Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Generational Arbitrage: An Open Letter to Jared Polis('s staff)

*small talk*

I went to the town hall yesterday by the main Boulder office, but it was rather busy and I didn’t get a chance to pose a question or comment. Since I have your email address, I thought I would send this along now so there would be one less person standing between Jared and his evening.

Almost all of the disparate issues that were brought up last night by my fellow Boulderites are related by the fact that they either foretell a worse future for young people or impact young people worse already. There is a long line of events that evidence social decay since 1980, and people born since then have faced a completely different economy and society than those over 35.

There is a kind of generational arbitrage going on, where young people, because of a lack of organization and experience, are being taken advantage of by the political class. The institutions that built this country have been systematically dismantled in favor of a dog-eat-dog race to the bottom; by the nature of things, young people start at that bottom. The three areas where this is most obvious and important, and where I will have a question for Jared, are:

1) The escalation of the security state, NSA aside, where seemingly any suspicion will land a violation of the Fourth Ammendment, a conviction will land you in a private prison’s solitary cell or work line that more resembles a slave plantation than a rehabilitation facility, and “free speech zones” take away the rights of protest even from those not ensnared by the security state itself.

2) The privatization of education, where we have moved from a public good model to a private good model, such that adults in America have effectively told their children, “You must pay us for the privilege of being educated by us - we don’t care about you enough to educate you just because you’re our children.” This has resulted in a $1T sub-prime borrowing crisis (i.e. people with degrees not using them) and created a generation of indentured servants, unable to take risks, invest in their futures, or start a family, stuck instead working dead end service jobs to make payments on debts the banks would have had forgiven.

3) The crisis of environmental justice, specifically the fact that for the past 40 years we have known what technologies would allow us to move off of fossil fuels and yet have not done so. What reasonable society says to itself, “In 30 years our children could never have to deal with pollutants and environmental destruction from fossil fuels,” but instead adopts a “carbon first” energy strategy to appease the old and dying oligarchs?

These issues converge around the need for true choice, true freedom, in how we organize our society. We need to give young people the opportunity to live a life without debt and with dignity as they choose; that is, to persue happiness. Society ought to ask young people (that is, its future self): "What do you want to do?" and then make that possible.

The way I see to do this that addresses these three key issues is to begin programs that train people to be small scale sustainable farmers who don’t use fossil fuels in any meaningful way; to put people on the land doing work no machine can do as opposed to in cubicles doing work machines will do soon anyway. Use the university systems, state and community colleges, high schools, USDA, EPA, etc. to empower the people to live a life that doesn’t hold the threat of prison like a life in an urban city does, or the threat of a life stunted by debt or of permanent debt, and that makes the earth better rather than worse and puts quality food on American tables.

I’m getting a PhD in Environmental Studies, but I already see the jobs available as ultimately counter to my values and probably obsolete in a decade anyway. Young people, Americans, want autonomy, freedom, choice and non-harm. Where is the government program that subsidizes young people in this way? There are billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies given each year; where is the subsidy - not the loan - for young, small scale farmers interested in doing the right thing by the planet, their families, and their communities? Where is the grant that allows young people to enter into a training program and come out with the capital to start a small urban, suburban, or even rural farm?

Such a program emphasizing individual food security and self-sufficiency would give people the opportunity to lead a life without the temptation of crime to feed oneself, without the threat of homelessness due to debt hanging over ones head, and without the threat of health crises due to terrible food. Additionally, changing the food system even slightly would have valuable benefits related to climate change, energy use, employment, and water and air pollution.

Of course, if you’d rather us laborers all just be interchangeable parts for capital, keep the generational arbitrage going. A nation of indentured servants to the banks would be easier for technocrats to manage anyway.


P.S. The GOP is keen on showing young people how bad things are and how the Democrats are trying to screw them with this damn social safety net that's only there for old people. The Democrats need a counter narrative about generational conflict, and giving us an out would certainly show the GOP for what it is: the party of contractual slavery.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Detroit's Fake Crisis: Water is the Leash

I got my MS in Environment Studies from CU Boulder, and my thesis was basically about water utility management and regulation. The Detroit water shutoff is preposterous. Some basic research is all you need to see that they're targeting the poor rather than the wealthy, and that this is strategic in terms of moving union backers, workers, and voters out of city limits to make way for gentrification.

There are also rumblings of privatization, this being an effort to make the "public" water utility prove its ability to garner payment (which is what its bonds are rated on and its interest rates are determined by; see here for good coverage of the bond insurance companies and demands for their pound of flesh). And, if we know anything from experience, privatization will result in even more massive rate hikes than 8-9% and even less competent service for small account holders. And if insurance companies are suing to avoid a cramdown, at the end of the day, they're just upset about making a bad bet and having to pay for it.

