Friday, December 16, 2005

Milton Friedman on School Vouchers

In their 1979 book, “Free to Choose,” Milton and Rose Friedman wrote an essay entitled “What’s Wrong with Our Schools.” It should be required reading for anyone who wishes to debate the current state of the American public school system and the changes which are needed. One of the observations the Friedmans make is this: if every family in every district had the same income and wealth, then schools could simply be paid for by tuition assessments while each family had kids in school.

But that’s not the way things are. There is a broad spectrum of wealth and income, and those with wealth are prone to form exclusive (i.e. discriminatory) communities with other wealthy families. In this country, we may not discriminate by race, creed, color, or national origin, but we most certainly discriminate by wealth.
The cost the wealthy bear for being allowed to perpetrate that discrimination is that they must pay a ransom, in the form of school taxes, which is used to subsidize schools in poor neighborhoods.

Here in Ohio, schools are funded by a mixture of local taxes and state taxes. The local school district may collect both property and income taxes, although most use property taxes alone. The state tax is entirely income based. While the local taxes collected remain within the district, the state redistributes the income taxes it collects in inverse proportion to the taxes collected locally. The residents of wealthy districts pay out much more state income tax than they receive back, with most of their state income tax money going to the poor districts.

Why doesn’t this socialist approach to funding work? Because crummy schools run by inept administrators get money anyway! The urban district in our city spends more per child than many of the suburban districts, yet is among the worst districts in our state in terms of attendance, graduation, college admission and on standardized testing.

Giving that district more money won’t solve the problem. Giving the parents and kids a choice WHERE they go to school will. A voucher system as outlined by the Friedmans can work.

Let’s give it a try.

Four Days in NYC with your kid: Priceless

I needed to attend a meeting in New York, so I invited my 20yr old daughter, a pre-med major, along for the ride. I was delighted that she accepted. We got in two days of fun experiences:

- Harlem (NBPC headquarters)
- Upper East Side & Central Park
- FAO Schwartz
- Trump Tower
- Tiffany's
- Macy's
- St Patrick's Cathedral
- Times Square
- Today Show broadcast (okay, we were outside on the street)
- Empire State Building (we had the whole 102nd floor to ourselves)
- World Trade Center site
- Wall St
- Chinatown
- Little Italy
- Grand Central Terminal
- Penn Station
- Toys R Us Times Square
- Dave Letterman Show (we were in the audience)
- Lots of subway rides, and a couple of train rides (out to the NJ suburbs)

We had a GREAT time. A father is truly blessed when his child eagerly spends time with him. Thanks kid!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

No Child Left Behind -- How do you pay for it?

Still no well-developed thoughts yet, but one angle hit me this morning: Does NCLB place any requirements on a school system that should not be there?

Let's forget about administrative costs for the moment, and just think about what outcomes NCLB is after. Are there any of those outcomes which are bad or fruitless?

I hear school administrators (including the ones in my family) say NCLB is an unfunded mandate, as though that is something new, or something necessarily bad.

There are all kinds of requirements placed on school systems that aren't necessarily followed by funding from the government entity that issues the requirement. For example, school buildings are required to have fire alarm systems and sprinklers for the safety of the students and staff. This requirement is usually set by the state or municipal building code. But there is no expectation on the part of the school administration that either one of those government entities will provide the money to add the fire safety systems to the school buildings.

After all, the people that would be taxed by the municipality are the same folks who get taxed by the school system. So in the end, it doesn't make any difference which entity collects the tax, the same people are paying for the safety systems.

Maybe we should think of NCLB as a "safety standard." What one labels things can make a big difference in how others think about it (you can sell “manure” at the garden store, but not “feces”). The intended purpose of NCLB, at least as I understand it, is to ensure that school systems don't just give up on the kids that are challenging or expensive to educate.

Like the installation of a fire safety system, implementing NCLB will cost more in districts that don't already pay attention to the kids on the margin. The question is where that money should come from, and that question takes us back to libertarian vs liberal political views (more labels).

My view, which I guess you could label as libertarian, is that you should leave local matters up to local governments, and the more localized the better. In the case of NCLB, I can accept that the federal government has the duty and power to set national education standards that have to be met if you want to run a school. I’m also supportive of the concept that every American kid must have access to a decent education.

So now the question becomes: To how small a government entity can we delegate the funding duty?

A single school system is too small, at least here in Ohio. The approach of having urban, suburban and rural school districts, funded primarily by property taxes, means there is a broad diversity in the economic capacity across districts. So you need to have some kind of Robin Hood taxation system which pulls money from the wealthiest areas and gives it to the poorest ones.

In Ohio, we perform the redistribution function at the state level. Another choice is at the county level, and that might work pretty well here in Franklin County. But then Madison County, our neighbor to the west, might be in trouble. It is almost all farmland, but with suburban sprawl moving over its borders. That means more kids but an insufficient tax base, because of the lack of significant commercial activity in that county. I suppose that we could contemplate school funding zones which are comprised of multiple counties – something on the order of economic zones as defined by the US Dept of Commerce. Maybe we match them up with Congressional districts – wouldn’t that put on new spin on gerrymandering?!

That bring us to exactly where Ohio is today – overlaying the district level funding with a statewide funding system. It may not be working well, but it could if our elected officials fulfilled their duty. Ohio has a broad enough economy that we should be able to fund and administer our NCLB duties entirely within the state.

But what about my home state of West Virginia? The population of the entire state is about the same as Greater Columbus, but WV has very little commercial underpinnings, and it is shrinking every day (one bright spot is the major presence Toyota has established near Charleston). WV schools need help from other states to if they are to operate at higher standards.

Seems to me that if you argue that the federal government should fund any standard they put in place, then you are saying that the Robin Hood system for school funding should be broadened to the federal level. In other words, there are states which cannot raise the money to fund NCLB within their own borders.

Remember, every school system in every town, in every county, in every state has to meet the same standard. Every citizen of the US that the federal government would tax is also a citizen of a state, a county and a community.

If we think NCLB should be funded at the federal level, then why not federalize all public schools?

Which brings up situations like New Orleans. At what point does it become the duty of the head of a household to say, “it sucks around here, let’s move someplace better.” During the middle of the 20th century, there was a mass migration from Appalachia to the manufacturing centers in Ohio and Michigan. During the Depression, waves of people moved from the Ozarks to California. Those folks didn’t wait for the government to come make their life better – they lashed everything they could to the pickup and headed for the promised land.

When we use federal money to rebuild cities wiped out by natural disasters or to fund schools in failing economic zones, it seems to me like we are underwriting the bad decisions and fear of risktaking (in terms of moving) on the part of folks who want to stay in those areas. Maybe one of the key problems in America is that we built such a comprehensive social safety net that folks no longer feel at risk for much of anything, expecting someone else to bail them out (a thought planted by a friend). If insurance doesn’t cover our loss, there’s always someone to sue for insult and injury.

Without that sense of being already 'at risk,' we've lost our motivation to take risks. It was that motivation that caused our ancestors to come to America and give the great experiment a try. I bet the Fall of Rome began when the Roman citizens lost their fear of being invaded. I think that's where we are in the US today.

Fat, dumb and happy indeed.

Nationalized Legal Care

While we're contemplating the wisdom of a national health care system, why don't we talk about a nationalized legal care system as well?

I mean, I feel kinda deprived because there's lots of lawsuits I might be able to file if I only had the money to hire a lawyer to examine my life and figure out what injuries and insults I could make someone else pay for. If we had a nationalized legal care system, I could just go down to my local legal aid office and get a public servant/lawyer assigned to me.

I bet I could figure out a way to take just about all the risk out of my life with a comprehensive set of contracts, court orders, and settlements that specify the terms of all my relationships with friends, merchants, service providers, and even members of my church congregation. There would be no action whatsoever which I could take that would cause me personally to bear the cost of an unexpected negative outcome. And if someone else does me wrong -- look out.

Oh wait a minute, I forgot that everyone else would have all these things too. Sounds like it could be a statemate. At least it would be full employment for the lawyers...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Education = Prosperity?

In his blog, Professor Jim Horn observes
"What makes this morning’s New York Times
school demonization
any different from the average garden variety one, is that this time, in its
haste to lambaste the schools by making test score comparisons with other
nations, Staples does not bother to note that the other better nation, this time
Japan, has been in economic recession for over 15 years, despite its seemingly
advanced education strategies grounded in homogeneity and groupthink. I ask you,
Mr. Staples, is this the kind of model that we should emulate to keep America
from becoming “a second-rate economic power?”
I think Professor Horn is trying to get our public education system off the hook for being the chief cause of all ills in America, and I agree with him on this point. He makes a great observation that Japan has an education system which is widely viewed as a producer of well-educated kids. Yet their economy is not doing well at all. You could say the same thing about Germany.

