Friday, March 02, 2007

Random thoughts from the last week

Lately I've had it against capitalism lately. I must be turning socialist or something. I'm just getting tired of the crowd that tries to solve all our problems by applying market forces (capitalism).

The first thing is schools. Vouchers don't seem to be in the news as much, but they make as much sense as do the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) policies. Under NCLB, if your school isn't performing, then they get punished, and kids can go to other schools (with your school footing the bus bill no less).

Sure, there are better teachers and there are worse teachers. There are better (more modern, better equipped, not running down, etc.) schools, and there are worse. However, I seriously doubt that the rich, white, suburban school has twice as good of teachers than the poor, multi-racial, inner-city school. Heck, they've even found that the public schools teach math better than private ones (once adjusting for background).

So, how does shuttling around a bunch of kids who are not doing well in school solve the problem? It just blames teachers and doesn't address anything. Vouchers seem nifty because the folks that (can) take advantage of them already have money and already value education - their kids are going to do better in school. And, you leave behind the ones that value education less, have more problems at home, etc. I'm no expert, but it's difficult for Johnny to do his homework if he's worrying if mom's gonna get home with dinner tonight or not. When was the last time you had to worry about eating? (Let alone worrying about getting shot because your brother is in a gang...)

The NCLB thing just doesn't pass the sniff test. Kids are not untainted raw material, and teachers are not craftsmen. Take the analogy of kids == wood, and teachers == furniture makers. The cities are full of trees/lumber, and we need to turn all lumber into furniture. If an inner city shop (school) is having to spend all of it's time/energy drying the wood, planing it flat, working around knots, it's just not going to be able to compete against the suburban school that is receiving dried, knot-free wood. NCLB and vouchers simply end up concentrating the poor wood in the "problem" shops. Eventually, that poor wood is going to make it to the suburbs and we'll be back where we started.

Before you get all high and mighty, I'm not saying that inner-city folks are knotty and the such, but in general, with lower income, the kids come in with more baggage. The kids aren't flawed, their environment is. That's what we need to fix.

And I do think the teacher's union needs to figure out how to get rid of dead wood. We had some really bad teachers in my high school. The other teachers knew about them, but there's not much you can do b/c of the tenure. But that's another digression...

Back to capitalism. Miles and I were having an interesting discussion on health care. My main beef is that I think that when you try to make a profit off health care, profit becomes #1, and patients take the back seat. Costs are rising for all sorts of reasons, but costs for non-profit health-care providers have gone up more slowly than that of for-profit providers. Anyway, I don't intend to rehash our discussion, but I did find this interesting article that shows two sides to the debate (I'm sure there are more sides than just these two).
Long-Run Health Care Cost Drivers.

Similarly, newspapers. They're in a world of hurt because readership is down, and they're losing advertising revenue. So the LA Times is looking at what to do to address the situation. Well, the LA Times thinking of closing down its foreign bureau, because it is not making enough money. I don't think it's creative editing that makes the investors sound like they want to turn the LA Times into something of a tabloid (like People magazine). A quote:

Mr. Bobrinskoy (vice-chairman of one of the major investors of the LA Times:
"The demand is for a very strong, high-quality, local newspaper, focused on the things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood, entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration. If he [Dean Baquet, former editor] was focused on all those issues, there would be a lot of demand for his product. Instead he's trying to be the fourth national newspaper."

So, you've got an investor wanting more money, not caring about the news - the first three things he lists as priorities are exactly what People magazine covers.

You can't expect everything to continue to grow or to make more money, it's just not realistic, and that demand pushes organizations in the wrong direction. At some point, you have to push back against capitalist pressures, because at some point they will push you away from your original goal. If you are a newspaper, you should be reporting news. Simply trying to maximize money leads us down the road to a common low - tabloids.

The recent killer-diaper-wearing-astronaut and Anna Nicole Smith stories are just examples of it. For a week, they were two of the five top stories. The Anna Nicole Smith one has been in the top five for a few weeks now. How is this news? It's not, it's "entertainment." The businesses may hide behind the excuse that, "it's what readers want" - but that's simply lame. We also want to eat fat, salt, and sugar all day, but at some point you have to say enough is enough, we should be eating vegetables.

Enough is enough, we should be getting real news.

capitalism - applied to schools (voucher system, no child left behind)
just doesn't apply well to everything
e.g. food

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