Archive for March, 2010

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Corporal Punishment – Does it Add Value to Education?

March 31, 2010

Corporal punishment, as a means of discipline in public schools, is currently employed in twenty states.[1] In 2006, over 223,000 students received some form of corporal punishment.[2] Using a national average of 180 school days, that works out to be over 1,200 spankings each day.  Even if you believe in the “spare the rod” statement from the Bible,[3] it does not say you get to delegate that authority to the public school system.

Proponents of spanking point to the need for discipline in our school systems as justification for the practice, while opponents see it as child abuse.  To avoid the argument, it helps to look at the effectiveness of  the practice as it relates to discipline in educational settings.  First, there can be no question for the need of discipline as it promotes a healthy learning environment.  Second, rules must have consequences when they are broken or they effectively do not exist.

Much debate takes place over what constitutes a healthy learning environment and just how to enforce rules to promote education.  Again, avoiding entanglement in the argument and looking at results sheds some light on the effectiveness of corporal punishment.  Figure 1 shows the states allowing corporal punishment.

Figure 1 – States Allowing Corporal Punishment
(click for larger view)

In looking at the states involved, several stereotypical “theories” are often put forward as to why these particular states allow it:

  • Only “Biblebelt” states can justify corporal punishment, it is part of their evangelical teachings
  • States that employ it are run by backward thinking people
  • States with right-wing agendas use corporal punishment to control the young population
  • Only states with large minority populations use it

The list goes on and on.  There is little use in addressing the veracity of the points as doing so does not address the problem of discipline in education.  Truthfully, the one thing the points have in common, they are all irrelevant.  The reason for the use of corporal punishment has little, if any, bearing on its effectiveness.

In the end, looking at the results of systems that use corporal punishment against those the do not puts its effectiveness into perspective.  Using data from U.S. Department of Education’s  2009 National Report Card[4], on the performance of eight-graders, one of two grades tested, state results can be averaged and ranked.  Figure 2 shows the states shaded with regard to that performance.

Figure 2 – States Ranked by Performance Percentage
(Click for larger view)

The states are shaded yellow to red with yellow representing the top 20% and red the bottom 20% and the others scaled between.  No state that allows corporal punishment scored in the top 20%.  In fact, 60% of states that allow the practice scored below average or worse.  In fact, 12% scored in the bottom 20% of all states.  Figure 3 shows the same data only for states allowing corporal punishment.

Figure 3 – Only States Allowing Corporal Punishment
(Click for larger view)

While there is no direct correlation between the use of corporal punishment and poor performance (as densely populated states that do not allow for it, like New York and California also scored poorly), there is correlation that corporal punishment does not enhance the educational performance of students – no state that allows corporal punishment scored in the top 20%.  Of course, many other factors come into play, but if corporal punishment does not add to education, just what purpose does it serve?

While it is hard to object to a parent giving a little hand a quick “pop” as its reaching for the hot stove, applying the practice to the normal disciplinary actions of our public school system seems extreme.  The use of such practices well illustrates the duality within conservative groups that argue for individual rights and responsibility while promoting a state sanctioned punishment that should not exist beyond the realm of parenthood, if at all.   Of course the other side is just as guilty of duality by not acknowledging a lack of parental control feeds the problems of discipline but screaming to high hell when a child is punished.  Both sides are wrong and prove that dealing in extremes is never the preferred course of action.

Our system of education needs improvement.  A reasonable path involves looking at that top 20% , the states in yellow, and see what they do differently than the bottom 20%, the ones bleeding red.  Only then will we begin to understand how to improve.  Even the top 20% need improvement, but until we reach a level of parity,  it seems the best actions are to follow their lead.


[1] “U.S.: Corporal Punishment and Paddling.” The Center for Effective Discipline. Ed. Nadine A. Block and Robert Fathman. The Center for Effective Discipline. Web. 31 Mar. 2010.
<http://www.stophitting.com/index.php?page=statesbanning>.

[2] “2006 National and State Projections.” Civil Rights Data Collection. U.S. Department of Education. Web. 31 Mar. 2010.
<http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Projections_2006.aspx>.

[3] Proverbs 13:24. New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1976. Print.

[4] “Reading 2009 Report Viewer.” NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home. Ed. Richard Struense. United Stated Department of Education, 19 Mar. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.
<http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2009/reading_2009_report/>.