But if you buy into this perspective, I think one of the actions you would have to argue for is allocating fewer resources to something we're not so good at (running the public education system), and allocating more to developing the economy to drive up employment and GNP.

Did America become a great economic and political power because our educational system was exceptional -- producing a smarter population than anyone else? If you go back to the dawn of the American industrial age, I don't think that was the case. America's strength flowed from: a) a political environment that allowed entrepreneurs to have a shot of success; b) a wealth of natural resources for the taking; c) a labor force that was willing to work hard to get their shot at the good life; and, d) having the good luck to form our country at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

You didn't need much education to work in a steel mill and earn a good wage. But that was because we had lots of steel mills, and came to dominate the world market. We've lost many of those manufacturing jobs to other countries. The whole middle class is disappearing from our economy. We increasing have only highly educated professionals and hamburger flippers, with not much in between. We need to have industries that employ lots of people. Even better if those products are desired outside our country and we can generate export income.
Many American jobs have been lost to uneducated workers elsewhere in the world. Maybe its more important to have employed Americans than educated Americans. These aren't mutually exclusive conditions, but you can't eat a diploma.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Subscription TV

The following was a response written to a comment on Mark Cuban's log: blog maverick

As we saw at CompuServe, technical capability/capacity and the uses of those capabilities/capacities ratcheted steadily upward over the years. When everyone was timesharing via line oriented text user interfaces on monochrome monitors (and teletypes!!), 300bps modems were sufficient. When higher speed modems appeared (especially 9600bps), some said "wow, we'll be able to print out those long reports to the local printer a lot faster now." But others said, you know, I think we can transmit color graphics and whole files with that much bandwidth.
The same kind of thing happened when broadband came into the home. At first, it just seemed like a faster way to do old things the old way. But there was always something waiting in the wings that just needed the greater capacity. Music sharing became the killer app.

On demand HDTV over the internet is one of those applications we all see coming down the road, but only because we've seen primitive video over the internet already, and now want a more variety and more quality. Consumers see the internet as a vehicle to get whatever they want whenever they want, and are impatient for the world's video archive to be put online (sounds a little like Audionet, huh?)

Meanwhile, I think television could turn into a subscription medium. You don't just watch "Desperate Housewives," you subscribe to it. With that subscription, you purchase the right and ability to download and record the current episode when it is broadcast. It doesn't matter when you watch it, although the really hot shows will be broadcast during "prime time" so that its audience gets a chance to see it at the same time as all their friends (don't want to be the last one to see a really juicy episode).

For many other kinds of shows (think "American Chopper"), the broadcast time might be in the middle of the night. But no one cares because you're recording it to view later anyway.

The key is that the show is distributed via a one-to-many broadcast technology, either directly from satellite or from a local terrestrial station. I don't know enough about the comparative economics of the two, but suspect that satellite distribution is much cheaper, although the customer-end equipment is more expensive.

My satellite TV service, DISH, broadcasts something like 150 channels all the time. That means that in one day, they could broadcast 3,600 unique one hour programs. In a week, it would be 25,200 unique one hour programs. Right now, a lot of those slots are filled up with informercials and junk. Why not instead fill them with subscription feeds?

It could be very democratic. Create a website with a library of all the possible programs. At any given time, viewers could submit bids for the programs they want to see broadcast. Since each hour represents 150 hours of broadcast capacity (using the DISH network as an example), at say 30 mins prior to the top of the hour, the top 150 vote getters would be retrieved and queued up, and at the top of the hour, they would get broadcast. Any show not making the top 150 that hour would be in the running for the auction in the following hour. There might be a show that takes a month to collect enough bids to make it to the top 150. That's okay too.

Maybe you pay for every bid, or maybe you get 100 bids/month for your monthly subscription. Maybe you can only record a show you bid on, or maybe you can record any show that gets broadcast as long as you pay your monthly subscription.

What's the money trail? Boy, lots of possibilities here. One is that the broadcaster (satellite company), pulls off a slice of every subscription for their trouble, and then the show producers get paid directly based on the proportion of total downloads their show gets every month. The producers are free to bury ad spots and product placement in their feed if they want to try to make a little extra money. Viewers can decide whether the show is good enough to put up with this stuff.

Let's preserve the wires for time-critical and narrowly focused telecommunications, at least until the wire-based technology gains a couple of orders of magnitude of price/performance. We can push 'television' to satellites if we're willing to experiment with radically different revenue models.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Charter Schools, Vouchers and Privatization

I'm a big fan of the theory behind charter schools and vouchers because they give a choice to consumers (parents, kids, and even teachers) and cause money to flow to the schools that are getting results. This is exactly how our college system works in the US, and there's no reason why it can't work for elementary and secondary schools as well.

Would I be even happier if all schools were private? Maybe, but we need to ensure that everyone has access to a good education regardless of their ability to pay. There's no way to do that except to figure out a way to get money from the wealthy to subsidize the education of the poor.

The typical way of achieving this is to collect taxes and then let government entities make the decisions how to redistribute the money to public schools. The problem is that the people who make the decisions about how to distribute and use the money are politicians and bureaucrats who rarely demonstrate the ability to perform this function well. The charter school fiasco is an example. Once the vultures of our society learned that money was being handed out without adequate controls, all kinds of unqualified folks opened up charter schools to make a fast buck. The money was wasted and the kids got nothing.

Again, the college system provides a model. My eldest attended a private school here in Ohio. It was expensive, and our financial condition was such that we could not qualify for any financial aid. But this school is also known for giving generous scholarships to promising kids, which no doubt contributes to the excellence of the school. I’ve always joked that when you paid full tuition to a good private college, you are paying for both your own kid and one on scholarship. But I think it’s the truth, and it’s also okay with me.

The youngest considered Northwestern before choosing the Honors Program at Ohio State. One of things that really impressed me about Northwestern was that they said they select the students they want first (which is based on much more than academics), then figured out the funding. The student who gave us the campus tour said she came from the ghettos of Chicago, but was attending Northwestern for free. That’s the way it should be done.

For K-12, it would be a daunting task to go through same kind of admissions process used by colleges. That’s where vouchers come in. Every kid gets a voucher that’s worth say $10,000 per year, and can spend it at any accredited school. Each school can decide how to allocate that money to buildings, equipment, staff, books, extracurricular activities, and so on. Some may choose not to have sports, and put all the money into PhD level teachers in math and science. Others may focus on what we today call ‘vocational education.’ Others may have an athletic orientation, but not as a taxpayer-funded all-day playground. The athletics would have to be tied to a rigorous academic program.

A voucher could not just automatically be redeemed for cash. I propose that the number of vouchers which get redeemed is tied to performance on standardized tests. For example, if you have 500 kids in a school, but only 450 pass the tests, the school can only redeem 450 vouchers. You have trust that the test are valid measures of academic achievement, but we have already crossed that bridge. With this approach, bad schools are rapidly starved out, even if the parents don’t care, as is sometimes the case.

For parents who are really concerned about their kids’ education, the voucher system allows them to select schools which provide the education and environment they want for their kids, regardless of the family’s financial status. For the parents who don’t care, the tie of the voucher reimbursement to test scores keeps the parents’ ambivalence from letting bad schools carry on anyway.

Okay, so here’s the more radical component of vouchers: I believe that the public school system should be disbanded and converted to a 100% private system. A school corporation must be accredited and chartered by the state to be able to redeem vouchers, but the management of such a school is selected by a Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors is elected by those who turn in vouchers to attend the school. Each school corporation determines it own compensation program for staff, including the school calendar, salaries and benefits. Teachers are free to form unions, and school corporations are free to decide whether they will be union shops.

Some school corporations will specialize in K-6 perhaps, running just one building or hundreds of buildings across the state. Other school corporations will do K-12, but only in one community. There might even be school corporations that run only 9-12 schools that specialize in music and the arts. The combinations are endless. Larger school corporations might use their economies of scale to enable academic programs which smaller corporations just cannot afford. As an example of what I mean, as a computer science major I attended Ohio State in the 1970s because they had one of the largest academic computer complexes in the country, something a little school like my eldest’s private college could never afford. However, she studied music education, which doesn’t require a big capital budget. It was much more important for her to have access to well-respected faculty and to get to go on performance tours.

It could work. But it means wrestling power away from the politicians. And that takes an involved and informed public (whoops, slipped into another rant).


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Free TV a Goner?

