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Monthly Archives: January 2013

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“Free Market” Social Services Fail to Deliver

Where do you turn when your aging mother can’t be by herself anymore or you notice your baby seems a little delayed?  Imagine that your teenager start  skipping school and staying out all night or imagine you are suddenly diagnosed with a serious illness or disabled in an accident.  Where do you go for help?

Sooner or later we all knock on the door of our community’s social service network.  What greets us may be far less than we expect.  And sadly, the help available to us will depend a lot on where we live and how much money we make.   The confusing patchwork of private, public and non-profit social service agencies through which we must navigate is the natural, unintended consequence of the free market model we’ve created to deliver social services.

We are all only temporarily able bodied.  We don’t give much thought social services.   We are content knowing that free market competition is efficiently keeping down the cost of publicly financed services for the needy.

It isn’t until we seek help ourselves that we encounter a labyrinth of agencies with confusing components and cutesy sounding acronyms for their names.  Agencies often list the types of services they offer (counseling, for example) without listing the types of problems they serve (such as adolescent issues).   Consumers are expected to know which services work best for their problems.  Some agencies over promise results in their marketing or take on people with problems that would be bettered resolved elsewhere.   Access to services are often restricted by bewildering eligibility requirements based on age, gender, geography, diagnosis, income, insurance provider, religion, ethnicity, funding source or hours of operation.

If your family has one or two very common problems, chances are you will find the help you need.  But if your problems are uncommon or complex, your search will not go smoothly. And if you also happen to be poor, live in an under served community or don’t have transportation, the prospects for getting effective help are slim.

This is the character of our social service networks today.  They are not based on matching service availability and capacity to the needs of local communities.  They are loosely coordinated networks created by free market forces and competition between private or non-profit agencies scrambling for dollars.

For over thirty years we have been privatizing public social services in the belief that free markets are more efficient than government in providing the best services at the lowest cost.  Little attention is given to the inescapable fact that market driven systems create uneven results by their very nature.  This is true in commerce but especially true in public social welfare.  Larger agencies are more politically connected and better positioned to compete for public dollars.  Wealthier communities have a higher profit potential so they attract more and better competitors.   Smaller agencies and program models that incorporate innovative ideas are less able to compete for government money.

Innovative approaches to helping people are usually funded in small trials by private foundations.  Even when these trials prove successful, bringing them up to scale is almost impossible.  Agency competition actually works against it because social service providers are competing on an artificial playing field.

Governments create the playing field on which agencies compete, but the government departments responsible for developing and funding social service contracts are often under staffed and ill equipped to monitor service outcomes.  They also lack the personnel and special expertise it takes to design better programs.  The time and effort involved in researching literature, writing contract proposals, putting contracts out for bid and guiding the implementation of new programs is enormous .  Politicians don’t want to spend what it would cost to create real free market competition for high quality services.

To overcome the uneven distribution of services problem,  governments develop specially targeted service contracts with extra financial incentives to serve specific areas.  But these initiatives are expensive and tax revenues are declining.  Targeted service contracts are usually limited in size and scope because of their higher costs.

We have come to the point where the availability and quality of essential services, to treat an abused child for example,  becomes an accident of birth.  How often have I seen children getting excellent services in one county while children with identical needs have no such services in another.

Commercial markets are efficient in distributing products according to demand when profits are distributed according to merit.   This method breaks down when applied to funding social services.  Competition discourages inter-agency coordination and inadequate  funding increases agency competition in more profitable locations while discouraging them from entering less profitable communities.  This causes unacceptable inequalities in meeting the basic human needs of our people.

There are many pressing issues that demand attention.  How we fund social services is rarely among them, yet the wisdom of distributing social services through artificially created free markets cries out for public debate.

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Media Silent on Fukushima Radiation Impact in US

Sometimes the big news stories can only be seen by the shadows they cast. You would think that it would be easy to find detailed updates on the Fukushima disaster’s impact on the fishing industry, milk production, global radiation distribution patterns, etc.  You would be mistaken. The massive media coverage the initial disaster has fallen nearly silent.  Some frustrated environmental advocates have suggested that there may be a media blackout.  Maybe not, but media follow-up stories are few and far between these days.