But how bad of a bet is it? This is the 2012 "in words" audit of the 2012 financial statement of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. The 2013 report is not available on their website.

It shows, basically, that as of 2012 the DWSD was doing fine.

Not great, given the depopulation of Detroit (as concerns about declining water sales show), but fine: its margins were 20% for water and 22% for sewer, more than enough to cover their debt obligations. Let's ask the report, shall we?
The current ratio (current assets divided current liabilities) of 1.9 for water and 2.21 for sewer (M) indicates that the system is in a good position to meet its short term obligations, a key measure of fiscal health.
And let us not neglect the figure which shows this in detail:

So, the "$5 billion in debt" the media keeps talking about is the COMBINED debt of the WATER ($2.6B) and SEWER ($3.3B) operations, which have different revenue streams... and besides, that's not a very big number. For comparison, the water utility that serves Las Vegas has $3.6 billion in debt, not counting any sewage operations (which is a separate utility). There are more people in Las Vegas now, true, but should we expect Detroit water bills to be the same as the nation's average per capita, given its recent depopulation and aging infrastructure? Of course not.

Any justification for cutting off users based on debt is bullshit. Public water utilities have debt for very large capital investments that they pay off for very long periods of time. To cover the interest, they deliver water to customers basically at cost (they're regulated, after all), plus a legally required margin to cover debts. Detroit followed the law, and in fact exceeded the required margin.

Now, if a utility has a revenue problem, there are many ways to deal with it. One is charging more of the people who can pay more (i.e. industrial, commercial, and large residential customers such as apartment complexes). You can also tier rates among classes of user so that larger users (e.g. in residential, white suburbanites with lawns) pay more for each marginal unit of water, thus subsidizing basic human needs (drinking, cooking, washing) for others. OH WAIT!!! DWSD does charge variable rates, but they charge LESS for each marginal unit you use, and their tiers are incredibly weak (there are only two, really). This is awful financial management, and represents the exact opposite of how you should organize your water rates if you have any sense of environmental and social responsibility.

Utilities can even vary charges for the kinds of connections and pipes demanded by users and property owners (as the Las Vegas utility did in the 2000s). DWSD does this, but obviously isn't charging enough of the people and corporations who can afford to pay. DWSD has not been shutting off commercial customers who owe them money. I wonder why.

There are many more ways to get people's attention than shutting off their water. Public utilities are unique in that they are public, and there can be assessed penalties in other areas of life, seizure of assets, liens on properties, for non-payment. What moral person denies anyone else the right to drink water? To literally survive? Has the power to give someone life, but instead takes it away?

I mean this deeply: after three days without drinking water a human being dies. I don't expect anyone to die of thirst, but to avoid it, people will leave their homes in short order if that home doesn't have water in it. Shut off the power, shut off the cable, shut off the heat even and people will gut it out. But if I can't flush, I'm probably not living in the house for long.

DWSD will not free up significant resources, or improve operating revenues, by cutting deliveries: the less water DWSD delivers, the less money they make (they worry about that out-loud in their reports!). They say a little more than half the accounts are paid? Then this shows how easily they could have gotten the money other ways. There is no conceivable way that cutting off water increases revenue for DWSD under their current model, since one less address receiving water is one less resident able to pay in the future (no water, no people). Asking people to pay now when they cannot only increases poverty. Cutting delivery (rather than assessing a fine or *reducing delivery* as a signal to pay up) only serves to depopulate Detroit further, thus destroying the city that demonstrated the greatest successes of Labor in America and inspired a generation of workers to organize.

This is about undermining unions: nothing more, nothing less.

Well, perhaps more (or less, depending...) Two other facts: Having your water cut off means child protective services can come and take your kid, and getting your water turned back on requires at least some of the following: deed to the property, lease agreement-notarized, mortgage documents, tax records, driver’s licence, social security cards, notarized statements from the owners of the property, background checks...

Water is the leash... tug it, and the people move.

The elites have the leash now, not the people (emergency financial manager/dictator, anyone?), and now the leash is getting shorter, rapidly.

So you tell me what's going on. Is it about debt? Debt that DWSD has plenty of ways to continue paying? Or is it about waging war on the poor, working, minority citizens of a great American city that showed the way towards workers' - and peoples' - rights?

Ask Romney. He'll tell you.