WSJ 11/14/05 p B8 "Hollywood Writers Push Back Against Product Placement"

The Writers Guild of America wants a code of conduct developed which requires disclosure at the beginning of each TV show of the products which were incorporated because of placement deals (i.e. as opposed to being part of the writer's storyline). If the studios don't go along with this, the writers intend to seek support from the FCC.
One of the signs of the end of an industry is when its incumbents seek the government's help in maintaining the status quo, rather than let free market forces drive sellers to produce what buyers desire.

It's not that I don't understand where the writers are coming from. Their ability to get future employment is heavily influenced by how their prior work is perceived by future employers. If the requirements of a product placement deal make a writer's scripts look like a joke, potential future employers might disregard that writer as a candidate for future scripts. The writers are probably just as concerned that their peers will look down their noses at them unless the writer can say "they made me put that big speech about Lime Coke in the love scene."

Television writers misunderstand their role. They aren't journalists, who have a higher calling to seek truth and communicate it to the public. Writers get paid when they produce something for which someone is willing to pay, like a TV script with embedded product placement. Seems to me that if a writer is really good, they might be able to weave product placement into a script almost seamlessly. If the scripts the writers produce are valuable and scarce, they have more power to set terms and conditions. But if that were true, they wouldn't need the government to intervene.The folks who produce and distribute TV shows are realizing that their world is at the beginning of a radical change, and they're desperately trying to figure out what the new revenue model will be.

Advertising revenue from discrete 30sec commercials is about to evaporate. The people who run the television business aren't going to let their ability to participate in the future of video entertainment get screwed up by the writers. For every Guild member who refuses to write for a show because they don't like something, there will be multiple underemployed writers willing to take their place. The Writers Guild needs to adopt or be rendered irrelevant.

Very few creators of art get to make a lot of money and also have complete control of their product. Mozart died penniless because he value art over wealth. We're all thankful for that. "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand is a classic story of artist freedom versus art-for-money. I'm sure television writers are frequently asked to change their scripts to meet someone else's needs (e.g. to support a political position). Is there a real difference here?

So to the members of the Writers Guild, you have a choice:
  • Resist change, and cry to the government for help if you don't get your way. Your employers will find a way to do without you.
  • Work on updating your craft, and figure out how to blend the commercial requirements of your business with your artistic vision. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  • Get out of the business now. If you want freedom, write a book --- oh, wait a minute, I forgot about the editors.

Guess you need to write a blog...

Sunday, October 23, 2005


A good friend of mine, a gentleman in his 80s, asked me to explain the motivations of the young people today. I answered that I don't believe there is a simple answer, but that each generation seems to have its own centerline -- something like this:

Your generation (my parents): Grew up in the Depression, fought and won WWII, built substantially the entire infrastructure of contemporary American society. Went to college on the GI Bill, built great communities in the suburbs, and made sure their kids made it to college. Sent my generation off to Vietnam, a badly run war, which I think played a role in causing the 'generation gap' -- where folks my age came to feel compelled and empowered to protest the policies of the government (and our parents).

My generation: The consumption generation. Our parents blessed us with all kinds of material things, and told us it was okay for both men and women to go to college and have careers. So we became dual career families with great houses and cars, but not much time with our kids. We let our kids engage in all kinds of extracurricular activities and wear ourselves out going to games and performances. We are around our kids more, but have less time to listen and build a deep relationship. Instead we gave them video games, MTV, computers and all that stuff. We Boomers consumed our way through the 80s and 90s, and our greed led eventually to Enron and Worldcom. We're gonna suffer when it comes our turn to retire because we've already spent our legacy.

My kids' generation: Are way less concerned about material stuff. The suburb may have seemed like a good thing to your generation and mine, but it is a lifeless, isolating, boring, blob of lawns to be mowed as far as our kids are concerned. As teenagers, they flocked to the malls to congregate, and we gave them cars when they were old enough so we didn't have to drive them around anymore (all those soccer games wore us out). As young adults, they seek amazing experiences, not material things (which they've had all their lives). They move into the urban centers (e.g. the Short North in Columbus) where there is much more variety than the suburbs. They go off to see the world, not as tourists but as explorers. They seek meaning in human encounters and in service, not in material things. If we keep sending them off to Iraq without any clear results, it will cause the same kind of disenfranchisement that our generation felt over Vietnam. If that happens, the kids will feel compelled to drive change at a pace none of us will find comfortable.

Maybe that's a good thing.

Monday, October 17, 2005

New Orleans: Two Birds - One Stone

Here's an idea:

Why don't we implement an emergency order which allows evacuees from New Orleans to be inducted into the US Army as reservists and be put to work (and on the payroll) in the effort to rebuild New Orleans? They would have a job, benefits, and would be contributing to the recovery effort instead of sitting in shelters waiting for aid.

This would be entirely voluntary, but to fund this program, we would end the dole-out of money going to able people who are sitting on their asses waiting for others to take care of them. Those who enlist get first dibs on any housing which gets built as a result of the effort. Those who don't get to find their own jobs and housing at a time and place of their own choosing. That's freedom -- your risk/your reward.

If the people of New Orleans don't want to take this offer, then we should stop spending federal money there and let the private sector take over.

"Seeing the World" Ain't What it Used to Be

I've always had wanderlust. I think I got it from my Mom, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone. She talked about traveling on ships and airplanes as a kid, and I grew up hearing about exotic places from her, as well as my Dad, who fought in the Pacific during WWII.

So I love going to new places and experiencing new things. When I was given a position at CompuServe that required a lot of travel, I viewed the travel as a reward, not a burden. I've now been in 47 states and a dozen or so countries, on both business and pleasure.

But I'm no longer interested in going anywhere famous. I've found that whenever I go to a well-known and heavily visited location, the experience is less than I had hoped for one or both of these reasons:

There are so many tourists there that the time spent is more like a competition than a fulfilling experience. Americans are everywhere. I walked into a loo behind a cafe in the cathedral square in Salzburg and ended up standing next to a guy with an Ohio State sweatshirt on. He enjoyed my "Go Bucks" comment.

The authentic experience has evolved into boring, production line tedium for the hosts and guides. I was aghast that the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery wear shoes with special "clickers" and carry rifles with plastic stocks. When I last went to a changing of the guard in 1960s, these guys wore regulation shoes and carried standard issue M-14 rifles. This new get-up they use cheapens the procedure in my opinion. The point isn't to put on a good show -- it's to honor the Unknowns and in doing so, honor all past, present, and future members of our armed forces. So what if the regulation shoes are hard to click together, and they scuff up? That's the kind of shoes the Unknowns wore. So what if the rifles get heavy during the watch? That's the kind of rifle they were carrying when they went down. And if you are an American visiting this site -- recognize it as amongst the most hallowed ground in our country. Stand in quiet response -- no cell phones, no horsing around, etc. The guys in those tombs deserve more respect and so does America.

When in Austria, we went to an "Alpine Evening" at some hotel. You could tell that these folks put on the same show night after night, and had probably been doing so for years. The food was institutional, but after all, we arrived in huge tourist buses. I've had the same experience in the German Hall at King's Island amusement park in Cincinnati.

This line of thinking really hit me when we visited Canterbury Cathedral. The shops and pubs around the cathedral had been tourist traps for the whole 500 years the cathedral has stood. This wasn't medieval England. It was a theme park dressed up to look like what the English thought Americans thought a medieval town should look like.

I thought Stonehenge would have a mystical feel to it. But it was hard to get that feeling with it sitting along a major motorway and in the flight path of a Royal Air Force fighter base. I took some pretty nice pictures there. I tell friends that the hardest part of taking the pictures was having the patience to wait until a tour bus full of Japanese tourists had left.

When we were visiting England, a friend of ours -- an English woman -- suggested that we get off the beaten path and visit some places the tourists bypass. One place she recommended was Fountains Abbey, in rural Yorkshire. Most tourists go to Bolton Abbey, which is more accessible. We took her advice and had a wonderful, solitary visit. It was our favorite site in England.

There's lots of famous places I would like to visit, but I feel that there is little chance of the experience meeting my expectation. I would very much like to see the Imperial City in Beijing, and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The temples at Ajunta in India sound fascinating, as do the Pyramids. But I think I would rather live with what I imagine those places to be than see what they have become.

So my favorite thing these days is to jump in the Suburban with the wife, or on the bike with some friends, and take off down a US highway or state road I've never seen before. There's still lots of stuff to see and places to go that haven't "gone tourist."

Monday, October 10, 2005

Nuevo Orleans

I make it my business (literally) to observe the whole of a situation, make predictions of what the long term impact might be (megatrends), and make investments in enterprises that will benefit from the change. I guess my style is Ben Graham meets Alvin Toffler. Here's some of the observations I see with Katrina:

1. The population of New Orleans has largely sat back and asked the rest of the country what we're going to do to help. You don't hear this about the other areas devestated by Kartrina and Ivan because the residents of those areas rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt their own communities. Why did we simultaneously have thousands of volunteers from the rest of the country flock to New Orleans while lots of able bodied people from New Orleans sat in shelters and complained about not getting enough help? The answer is that the people of New Orleans see themselves as victims rather than stakeholders.

