoly in education.  When it comes to K-12 education, our goal should be to unleash creativity and innovation through increasing school choice options rather than to give more money to the teacher’s unions or more power to educational bureaucrats.   Top-down mandates from even the most well-intentioned officials, while they attempt to ensure social justice, can only stifle needed innovation.  One-size-fits-all governance cannot possibly drive schools, teachers or pupils towards excellence—only the freedom to try new things can do that.  The right direction is to allow and encourage a variety of forms of school choice so that parents can decide what is best for their own children.  And Education Savings Accounts enable families to be frugal with their dollars to help drive down the costs of K-12 education.
  7. Eliminate regulations and barriers to new business formation.  When it comes to creating jobs, our goal should be to remove barriers that inhibit new business formation.  Our economy stagnates because of the innumerable obstacles to entrepreneurship that has depressed the development of new businesses to its lowest rate perhaps ever.  The free market has sufficient incentives to foster new business formation if government rules, regulations and taxes were gotten out of the way.  The more rules and regulations that are imposed on businesses by government agencies, the fewer businesses will be started.  The more rights and benefits that are mandated for every job that is created, the fewer jobs will be created.   More rules, regulations, rights and benefits mandated by those who mean well are the exact wrong direction.  Instead, we need to be dismantling those as rapidly as possible.
  8. Free trade unilaterally.  When it comes to trade we have to realize that trade is the driver of our prosperity.  Trading freely with whomever we wish is the key to getting the most out of life.  While some people do lose jobs and some businesses fail due to competition from abroad, it only impoverishes all of us to erect trade barriers that attempt to protect us from that competition.  Instead, we need to ensure that our economy is vibrant, active and growing so that there are ample opportunities for those whose jobs are lost in one industry or another.  Change is an inevitable component of growth, but a healthy economy can find plenty of places for people who are displaced by change.  See above for how to ensure that adequate numbers of jobs are created.  Erecting barriers to trade is the exact wrong direction to go.
  9. Balance the budget.  When it comes to our increasing government debt, we have to reduce spending below what we are taking in so we can reduce the debt.  Continuing to spend more that we take in is the wrong direction.  We need to reduce spending, reduce programs, go to zero-based budgeting and keep cutting until we are generating surpluses that can pay down the debt.

We need to turn our country around to go in the right direction.  We cannot achieve that by compromising with the wrong direction.  Gridlock is preferable to going in the wrong direction.


Posted by in Political philosophy