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The De-Evolution of Political Debate

March 29, 2010

An article posted on CCNMoney.com brings to light a much larger issue than the subject within.  Assuming the sources are valid, the story seems balanced enough, though from a writing standpoint it does have some technical problems, but that is more a critique of the editor than the author.  When compared to a lot of material out today, it does a pretty good job of avoiding politics and simply reports a story.  If you step back and look at the article compared to the comments, the real problem comes into focus – people simply will not accept differing points of view.

The piece in question is titled Why a $14/hour employee costs $20[i] by Catherine Clifford, a staff writer.  As the title implies, it’s about the costs an employer pays beyond the figure that shows up in the payroll check.  While debate over the article’s details certainly is possible, the venomous nature of the comments seems over the top.  They call CNN everything from “socialist” to “promoting extreme right-wing ideology.”  For example, Thomas Macie calls it “stupid CNN Socialist Propaganda,” while John Egan refers to it as “More right-wing reactionary crap.”

Everyone is certainly entitled to his or her opinion but that does not necessarily mean that opinion has any merit.  At its core, the article is about the obstacles an employer faces and how the current government program to encourage hiring deals with it.  The comments quickly devolve into political arguments of every flavor.  Few, if any, of the comments even address the factual points.  Instead they focus on subjective aspects that call back to the same sort of the military policy used when dealing with nuclear weapons – mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Mutually assured destruction counts on a balance of power, where you may destroy your foe but they destroy you in return.  Thankfully, the theory was never put into practice with weapons of mass destruction.  The same cannot be said politically.  In political terms MAD means when you’re attacked with lies, you fire back with lies of your own of equal viciousness.  In the case of the article’s comments, this is certainly so.  Of greater concern is the hate possessed by the readers.  Are we now so blind with hate and rage that truth no longer matters?

As Lincoln noted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand[ii].”  We cannot continue as a nation with such high levels of animosity towards each other.  Our political leaders have encamped themselves at opposite ends of the poles and give not one inch to compromise.  From the leadership the hatred spreads to citizens who seek only to understand the position of government.  Lincoln knew the folly of this, for there could be no compass pointing North without South to temper the swing.  The more entrenched the ideology, the less effective the government to represent the nation as a whole.

The current political climate insults our heritage and slaps the founding fathers square in the face.  In 1787 fifty-five men sorted through a wide range of topics, everything from whether to have a monarch or president to the vile practice of slavery.  On every point compromise was found.  Without it, the United States would never have formed.

Even great minds like Benjamin Franklin understood the need for it; on the issue of slavery he wrote “the hypocrisy of this country, which encourages such a detestable commerce by law for promoting the Guinea trade; while it piqued itself on its virtue, love of liberty.[iii]”  Even with Franklin’s feelings on slavery, he compromised his position.  As heartbreaking as it was, Franklin understood that to end slavery later on, it had to be allowed at the time in order to form the Union.

Given the wide gulf of opinion that existed, the resulting document is a remarkable example of what is achievable.  It is a lesson for us today as our issues and differences are petty in comparison.  Returning to the remarks on the article, how can we move forward, debate topics, and reach a consensus when even a topic like the true cost of hiring an employee becomes a partisan battleground?  It does not reflect the nation we started off as or the nation we should be today.  We have de-evolved into the feudalistic form of political debate where the one that screams the loudest carries the day.


[i] Clifford, Catherine. “Why a $14/hour Employee Costs $20.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network (CNN, 28 Mar. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. <http://money.cnn.com/2010/03/26/smallbusiness/employee_costs/index.htm&gt;.

[ii] Lincoln, Abraham. “A House Divided.” Speech. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
Vol. 2. Roy P. Blaser (Editor), [1953]. 461-68. Print.

[iii] Franklin, Benjamin. “On Slavery.” Letter to Anthony Benezet. 22 Aug. 1772. Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin. Eau Claire, WI: E.M. Hale & Co, Unknown. 193. Print.

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Life in a Vacuum – The Problem in NASA Funding

March 26, 2010

TED.com is a wonderful website that explores ideas.  In fact, their tagline is “Ideas worth sharing.”  They bring together an eclectic group of people to promote new ideas or simply how to see old ones in new ways.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design but don’t let then name fool you, at its core TED is about people helping the world improve.  The organization has grown beyond its initial focus on the three groups of its name to include people from all walks of life with ideas they wish to share.  Simply put TED represents the best humanity has to offer.

