Thursday, July 26, 2007

For the Standard Examiner, Blaming Business Beats Useful Analysis

Today’s Standard Examiner editorial references a story in last Sunday’s NYTimes that pins part of the high cost of gasoline on oil industry greed. The Times story is actually far more balanced than the Standard Examiner infers. SE editors cherry picked and overemphasized certain points from the Times article to grind an axe, claiming that the oil industry, as usual, is up to no good.

Times reporter Jad Mouawad is not as myopic as are SE editors. He tries to capture the fact that we’re talking about complex economic and technological systems. He works to explore many factors and tries to concentrate on mechanical breakdowns at refineries, which is one of the most significant factors in the recent rise in gasoline prices.

“As a whole,” writes Mouawad, “refining disruptions have been considerably higher than in previous years….” But Mouawad makes it clear that these breakdowns and disruptions are caused my multiple factors. He also notes that due to the current tight supply of gasoline, these “unplanned perturbations” have a greater impact on market prices than in the past.

Why is gasoline supply tight? Well, it turns out that there are multiple causes for this as well. One of the major causes is increasing demand. We gripe about paying high gasoline prices at the same time that we are buying record quantities of gasoline. The industry is struggling to keep up with demand. While the industry cites the high cost of implementing new government regulations, others have decried the industry’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies.

Some of Mouawad’s sources say that refiners have been avoiding regular maintenance to stay in the game as long as possible. This ultimately results in more equipment failures and safety problems. But there are two sides to this story as well. One industry insider sighs, “Refiners want to keep running in today’s economic environment, but when they shut down they are accused of gouging the system. When they don’t, they are criticized for overrunning their facilities.”

The Times story is a well researched and balanced article that helps readers comprehend the complexities behind rising gasoline prices. Standard Examiner editors, on the other hand, use the Times story as a platform for demagoguery. They feign simplicity by ignoring the complexities highlighted by Mouawad.

Appropriately, the Times story appeared in the business news section, while the SE article appeared in the opinion section. But that is no excuse for employing ignorance as a weapon for throwing stones at an easy target.

Perhaps a more useful and informative step would be to study in what ways governmental laws and regulations prevent competition in the energy market, and therefore, prop up high energy costs while stifling innovation in cleaner alternatives. Nah, it’s easier to just throw blame.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Potter Finishes Well

OK, so it took me a lot less time to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than I expected. And the reason for that is that the book is quite gripping, especially the last third of the book. Once I entered the final quarter of the book, it was nearly impossible to put down. Rowling kept me on pins and needles for well over 100 pages.

I will not give away the conclusion of the book. I’m sure that if you really want to find out how it turns out without reading the book, you can find sites that will provide that information. I will say that in my opinion, Rowling does a marvelous job of tying up all of the loose ends. I will also say that I felt very good about the way she finishes out the book and the series.

Meghan Cox Gurdon seems to admit in this article that the Harry Potter series probably does not “approach the lasting greatness of true children's classics.” But she also suggests a different focus. “In some alchemical way, we have all participated in an amazing cultural moment. … Some things are brilliant just as they are, even if it's just for now.”

I would have to agree that the series is brilliant. Rowling creates a captivating fantasy world in which the reader constantly discovers new things. The classic struggle of good vs. evil plays out on this backdrop; infused with philosophical, religious, and political undertones, as well as social commentary. The eminent importance of family and real love are stressed throughout. All of the noblest of human characteristics are celebrated, while all of our wretched attributes are denounced. The heroes have their foibles and are imperfect. Many are common people. Not all of the villains are devoid of positive qualities.

Another way in which I find the series brilliant is that the experience has been a shared family affair for us. My oldest children discovered the joy of personal reading for pleasure with the first couple of books in the series. The maturity level of the books has grown along with the maturity of my children. Since my oldest two are currently working at a back country Boy Scout camp, my wife and I were able to finish this final book before either of them has seen it. They are chomping at the bit to get the book.

Some acquaintances have already mentioned to me their sadness at seeing the series conclude. My personality type likes closure. So for me, a well wrapped-up series is quite satisfying. Yes, I know that real life is rarely tied up neatly like that. But when I want real life, I read or watch the news. When I want entertainment, I seek escape from such realities.