In July of last year there were major stories about Fukushima and the  plum of radiation reaching across the Pacific Ocean towards North America.  On July 16, 2012, Deborah Dupre of the Examiner reported the following:

“As hair falls out of a Fukushima victim’s head, a new German study reports that North America’s West Coast will be the area most contaminated by Fukushima cesium of all regions in Pacific in 10 years, an “order-of-magnitude higher” than waters off Japan, according to a new German study followed by a former New York Times journalist going inside the no-entry zone and reporting radiation levels over 10 times higher than Tepco’s data.”

The article was accompanied by this scary graphic:

Radioactive Seawater Impact Map

http://www.examiner.com/article/fukushima-west-coast-cesium-slam-ahead-hair-falling-out-tepco-data-flaw?cid=PROD-redesign-right-next

The article went on to say: “”After 10 years, the concentrations become nearly homogeneous over the whole Pacific, with higher values in the east, extending along the North American coast with a maximum (~1 × 10−4) off Baja California,” a new research report states.”

Then, on August 22, 2012, NHK News reported that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant says it has detected radiation 380 times the government safety limit in a fish caught off Fukushima Prefecture.

http://www.forbiddenknowledgetv.com/videos/radiation-poisoning/record-radiation-detected-in-fish-off-fukushima.html

Since then not much else has been reported on the spread of radiation to North America.  It has been reported that tons of debris from the tsunami continues to wash up on the Pacific coast, but very little, especially in the main stream press, about how we are being effected.  http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2012/12/fukushima-debris-to-keep-hitting-the-pacific-coast-this-winter/

Perhaps my internet search skill are not the best, but the fact that I have to search for follow-up information is a warning sign.  Journalists and the media should paying more attention to to this topic. The one recent article related to radiation fallout from Fukushima I found was a  scientific study published in November, 2012.  It focuses primarily on how tracing  the travel of radionuclides gives insight into atmospheric air circulation in the Northern Hemisphere.

I think we all deserve to know more about what the US, Canadian and Mexican governments are doing to monitor radiation levels, track distribution rates and study how it may be impacting our food supply.

Below is a reference to the recently published study.

Science of The Total Environment Volume 438,

1 November 2012, Pages 80–85

Tracking the complete revolution of surface westerlies over Northern Hemisphere using radionuclides emitted from Fukushima

 M.A. Hernández-Ceballosa, G.H. Hongb, R.L. LozanoaY.I. KimcH.M. Leeb, S.H. Kimb,S.-W. YehdJ.P. Bolívara, ,M. Baskarane

ABSTRACT:

Massive amounts of anthropogenic radionuclides were released from the nuclear reactors located in Fukushima (northeastern Japan) between 12 and 16 March 2011 following the earthquake and tsunami. Ground level air radioactivity was monitored around the globe immediately after the Fukushima accident. This global effort provided a unique opportunity to trace the surface air mass movement at different sites in the Northern Hemisphere. Based on surface air radioactivity measurements around the globe and the air mass backward trajectory analysis of the Fukushima radioactive plume at various places in the Northern Hemisphere by employing the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory model, we show for the first time, that the uninterrupted complete revolution of the mid-latitude Surface Westerlies took place in less than 21 days, with an average zonal velocity of > 60 km/h. The position and circulation time scale of Surface Westerlies are of wide interest to a large number of global researchers including meteorologists, atmospheric researchers and global climate modellers.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969712010959