During its evolution, TED developed something called TEDx events, with the “x’ meaning independently organized events.  For instance a group from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) formed TEDxNASA (click here to see the group).  It is great to see world-class scientists bring their particular area of interest into a format mere humans can understand.  In watching the various talks, we learn about current and projected programs underway at NASA.  After a talk, one cannot help but feel it is worthy of our support and funding.  Unfortunately, it is the funding that proves more problematic than support for the idea.

For example, in November of 2009, NASA scientist Joel Levine spoke of the need to return to Mars (Here is the link).  In this project, a group of over one hundred scientists and engineers are working on developing a craft, called ARES, to fly around Mars and collect all sorts of data.  In watching the presentation, as well as visiting the ARES website, amazement is assured and it becomes obvious that NASA still attracts the best and the brightest amongst us.  Even so, it is valid to question just why we want to do this and what is gained.  Rather than give that answer, as their website addresses the gains, the program’s cost becomes the issue.

Funding one program over another is painful.  Just as a mother cannot choose one child above another, NASA holds affection for each program it undertakes.  Still, no two children have exactly the same talents, and no two programs can produce the same results.  Just as one child might have to wait for its needs while another’s needs are tended, so must programs wait for funding.

The debate over NASA funding is especially heated during this time of economic hardship.  Detractors of the space program see it as money to be diverted, while supporters point to long-range returns on investment as proof funding is worthwhile.  In the end, funding is beyond the control of NASA.  It is in their best interest to deal with the reality of funding and set clear priorities.  In other words, they must pick which child (project) to support.  The leadership of NASA needs to give focus to the organization, focus that has lacked since the days of the Apollo program.

During the Apollo era (1963 – 1972), NASA had a lazar-beam like gaze on its goal – exploring the moon.   Even other major programs, Gemini for instance, added to the over all goals of the Apollo program.  That type of focus needs to return.

During the 1960s, NASA’s budget (click here for Historical table) fluxed between 1.2% and 4.3% with an average around 3% of the overall federal budget.  Currently, the NASA budget is approximately 0.6%.  Given the monetary increase of the overall budget, NASA taking a smaller percentage is not that troublesome.

Click Image for Larger View

 

As the graph illustrates, the money given to NASA has increased exponentially, still there is insight gained from some simple observations.  In the 1960s, NASA used roughly 3% of the federal budget and focused on reaching and exploring the moon.  They achieved that goal.  Now, NASA uses less than 1% of the federal budget and spreads it over more than 85 active programs dealing with many divergent areas, everything from studying polar clouds to deep space exploration and most everything in between.

Looking at any one program in a vacuum supports funding.  Again, they are all worthy, but as wonderful as they may be, the checkbook is not unlimited and NASA does not exist in a vacuum.  Supporters of NASA often point out nearly three times as much is spent in the United States on pets than the space program (the American Pet Products Association (APPA),  estimates $47.7 billion will be spent in the U.S. in 2010 on pets compared to NASA’s just over $17 billion).  The point being that NASA does not receive much support in the larger scope of things.

As true as that point may be, it is irrelevant.  NASA has just over $17 billion to spend. That’s it!  In the current climate they will not receive more.  The fact is they must fight to keep funding at its current level.  Faced with that reality, perhaps returning to goal oriented priorities, like in the Apollo days, is warranted.  If Mars exploration is the priority, focus funding on programs that support that goal.  Others will have to wait or modify their program to support the goal.

In the end, the leadership at NASA must make some hard choices.  Congress is not going to provide money to fund every project regardless of it worth.  By focusing on projects with common goals (i.e. exploring Mars), targeted funding will produce the best results.  Otherwise, all projects receive minimal funding and produce minimal results.

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Something Has to Change

March 25, 2010

We all know statistics are manipulated by politicians, lobbyists, and pretty much anyone with an agenda, to suit their purpose.  It is one of the generally confusing aspects of arriving at a sense of the truth on where we stand as a nation.  To add to our perplexity, the numbers talked about are so large as to lose all relative meaning.  After all, who’s ever seen a trillion of anything?  For practical purposes, it’s just a number that’s much larger than a billion – another number beyond reasonable use for most of us.

What good is it to state the Department of Defense’s budget in 2007 (click here to see the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report) was $529 billion?  All we really know is that is a very big number.  Another way to look at the budget is by percentage, rather than by dollars spent.  That same $529 billion works out to be about 17% of the over all federal budget that year.  In looking at it this way, we can ask if 17% is a reasonable portion to apply to national defense.