I like to feel good when I finish reading a novel or watching a movie for entertainment. I seek out entertainment that leaves me feeling uplifted. Although the literati may not find Harry Potter to be great literature, Rowling did a great job of leaving me feeling uplifted — of making me want to be a better person. And that has made the reading a worthwhile and cherished experience.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Potter Mania for the Last Time (in literature)

The seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was finally released after much anxious anticipation and fanfare just after midnight on Saturday morning. It is estimated that 8.3 million copies were sold in the U.S. on Saturday alone (see here), which is a new record.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter phenomenon is no longer anything new. The first book in the series was released 10 years ago. The publishing world was stunned that it turned out to be a runaway best seller. The books were marketed as children’s books, but their popularity with adults was apparent from the beginning. Rowling has a writing style that is quite gripping.

Rowling, who has gone from struggling writer to billionaire (in U.S. Dollars) over the last decade, began the first book in the series with Harry Potter as an 11-year-old boy. Each book covers one school year, and each book has matured along with the book’s characters and Rowling’s target audience. The fourth book, the Goblet of Fire, took a decidedly dicey turn, when a significant character that is represented as being good, was chillingly murdered rather casually by the main villain in the series. Rowling defended this segment by saying that it is not evil to portray how bad evil can be.

Some religious groups have decried the Harry Potter series as promoting witchcraft and other evils. Objective observers will find, however, that the series entails the classic struggle between good and evil. The magic world created by Rowling is a clever and engaging framework around which this struggle takes place. Having interacted with hundreds of children that have read the books and seen the movies (including my own children), I would suggest that the claim by some religionists that the books entice children to dabble in evils is wildly off the mark.

We picked up a copy of the final book in the series on Saturday afternoon. Due to a very unusual set of circumstances, I was able to spend a few rare and blissful hours consuming the first 140 or so pages of the 759-page tome. And that’s where I stand at the moment, since I choose not to read for pleasure on Sundays. I am not a rapid reader. It will likely take me several weeks to finish the book. I do have to share my copy of the book with some of my children. Also, I usually have several reading projects ongoing concurrently at any given time. And frankly, I don’t read a lot of novels.

My lovely wife, on the other hand, is a voracious and rapid reader (ostensibly of novels) — a trait she seems to have come by naturally by way of her mother. She has already completed the book. She reported to me with a happy look on her face that she likes the way Ms. Rowling completed the book and the series. But my wife was wise enough not to provide any clues about what transpires in the novel.

Yesterday at a family gathering, one of my brothers, who has not read any of the Harry Potter books, wanted to know what the scoop was on this final book. A number of people in the room immediately squelched any discussion of the book’s contents. The Harry Potter fans in the family wanted the pleasure of discovering the unfolding drama first hand.

A number of commentators have suggested various meanings behind characters and events in the Harry Potter series. Some note political undertones. The beauty of various works of art is that even the creators of the art cannot fully determine how the audience will interpret it. As a friend of mine once put it, even the artist does not always comprehend his/her Muse.

Suffice it to say that it is obvious that J.K. Rowling is a highly talented writer. She will undoubtedly continue to consult on the two remaining Harry Potter movies. It will be interesting to see what use she puts her talents to in the future. Given her financial status, she could easily retire to never write again. But I hope she doesn’t put that talent to rest yet.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Come Clean, Fred

It’s no secret that Mitt Romney has come under fire for flip flopping on a number of issues. His critics say he comes across as a political opportunist that steered to the left for his Republican senatorial and gubernatorial races in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, only to steer right in order to run for the GOP presidential nomination. A perusal of Romney’s various positions and statements over recent years makes one want to say, “Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?” Romney has also been accused of obfuscating on some issues.

It’s also no secret that Fred Thompson is positioning himself for the same GOP presidential nomination. Thompson certainly has a number of things going for him, but he also has some drawbacks, as I noted in this post. As of late, Thompson has been courting the flip flopper and obfuscator labels with respect to his stand on abortion.

The abortion issue is keenly important to many GOP voters, particularly those that consider themselves social conservatives.

Rudy Giuliani has been up front about his pro-choice stance. But he has argued that where the rubber really meets the road is judicial nominees. He has promised to appoint judges that are strict constructionists rather than courthouse legislators in black robes. A number of social conservatives have said that they can buy that argument. John McCain hasn’t fared as well with social conservatives with respect to his pro-choice stance. He has too much history being adversarial with them on this and other issues.