2. Mayor Nagin has been asking "how do I insure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" The companies coming into New Orleans to start the for-profit reconstruction effort are hiring Mexican workers, not New Orleaners. I saw something like this first hand in St Croix after it was wiped out by Hurrican Hugo in the 90s. Contractors from Puerto Rico flocked to St Croix to harvest the reconstruction dollars, and just stayed. Today there is a large Puerto Rican population on St Croix, representing most of the middle class. Most of the merchants are Indians. The Cruxians remain the poverty class because they were unprepared or unwilling to fill the construction jobs needed after the hurricane. I think we'll see this in New Orleans as well. Many of the Latino workers who show up there to rebuild the city will stay. The middle class of New Orleans will be Hispanic.

3. Mayor Nagin also wants clearance to build on-shore casinos in the city limits to accelerate the regeneration of the local economy. The hotel/casino industry that builds around that will be staffed with experienced folks from Las Vegas, Atlantic City and all the other communities around the US that support gambling. Other service jobs will be filled by Hispanics. The small merchants will be Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, etc who are looking for a place to get into business. There won't be a lot of jobs for New Orleans folks who come back later. Many just won't come back. The demographics of New Orleans has permanently changed.

4. The real estate in what was low income housing is owned by landlords who are going to sell to big bucks developers. They aren't going to build new low income housing! So the neighborhoods where many evacuees once lived will never be rebuilt.

5. Mayor Nagin will be seduced to serve the desires of the developers, not the citizens who have left. Golden Rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules."

Add it all up, and New Orleans becomes Las Vegas with a Miami climate. Sort of a Disney World for adults. Good thing the French Quarter survived. It is, after all, the main theme park in "Mardi Gras Land."

So how will I be investing? I won't. Not the way I want to make money.

Delaware property boom no boon to schools

Why doesn't the Hilliard school board and administration say this? They need to engage in dialog with Mayor Don Schonhardt and the City Council and quit acting like victims.

Delaware property boom no boon to schools
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Lee Stratton

How fast is growth in the fastest growing area in the fastest-growing county of the state?

Residential property values increased 669 percent in one area of Delaware County during the past three years, Auditor Tod Hanks said. Delaware City Schools officials, however, say that such appreciation can be a burden to school finances. The increase was the largest seen in the auditor’s 2005 reappraisal of real estate in Delaware County. The area — Tax District 50 — includes three neighborhoods along the eastern and southern boundaries of the city of Delaware. The total housing value in that area increased from $1.2 million in 2002 to $9.1 million this year.

‘‘At the same time, the value of agricultural land went from $4.2 million down to $589,000, so you can see what happened," Hanks said. ‘‘The housing just exploded."

Since 2002, farm fields have been filled with streets, utilities and houses. As a result, the value of land has increased along with the improvements, he said. Residential property values across Delaware County increased an average of 17.6 percent during the past three years, Hanks said. The higher values will result in property tax increases of about 2 percent to 4 percent on individual tax bills. Despite the rapid growth in home construction, Delaware County trailed Franklin County, where the average home value has increased more than 21 percent since 2002.

The growth is of little comfort to Delaware school officials.

‘‘People see all those new houses and think they generate a lot of new money for the schools. That’s not the case," said Christine Blue, finance director of Delaware City Schools. ‘‘Because of increasing property values, we lose state funding."

State law prohibits schools from collecting more money from a locally voted tax levy than the levy was designed to produce. As property values increase, the collections are reduced to protect property owners from large tax increases. At the same time, Blue said, the state’s school-funding formula reduces state subsidies to schools because the increased property values in a district are viewed as wealth that could be taxed locally. Those reductions are expected to total $800,000 this year. That will leave the district with an estimated $11.2 million in state funds — if the district gains 77 students as expected.

"If those students do not materialize, the state funds will be significantly less," she said. "From where I sit, the revenueflow picture is grim.’ A community task force told the Delaware Board of Education last year that residential development does not pay for the school services it requires, Blue said. "More than eight new houses with no students are needed to fund the local cost of just one new house with one new student," Blue said.
The calculation was based on the taxes generated by a house valued at $150,000 plus the state funding provided for each student. School budgets have suffered because commercial development in the city has not kept pace with home development, she said.

In 1992, for each $100,000 of residential tax value in the school district, there was $128,000 of commercial tax value, Blue said. In 2003, there was just $61,000 of commercial value for each $100,000 of housing value.
"We haven’t lost businesses," she said. Instead, the county has gained houses.

The task force concluded that the tax base isn’t well-balanced and that more should be done to attract new businesses, Blue said. "Businesses pay taxes," she said, "without increasing the school population."

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Social Change through Protest

I went to college in the early 70s when protests were daily happenings that disgusted our parents and frightened the "establishment." Some protests got pretty violent, including one I witnessed first hand here at Ohio State.

Interesting isn't it that in our country, the most radical social changes have always been initiated by protests and ultimately violence. Last fall, the wife and I visited the battlefields of Concord and Lexington, Mass. When you hear the story from the British perspective, the colonists were clearly seditionists and terrorists. We of course glorify them as freedom fighters and patriots.

Less than 100 years later, the country erupted into civil war because the gulf between the political positions of the North and South could not be resolved satisfactorily through the vehicle of the federal government.
Another 100 years later, and America appeared to come apart at the seams as the youth of the country rose up against our government's insistence on fighting a stupid war. Simultanously, the civil rights movement turned violent as citizens found no other way to achieve justice. The feminist movement took hold in the same period. Once the yelling began, many many joined in.

I think we may be in the simmering stage of similar outbreak. The war in Iraq, which has so many similarities to Vietnam, might be the fuse. Or it could be the issues of race that arise from the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Whatever the ignition source might be, I think that a tax revolt will be a part of the conflagration.

Do we have an opportunity to prevent the glowing embers from bursting into a full fledged forest fire?

Perhaps a more important question is whether we should try. Just as a forest fire clears out the underbrush and diseased trees and opens areas for the development of a new, more healthy forest, it could be that one of the strengths of the American system is that we have forest fires every once in a while too. We clear out some degree of the insanity that builds up and proceed on into the future a stronger nation.

Maybe it's time.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Life: Beginning and End

Abortion: I don't understand --
- When does that line gets crossed, and a zygote, becomes an embryo, then a fetus, and finally a baby? Why do some feel it is okay to abort a 'fetus' but that it's a miracle to save a 'baby' in-utero?
- When does a woman's Right to Choose change to a Requirement to Nuture?
- Didn't the woman have a right to choose when she had sexual intercourse? Pregnancy is a consequence of THAT choice. If you can't handle the consequence, don't perform the act. (I acknowledge that non-consensual intercourse takes place, but don't know what that means in terms of the status of the baby if pregnancy ensues)
- How can be it be okay for a mother to abort a fetus, but yet if that same fetus were killed without permission of the mother it is murder?

- We recently made the choice to euthanize a pet cat who has been a member of our household since it was born to a stray in our garage. He is 11 years old, but seems generally okay. However one day a few months back, we suspected he had lost his vision. The vet said he had hypertension and diabetes. We tried treating that with oral medications. He continued to lose weight (but did regain his sight). The vet put him on twice daily insulin, but the vet also offered to euthanize him rather than put us through the expense and bother of the insulin injections.

I expected the cat to put up a fight, making our decision whether to prolong his life an easy one -- he would be telling us not to torture him. But he accepted the shots just fine. However, the diabetes is still not controlled. The vet has kept cranking up the dosage. Now he has started urinating everywhere. It has became a choice of locking him in the basement for the rest of his life, with only closely supervised visits to our living quarters, or recognizing that he is an creature who has lived his expected life span, continuing to live only because we were literally pumping him full of medication and making regular trips to the vet to see if we were getting any level of control. The vet said we are only buying him a year max anyway.

We could withhold his insulin and let nature take its course. This was my first choice. You see, I have a lot of trouble deciding for a poor creature that can't talk to me that the time has come for his life to end. He's been a respected member of the household for a decade, and continues to be an affectionate pet. Who knows whether he is feeling good, or chronically yucky?

The wife said that withholding his insulin and letting him die naturally would be a slow and agonizing. She's right. Would it not be more compassionate to euthanize him now and allow him to avoid all that agony?

And what about the choice of continuing to treat him, but keeping him segregated from human contact so he can't 'mess up' our environment? Is it a good thing to continue to expend resources to keep him alive when he's going to die soon anyway?

