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.