As the National Review editors point out in this article, Thompson’s stance on abortion “is cloudier than it should be.” They quickly excuse any change in position, noting that millions of Americans (including politicians) have changed their mind one way or the other on abortion over the years. But they argue that Thompson needs to give a clear picture of his thoughts on the issue.

When the LA Times recently revealed that Thompson had done lobbying work for a pro-abortion group 15 years ago, his first move was to deny it. When evidence became overwhelming, Thompson merely suggested that a lawyer can represent a client without espousing the client’s views. Sorry, Fred, but that’s going to be a tough sell for social conservatives. Highly paid lobbyist lawyers have a lot of latitude in whom they accept as clients.

Now people are starting to dig back through Thompson’s history, and it seems quite obvious from the assembled evidence that he was clearly pro-choice a dozen years ago. His senate voting record, however, has him voting “with pro-lifers almost every time.” A couple of weeks ago I heard him say in a radio interview that he was firmly pro-life and that he was opposed to federally funded embryonic stem cell research. However, the interviewer did not ask what Thompson meant by the term “pro-life.” Does he define it the same way as President Bush, or is he more relaxed?

Obfuscating on this issue simply won’t do for many social conservatives. Thompson is going to have to clearly lay it out long before the February primaries if he wants to attract members of this important constituency to his camp. It’s OK for him to say he was once pro-choice but has evolved to become pro-life. But he has to say so. And just as Romney has explained his evolution on the issue, Thompson will have to explain how his ideas on the issue have evolved. People need to hear that story if they are going to believe that he will represent their desires on this matter.

Thompson does these folksy short radio vignettes where he likes to make everything sound very simple. Well, Fred, it’s time to cut with the lawyer-lobbyist-politician speak and talk to people in a simple, straightforward way about this. The issue won’t go away until you do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hillary-Care on the Incremental Plan

When Bill Clinton tried to implement universal government supplied health care in 1993, the public backlash was strong enough to result in the 1994 Republican Revolution, which brought strong GOP majorities into both houses of Congress.

Having painfully learned that the front door method was a hard sell, advocates of socialized health care instead went for the incremental back door approach. And it has worked out very well for them, but not for health care consumers. In the years since the backlash, supporters of medical socialism have gradually expanded government health programs, steadily increasing the numbers of Americans (and non-Americans in the country) covered by these programs. It is no coincident that health care costs in the U.S. have skyrocketed along with this incremental expansion of government meddling.

This strategy has worked so well that Democrats, now holding both houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, are poised to increase the rate of incrementalism in socialized medicine until most Americans are covered by at least one government health program. And it’s not just Democrats, but Republicans that have forgotten what small government is all about. For some of these folks, any government program can be justified if it assays to spend a little less than Democrats want to spend.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is among Republicans that are happily gliding down this slippery slope. Hatch has worked closely with Democrats and big government Republicans in the Senate on passing legislation to extend the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) that was originally passed in 1997 and signed by President Clinton. President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation. Why? Well, because he’s an evil Republican that hates poor children and wants to see them suffer and die. At least, that is the rhetoric coming from his critics.

Actually, Bush criticizes the expansion of the program to cover people earning as much as 400% of the federal poverty rate. That’s $82,600 for a family of four. As noted by David Hogberg and Paul Gessing in this article, “children in families that are in the top 25 percent of income-earners would be eligible for government-funded health insurance.” Bush also dislikes the expansion of SCHIP to cover many non-children, including single adults up to 25 years of age. This would increase the cost of the program from its current five-year cost of $25 billion to $85 billion; although, a compromise would spend “only” $60 billion.

Senator Hatch and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have publicly called on the president to forego his veto threat. They say that they have negotiated the best deal that they can get with a Democratically controlled Congress, and that their “conservative compromise … addresses many of the concerns conservatives have with states which are covering adults and children with well-off parents with SCHIP funds.” But there is no guarantee that their compromise will be reflected in the final legislation that goes to the president’s desk. Both Hatch and Grassley know this. They are betting that it will. The president on his side is making it clear that he will permit no expansion of the program from its current form.

