Mike Kueber's Blog

January 4, 2012

Room for Debate – Are teachers overpaid?

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 11:53 am
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The New York Times includes recurring articles titled, “Room for Debate” in which an ad hoc selection of experts weigh in on an issue-of-the-day.  Part of the appeal for the articles is that, although the arguments are relatively brief (a few hundred words), they are significantly more educational that the sound-bites from experts that are contained in typical reporting.  Yesterday’s Room for Debate article was titled, “Are teachers overpaid?”   Although this seems like an ideal topic – with experts re-examining the conventional wisdom that increased compensation will increase teacher quality and that this will increase educational performance – I found the ad hoc experts provided almost no insights.

The only experts who provided insights were the two authors of a a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that concluded teachers receive salaries that are comparable those received by similarly bright, educated individuals in the private sector, but when fringe benefits are factored in, the total teacher compensation is almost 50% higher.

In the NY Times article, the two employees from the Heritage Foundation argue, not only that are teachers are already overpaid compared to private sector employees, but also that studies reveal higher pay will not attract better teachers.  According to them, the existing money in education will suffice if schools are reformed so that good teachers are hired and retained and bad teachers fired.  Another ad hoc expert, an employee from the Reason Foundation, says essentially the same thing as the Heritage Foundation in her argument.

The other three arguments questioned the statistical soundness of the Heritage report and countered with arguments less grounded in facts and statistics.  One said that he intuitively knew that “salary matters,” and the other said that because teaching is important, the profession should be highly compensated.  That second argument reminds me of a widely discredited argument from years ago for “comparative worth” in determining salaries.  As long as America has a capitalistic economy, compensation needs to be based on supply & demand, not on comparative worth.

From my perspective, the Heritage report and findings make sense – i.e., there is enough money in education.  To improve education, we need to spend the money on good teachers and quit spending it on bad teachers.  But the remaining four arguments did little to discredit the Heritage report and nothing in terms of intelligently responding to the question. 


October 18, 2011

Room for Debate – fewer babies, for better or worse

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:44 am
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The topic for this weekend’s Room for Debate in the NY Times is the declining rate of population growth.  The jumping-off point for this debate is a report from the Social Trends Institute warning that falling fertility rates — not only in Japan and Western Europe, but also in China and the United States – endanger robust long-term economic growth and viable welfare states.

What a topsy-turvy world.  It’s been just three years since the world economy was thrown into turmoil because America tried to get every breathing American to buy a house.  Just yesterday I blogged about a pundit who complained that American consumers were saving too much money.   Apparently, the pundit thinks the American economy depends on its consumers spending like drunken sailors.  And now the Social Trends Institute thinks the world’s modern welfare states won’t be able to survive unless they continually take in larger numbers of participants.  I guess we’ll resume worrying about over-population later.

As Waylon Jennings used to croon, we need to get back to the basics – things like working, saving, and spending, in that order.  Or we need to stop the tail from wagging the dog.

Getting back to the debate about fewer babies, the seven debaters are excellent, and they provide us with a number of wide-ranging insights on this issue:

  1. William Ryerson adopts my position – “In short, we need to plan for flat and probably shrinking populations and not try to postpone the day when those goals are achieved. Otherwise, we face serious environmental and social problems.”  Ryerson also throws in a charge that his policy opponents are favoring a quasi-Ponzi scheme.
  2. Laurie DeRose argues that immigration can provide a win-win solution by relieving undeveloped countries with too much population growth supplementing too-little population growth in developed countries.
  3. Jan Ting argues that immigration is not a panacea for America unless it is reformed to favor immigrants with talents and abilities.  The current illegal immigration will not benefit America because these unskilled people will take more from the system than they put in.
  4. Nicolas Eberstadt notes, “Population did not boom because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits, but rather because they finally stopped dying like flies: the ‘population explosion’ was in reality a ‘health explosion.’”  The countries of the world need to recognize this change and then develop policies that reflect it.  People are going to live longer, healthier lives, and that will require us to adjust our thinking regarding the timing of retirement.
  5. Philip Cafaro sounds a lot like me and Ryerson: “That’s all right, though, since the real purpose of an economy is not to grow ever larger, but to provide for people’s sustenance, security and well-being. We need to create economies that accomplish this without depending on growth.
  6. Wolfgang Lutz is in the same boat as Cafaro, Ryerson, and me: “Fertility rates somewhat below replacement level are good for all nations and for the world as long as they come along with higher investments in education.