High School Graduation Rates A National Shame

Educational achievement is a long range predictor of a nations economic health and well being.  In advanced economies, a great deal depends on scientific and technical achievements which begin with educational excellence.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum published a study on global business competitiveness that ranks 144 nations according to indicators in 12 categories.  While the United State ranked 7th in the world over all, our ranking in primary and secondary education measures were alarming.  The united states ranked 58th on primary school enrollments and 38th on the quality of our primary education. We ranked 47th in secondary school enrollment and 47th on the quality of math and science education.  (See report summary here )
Now the U.S. Department of Education has released data detailing state four-year high school graduation rates in 2010-11 – the first year for which all states used a common, rigorous measure. The report states:
“The varying methods formerly used by states to report graduation rates made comparisons between states unreliable, while the new, common metric can be used by states, districts and schools to promote greater accountability and to develop strategies that will reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates in schools nationwide.
The new, uniform rate calculation is not comparable in absolute terms to previously reported rates. Therefore, while 26 states reported lower graduation rates and 24 states reported unchanged or increased rates under the new metric, these changes should not be viewed as measures of progress but rather as a more accurate snapshot. “
See States Four Year Graduation Rates here: http://www2.ed.gov/documents/press-releases/state-2010-11-graduation-rate-data.pdf  In reading the summary below please keep in mind that no data was available from Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Puerto Rico and some other states had data missing.

Summary of Finding

The highest graduation rate achieved by any state is in Iowa, which as an 88% high school graduation rate.  Wisconsinand Vermont were right behind Iowa with an 87% graduation rate.  The lowest high school graduation rate is just 59% in the District of Colombia.  Among the sovereign states the lowest graduation rates  were in Nevada (62%), New Mexico (63%), Georgia (67%), Alaska and Oregon  (both at 68%).  All tolled, 13 states have high school graduation rate at or below 75%.
When it comes to race and ethnicity, the graduation rates for Latino children in Maine and Hawaii are slightly better then for White students.  Beyond these two examples, in every other state the rates are lower for both Black and Latino students, and significantly so in some states.  In Minnesota and Nevada Black student have a graduation rate below 50%.  The disparity in Minnesota is stark.  White students in Minnesota graduate at a rate of 84% while the Latino graduation rate is 51% and only 49% of Black students graduate.  These numbers and other dramatic disparities among the states are a national disgrace.
Even more startling is the low graduation rates and huge rate disparity for children with disabilities.  Graduation rates for these children range from a high of  77% in Texas, 75% in Arkansas and 73% in both Kansas and New Jersey to a low of 23% in Mississippi and Nevada.  Only 33 states have graduation rates above 50% among children with disabilities.  Children with disabilities are not more severely handicapped in places like Louisiana (29%) thanPennsylvania (71%).

Children with limited English proficiency also graduate at lower rates in most states, but especially in Nevada (29%) and Arizona (25%).  Students with limited English proficiency actually have a better graduation rate in West Virginia (79%) than do White children for whom English is their primary language (77%).  In states as diverse as Arkansas and Maine limited English proficiency is hardly a barrier at all.  Nineteen states have high school graduation rates of less than 50% for children for whom English is not their primary language.

I would appear that childhood disabilities and limited English proficiency are not  that closely correlated with economic disadvantage.  There are no states in which the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged children falls below 50%.  In Arizona, for example, economically disadvantaged students have a 73% graduation rate and students with disabilities have a 67% rate of graduation while, as mentioned, students for whom need help learning English have a very low graduation rate (25%).  In the case of Mississippi economically disadvantaged students graduate at a rate of 69% while only 23% of disabled children graduate high school.
So what’s going on here?  From the broad strokes of this report it would seem that poor educational outcomes are less a result of funding or the demographics of being economically poor and more a matter of intentional neglect.  I hope I am being too harsh in my judgment.  No matter how you look at this data, what should be clear to everyone is that the United States is heading for national decline if we remain unable to turn around these educational outcomes.

OUR VOTING RIGHTS – A State by State Analysis

In an off handed comment made after the 2012 election, President Barack Obama said we need to fix our election process.  This is a welcome suggestion.  Our election process is badly broken and we need to take a good look at it.  We should start by asking:

What voting rights do I have in my state? 