SCHIP proponents can point to a recent BYU-Arizona State study that found that “kids who drop out of SCHIP end up costing states more money because they shift away from routine care to more frequent emergency care situations.” It’s just that the costs show up elsewhere in the budget. SCHIP proponents almost always refer to those covered by the program as children of the working poor, when many participants come from well-to-do families or are even adults. The program’s advocates seem to regularly measure the program’s success by the number of individuals covered by the program, while ignoring the market effects of the program.

Although the market effects of SCHIP have not been specifically studied, other studies have found (see here) that “the introduction of Medicare was associated with a 23 percent increase in total hospital expenditures (for all ages) between 1965 and 1970, with even larger effects if her analysis is extended through 1975.” The study cited did find some benefits arising from the introduction of Medicare, but an unintended side effect has been the increase in medical and health insurance costs for those not covered by Medicare. We can safely assume that the SCHIP has produced similar results.

Another study has found that publicly funded health insurance is crowding out private coverage at the “rate of about 60%.” Hogberg and Gessing explain that this means that “for every 10 kids signed up for SCHIP, the number with private insurance drops by 3 to 8.” In other words, the government is competing with private industry and is interfering in the market. While this makes us feel good socially, this meddling prevents the market from producing solutions that would better benefit those now covered by the government programs. It causes employers to drop health insurance plans, and it causes private insurance companies to increase rates and reduce coverage.

Hogberg and Gessing suggest that the ultimate result of government meddling in the health care market will be to produce a system implosion, where costs are so high and care so inadequate that a crisis results. Of course, the crisis will be blamed on greedy insurance companies and doctors, rather than on government interference in the market. This will “[open] the door for a single-payer system.” They do not say whether this is “by design or not,” but certainly some advocates of socialized health care favor this strategy. Hogberg and Gessing comment here on two other pieces of health care legislation that will ultimately increase health care costs in the name of accomplishing a moral good.

Does the government need to provide health care/health insurance?
There are certainly elements in our society that require government control. Roads are the classic example. There is probably no feasible way to satisfactorily run all of our nation’s roads and highways as a private industry; although, it is probably more feasible today to consider more market oriented approaches even to this industry than at any time in the past.

To preserve liberty and freedom of choice, government must not directly compete with private business. Government may appropriately regulate, only to the extent absolutely necessary, as long as regulations apply equally and foster competition rather than impeding it. It is also important to understand that each regulation imposes costs (ultimately on individuals) that limit positive (as well as negative) options available to individuals and businesses, so that only essential regulations should be pursued.

What is needed with respect to health care, then, is for government to get out of the business of competing with private business. Rather, government’s role should be to provide a legal structure that fosters the greatest amount of competition and personal choice.

A very good start to fixing our health care industry’s problems would be to decouple health insurance from employment. This link exists mainly due to our tax laws, which give employers tax breaks for providing health insurance to employees. The actual insured individuals are most concerned with getting the highest quality appropriate level of health care at a cost they find acceptable. Employers are mostly concerned with keeping health insurance costs down. Health insurance providers market their plans to employers (relatively few) rather than directly to those insured (many). This creates a barrier in the provider-consumer relationship that distorts the market. Insurance companies do not experience direct market pressures from consumers that would cause them to respond to consumer desires.

Things are different in the automobile insurance industry. States establish regulations that all auto insurance providers must follow, but individuals are free to purchase insurance from any qualified provider. They are free to purchase any insurance product that at least meets the minimum required by law. Consumers can terminate this relationship at will. Auto insurance companies experience direct market pressures due to their direct relationship with consumers. They create flexible products and compete for customers via pricing and product design. Allstate promotes its safe driver discounts. GEICO promotes its 24-hour nationwide claims service.

The life insurance industry functions differently than the health insurance industry as well, despite the fact that many employers offer life insurance benefits. Competition in the life insurance industry has driven the cost of term insurance down dramatically over the past decade and a half.

Removing the artificial employer barrier to the insurer-insured relationship in health care would bring to bear market forces that would revolutionize the health insurance industry. Insurance companies would suddenly be competing for individual customers instead of competing for contracts with employers. Lower cost and more flexible products would result. Consumers would have more choices available than ever before. Health care providers would respond to these new market pressures as well and would focus on providing the level of care desired at a price acceptable to the consumer.