In answering the portion question, many things come into play, things as current threat, perceived future threat, replacement of ships, tanks and aircraft, and what’s been done before.  Only what’s been done in the past is objective.  Focusing there gives a proper frame of reference over time.  Here is the Defense Department’s percentage every ten years since 1962, the year I was born, taken from the OMB’s 2009 report:

Year             Percentage

1962              46.9%
1972              33.7%
1982              24.2%
1992              20.7%
2002              16.5%
2012(est.)      16.8%

Currently, the Department of Defense takes up about a third as much of the budget compared to 1962.  Returning to that really large number, $529 billion, makes one question just where the other 83% and its huge number go.  Obviously, as the Department of Defense’s portion decreases, other department’s portions increase.

Conservatives are quick to point out that social programs make up the greatest portion of that change.  In fairness, here is the Social Security percentage for the same years:

Year             Percentage

1962              13.4%
1972              17.2%
1982              20.8%
1992              20.4%
2002              22.0%
2012(est.)      22.9%

Looking at it line by line does not tell the true story.  The federal budget has many related areas of spending that the public tends to group together.  To that end, the following graph groups the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Civil Defense as “defense”; while Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Social Security (on and off budget) are grouped as “social services.”  The grouping seems the obvious choice but is open to debate.

As the graph illustrates, the trend in social spending is increasing while defense is decreasing.  In other words, the conservatives make a valid point regarding percentage.  In reality, all portions other than social programs are either trending at the same level or decreasing slightly.  Currently, the social services take up 55% of the budget to defense’s 23%.  Together, they take almost 77% of the federal budget leaving only 23% for everything else.  A few examples of “everything else” are the Department of Justice, NASA, Department of Commerce, Treasury, State Department, and Department of Interior.  That is not even close to all of them.

Regardless of a person’s position on healthcare reform, the trend of social services to take a larger and larger portion of the federal budget must be addressed.  As important as healthcare is, so is having bridges that do not collapse.  In the end, along with healthcare reform, we need budget reform.  We need to attack waste in every program funded with federal money.  We need to stop Medicare fraud; we need to stop buying F-22 fighter planes the military does not want or need.

Using the F-22 as an example, congress added about $1.7 billion for seven fighters.  That is less than one-half of one percent of the defense budget but it is also one type of fighter, seems the same thing is happening with the C-17 transport planes.  Even with their declining percentage, there is still room to cut waste.

What about social services, does it really have Medicare fraud?  Of course it does.  Mark Potter of NBC News reported in December of 2007 (click here to read story) that Medicare fraud cost taxpayers $60 billion a year, or $181 for every U.S. citizen.  $60 billion is about 8% of the Social Security budget in total.  A simple solution would be take just one billion from Social Security and use it to hunt down the bastards stealing from us and put them in jail.  Even if only half the money were recovered, it would be well worth it.  Just removing the fraud would pay for an annual doctor’s visit for everyone.

Washington is getting serious about spending a huge amount of money on healthcare reform; we all know the huge amount spent on two wars.  Perhaps just as much effort needs to take place in ensuring tax dollars are not squandered.  While it is easy to support healthcare reform, the voices calling for restraint must be heard as well.  Rather than name calling, it is best to phrase it this way – those seeking healthcare reform are interested in our physical health as a nation; those for restraint are interested in our financial health.  Neither side is wrong and there is plenty of common ground to be found.  Only by seeking that common ground will we provide services we want at a cost we can afford.

Without denying the need for reform in areas of healthcare, cost is a valid concern.  Just as spending all of your paycheck on new tires for your car leaves you without groceries, spending all our tax dollars on healthcare leaves the other departments  without.  Prudence demands we use the money wisely.  One thing all of us should easily agree on is to stop waste, fraud, and abuse of our tax dollars.

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Our Politics Are Anything But “Social”

March 24, 2010

It is near impossible to pick up a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch news on television without hearing someone stoke the coal-embers of fear that “socialism” will destroy the United States.  While some may truly believe it, the real goal is simply to frighten middle-class Americans back into the conservative fold.  They leverage a lack of understanding as to just what socialism is and is not.  Ironically, they use the same fear weapon that dictators use to gain control of a population, regardless if that dictator is socialist, communist, fascist, or just a plain brutal son of a bitch.

