Wednesday, April 19, 2006

We're Lousy Doctors.

There was an interesting article in the Providence Journal the other day. It was an account of a speech given by Dr. Ruth Simmons at the annual Urban League of Rhode Island luncheon. The topic was how and why we must fix failing schools. The 'why' is obvious. It's the 'how' that is that hard part.

All the usual suspects were addressed, high dropout rates, low incomes, the widening income gaps, segregation.

"My God, that was the reality I grew up in decades ago, and we're still talking about it again"

And we will be talking about it fifty years from now too because we treat these issues as causes when they are really symptoms.

When a doctor prescribes pain medication for pain without also trying to find the source of the pain, the doctor is guilty of malpractice. We see discouraged teachers, decaying buildings, inadequate tools and equipment, leaky toilets, broken windows and we ask for money to fix them. We're treating the symptoms not the causes, the equivalent of medical malpractice.

Try this experiment. Imagine a school where students are late to class, if they show up at all, where they swear at and threaten teachers, where they have their mp3 players turned on listening to their favorite rappers during class, where any student who wants to learn is ridiculed or worse, where there is no discipline or respect, where the halls are littered with trash.

Now plow millions of dollars into that school, give money to the families to equal middle class incomes, paint the halls, put computers on every desk, fix the toilets, hire the best teachers in the state and hire janitors to clean the halls.

Will those students magically want to learn? We just don't get it. Money is like a crutch we use to allow a broken leg to heal. But what if it doesn't heal? We just ask for more crutches!

It is a responsibility of government to make education available to all. No amount of money pumped into any school will make students want to learn. This can come only from family, and family must be required to assist when their children disrupt the classroom.

Parental accountability and responsibility are more important than anything. With it we will grow strong, without it we will never heal.

But maybe it's just me.

Monday, April 17, 2006

No More Little Guys

Question: When is the "Little Guy" not the Little Guy?
Answer: When there are millions of them.

I was somewhat bemused today when I read a letter in the paper about the dangers of Voter Initiative. The writer was particularly worried that that minorities would be hurt by discrimination by the majority and affirmative action would be overturned. Let's take these in order.

There is no doubt that workers (little guys) have been disabused by powerful business interests in the past, and even today in some cases. Unions wre formed to protect those without a voice and have done a good job at it. Unfortunately the 'little guy' is not so little any longer. They are a powerful force, and when it comes to municipal unions, even more powerful than 'management'.

And as their management counterparts used to do, they often have performed equally badly. Unions frequently have exchanged their mission to protect disadvantaged workers and instead try to extract as much as possible from the taxpayer for their members with too little regard for the very people whom they are employed to serve (while taking much of that money from their membership as dues to support their bureaucracy in the process) .

Legislators have caved in under unions' powerful influence; they represent a lot of votes. When taxpayers feel strapped and their representatives fail to help and protect them, they see Voter Initiative as one way to have their voices be heard.

There is always the possibility of tyranny of the majority over the minority in a pure democracy. Democracy means 'majority rule'. Our founding fathers knew this and addressed it so elegantly in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, The Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, laws are interpreted and enforced by humans with all our faults. Slavery was legal until 1862 remember?

On the writer's last point, I fear we don't have affirmative action in this country. At least not in practice. As I understand it, affirmative action applies when candidates of equal qualifications apply for something, preference should be given to the minority. This would help minorities receive fair treatment and is the intention of the law.

Unfortunately, this is not what happens. In order to avoid affirmative action law suites, many organizations reduce the standard for minorities. In this way, they are sure to choose a sufficient number of minorities and thus avoid the risk of discrimination charges. The same happens often in college entrance requirements.

The goal of such laws is noble. We have treated minorities badly and we should demand that this un-American behavior stop. But unfortunately, the well intentioned law has in practice actually done more harm than good.

When standards are lowered, the candidates who are accepted, either for employment or school admission, are less likely to perform at the level of others who are hired under a higher standard. This lower performance only serves to further the myth that minorities are indeed inferior and fuels more discrimination and resentment.

Affirmative action laws have become de facto 'quota' laws and it is this that voters wisely reject.

Voter Initiative is not a panacea. Far from it. And both those for and against have legitimate concerns that should be respected and discussed, honestly and openly. We can only hope that our efforts to govern are the product of the very best we can do, working together, for everyone, equally.

As a great man once said, '... of the people, by the people, for the people..."

But maybe it's just me.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

What is "Truth"?

The Providence Journal had a report on Wednesday, April 5, 2006, that property taxes on commercial property in Providence were among the highest in the nation.

The data comes from RIPEC, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, so we know the statement is accurate - the "truth".

But take a moment to peel away the surface. Property taxes are levied on the value of property. It is possible, even likely, that after a revaluation, properties do not change in value evenly - some go up a lot while others will increase in value just a little.

Under these conditions some property owners receive much greater increases than others, and some might even see their taxes go down after a revaluation. And this is even more likely with residential property.

Just as we Americans consume more food than any other nation, no one can deny the serious issue of hunger in our country. Distribution is a more critical part of the issue. We simply ignore this when it comes to local tax distribution.

In the same way, while the total tax revenue from commercial property is clearly too high, some property owners might actually be paying lower taxes and thus not paying their fair share, while others shoulder a disproportionate amount of the tax burden; in other words, the distribution is the more important problem.

If we make our tax decisions based only on the most aggrieved segment of the population and ignore the distribution of tax burdens, many will be hurt, needlessly.

There is much more to the property tax story than the simple "truth".

A visit to our website might help to explain this more and what we can do about it.