But this system would only work well if the government were not directly competing with the industry. Instead of providing health insurance itself, government should focus on figuring out how to incentivize the market to provide for the less fortunate among us. A stipend or voucher for purchasing health insurance would be far superior to any government-run health insurance system.

As politicians from both sides of the aisle debate how much or how quickly to socialize medicine, what is actually needed is market-friendly reform. We do not need socialized medicine. We need consumer-friendly medicine.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mitt's Real Mormon Problem

Mitt Romney has a Mormon problem, and it’s not just that Mormonism doesn’t play well with Evangelicals. Even with John McCain’s campaign in meltdown mode, Romney still trails McCain in national polls. That’s OK for the Romney camp, which is betting that strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire will generate enough momentum going into Super-Duper-Mega-Tuesday next February to give their guy a real shot at the nomination.

But presidential campaigns run on money, and everyone in the political business knows it. MSM pundits have been positively giddy over the ability of the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls to whomp tail on their GOP counterparts when it comes to fundraising. Perversely, McCain’s present difficulties stem in no small part from the success of his own campaign finance reform legislation.

It is in this arena of campaign finances that Romney has a Mormon problem. The DNews reported yesterday that Romney has already raised $3.8 million from more than 3600 Utahns, and that he hopes to soon raise another $2 million in Utah. Six of Romney’s top 10 fundraising states have sizeable LDS populations.

It must be stipulated that no one has any reliable figures on how many of Romney’s donors are Mormons or how much Mormons have donated to the Romney campaign. The figures presented lead to the assumption that a lot of Romney’s money comes from members of the LDS Church. When coupled with the money Romney has legally donated to his own campaign, it would seem that over half of his campaign funds have come from Mormons.

Assuming that the assumption mentioned above is correct, this means that a significant number of Mormons are very supportive of Romney’s candidacy. In Utah, Romney has raised more than eight times the amount raised by all other presidential candidates (from all parties) combined. (Interestingly, John Edwards came in third place and Hillary Clinton came in fifth.)

But this also means that Romney’s base is too narrow. He’s got a number of Mormons excited about his candidacy, but most Americans that will vote Republican in the presidential primaries next year know absolutely nothing about Romney at this point. If Romney hopes to have a chance of appealing to GOP voters across the nation, he’s going to have to broaden his fundraising base. He’s going to have to generate some excitement outside of the LDS community.

Romney has some important supporters in Congress, but the DNews reported today that only 25% of Mormon members of Congress currently support Romney. The assumption that most of Romney’s campaign money supposedly comes from Mormons has led some to falsely assume that most American Mormons support Romney on the basis of their shared religious faith. I know of no reliable poll that validates this assumption.

It should be noted that when Orrin Hatch ran for president, he found very few Mormons that were willing to contribute to his campaign, despite their shared religion. Utahns may find Romney’s successful management of the once-troubled 2002 Winter Olympics to be a more important factor than his religion. Although more than 60% of Utahns are Mormon, it does not necessarily follow that most of Romney’s Utah donors are Mormon. And 3600 donors in a state with a population of 2.5 million does not necessarily imply a groundswell of support among Utahns in general.

It is by no means certain that Romney’s campaign strategy will work out. Performing well in Iowa has not always resulted in successfully catapulting a candidate into a primary-winning trajectory. Romney seems to be putting too many eggs in a single basket. He may be expecting other GOP front runners to implode at some point. That strategy seems to be working as far as McCain is concerned, but it may not work for others.

Rudy Giuliani is likely to have more success by focusing on Florida than Romney will have with his Iowa focus. Florida has a large population, including a significant number of New York ex-pats. (Florida is #4 in population. Iowa is #30. Florida’s population is about six times that of Iowa.) I’m still watching to see how well Fred Thompson’s strategy of playing the role of the titillating mystery candidate works for him. It’s no accident that he’s staying aloof and dancing around an actual announcement that he’s running.

Feel free to disagree with me, but my gut feeling is that Romney is angling for the VP slot. With the fickleness of the politics involved in a nominee’s selection of a running mate, this strategy is also fraught with risk. Either way, Romney needs to expand his support base if he wants to have a serious shot at either the top or second slot.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Jilted Lover

Conservative pundit and former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan is fed up with President Bush (see WSJ article). Once an ardent Bush supporter, she now grits her teeth when she sees him at a news conference. She “used to smile at the mention of his name,” but now she says Bush is “strange” and “weird.” His optimistic behavior in the face of everything going south is “jarring” and “disorienting.”