I guess my problem is having the guts to make that decision on his behalf. It would be easier if he just died one day and took the decision out of my hands. Meanwhile, he's far too alive for me to end his life for my convenience.

(Update: Oreo was euthanized in Feb 2007 after a rapid decline in health brought on by advanced lung cancer. He had a good year after this piece was originally written).

How can I discuss abortion and pet euthanasia in the same essay? This isn't about equating a human baby to a pet cat.

But then, in a way it is.

In the natural world, the taking of life is a routine, normal, expected, and continuous act. Without exception, every species on the planet is prey to another. We humans even raise other species for no other reason than to consume them as food (I love the Douglas Adams commentary on this in the Hitchhiker's Guide -- where animals are raised not only to be food, but to desire to be food). To be sure, most of us are insulated from the act of walking a perfectly healthy animal up to the slaughter house and, in a matter of minutes, converting it from a living, breathing, sentient creature into a beheaded, gutted and skinned carcass on its way to our dinner table.

Other than the vegetarians of our species, we humans raise and slaughter untold millions of animals for no other reason than we like to eat meat. I like the comment: "If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?"

I'm a meat-eater. I also know that animals are sacrificed by the millions to test drugs, medical procedures and consumer products.

I have also kept pet fish, many of which were caught in the wild and distributed through the retail logistics system to get them to my local pet store. Many die on the way from their natural habitat to the pet stores. Sometimes one of them would die in my care. In some cases, the death was brought on by disease that that these creatures would not have encountered in their natural habitat. Other times specimens were eaten by other fish, perhaps because I put together combinations of animals that didn't encounter each other in the wild. Or maybe they did, and I was stupid enough to mix predator and prey. Either way, they died, and I contributed to their death.

I remember blubbering when our pet parakeet died back in the 1970s. Apparently parakeets don't live that long, and ours caught an infection, got sick, and eventually died. It was a very sad moment for me.

Guys are dying by the thousands in Iraq -- sent there by my government on my behalf. I had a part in their death, but show much less emotion hearing about the deaths of our troops than I did that watching that parakeet die in my hands.
You see, it's really all about relationships.

I don't know the cow that died for my dinner. In fact, I don't know any cows at all.

I never really had a relationship with the fish in my aquarium (although I did with one -- an Oscar). When they died, I mourned over the wasted money, not the animal.

But I interacted with the parakeet. He learned to make a few sounds that we took as words. It hurt when that interaction ended.

Our cat has been a good friend for a long time. Well actually, for most of his life, he stayed away from us and generally avoided interaction. He has a name the kids gave him, Oreo, but I rarely call him that. He is just "black kitty" to me. One day a few years ago, he decided to become social, and for the last year or so will jump up next to me on the couch and roll over so I could scratch his belly. It would hurt a lot to end that relationship. I'm not yet ready to make that decision. He's received a reprieve.

Abortion happens because the mother and father don't have a relationship with the fetus. I don't know whether abortion should be legal or not (my vote is not). But maybe a pregnant woman contemplating an abortion should have to watch a sonogram of the fetus so she knows there's a human being developing in there. Maybe in that moment, a connection will be made and the woman will decide to carry the baby to term.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a supporter of birth control. But I prefer approaches that prevent conception. Birth control pills, condoms, abstinence and sterilization are all okay with me. We need to get the human population in control.

But once a human life begins, it's murder to end it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Church Divided

Our congregation is a member of The American Baptist Churches - USA, specifically the American Baptist Churches of Ohio. Baptists have been in America since almost the beginning of the European migration. ABC is one of the current day descendants of those early Baptist congregations, created after untold splits and disagreements - another Baptist tradition.

ABC is on a path to split again, unfortunately. The wedge issue is homosexuality - specifically the official stance the church should take on this matter.The Bible tells us that engaging in homosexual acts is sinful. As a Christian, that's good enough for me. I don't believe you can pick and choose which parts of the Bible are true. Not all of it is literally factual (e.g. the four Gospels offer differing accounts of the same events), but I believe it is consistently and comprehensively truthful.

I have a simple perspective about Sin. God desires for us to have deep and fulfilling relationships with Him and with all of creation. Sin (with a big S) is anything which causes and sustains separation between us and God, between each other, or between us and the rest of creation.Homosexuality is sinful -- no argument. But so are any of a myriad of other behaviors explicitly listed in the Bible. Why do some 21st century Christians feel this particular sinful behavior merits extra attention? (Read this for a humorous take on this question)Some have told me that a homosexual who repents and leaves that lifestyle can be accepted into the church.

But most won't, my teachers say, and their choice to continue a homosexual life cancels some of their rights in the church, including the right to membership. A homosexual can be accepted into a congregation only if he/she commits to a celibate lifestyle, goes this line of thinking.

So help me understand how this is different from divorce. No question that divorce is a sinful act. It breaks a couple, screws up their kids, and ends relationships with friends. The Bible says divorce is sinful. Here is an interesting analysis on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The writer cites the words of Jesus recorded in Matt 19:9, where He says that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. Presumably, as long as the divorced person remains remarried, the state of sinfulness continues. Isn't this the same as a homosexual continuing to live that lifestyle?

I don't know of any any divorced and remarried person who has been told that, if he/she initiated a divorce outside the exception noted in Matt 19:9, then he/she must leave the new spouse and return to the first spouse to end the sin -- before being allowed to join and enjoy full membership in a congregation. In fact, some congregations have a ministry focused on needs of divorced persons. Our congregation has many divorced members, some who have served in leadership. I don't know how many might qualify for the "unfaithful spouse" exemption, but I don't think any are asked either.

So let me make my feelings clear: I think it is hypocritical and wrong to treat one who engages in the sin of homosexuality differently from one who engages in the sin of divorce. There is no Biblical support, in my opinion, for an individual, a congregration, or a denomination to treat these two cases of sinfulness differently (or any other case of sinfulness for that matter). Sin brings pain and separation. We are all sinners. We learn to love God and fight Sin in a Christian congregation. Who are we to say who should be excluded?

There is a faction of folks within the ABC community who seem to have their sights focused on"the homosexual problem,", and have used language and legalism to draw a line in the sand for the purpose of forcing a confrontation. The language used is "Accepting and Affirming." They require the leadership of ABC/USA and every ABC region to enact policies stating that no church may "accept and affirm" homosexual behavior and remain an ABC church. If ABC/USA fails to adopt this policy, this faction threatens to withdraw from ABC/USA.

It may be time for ABC/USA to die. It certainly isn't functioning very well today. Churches who are members of ABC/USA would be free to join or form associations of like-minded congregations. In Baptist tradition, we will have split over differences and created multiple new organizations. Some will be made up of the strong, and others will be communities of the weak -- unable to sustain a national denomination when they're barely hanging on themselves.

Many congregations will just go independent. Again, the strong will thrive and the weak will continue to decline and die off. Maybe this is the cataclysmic event that forces our denomination to evolve into something more healthy.

Is this debate really over homosexuality, or is it just the issue the crafty politicians in our denomination have selected to use as the fuse to blow up ABC?

I fear it is the latter.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

In Memorium: Judson Hills Camp

I went to a funeral yesterday. People told stories about good times, and shed tears in recognition of a relationship that had ended. A eulogy was rendered, and we were sent off with a sense of closure.

The deceased wasn't a friend, but rather a place -- the Judson Hills Camp in Loudenville OH.

Judson Hills had been owned by the Ohio Region of the American Baptist Churches USA since some time in the 1950s. The main lodge building is nearly 50 years old. All you have to do is look around at many photos in the composite pictures that hung in the lodge to know that this camp has provided a safe, fun and meaningful experience for two whole generations of kids.

Like many of the structures and facilities we enjoy today, Judson Hills was purchased and built by the folks who fought and won World War II. I regret to say that my generation -- the children of the WWII veterans -- grew up to be consumers and not builders. We've consumed the legacy of our parents, and have yet to stand up and take their place as stewards of this great country. But that's another rant for another time.

ABC is in trouble. Membership is dwindling, both individually and in terms of member congregations. As one might expect, that also means the amount of money being given by churches to support the regional and national organization is also declining. There have been layoffs at the state and national headquarters, and the amount of money going to fund effective outreach and missionary activities is approaching zero.

In Ohio, much of the blame for our financial woes has been attributed to the "losses" associated with running our two camps, Judson Hills and Kirkwood. I always bristle when I hear this outflow of money called a "loss," -- like any ministry is supposed to be a money maker. But the truth is that these camps could actually be operated in a way so as to throw off cash for other ministries, but our state leadership has allowed our outdoor ministry program to collapse. For the past six or seven years, there has been only one week each summer when Judson Hills had over 100 kids onsite. That week is the one directed by Pastor Kevin Snyder of Mountview Baptist Church and staffed by members of that congregation. I found it sad and symptomatic that the camp staff (kitchen and facilities) treated our volunteers and campers like a burden that week. It was clear that they preferred the relative ease of a camp week with only 20-30 kids instead of basking in the glory of 100 young (and old!) souls immersed in the Lord for week.