Thankfully, no one seems ready to heed the warning of the Social Trends Institute that declining fertility rates endanger a viable welfare state.

October 10, 2011

The American work ethic

Filed under: Culture,Fitness — Mike Kueber @ 6:13 am
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I grew up on a farm in North Dakota at a time when strenuous physical labor was a part of the job description.  In addition to driving various vehicles, my brothers and I performed a bunch of manual, backbreaking chores, the worst of which were the following:

  • Pick rocks by hand
  • Shovel shit
  • Fix fences
  • Haul hay bales

I’ve always felt that the work ethic I learned as a kid in ND gave me a head-start in staying in good physical condition as I have aged, and I was concerned that as urban kids in America were exposed to a softer time growing up, our country might lose the ability to physically compete with kids from other countries.

You might counter-argue that in the future we are more likely to compete with our brains than with our brawn, but that is not always true.  Wars are not going away.

In my mind, America kicked ass in WWII because of all our tough farm kids, and I suspect that America continues to kick ass in wars because of enhanced training.  But I feared that eventually the softer urban life would catch up with America, and the result may be that we don’t have the toughest soldiers.

My fear about the softening of America has started dissipating in recent years because, based on my experience at Lifetime Fitness, I have seen that American kids are adapting to an urban life without being softened.  None of these kids have to haul bales or shovel shit or pick rocks, but they remain sufficiently motivated to build big muscles.  I don’t think we have worry about some kids from Russia or Iran or China kicking sand in our face.

While I was doing all of this amateur, informal thinking about the softening of America, the NY Times was formally considering it.  A “Room for Debate” article in the NY Times today
explored whether America’s work ethic was weakening.  The article was prompted by the common complaint by proponents of illegal immigration that Americans were unwilling to take the
tougher manual-labor jobs, such as picking fruit or hoeing weeds.  One of the debaters in the Times opined anecdotally that Americans weren’t lazier, but perhaps were softer – i.e., we would do something that was grueling mentally, but not if it was grueling physically.  Another argued that we would do grueling physical labor if it were well paid.

The key to handling issues like this one is to understand that America has a tradition of freedom and that freedom will enable Americans to resolve more issues by adapting on their own without the need for help from the so-called smart people in Washington, D.C.

September 28, 2011

Animals have feelings, too.

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 5:38 am
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Many years ago, the Kueber boys earned spending money during the long winter months in North Dakota by trapping muskrats.  We would set traps in the muskrat huts, and then check the traps daily.  When we were lucky enough to catch a muskrat in our trap, we would use a hammer to hit the muskrat in the head to kill it, and then put it in a pile to await its eventual sale.

In hindsight, the killing of the muskrats seems almost barbaric, but at that time, we had no empathy for the animal.  Man was at the top of the food chain, and that was all that mattered.

Earlier this week, however, I read a Room-For-Debate article in the NY Times that touched on the subject of animal rights – i.e., the difference between banning the sale of fur and allowing the sale of leather.   The article focused on the killing of animals and provided six different viewpoints:

  1. If we accept animals as sentient beings, how can we personally justify their exploitation, including their killing, for food, clothing, entertainment, science or any other reason?
  2. Most of us accept that imposing “unnecessary” pain, suffering and death on animals is wrong. Whatever “necessity” means in this context, it implies that it is wrong to impose suffering or death for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. But those are the only justifications we have for imposing suffering and death on over 56 billion animals (not counting fish) we kill annually worldwide for food. No one maintains we need to eat animal products for optimal health, and there is a growing consensus that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster.  We eat animals because they taste good. And if that’s O.K., what’s wrong with wearing fur? We need as a society to think seriously about our institutionalized animal use.  Efforts like the West Hollywood fur ‘ban’ will not get us any closer to that goal.
  3. Using animals, including their fur or organs, to improve, even entertain, people is justified given the relatively greater importance of people versus other animals. There is a hierarchy in nature, and denying it is not warranted.
  4. In truth, there is little distinction between wearing fur and wearing leather.  Both involve animals being treated inhumanely, dying in a not particularly pleasant way, and then being turned into a product. But that doesn’t mean the vote in West Hollywood to ban the sale of fur products is an empty gesture. It highlights the fact that cruelty is taking place, and for those who are passionate about animal rights, it is a small step in the right direction.
  5. It is unlikely that the West Hollywood law will suffer a similar fate. If the law is challenged, judges will probably conclude that there is at least some “rational basis” for it, such as the need to protect fur-bearing animals from overhunting. Nor will it matter that the law bans the sale of fur clothing, but permits the sale of leather items. Such distinctions are also subject only to minimal scrutiny. Nonetheless, the debate over this case and others like it could help increase public awareness of the need to enforce constitutional protections for economic liberty.
  6. West Hollywood’s ban on sales of fur is a move in the right direction. However, we must work to ban the sales of leather and hides, too. So yes, there is some hypocrisy in the ban, but it’s better than no ban at all.

Only two of the arguments (#3 and #5) suggest that animals can be killed to service the desires of human beings.  The others posit than such killing is unethical.

Call me barbaric, but I think there is a food chain and that animals are destined to eat and be eaten.  If cattle were not destined to be food, they
would have no reason to live.

September 21, 2011

Income inequality in America

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:16 pm
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My two big concerns about America are its burgeoning debt and its mushrooming income inequality.  One threatens to destroy our economy and the other threatens to erode our national cohesiveness.  The solution to our debt problem seems relatively straight-forward – quit spending more than we take in – although that solution is complicated by our inability to pull out of the 2008-2009 recession.  Solving the problem of income inequality is more problematic.

Some conservatives have suggested that income inequality can be ameliorated by improving economic and social mobility.  If people have the opportunity to improve themselves, they will.  Liberals are more inclined to reduce inequality by governmental redistribution of wealth.  President Obama’s comment to Joe the Plumber (“spread the wealth around”) reflects this sentiment.

The New York Times recently did a Room-for-Debate article on whether taxes can be used effectively to narrow income inequality.    Although that is an excellent question, the seven commentators failed miserably to provide any insights.  It was almost as if the commentators were in a political debate and felt free to ignore the question and put forth any information or opinion they had without regard to answering the question.

Only Commentator #6 provided something that I considered useful.  Chrystia Freeland, an editor-at-large for Thomson Reuters suggested two causes for the growing income inequality:

  1. The left blames the pro-rich tax policy and the decline of unions.
  2. The right blames globalization (hurts those on the low end) and the technological revolution (helps those on the top end).  The result is an hourglass economy with a squeezed middle class.

Freeland concludes by saying the following:

  • Justice is a central issue in American politics and in American society. That’s why it seems so important to figure out whether the rich are paying their fair share. It is a crucial question — and the truth is that the rich are getting a better deal than they used to. But the even more central issue — and it is one that both left and right are reluctant to acknowledge — is that the fundamental forces shaping U.S. capitalism today are hostile to the middle-class majority, which defines U.S. democracy.  The rancor and the paralysis that characterize American politics at the moment are the result of this conflict.  Someone needs to admit that modern capitalism isn’t working for the middle class, and find a way to make it work better, before it is too late.”

Talk about begging the question.  I will have to keep looking for a reform to modern capitalism that works for the middle class.




June 4, 2011

Room for Debate – What Medicare services to cut immediately?

Filed under: Medical — Mike Kueber @ 3:59 pm
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The New York Times has a weekly column titled, “Room for Debate,” in which ten subject-matter experts debate an issue by providing a succinct explanation of their position.  This week’s column asks the experts to identify those Medicare services that should be cut immediately.