Hell hath no fury like a supporter scorned. Well, except for the frothing hate-Bush mongrels barking from the far Left. Even they may now be excused, according to Noonan, as she discusses how she and her acquaintances feel. Of Bush Derangement Syndrome, the reflexive and passionate “dislike for the president,” Noonan says, “No one thinks that anymore.” No one? This merely shows how isolated MSM pundits can be.

Some might suggest that Noonan and her friends are fair-weather supporters that can’t handle it when the going gets tough. Just last month, Noonan argued that Bush had divorced his conservative base with the immigration bill (see here). This seems like a lot of high drama. Frankly, the whole lover relationship analogy strikes me as rather weird. This is politics, folks, not romance. Noonan sees herself and fellow disappointed conservatives as the jilted lover. Yet it could also be said that she and others like her simply chose to walk out on the relationship when things got bad.

And, boy, have they gotten bad! Noonan notes, “Every major domestic initiative of [Bush’s] second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president's since polling began.” But it freaks her out that despite all of this, Bush seems genuinely defiantly optimistic.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of all of this. Were Noonan and other jilted Bush supporters blind back in 2000? Did they think that they could bring the new compassionate conservative president into thinking ‘right’ after the election? Or did they simply ignore Bush’s socialistic tendencies? And just who was it that pushed through the president’s big government expansion programs during his first term? Who was it that abandoned their principles for their boyfriend, the president?

President Bush is not substantially different than what he advertised himself to be. Conservatives should have understood his nature seven years ago. What seems strange to me is conservatives devolving into Bush hatred when the president is the one that has been relatively consistent (and I’m not necessarily saying that in a good way). It is Bush’s conservative once-upon-a-time supporters that have changed. Can’t Ms. Noonan see this?

Noonan does make an interesting contribution when commenting on the current polarity in politics. She writes, “No one knows in his gut that the guy he supports will do any good. But at least you can oppose with enthusiasm and passion the guy you feel in your gut will cause more trouble than is needed! This is what happens when the pickings are slim: The greatest passion gets funneled into opposition.”

It seems that the pickings are indeed slim for conservatives and classical liberals. While Democrats are relatively satisfied with their field of ’08 presidential candidates, conservatives and classical liberals can’t see anyone in the whole field (in any party) that seems to fill the bill for them (see here).

My guess is that this gnawing fact feeds into Noonan’s acquired distaste for President Bush. She admits that she is simply waiting for the Bush presidency to finally conclude in January 2009, but she doesn’t really have anything to look forward to. And I’m guessing that she has plenty of Americans that find themselves in the same boat with her.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why Don't Electronic Health Systems Lead to Better Quality?

Earlier this week, the Archives of Internal Medicine reported the results of a study that examined the value of electronic record systems with respect to health care (see here and here). Let me stipulate that my career revolves around electronic record systems. I have deep experience in financial, quality, and manufacturing systems, but I don’t have much experience with medical systems.

Being a records system geek, I am predisposed to generally love the idea of automating manual and paper systems. The industry has come a long way from when I first dabbled in this field. We used to only be able to track a very limited number of data points. Today we have electronic record systems that are actual legal instruments (in place of paper documents) and that offer powerful reviewing and analysis capacities that were not even dreamed of when I took my first college computer course.

The aforementioned study focused on “17 ambulatory quality indicators” that researchers felt would determine the comparative quality of electronic health records (EHRs) as opposed to manually maintained health records. Clinics using EHRs “performed slightly better on two indicators: avoiding tranquilizers for patients with depression and avoiding routine urinalysis during general medical examinations,” but performed worse “when it came to prescribing the cholesterol-lowering drugs statins to patients with high cholesterol.” There was no statistical difference on the other 14 indicators.

Researchers concluded that EHRs “make little difference in the quality of medical care, at least when it comes to walk-in doctor visits.” They were surprised by these findings. They expected EHRs to perform significantly better than manual systems.