The camp was getting run down and tired -- no question. But why could we get 100 kids out during our week, while for other weeks the camp was mostly empty? The answer is in the way Pastor Snyder ran his camp. There was meaningful programming, a mature and committed volunteer staff, and focus everywhere on the Bible and the Gospel message. It was a lot of work, intense at both a physical and spiritual level. But when, at that last campfire, we would get 70+ first time commitments to follow Christ, it was all worth it.

Our church once made the offer to ABC/OH to help fund the salary of a full-time camp programming director. This is a different role than the site manager -- whose responsibility is facilities and food. The programming director would ensure that every week of camp had the same kind of programming as Pastor Snyder's week. That offer was dismissed.

The Rev Dr Bob Roberts was called to run ABC/OH on an interim basis, and he found a region headed for bankruptcy. He recognized that to keep ABC/OH alive until a new Executive Minister could be hired, it would be necessary to shed as much of the cash burn as possible. The big consumers were payroll -- as is always the case -- and the camping ministry. The region board was called together, and a decision was made to do a staffing reduction at the headquarters, then begin a process of liquidating real estate assets. First Judson Hills would be put on the market, then the headquarters building in Granville, and if necessary, Camp Kirkwood.

On September 29, Judson Hills will be auctioned to the public, and the first step of this liquidation will have been completed. The event yesterday was the funeral -- the ceremonial closure of a relationship.

Some folks viewed the camps like a cancer that was eating away the life of the region. In the perspective of these folks, the camps had to go or the region would die. I think that statement is true. The camp needs to be sold for the region to have a shot at survival. But don't think of the camp as a cancer, but rather think of the story of
Aron Ralston, the hiker who recently amputated his own arm with a pocketknife because it was a choice between losing his arm or losing his life.

You see, a cancer is something that is never useful. It is always a bad thing, and you are better off to never get cancer than to get it and fight to survive.

But Aron Ralston presumably found a lot of use for his right arm. I imagine that if you asked him today if he would like to have it back, he would answer in the affirmative. But he found himself having to choose arm or life, and made a choice few of us would be brave enough to make (or make soon enough to retain his chance of survival).

Selling Judson Hills camp is like cutting off an arm as far as I'm concerned. Many of us would like to keep that camp and continue to minister to children there. But we are forced into a choice -- sell the camp, or bankrupt the region. On Sept 29, 2005 -- the amputation will take place.

We can't let that be in vain. Something has to change in ABC/OH -- right now. If we use the money from the sale of Judson Hills just continue to fund the same programs and modes of operation that have gotten us here, then all the sale of Judson Hills will do is lengthen the pain and suffering. If we aren't going to turn ABC/OH around, and make it a dynamic, growing and healthy ministry, then we should just send the money to the Red Cross and let it go to helping the folks who have been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

Before his departure, Dr Roberts formed a team he called the Vision Quest Committee, and gave them the assignment to set a new course for ABC/OH. I'm privileged to be a part of that team, serving with wise and godly men and women from all around the state, including our new Executive Minister, the Rev Dr Larry Swain. The sale of the Judson Hills was our first task, and with sadness we can report that this task will soon be complete.

Now comes the hard part -- building the new vision and getting underway on that course. Some hard decisions have to be made and acted upon -- Judson Hills was only the first. There are some decent models out there, notably the success story of ABC of the West under the leadership of the Rev Dr Paul Borden. We are studying these models and building the new strategic plan right now.

Meanwhile, another substantial crisis has arisen in our denomination: the official stance of the ABC on homosexuality. It was
reported this week that the ABC of the Southwest and the West Virginia Baptist Convention are going to soon vote whether to leave ABC/USA over the unwillingness of the ABC/USA to incorporate the viewpoints of these two regions regarding homosexuality into the national policy.

At the same time, many other ABC churches have formed an organization called
American Baptist Evangelicals. These churches maintain their membership in ABC, and ABE says it wants to operate within ABC with the hope of transforming ABC into a healthy, growing denomination. That is a positive goal, and I hope it bears fruit.

I don't know what this means to ABC/OH. I hope it means that we are successful getting ABC/OH revitalized at the same time ABC/USA renews itself, and ABC at both the national and regional level becomes a powerful army that spreads the Gospel with urgency and effectiveness.

All I know is that a good friend gave up its lifeblood to save us this week. What could be more Christ-like?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Are We Tuned to the Right Channel?

You remember 'old-time' TVs that had the big knob for the channel selector?

Unlike today's TVs, with their electronic tuners, the old TVs had that big knob with all the stations on it, from 2 through 13. If you wanted to advance from channel 4 to channel 10, you had to click-click-click through 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 along the way. Most of the channels in between had nothing on them, so you got a screen full of snow and a bunch of hiss from the speakers as you passed through. Engineers call that 'noise.' After a few clicks, you get to your target channel, and there's a picture and sound -- a clear signal.

At some points in a church's life -- at its founding for example -- it tunes into a strong signal from God, and gets a pretty clear picture of what He wants it to be doing. Then after a while, we get bored with that channel, or don't like the style of the message, and decide to switch channels. Maybe we were tuned into Lawrence Welk on Channel 4, and want to watch Hulabaloo on Channel 10 (remember, this is before MTV). We grab the big knob and start twisting (I can hear my Dad yelling "take it easy, you'll tear up the tuner!"). We slowly move through the chaos and the noise of the channels on which God is NOT talking to us. However, with a purposeful vision that is leading us from Channel 4 to Channel 10, we get there, and once again find God waiting for us. It's a different, but equally clear connection to God.

But if we don't know which channel we heading for, we can get stuck in the chaos and the noise between channels, separated from God's word. Our we keep twisting the tuner looking for the show WE want to watch, not the one God is broadcasting to us.

I think this is where congregations and other church bodies get into trouble. They lose their focus, and end up arguing about which channel to watch. They keep flipping channels until everyone is mad or the tuner breaks. Meanwhile the signal-to-noise ratio is unfavorable, and they have trouble picking God's message out of the morass. Sometimes the argument gets so heated that everyone forgets that they were trying to tune into anything -- they just want to win the argument.

You just don't get a clear signal until you quit arguing with each other, and tune into God.

Business Week: Tragedy and Telecom

"It turns out we have developed a budding broadband system that, in times of disaster, doesn't work as well, interrupts more easily, and comes back on line later than the good old copper-wire system." -- quoted from: Tragedy and Telecom - BusinessWeek Online -

As the second-guessing and political maneuvering continues in the wake of the destruction of New Orlean by Hurricane Katrina, this question has been asked: "What role does the government play in specifying and ensuring the survivability of the public telecommunications infrastructure."

Interesting question, and the subject of the article cited above. The trouble is, the writer is ignorant on this topic. Most folks don't know the historical vision for the Internet, which is based on design goals set by the US Department of Defense, specifically the Defense Advanced Reseach Agency (DARPA). The first implementation of this technology was in fact called DARPANET.

You see, the goal was to build a network which could survive a nuclear war, a somewhat larger and more violent disaster than a hurricane. The traditional telephone network, called the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) by telecom folks, is a hierarchical network loaded with single points of failure and capacity constraints. The DARPANET, and its successor, the Internet, is designed to be decentralized in its control function, and more adaptive in its tranmission capacity.

But regardless of the whether a network is based on PSTN or Internet technologies, the hard part is the so-called 'last mile' -- that last little bit connection to the end user. Both PSTN and Internet use copper wires and various wireless technologies for that last mile. Neither stand up well to hurricane force winds and flooding.

Because I live in a telecommuncations backwoods, my only choice for wired telephone communications is a copper pair from my house to an SBC central office about 5 miles away. Our service regularly goes out every time we get a hard rain. I've complained many times to MCI (who is our retail provider, buying the local service on a wholesale basis from SBC), and to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. They do some half-assed fix, like move me to another pair on the main cable, but the next time it rains real hard, we're out again. It turns out that for us, the cellular system is much more reliable, and cheaper, than the copper wire system. We may drop our wireline system altogether before long.

Most people notice the phone line wires that run along on poles, high above their heads, and think that should be a good place for wires in a flooding situation. That's partially true. The wires might be out of harm's way during a flood, but they're the most exposed option while the storm is actually taking place. You can bet that in New Orleans, miles and miles of overhead wiring has been destroyed.