This is not a commonly asked question, but it should be.  Most of us believe voting rights are guaranteed under the federal constitution. This isn’t exactly true.  The Constitution contains several amendments to prevented states from disenfranchising certain categories of voters. For example, states cannot use race, religion, gender or the age of anyone 18 or older as a means to disqualify a “citizen” from voting.  The actual right of suffrage, however, isn’t a federal guarantee. This is up to the states.  Fixing our voting system will be a state by state effort.

In all our public discussions about elections there is rarely mention of how voting rights differ in various states. When you look at state constitutional language on voting rights, however, you quickly learn that many of the rights we take as granted, such as a right to secret ballots, are nowhere to be found in most state constitutions.  In fact, state constitutional voting rights differ widely from one state to the next.

The wide variation in voting rights are not immediately evident because state laws, administrative regulation and voting practices over time have created consensual frameworks for elections that appear similar from state to state.  For example, the vote counting process is open for public view in most states, but only the constitutions of Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia guarantee public vote counting.  California is the only state guaranteeing that  votes will even be counted.  After candidates concede defeat based on vote projections, the states are not constitutionally obligated to finish counting every ballot.

When elections run smoothly and no questions are raised, everyone consents to the will of the majority. This is true because in a representative democracy, elected officials are expected to represent everyone’s interests and not just the interests of those who voted for them. But when elections are very close and the process seems flawed, explicit constitutional language is essential to protect the democratic process and win over the consent of the minority.  Elections have consequences.  Flawed elections or overtly partisan representation can have dire consequences. Faith in our democracy begins with faith in our voting systems.

I am not a lawyer or constitution expert, but curiosity about state voting rights caused me to survey all fifty state constitutions and document the articulated rights in each.  Some results of this exercise are presented in the tables below.  Keep in mind that some constitutions have very archaic language or formats that make them difficult to interpret.  The information below represents my best effort to classify and document basic voting rights as articulated in state constitutions.  It is followed by a brief discussion for each of the categories presented below.

Basic Voting Right Articulated in Individual State Constitutions
StateVotingRights
 