Politicians would never answer a question like this because they know that specific answers get them in trouble.  Instead, they insist on talking in
generalities.  Among their favorite stock answers is to “eliminate waste and fraud.”

Of course, some would argue that Medicare doesn’t need to cut services if other efficiencies can be obtained.  In fact, some conservatives would demagogue this issue by saying that cutting services is rationing and puts us on a slippery slope to death panels.

I agree that Medicare reform will need to focus on finding efficiencies, but there is much benefit to be gained by cutting some
services, and this column is an excellent starting point for the discussion.  It suggests cutting the following:

  1. Aggressive therapies.  Stop paying for CPR, dialysis and other aggressive therapies when patients have no chance for cure or recovering
  2. PSA tests.  Medicare should stop paying for prostate cancer screening in men over the age of 75.
  3. Three ideas from one expert – (1) Aricept, the Exelon Patch and other drugs for Alzheimer’s disease that doctors agree have limited, if any, utility for the patient and are essentially placebos for family members; (2) Joint replacements for people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who are too cognitively impaired to participate in physical therapy and thus will never walk again after the surgery; and (3) Mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies and other cancer screenings when —– and only when —- nobody has even bothered to ask the
    patient whether they would treat cancer if it were found. Some would, thus lengthening their lives. Others, depending on age, philosophy and what else ails them, would decline.
  4. Dual eligibles.  These are the nearly nine million people, representing one in five Medicare beneficiaries, who are eligible for services
    through both Medicare and Medicaid.  They are stuck in a crevice between Medicare and Medicaid where no one is overseeing their total care, leading to gaps, duplication and poor outcomes.  Providing them with truly integrated care could significantly improve their lives and also help reduce health costs by providing timely, appropriate managed treatment.
  5. “Medically necessary” care.  Medicare’s payment standard is not patient-centered. One guiding principle is: “Is this service or procedure “medically necessary”? Medically necessary is a murky and malleable term, and too often patients, those most directly affected, do not get to choose what medically necessary means.  Saying “no” to nonbeneficial care is only part of the answer. Medicare beneficiaries and their families have the right to honest, objective, compassionate information to help them make difficult choices, especially at the end of life.
  6. Outsourcing the evaluation of treatments to Britain.  Because Americans are cost-control wimps, Medicare should stop paying for treatments that the British Medical Journal says probably don’t work.  Today, United States agencies that try to not pay for ineffective treatments face the wrath of Congress, egged on by the surgeons and drug companies whose revenue is threatened. So far, U.S. agencies have pretty much always backed down, and just paid for everything.  The British control costs in part by having the will to empower a hard-nosed agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, to study treatments and declare some ineffective. Some hope the United States will create a similar agency, but I fear it would be hopelessly politicized and declawed.
  7. Rely on hospices instead of I.C.U.  Medicare should stop paying for futile end-of-life care provided in intensive care units (I.C.U.s). In other words, hospital care for the terminally ill that has no curative potential and is solely life-prolonging should not be covered.
  8. Comparative Effectiveness Research.  There is no requirement that a new therapy be proven better than its predecessor.  Comparative Effectiveness Research was funded in the recovery bill of 2009. As projects are funded and evidence accumulates, consideration should be given to whether equally or less effective treatments should be covered by Medicare when there is a significant
    disparity in cost.
  9. Reducing overhead.  Eliminating unneeded overhead, like Medicare Advantage, would save Medicare nearly $100 billion annually.  [This expert’s response sounded suspiciously like “waste and fraud.”  If I were grading these responses, I would sent it back and ask him to focus on medical services that could be cut.]
  10. Oncologists.  Many cancer patients spend their last days undergoing treatments that both oncologists and hospitals know will give them a
    few extra weeks, at best a couple of months.  Too many hospitals let oncologists decide whether a palliative care team can see someone he views as “my patient.” Why?  Hospitals are afraid of their “rainmakers” (physicians who bring in well-insured patients). So the oncologist is allowed to block the consult, while ordering more chemo. Over half the profits in oncology flow from drug sales.