So is buried cable better? Well yes, it's better protected from wind damage (including trees and poles falling through the wires), but in general is not designed to be underwater for days at a time. Additionally, the wired phone network includes lots of ground-level and below-ground-level electronics bays in environmental vaults and simple cabinets which may not survive well in a flooding situation. Oh, and then there are those big multi-million dollar exchange switches in every neighborhood, almost always on a street level floor. Again, I know that some of these pieces of equipment have been rendered inoperable in New Orleans.

So are the wireless systems really better? Well.... no. Cell towers and antennas are fragile things compared to hurricane force winds. There may be few cell towers functioning in New Orleans these days, or even standing for that matter.

Another key point regarding the design and engineering of telephone networks: Not everyone can use it at the same time. There are not enough lines in the telephone network for every telephone to be in use at the same time. In normal situations, only a fraction of the telephones are in use, and the phone company has learned the statistical profile of usage over the years. There are 1 million people in New Orleans, and 1 million people in Columbus OH, but there can't be 1 million individual phone calls taking place between those two cities -- there isn't anywhere close to enough capacity in the phone system to allow for that.

When a disaster strikes, there is an extraordinary demand for telephone services all at once. Regardless of how much of the phone system survives, there isn't enough capacity for everyone to get on and make a voice call. However, a data network, using the DARPANET/Internet technology, lends itself to getting message traffic through because it doesn't have to be real time, like a voice telephone call. I can send you an email, and it might take an hour or two to get through instead of the normal seconds, but it will get through if there is any path available. The day after Katrina, folks figured out that they could get text messages through from their cell phones even when there was no voice capacity available. This is because the text messaging uses Internet technology to move the messages around.

The Achilles Heel of all technology is the need for electricity. PSTN and Internet networks alike only operate while the switches and other devices are powered. The traditional Ma Bell PSTN phone companies have a major investment in backup power setups for their networks. They use batteries and generators, and can keep power flowing to their equipment for many hours. But that's hours. After that, the generators need to be refueled. You can be sure that there are a number of telecom facilities in New Orleans which survived the winds, rains and flooding without significant damage, but are down nonetheless because the backup generator has run out of fuel.

There's only one answer to question: How could we have kept Katrina from causing so much pain and suffering? That answer is: Don't live there. Hurricanes are big nasty storms that concentrate incredible amounts of energy. If you chose to live in a place that's prone to hurricanes and also below sea level, eventually an incredibly bad thing is going to happen. We humans pick out precarious places to live, and when the inevitable disaster happens, want to blame someone else for our own stupid decision. But that's another discussion for another time.

So I wholeheartedly disagree with this writer. The telecommunications infrastructure of New Orleans will indeed need to be rebuilt after this disaster if we are going to reoccupy this city (another questionable decision). We know the residents are going to want their Internet access, so maybe the right thing to do is rebuilt the internet system only, and not bother to spend (waste) the money required to restore the PSTN network.

If we're going to rebuild a whole major American city, let's make it a city of the future, not one of the past.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Ohio State vs Texas. A conversation about Leadership

The new Big Game happened and our guys lost -- at least on the scoreboard. The Bucks played with a lot of skill and even more heart. They went nearly the whole game without a turnover, and made their share of big plays. The OSU defense played very well, holding Texas to one touchdown until late in the game. I don't think their OB would have survived another series of downs, given the way his was limping around at the end of the game.One side has to lose, and unfortunately, this year it was us. We're not really very good losers here in Columbus. It's not like we are nasty to the fans and players from the other side, although there are certainly some who engage in that behavior.

The problem in our community is that we would prefer to second guess people who do make decisions rather than to make decisions outselves. It's easy to get folks around here to take one of two positions:
"If it were my decision to make, this is what I would do." In other words, the event hasn't happened yet, so everyone can give an opinion.

"If it had been my decision to make, this is what I would have done." In this case, the critic has the advantage of knowing exactly what decision was made and how it came out. Presumably it was unacceptable in some way.
The hypocricy is that few people actually want to stand up as a leader and take responsibility for the performance of an organization. We beat down our public leaders by chosing criticism over useful feedback. We make our leaders feel like targets rather than respecting them for their willingness to serve.

What we end up with are public leaders drawn from a pool of folks who are the ambitious puppets of powerful people. These leaders are corrupt at worst, and compromised at best. We love them if they make decisions that benefit us personally, and want to see them impeached if they mess with our comfy lives. So they dole out enough favors to get elected and stay in power, but their agenda is to serve the puppet masters, not society as a whole. Their thinking horizon is from election to election, not generations.

Maybe Jim Tressel should have played Troy Smith in that last series before Texas scored. There's lots of woulda, coulda, shoulda in that game. The point is that Tressel was the man who had the guts to make the decisions. Getting second-guessed and criticized comes with the territory. I know that. When did collegiate sports get so out of control?

Our country has some citizens who are great leaders. There are many examples of business leaders who are inspiring, visionary, ethical and effective. We don't hear much about them because they're not glory hogs like Donald Trump.

Our military has plenty of skilled and honorable leaders. On some History Channel show the other day, I heard a retired Army general talk about the first Gulf War. He said that Saddam Hussein had the bad luck of running into the US military at a time when a rennaisance had taken place in the uniformed services. The top leaders were Vietnam vets who knew what a bad war looked like, and who suffered through the dark years of the 60s and 70s. They answered the call when Reagan decided to pour the Treasury into the military to get the country going again. The US military ended the 1980s with the best equipment, the best trained troops, and most effective leaders since World War II. Hussein didn't have a chance against Schwartzkopf.

So why couldn't we get Stormin' Norman to run for President?

That's easy. Schwartzkopf spent an entire career getting ready for Desert Storm, and it was his masterpiece. He had achieved one of the top posts in the military (the CINCs are much more powerful than the Chiefs of Staff), was given an opportunity to use all the toys and training, and executed his mission masterfully, achieving a victory of magnitude and honor. He knew that there was little chance of having the stars align this way in his career again. He could retire with all the honor his military brothers could bestow on him, as a national hero. He would be the Big Dog in every gathering of generals and admirals for the rest of his life. I don't think he cares what anyone outside this group thinks of him.

George W Bush is an ant compared to someone like Schwartzkopf. Bush is the General's inferior in every dimension: leader, warrior, scholar, and thinker. I fear Kerry would have been worse. I think Kerry is smarter than Bush, but I trust him less.

This is a huge challenge before us as a country: how do we foster an environment where the best leaders are willing to lend their skills to high level public office?

It starts with our being willing to give a guy the benefit of the doubt once in a while...

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Competitive Pay for Public School Teachers

I once hosted a guy named Yamato who was an English teacher in a high school about 2 hours outside of Tokyo. He was traveling with all the video he had shot since leaving home a couple of weeks earlier. One shot was of his home. It was a standard suburban home, maybe 1500sqft on a single level. His yard consisted of about 10 feet of grass/landscaping on three side, and room to park a couple of cars (no garage) on the fourth. I asked how much such a home cost in Japan, and said about $300,000.

I then asked how a teacher could afford such an expensive house. He was confused at first, but when I told him that teacher didn't make a lot of money in the US, he told me that teachers and engineers are both paid about the same in Japan. There's a value statement for you right there.

But he also said that school is in session for 48 weeks per year, and that the kids are at the school from about 9am until 6pm. Yamato said he arrived at the school about 7am to prepare for the day. The kids have academics from 9am to 3pm, but then typically stay at the school until 6pm to get further training on Japanese culture and manners. You see, as the Japanese parents work more and more (they have a word which means "work-death"), they are spending less time with their kids. It's almost like a boarding school environment.
Yamato ends his day spending a couple of hours on his lesson plan for the following day, arriving home about 9pm.

One of his shots was of his teenage son riding away on a bicycle. I asked him how old his son was, and his answer was "fourteen or fifteen, I'm not sure." He spends 12 hours/day educating other kids, and doesn't know his own.

I spent 30 years in engineering and technical management. To get to the level I achieved, I worked long hours, went back to school for additional education, constantly competed with other folks for jobs, and in the end got results that my customers were willing to pay for.

It's interesting that you use the term "competitive salary" when my observation is that teachers rarely compete for jobs. Certainly there is the time when first hired, but after that, a teacher can go through a whole career getting regular raises and never feeling that his/her job was in jeopardy.

All this is the rationale behind a true voucher system. You can tell everyone that: a) they have to pay school taxes; and, b) they have to send their kids to school. The voucher system allows the parents to pick which school their kids should go to. Presumably, they'll pick a school which gets good results and starve out the ones that have ineffective teachers and inept administators.

When it comes time to pick a college, parents and students make this kind of choice all the time. Why not allow it at the elementary and secondary level as well?