Update 7/31/2014 - So, from my understanding it was almost exclusively people in Detroit itself that were shut off. If that's the case, the 15,500 people who lost water represent 2.2% of Detroit's population. Orr recovered (assuming the $111 per account rate in June across the shutoff) just 1.9% of the overdue accounts ($89 million). Even if I'm missing something on the margins, Orr *definitely* didn't target the large overdue accounts and instead focused his avarice at the easy target: the poor. And the result, again, isn't that impressive. Take a look from the Detroit Water Brigade's social media arm. What this shows, asusme $209,000/mo average over the previous two years, is that DWSD only amassed $1.79 million (off by less than $70,000 from the math I did based on the article, about 1.72 million).

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Due Process in the Teaching Profession

The easy out is that this is clearly the legislature's purview and not a judge's, ruling is too broad. The discrimination grounds are not the result of tenure but the result of administrative districting and funding decisions. Tenure is really just legal protection and due process for teachers. They can and are fired. When bad teachers aren't fired it's usually because the administrator isn't doing their job either. When it boils down, the admins are complaining that they can't fire *cheaply*, not that they can't fire. The $50,000-$500,000 price is just the salary they would have to pay for one additional teacher anyway at $50K/yr to replace the one in review for the 1-10 years they say it can take. Is it unreasonable to pay the equivalent of an additional teacher to ferret out whether a given teacher deserves to be in the system for a year? I think so.

As I read it, the judge knew it would be appealed so didn't go too deep into it. He's doing a lot of hand waving it seems, calling arguments names rather than addressing them or doing the research to support the claims or being critical of the research presented. The claim that a bad teacher costs a student $1.4 million in earnings is absolutely insane, since most people never make that much in their lives.

At the end of the day, last-in, first-out is the most fair way to do layoffs precisely because of the evidence that the single most important factor in determining teacher quality is time on on the job. And as for the protracted firing process, the complaint is totally unreasonable when you consider the way teachers are paid over their career: nothing at first, then a lot at the end. They want you to stick around when you're really good. So if you're going to put someone into review, doing so for 1-5 semesters in a career of 60-80 seems perfectly reasonable to me. Retraining is cheaper and better in terms of community structure than looking for a new teacher in many cases.

As for time to tenure, this judge's arguments might seem reasonable on its face, but again, lets look at how those 4 semesters really go. An administrator (and the fellow teachers) can tell quite well whether a teacher is cut out for the profession after a year. If you make it about review in the 4th semester, then that first year is very important. If you don't have it, you're out. Most bad teachers fail in that time, most walk away. Those that still want to try, do, and usually do get fired and are told to try at another school or district, where they start their seniority clock (i.e. 4 semesters) over again. Should that be 6 semesters? Fine, whatever. Pay them more and they'll take it. As a bonus, you'll get better qualified people. PhD's will teach HS if you started pay at $60,000/yr. I know I would. Junior College wages. The irony in education is that we pay those who do the least important work the most and those that do the most important work the least. We might even have better outcomes if we paid professors what we pay pre-K and pre-K what we pay professors. But if you make it 6 semesters, you'll get more shitty teachers sticking around, clogging up the pipeline that will grow in breadth by an additional two semesters: how many more bad teachers would stick around for that third year? Would that increase their number overall? What's better policy in a state with so many people going through public teaching universities?

And let me say this... quality of teacher matters on the margin, but home environment matters more. If you have parents who value education, have resources, and don't fight in front of you, your teacher will matter little because the parents pick up the slack. If your parents don't value education, don't have resources, and/or fight all the time, then teachers will matter little because the kid isn't going to have the support. Poverty menaces minority students, not bad teachers. Teacher quality can boost child performance, but it does so from a baseline set in the home.

Basically, students could have sued and said that the state had failed to provide incentives for competent teachers and support for their "underperforming" schools. There is a long tail in universal public education. In fact, an argument could perhaps better be made that the state failed to place the most effective teachers in the right schools and has simply failed to invest in those schools; not that the state failed to fire certain teachers. If you fund those schools, admin doesn't have to spend as long or as much trying to fire people. This means you could clear the decks simply by funding the system as it is. It works.

Admin can do their jobs better if you fund the schools. Give them the tools they need, the resources, the bodies, to do the work.

And maybe the writing styles are different, but legal and academic writing seem to have different standards for evidence. My first year students give more careful consideration of counter arguments and the sources of evidence than this judge appears to have.