That lack of understanding is the primary reason fear exists.  In the United States, communism and socialism are thought of as being the same.  They are not.  When pundits use the term socialism, they imply communism.  Simply put, communism is a form of government where the state owns all property.  In theory, it is a democracy where every person participates in government equally.  In reality, communist governments devolve into authoritarian dictatorships or oligarchy (a small group or mob).  In both the Soviet Union and Communist China, power concentrated in the hands of a few at the cost of the population at large.  The only thing a communist government has in common with socialism is communists often include “socialist” in their name.  There never has been and never will be the utopian form of communism leftist speak of with such passion.

Socialism, on the other hand, is a group of economics theories that center on public or direct worker ownership of businesses but not necessarily property.  A good example of a socialist based economy is the United Kingdom after World War-II.  Industries like transportation and coal mining came under state control and the National Health Service was formed (the British healthcare system we hear so much about today).  While its economic policies were socialist, the United Kingdom retained both, its parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy.  In other words, its economic policy did not change its form of government.  The social experiment in the U.K. ended with the election of Margaret Thatcher but even so, the nation retains many of the social institutions and policies, such as the National Health Service formed during this time.

What is needed is an apples to apples comparison.  Socialism and capitalism are economic systems of commerce, not types of governments.  Republics and communist states are forms of government.  Adopting a socialist policy will not change the form of government.  The United States has many examples of socialist policies in effect now.  Our national highway system is a prime example and it works well.  Without it imagine the tolls we would have to pay just to go visit Grandma in the next state.  In fact, all government services are socialist in nature.  Who could imagine a private police force patrolling the streets of our cities?  We have enough problems dealing with abusive law enforcement now and its abuses on the whole are limited, imagine the outcome if profit was the motive of law enforcement.

Here is a quote by a famous American regarding the state of healthcare, see if you think it sounds socialist:

“Beyond the question of the prices of health care, our present system of health care insurance suffers from two major flaws :

First, even though more Americans carry health insurance than ever before, the [million of] Americans who remain uninsured often need it the most and are most unlikely to obtain it.  They include many who work in seasonal or transient occupations, high-risk cases, and those who are ineligible for Medicaid despite low incomes.

Second, those Americans who do carry health insurance often lack coverage which is balanced, comprehensive and fully protective:

–Forty percent of those who are insured are not covered for visits to physicians on an out-patient basis, a gap that creates powerful incentives toward high cost care in hospitals;

–Few people have the option of selecting care through prepaid arrangements offered by Health Maintenance Organizations so the system at large does not benefit from the free choice and creative competition this would offer;

–Very few private policies cover preventive services;

–Most health plans do not contain built-in incentives to reduce waste and inefficiency.  The extra costs of wasteful practices are passed on, of course, to consumers; and

–Fewer than half of our citizens under 65–and almost none over 65–have major medical coverage which pays for the cost of catastrophic illness.

These gaps in health protection can have tragic consequences.  They can cause people to delay seeking medical attention until it is too late.  Then a medical crisis ensues, followed by huge medical bills–or worse.  Delays in treatment can end in death or lifelong disability.”

This quote is taken from a Special Message to the United States Congress by President Richard M. Nixon dated February 6, 1974  (Note: 24 million was changed to [million of] in the quoted text to not give it away as being from the 70s).  Here we are, thirty-six years later, arguing about the same thing.  The only difference today, President Nixon would be labeled a “socialist commie” by Glenn Beck and the like.  It is amazing our society has change so much that Nixon’s policies are considered liberal by today’s standard.

In the end, President Obama and Congress do not have the power to change our form of government.  There are only two ways to do that, a constitutional amendment for one, and overthrowing the government for the other, and I think the U.S. Military would have something to say about the latter taking place, as well as all the gun-toting, myself included, citizens out there.

As far as constitutional amendments go, those take two-thirds of both houses of congress or two-thirds of states to propose an amendment but then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the various state’s legislators, or thirty-eight states.  It is doubtful, even if they wanted to, that any group could change our constitutional-republic form of government.

Providing reasonable healthcare will not destroy our country.  Truth is, not providing it is the real danger.  We will have to adjust our spending in other areas but that is long overdue anyway.  Healthcare needs to be part of our economic security.  Having a healthy population is just as important as having a healthy military.

So next time you hear a fear-mongering idiot bemoaning the death of America’s liberty and freedom, just shake your head and feel sorry for them.  They are no more relevant than the moron standing on the corner with a sign reading “THE END IS NEAR!”