DISCUSSION OF VOTING RIGHTS FOUND IN STATE CONSTITUTIONS
RIGHT TO HAVE EVERY VOTE COUNTED  –  As mentioned above, California is alone in this protection. This right may seem obvious or implied,  but there are documented instances where absentee ballots have gone missing and uncounted.  One example took place back in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when garbage bags believed to contain missing ballots were impounded by police but not opened because it was unclear if the missing ballots had to be counted.
GENERAL RIGHT OF SUFFRAGE –  Many state constitutions have high sounding language about how all power is derived by the people, but only nine state explicitly guarantee the right of suffrage.  Suffrage is the right to vote in a democratic process. It is the political franchise itself, not the right of any one individual. It says that elected officials do not have the power to suspending elections.  This seemingly essential right of the people is specifically named in only nine state constitutions.
RIGHT TO FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS – “In any State the authority of the government can only derive from the will of the people as expressed in genuine, free and fair elections held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal and secret suffrage.”  So said the Inter-Parliamentary Council at its 154th session in Paris, 26 March, 1994.  Here in the US, the State Department was actually very helpful in sharing their view on Free and Fair Elections with nations whose democracies are less advance than our own.  They provided third-world countries with the following guidelines:
Free and fair elections require:
– Universal suffrage for all eligible men and women to vote
– democracies do not restrict this right from minorities, the disabled, or give it only to those who are literate or who own property
– Freedom to register as a voter or run for public office.
– Freedom of speech for candidates and political parties
– democracies do not restrict candidates or political parties from criticizing the performance of the incumbent.
– Numerous opportunities for the electorate to receive objective information from a free press.
– Freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns.
– Rules that require party representatives to maintain a distance from polling places on election day
– election officials, volunteer poll workers, and international monitors may assist voters with the voting process but not the voting choice.
– An impartial or balanced system of conducting elections and verifying election results
– trained election officials must either be politically independent or those overseeing elections should be representative of the parties in the election.
– Accessible polling places, private voting space, secure ballot boxes, and transparent ballot counting.
– Secret ballots – voting by secret ballot ensures that an individual’s choice of party or candidate cannot be used against him or her.
– Legal prohibitions against election fraud
– enforceable laws must exist to prevent vote tampering (e.g. double counting, ghost voting).
– Recount and contestation procedures
– legal mechanisms and processes to review election processes must be established to ensure that elections were conducted properly.
Many states could learn a lot from the State Department.  Only 44% of Americans can claim that Free and Fair Elections are constitutionally protection in their state. It is ironic that the government Website from which the above information comes contains the following disclaimer: “NOTE: The America.gov website is no longer being updated.”
RIGHT TO VOTE BY BALLOT – There are many ways to vote, of course.  You can have a show of hands or call for an assembly to shout yea or nay.  You can even draw straws.  In democratic elections we prefer ballots.  They are discrete and unique to each voter. They allow for the possibility of secret voting.  Until recently they were also made of paper, not electrons.  The decision to redefine “ballot” to include patterns of electrons stored on memory cards was never publicly debated. As with all voting processes in this country, we never got to vote on whether we wanted this change.  Just 28 state constutions guarantee voting by ballot but none of them contain any language to define what is a “ballot”, so electronic voting cannot be easily challenged on constitutional ground.
RIGHT TO SECRET VOTING –  The secrecy of our vote is among our most cherished rights, except it isn’t a constitutional right at all for more than 146 million American citizens.  Secret voting prevents voter intimidation.  It assures us that how we vote can not be used against us later on.  Only 23 states guarantee secrecy in voting.  Several other states guarantee the right to vote in private, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?
RIGHT TO PUBLIC VOTE COUNTING – Stalin has been credited with saying, “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything”.  This speaks volumes for both the right to have our vote counted and the necessity to have all vote counting conducted in public view.  This is especially true when ballots are cast is secret or when they are electronically invisible.  Public vote counting is even more important as we rely more and more on private corporations to count our electronic ballots.  They claim that the software they use to count or votes is so proprietary that even state election officials are not allowed to peek.  Coupled with a trend among election officials to view with suspicion any voter who wants to observe the process, it is shocking that only 3 states constitutionally protect this essential right.
FREQUENCY OF ELECTIONS –  It is one thing to guarantee that the government will hold elections and another to assure they are regularly scheduled.  Ask anyone from a parliamentary democracy about this and they can tell you how the timing of elections can be manipulated to benefit incumbents.  We need clear guidance on when elections should be held. Fifteen states have clear constitutional language about this.  The rest don’t.  While we know when to expect elections in our state only 30% of us have these expectations guaranteed.
PRIVILEGE FROM ARREST AND EXCEPTIONS –  Imagine heading out to vote knowing you have a few outstanding parking tickets.  You show up at your polling place and notice a police presence out front.  Maybe they even appear to be question some voters. Do you try to walk past them to vote or do you turn around and play it safe?
This is the predicament that a privilege from arrest is designed to resolve.  You should not see a uniformed police presence at polling sites or feel any intimidation at all.  A uniformed police officer at a polling site can be especially intimidating to minorities and economically disadvantaged voters. It can suppress the vote.  Unless a voter is wanted for  serious crimes or treasonous, or unless they cause a public disturbance, the privilege from arrest while voting should be guaranteed.  Just 23 states have this guaranteed. Only a third of our citizens are covered by this protection.
RIGHT TO ACCESSIBLE POLLING PLACES –  “… polling places shall be easily accessible to all persons including disabled and elderly persons who are otherwise qualified to vote,” says the New Hampshire State Constitution.  You might think that the “Americans with Disabilities Act” covers this right, but voting doesn’t always take place in buildings covered by the act.  More broadly speaking, a guaranteed access to polling places means adequate numbers of voting machines voting locations that people can  get to without a significant expense of time or money.  This has been a particular problem in “battle states” such as Florida where the lines to vote were many hours long.  It turns out that onlyNew Hampshire and Oklahoma are the only states providing this constitutional protection.
 Here below is a summary voter rights and the percentage of American citizens who are covered under those right.