My guess is that there are teachers at private schools that make a boatload of money. I would also bet that the parents paying the tuition have very little tolerance for low performing teachers and administrators. The school probably has scores of applicants for every opening, and they pick the cream of the crop.

If you want competitive salaries for teachers, then I say you need to compete for customers.

Ah ha, you say, we do compete for customers: People move into our suburban community to get access to our excellent schools, where we have high standards for teachers and administrators.

And therein lies the societal failure of our public schools. I think all those kids in the inner city should be allowed to show up at your doorstep, on publicly-funded transportation, and have the chance to enjoy a really good school system. They'll bring with them vouchers will your system can turn into the state for full reimbursement.

"But ALL the kids from the inner city will show up, and just make our good system bad," you say. Or maybe some folks will buy one of the inner city school buildings and start a school system that competes with yours. Maybe they'll do that by paying their teachers more, and spending less on non-academic stuff.

I don't mean for this to sound personal and accusatory. Some people argue that teachers shouldn't be paid as much as engineers or lawyers because teachers take the whole summer off. I have a friend who is a lawyer, and he only works about half the year. He's very good at what he does, and makes enough in half a year to maintain the lifestyle he desires (which is pretty simple). Should he get paid less because he works less than other lawyers? Heck no. People go to him and pay him what he demands because he gets results.

It's time to make the pay/performance relationship for teachers and administrators be more like that.

Competitive Pay for Teachers, Part II

This entry is half of the dialog going on an important blog called Ohio School Funding. I'm reproducing my side of the conversation here just because I spent a lot of time writing it and don't want to lose the train of thought. If the topic is of interest to you, I encourage you to go to Ohio School Funding and read both halves of the dialog, as well as discussion on many other points.
Thanks for the response and the continued stream of information you post. Any dialog about school funding is a good thing, and you have created a forum that encourages that dialog. I wish every voter was required to read you blog before entering the voting booth.

I think you and I are in agreement on almost everything concerning school funding, and I appreciate your tolerance when we may have different perspectives, as might be the case here.

Private schools: I have a friend who comes from the patrician old-money New England society. He attended Andover with Geo W Bush (as well as Yale). That's the kind of place I had in mind, not these charter schools that are popping up all over the place. In this part of the state, most of the charter schools are performing poorly. I fear they exist as a way to make some easy money, not to truly give kids and parents a superior education option.
Competitive salaries: In private industry, an employer has opposing motivations. On the one side, there is the desire to pay workers as little as possible. After all, any money spent on people is profit not realized. But on the other side, an employer knows that paying a dolt he can hire for a small amount makes much less sense than paying more for an employee who is competent and motivated.

Actual wages are set by a classic supply and demand dynamic. In the case of school systems, the administration creates the demand. They require some quantity of teachers with the appropriate credentials, experience and observed ability. They set the price they’re willing to pay for such teachers.

On the other side are the people who want to be employed as teachers. They look at the openings, and decide whether the jobs have the right characteristics, of which the pay scale is only one component (along with location, facilities, demographics, etc). As long as a match is found for every position, the school system doesn’t have to pay more. In other words, for the level of skill and performance required by the school system, the supply of teachers is large enough that salaries do not in general need to be raised to fill all open positions.

I think you and I are looking at two sides of the same coin. You’re saying that if school systems paid teachers more, they would get better teachers. I’m saying that if school systems really wanted better teachers, they would have to pay more. The administrators would raise their standards, and fewer candidates would qualify. With fewer candidates to go around, the schools would have to compete for them, causing salaries to go up.

Here is a report on the OEA website describing teacher salaries across the state.
As one might expect, the top performing school districts pay their teachers the most. My guess is that they have the highest hiring standards as well.

I once worked with a customer, a large New York financial institution, who had this policy: Each year, each manager was required to rank the department’s employees by overall performance. Then by the end of the year, the manager was expected to get rid of the bottom 10% and replace them with new, presumably better, employees. The idea was that the aggregate capability and performance of the organization constantly improved. One would think no one would want to work for such a firm, but the truth was that top performers enjoyed working there. It’s a joy to work with competent teammates and know that if you make the cut each year, you’re one of the best in the industry. Sort of the business version of the US Marine Corp (The Few, The Proud). This firm paid top salaries because they wanted to make sure that they attracted the best folks as replacements. It would be viewed as a bad thing to lose a top candidate to a competitor over salary.

What if school systems adopted a policy like this? Each year, 10% of the administrators and 10% of the teachers would be let go and replaced with better folks. What would be the basis for ranking? Is the psychological makeup of a good teacher incompatible with such a Darwinian system? I don’t know.

I think it’s really just supply and demand. The school system administrators, the school boards, and the public who hire them, set the standards low enough so that there is an abundance of supply of teachers willing to work for low wages. Fortunately, more often than not, we get more teacher than we pay for. But teachers get paid what they do because they’re willing to accept it.

My point is that the root of this is the ineffective and inefficient system we’ve set up to hold school systems accountable. A business that fails to meet the requirements of its customers can collapse in a hurry because the revenue can dry up very quickly. GM, for example, will be lucky to survive the decade, after generating record profits in the 90s. In a school system, the customers are required by law to keep buying the product regardless of performance and quality. It’s a big deal to change suppliers (school systems) in our communities. You are stuck with your public school system, or you have to come up with the money to attend a private school. Or you can move to another school system, which is not necessarily at all easy.

Vouchers create an immediate and meaningful vote for the buyer, which in turn makes the school system more responsive. It’s messy in the short term because of the issues of transportation etc. It’s always messy to convert from a state-run system to private enterprise. The British did it. The Russians are giving it a try, and even the Chinese are experimenting with a hybrid economic system.

We can’t be afraid to suffer short-term pain for the long term good. Shortsightedness is the enemy of building a better future for our country.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Societal Voyeurism

I was listening to Glenn Beck talk about the Hurricane Katrina disaster while driving yesterday morning. I often listen to Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the local AM talk radio station, mostly because the music radio stations are junk around here (thank you ClearChannel), and not because I agree with much of what they say. Often their comments are just stupid.

For example, Rush said yesterday that any attempt to tie global warming to the severity of the hurricane was left-wing propaganda. His logic was that if there was nothing humanity could do to stop the hurricane, even though we knew it was coming for days, then how is it possible that humanity could cause the hurricane in the first place? That’s just bad science and worse logic. I don’t know if he’s really that ignorant of science, or if he’s purposefully spouting falsehood to push his own personal agenda. Gee, I don’t know that the severity of this hurricane can be tied to global warming (but I suspect it might have been), or that global warming can be tied to anything being done by humanity (although I suspect it can). But just because we can't stop a hurricane doesn't mean we didn't start it (I think we find it hard to stop a nuclear bomb once the fission initiates).

One of Beck’s comments yesterday was that at some deep visceral level, he had been hoping that New Orleans would get nailed by the worse winds ever seen, and a storm surge 100 feet high. His staff cringed at the comment, as did I. But as he talked more about it, I found that he was describing a feeling I had too – we wanted something bad to happen for the entertainment value.

In my case, as an engineer, I’ve always wanted to see if those big pumps they have in New Orleans could really evacuate water from the city fast enough in a big rain. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, or any property to be lost – I just wanted to see images of those big pumps spewing out millions of gallons of water.

It was fun to see images in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” of New York City getting pummeled by tsunami then being frozen solid, all as a result in sea temperatures. We knew it wasn’t real, and no one would get hurt. Entertainment only.

Beck’s point was that we watch the news hoping to get the same kind of thrill. Unless you know someone personally who was killed, injured or wiped out by the hurricane, we just sit in front of the TV wondering what kind of astonishing image we’ll see next, and hoping it will give us a zing of some kind.

It’s not like we just got this way. Crowds have been gathering around disasters for as long as disasters have occurred to humanity. Our technology for conveying words and images has just gotten better.

New Orleans is in trouble for a good long time. The impact on the US will be widespread and personal. The first thing everyone is talking about is a spike on oil prices. My feeling is that oil companies use this kind of a event as an opportunity to lift prices significantly, and they will not let them fall back to the old levels. We’re gonna blow through $3.00/gal and stay above it permanently.

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast will consume a significant fraction of the country’s building supplies: plywood, drywall, wiring, piping, lumber, shingles, concrete and masonry products. Armies of workers will flock to the Gulf coast to participate in the rebuilding effort. Maybe that’s a good thing if it means the thousands of immigrants who have flooded our community go south to get these jobs and decide to stay down there.

Some fraction of the folks in that region will never want to experience anything like this again, and will relocate to other parts of the country. More seriously, some of the businesses who were down there are going to leave for good. Folks will find that when their house gets rebuilt, their job is gone.

I hope our political leaders are up to this.