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The Healthcare Debate and Critical Thinking

March 23, 2010

Now that our elected political idiots are through wrestling with the healthcare alligator for a bit, pundits from both sides have stepped into the ring for round two.  In the one corner stand those who wish to assure us the bill is manna from heaven; the other corner has us lining up for a lethal dose of socialism and financial ruin.  What the political idiots and pundits lack is critical thinking regarding healthcare.  They simply stoke the fires of preconceived notions.

Critical thinking involves more than understanding a particular position or even all the positions of a subject.  In their book, Critical Thinking, Richard Parker and Brook Noel describe the process as “the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.”  In other words, the process of critical thinking considers all the relevant facts to determine their importance, if any, on the outcome.

With that in mind we come to healthcare.  Our first problem comes in defining what healthcare means, are we talking about the level of care or simply its cost?  They are not the same thing and in the end, have little to do with each other.  As the current bill’s primary purpose addresses issues related to cost, that seems a logical place to focus.  We need to understand what drives up the cost of healthcare in America and how to reverse the trend.

Of course, there is more than a book’s worth of material regarding the various reasons healthcare costs rise so dramatically.  Rather than cherry-pick a few items to support a view, it is better to boil them all down into a few categories.  There are two broad categories that breakdown into subcategories, costs that add value and costs that do not.

Again focusing on one area, the obvious goal is to eliminate the costs that add no valued to healthcare.  A great example of such a cost is the profit paid to the insurance company’s shareholders.  A for-profit company has a responsibility to make a profit.  It is why shareholders invest in the company.  This profit is the subject of fierce debate, President Obama even called it record-breaking in a June 2009 press conference, a statement PoltiFact.com calls false, by the way – (click here to read).  Rather than addressing the issue directly, both sides use profit as a political football used to score points.

What is not debated though is insurance companies make a profit.  That adds to the direct cost of healthcare.  Industry wide, net profits average around 3.3%.  According to the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2007, private insurance paid for approximately 36% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. (click here to read the full report).  Using their 2007 expenditure number of $2.2 trillion, that means the insurance companies’ profits works out to about $27.3 billion or $82 for every man, woman, and child in the United States, even the uninsured.  A non-profit insurance system would save both citizens and businesses that $27.3 billion per year.

At first glance, a non-profit, single payer system would seem an option worth undertaking.  This is where critical thinking comes in.  Are there any examples of single-payer systems set up by the federal government currently?  Yes, the National Flood Insurance Program.  As their website put it:

“In 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to help provide a means for property owners to financially protect themselves.  The NFIP offers flood insurance to homeowners, renters, and business owners if their community participates in the NFIP.  Participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding.”

While no system is perfect, NFIP provides a cost-effective means for renters and homeowners to protect themselves from flooding related damage costs.  Critical thinking demands we look at the latter part of the statement in detail – “Participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding.”  The government program provides a service but requires individuals and communities to take basic precautions to protect themselves and reduce their exposure to flooding.  This reduction in exposure is key to reducing costs.

A non-profit, single-payer system will work for healthcare but the same prudence and risk aversion needs to apply.  To put it simply, we need to take care of ourselves, lose weight, stop smoking, and keep in reasonable shape.  By concentrating on prevention with tools like routine check-ups, we avoid the logarithmically higher costs of the post-onset of illness treatment.

The insurance industry’s profit is only one example of critical thinking applied to healthcare and by no means is it examined in full.  Rather it illustrates how applying the process to a problem leads to solutions, and there can be more than one for a particular problem.  It removes rhetoric from the equation and allows for merit-based debate.

The passing of the current bill is only the beginning of the process.  Over the next few years it will change and undergo metamorphosis into a totally different law.  What is needed now is less political fear-mongering and more critical thinking.  Only then will we have a bill that is effective and adds value to our lives.  Otherwise we will end up with another in a long line of useless government programs.

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The Super Light – Can an LED Save A City?

March 19, 2010

With the economic flat tire we’re running on, we like to think our various government agencies use all the tax money they collect in responsible ways.  The daily federal arguments on spending fill the nightly news with examples that prove this wish wrong and always seem stupidly complex.  Local governments face similar problems but scaled down.  Perhaps local governments are the place to start implementing solutions, as there is even more to paying for common services, like traffic lights, than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, something as simple as traffic lights takes on complexity when viewed at a city or county-wide level.  Everything from availability of replacement bulbs to scheduling maintenance with boom-trucks comes into play.  Of course, when we add cost to the mix, the complexity grows by leaps and bounds.  In the end, cost is the part we, the citizens, are really interested in, being that money out of our pockets pays for it.