PERCENTAGE OF CITIZENS COVERED BY THE VOTING RIGHTS 

ARTICULATED IN STATE CONSTITUTIONS

Num. of States

 w/This

 Right

Percent of  Population

 w/this  Right

 

GENERAL VOTING RIGHTS

1
9.7%
Right to Have Every Vote Counted
9
10.5%
General Right of Suffrage
21
44.0%
Right to Free and Fair Election
28
55.3%
Right to voting by ballot
23
46.7%
Right to secret vote
3
5.6%
Right to Public Vote Counting
15
32.6%
Frequency of Elections Right
23
36.5%
Privilege from Arrest during voting
21
36.5%
Privilege from Arrest Exceptions
2
1.6%
Right to accessible polling place
Num. of 
States
 w/This Right
Percent of Population 
 w/This Right
QUALIFICATIONS and EXCEPTIONS
49
99.6%
Must be A US Citizen
46
91.2%
Must be Registered to vote
20
27.6%
State’s Deployed Solders Can Vote
37
83.9%
Felony Exception
12
15.5%
Treason Exception
13
30.9%
Incarceration Exception
33
69.5%
Mental Capacity Exception
2
0.5%
Moral Conduct or other Exception
23
34.0%
Restoration from Exception
10
17.6%
No quartered solders
2
1.8%
Right to Appeal Voter Ineligibility 

Taxpayer Subsidized Downsizing in America

The business of quick and dirty layoffs has become a familiar feature in our culture. One  recent example involved a journalist who worked at a large news organization.  He was new to the company so he gratefully accepted the friendship of a well respected senior reporter. One Friday morning his mentor emailed him about a story idea and ended it by writing, “I’ll see you at the 10 AM meeting.” This prompted the following email exchange:

“What meeting? I didn’t get the email.”

“I’ll forward it do you.”

Then a short time later: “Forget the email.  This meeting isn’t for you.  Don’t come to this meeting!”

This is how the newsroom learned that day of the layoffs.  Many senior journalists were let go along with a few younger reporters to avoid the appearance of age discrimination.  As these “redundant” employees filed from the meeting they were handed garbage bags for their personal effects and accompanied to their desks by hired chaperones.   It was all over in an hour.

Coolly calculated business decisions and pitiless firings toss employees off company books and onto government unemployment rolls somewhere in this country nearly every week.  No notices, no outplacement services, no severance pay and no extended benefits are required.  In many cases there is no effort to treat employees with the dignity or respect they deserve.

Apart from union contracts or employment agreements, American companies have no legal obligations to citizens being fired.  They need not assume any responsibility for the impact it has on an employee, their family or their community.  The only business costs of any significance are the premiums companies pay for government unemployment insurance.  This easy, low cost ability to fire workers is called “workforce efficiency” and the U.S. is among the most efficient in the world.  We ranks 12th out of 144 nations according to  the study on global business competitiveness .

In most other advanced nations there are laws requiring companies to provide loyal employees with advanced layoff notices, severance pay and other benefits.  These structural costs for downsizing may make businesses a little less competitive, but it brings significant benefits.  It helps maintain a stable workforce and postpones government funded assistance to severed employees while they look for jobs.  Requiring larger companies to provide mandatory severance benefits helps the nations absorb minor bumps in the economy without adding to problems by throwing people out of work at the first sigh of trouble.  It also happens to be a humane way for citizens to treat one another.

Here in this country we treat our labor force as if it were a commodity to be bought and discarded at will.  In the end, big business lets taxpayers foot most of the costs for unemployment benefits and supplemental welfare services for people out of work.   At the same time the pro-business lobby pushes Congress for business tax breaks and budget cuts in the  programs that help the workers they leave behind.  Isn’t it time we stopped bowing to the pro-business lobby and stand up for the American worker?