Of course, as always, any measure of teacher or student performance based on standardized tests is going to be wrought with all kinds of racial, gender, and class based biases. So let that be considered in our thinking on what a "failing" school is, or a "bad" teacher, when in reality these teachers are in many cases producing the best outcomes you could ask from any reasonable person. You try to manage 160 kids on free lunch each day, let alone teach them the history of a continent that systematically murdered their people... and then fractions and proper English. This throws into question the 9.54 month figure (can you really have that level of scientific precision? What does that imply in terms of significant figures? 9 Months, 16 Days, 17 Hours. Really?). I'll say it again: There is a long tail in universal public education. Charters don't have to take people with learning disabilities, and the ones in public schools often go undiagnosed. I haven't looked at the study itself, but it seems like someone is reaching a bit too far on that one. How many units behind are they? Speak in meaningful metrics, like what remedial summer work we would need to invest in to make up for this cost. Ultimately, this shows that whoever did this research is not thinking like a teacher, like an educator, but like a technocrat who is not asking a meaningful question for the classroom experience. Whoever came up with 9.54 months was looking for a headline, not something teachers could use.

Finally, the contention that 1-3% of teachers (workers) are ineffective is actually a testament to how well educational training in California is working. How many of those are first or second years who will be fired? How many will never get tenure? There will of course be an error rate, especially when the starting salary is a minimum $35,000K/yr, and rarely over $40,000/yr. Clearing that deck should simply be a cost of business. It's remarkable that they will go to such expensive lengths to avoid costs of $50,000k/yr to the system per teacher in review (and attack organized labor and through it working people on the whole who use unions as a backstop against overzealous capital and corrupt government). Or, following the math:

$50,000 per teacher per year x 2750 to 8250 teachers per year = $137,500,000 to $412,500,000 per year

There are about 10.8 million taxpayers in California. So paying a teacher's yearly salary to deal with the 1-3% of purportedly ineffective teachers (remember the flaws of testing) would cost $12.73 to $38.19 per taxpayer per year assuming this is a constant error rate in the production of teachers and not a build up (in which case this cost falls over time). Progressive and geographically targeted property tax structure, etc. makes this more effective social policy, and suddenly we're looking at a perfectly reasonable solution that doesn't require debasing working people and removing legal guarantees to due process for public educators.

Monday, April 21, 2014

CU Boulder Town Hall Campus Update

The University sends me the following:

My reply:

I have been at CU for five years now, working first on a terminal MS and now a PhD in Environmental Studies. I have been teaching in the classroom for four of those years, plus summers. I have five questions related to the overarching policies in place by CU.

1) What, if any, will be the University’s policy towards “student” athletes when/if they decide to organize? How will the University reconcile these policies with those towards graduate professionals, who do not have the right to organize but are explicitly employed as labor by the University?

2) I make 25% of what my students pay to take my classes. Where does the other 75% go? How is it enhancing their education/improving the “product” you sell? Is that other 75% providing three times the educational value that I provide in my classroom? If not, why is it being spent?

3) What, if anything, will the University do to address its inability to treat criminal sexual assault and harassment as a crime, not a “code violation”? Will the University reform the Office of Student Conduct, the Office of Discrimination and Harassment, and CUPD to create a true criminal justice system for crime on this campus, or will the University continue to shelter rapists, violent sexual offenders, and verbally abusive people behind a kangaroo court-like “investigation” where victims' rights are not respected and “restorative justice” programs allow the wealthy to write papers for things the poor go to jail for? When will the University take seriously its mission to educate the whole person, and teach personal responsibility using the same consequences one would face in the real world?

4) We already see the University defending its hateful “visiting scholar of conservative thought” through its silence after his disgusting diatribes against people who are not like him on this campus. What is the University doing to ensure that the recent Regent’s policy surrounding political ideology and affiliation is not used to silence dissent on campus or allow for hate speech? How is this protected behavior? If I said anything remotely like what Steven said I would be fired immediately; why hasn’t the University fired Steven Hayward, and what will the university do in the future when an explicitly conservative political puppet harasses and demeans the student population of CU?

5) When will the University divest from fossil fuels and end its support of (a) the international criminal gangs/hit squads paid off by fossil fuel companies to murder environmentalists and civil rights leaders, (b) policies here in the US that are anti-worker and counter to the public good, and (c) organized crimes against humanity through the complete and utter destruction of the ecosystem upon which out species depends?

I don’t expect you to answer these questions because they’re not the kind that build CU’s brand. But an honest assessment of them will be crucial in determining the future of CU’s “climate” for undergraduates and graduate professionals, which you are apparently concerned about now that a Republican regent has released the hounds.

With a disposition not meant to manipulate you emotionally,