The prototypical traffic light uses three halogen light bulbs around 150 watts each, with one of the lights on at all times.  At a standard intersection, there are at least four traffic lights, one for each direction, with many intersections having a good number more.  As cost is our primary concern, let’s put some numbers to it.  In South Carolina; our average cost per kilowatt in 2009 was $0.0553 (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (Dec 2009)) .  That means a single 150 watt bulb running continually costs about 20 cents a day.  With each intersection having at least four, that’s 80 cents per day per intersection.  Here is a quick table showing various costs:

Lights per
intersection
Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $     0.80 $   23.89 $   290.66
8 $     1.59 $   47.78 $   581.31
12 $     2.39 $   71.67 $   871.97
16 $     3.19 $   95.56 $1,162.63

Extending the figure out for various numbers of intersections:

Number of
Intersections
Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      79.63 $    2,388.96 $     29,065.68
500 $     597.24 $  17,917.20 $   217,992.60
1000 $  1,592.64 $  47,779.20 $   581,313.60
5000 $11,944.80 $358,344.00 $4,359,852.00

This is only the cost of electricity.  The average life of a halogen bulb is just over 2,000 hours or less than 90 days meaning each light is replace three or four times a year.  Simply to provide traffic lights, city and county governments face substantial costs.  This is where the LED comes in.

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode.  We have all seen the little red lights on various types of electronic equipment.  Most are LEDs.  While the theory of their use has been around for over 100 years, true practical applications were not developed until the 1970s.  Even then, LEDs lack the intensity for use beyond indication lighting (i.e. showing a status as on or off).  Over the last thirty years, changes in LEDs allow for bright lights in every color of the spectrum.

The LED has many advantages over the incandescent, halogen, and Compact Florescent Light (CFL) style systems.  They use only a fraction of the electricity and last for years, if not decades and they do not have the mercury found in CFLs.  Cities across America are in the process of changing their traffic lights to LED based units.  To produce the same amount of light, as a 150 watt halogen traffic light, requires only 15 watts of LED powered lighting.  Using the same data above:

Lights per
intersection

Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $  0.08 $ 2.39 $ 29.07
8 $ 0.16 $ 4.78 $ 58.13
12 $ 0.24 $ 7.17 $ 87.20
16 $ 0.32 $ 9.56 $ 116.26

Again, extending the figures for number of intersections:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $ 7.96 $ 238.90 $ 2,906.57
500 $ 59.72 $ 1,791.72 $ 21,799.26
1000 $ 159.26 $ 4,777.92 $ 58,131.36
5000 $1,194.48 $ 35,834.40 $ 435,985.20

Producing a savings over halogen bases lighting of:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      71.67 $    2,150.06 $     26,159.11
500 $     537.52 $  16,125.48 $   196,193.34
1000 $  1,433.38 $  43,001.28 $   523,182.24
5000 $10,750.32 $322,509.60 $3,923,866.80

These costs only reflect a saving in the electricity.  A halogen light costs around $5.00, for 100 intersections with six lights that works out to $12,000 a year just in bulbs.  Of course, the cost of labor to replace bulbs is saved too.

Thankfully, most cities have all ready replaced or are currently replacing their traffic lights.  The question is what other areas are there to save money.  It must be remembered, when we are talking about a city or county, it is never one light bulb, it’s thousands.  It’s not the 1 cent for a sheet of paper but the $10,000 for a million sheets that becomes an issue.

It is obvious that replacing traffic lights produces savings.  It is one of many examples where savings are found.  Others are less obvious; perhaps reducing the requirements of a procedure or even rethinking the way student report cards are sent to parents will produce savings.  Maybe they won’t, the point is we will not know until we look.  We need to examine everything to ensure the service is in tune with the times and is provided in the most cost-effective manner.

In the end, the LED will not save a city but is simply an example of the type of thinking that will save it.  Every expenditure, to serve the public good, must be questioned.  No one questions the need for traffic lights, but can and do question the cost.  By seeking a less expensive option, local governments are saving real dollars, real tax dollars we do not have to pay.

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