What is wrong with this picture? Is the whole premise of EHRs for improving medical outcomes flawed, or are the EHR systems themselves flawed? I ask this question because I have seen a lot of bad electronic record systems. The EHR standard specifies only data elements for data exchange. It says nothing about how the data management system must function. It is quite possible to create a lousy system that complies with the EHR data specification.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Jeffrey Linder says that “other studies have shown that most of the electronic health records that have been put in place are not much more than a replacement for the paper chart.” Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Cooney says (here) that other studies have found that quality increases when systems provide doctors with decision support (i.e. helpful reminders) with respect to “preventive care and chronic disease management.”

Having been involved in electronic record systems for a long time, I would speculate that some or many of the systems used by the clinics studied were poorly designed systems. Design of electronic record systems is extremely difficult. The two main parties involved, users and system creators, come at the issue from very different perspectives. Much give and take is required. A good outcome is achieved only if both sides do their jobs well and both sides break out of narrow thinking.

In my experience, most users have difficulty thinking outside of the box of what they currently have. They hold tenaciously to concepts surrounding how their current paper/manual system functions. These systems are as much about the culture and power structure of the organization as they are about their actual technical uses. It is very difficult for many users to comprehend that some of their notions about what is absolutely essential simply won’t exist or will exist in a very different way in an automated system. This leads to the tendency to simply create an electronic system that does exactly what the current manual system does. Nothing is gained by this, at least initially. Users often soon discover ways that the system could be improved. The trouble is that achieving those improvements costs more money.

Some users have wild ideas about what electronic systems can do. In essence, they fill their requirement lists with science fiction. Computers do many things that people would have thought impossible just a few years ago, but they still can’t do many things that 1970s science fiction imagined. Some desired features can be delivered only at a cost that far outweighs the benefits that would be derived. A good tech designer will help users comprehend what is actually feasible and will help users shift to a new way of thinking about the powerful capacities actually available in an automated system.

Information systems folks have to break through their own barriers if they are going to develop a useful system. It is deucedly difficult for tech geeks to actually get a grasp on what is really important to the users. Because users are so familiar with their tasks and everyone they work with intrinsically understands what is important, they sometimes fail to properly convey what is truly important to them — because everybody should just know it. A good tech designer will learn to draw these factors out of users. System designers need to avoid the tech geek tendency of tacking on features they think are really nifty but that provide little value to the users.

On top of all of this are the issues of culture and budget. It is not necessarily true when it comes to information systems that you get what you pay for. You can spend a lot on a lousy system and you can get a good system for a bargain price if all of the right factors fall into place. But in general, you can’t expect to get a high quality system for cheap. And, as Dr. Linder says, good electronic systems only improve quality if the medical culture that includes “doctors, health systems, patients and payers” changes to focus on quality.

Without saying what kind of system he suggests, Linder asserts, “Part of the solution is to change health-care financing [so] that [it] pays for high quality care, not just more care.” I must say that every electronic record system project on which I have worked has actually ended up delivering pretty much exactly what was actually rewarded. If quality is the chief basis of reward in our health care systems, the supporting electronic systems will likewise end up being tailored to facilitate high quality outcomes. A different chief reward will necessarily lead to using electronic systems that support that reward structure, rather than supporting quality health outcomes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

I recently had a conversation with some friends in which I found myself in the minority. All of those present considered themselves quite patriotic individuals, but it turns out that we had very different ideas regarding the appropriate role of government.

One friend lamented that in his opinion, there has never been such a high level of distrust of the government as there is among the public at present. I replied that this is only partially true or at least only partially reflects the current state of affairs. I agreed that among the public there is a significant degree of governmental distrust, but at the same time, I contended, the public is clamoring for even more government intervention.

Why this paradox? It is due to the current paternalistic nature of government. We chafe against government meddling in our lives. Government does a patently awful job of managing almost everything in which it is involved due to bureaucratic inefficiencies. Yet as the role of government has expanded we have increasingly come to see it as the only available vehicle for gaining our desires.

Until recently, most of my children have been completely dependent upon my wife and me for all of their support. When they earned money, it was ostensibly by completing family chores. I am glad to pay my teenagers to mow the lawn because I would otherwise have to do it myself, and the process hopefully helps them develop an understanding of the production-pay relationship that governs our world.

While my children learned some responsibility, they still had only a single benefactor. As is the nature of children beginning to come of age, my children grate against the reasonable constraints established by my wife and me. And believe me; we do want this to happen. Otherwise, our children never learn to grow up and separate themselves from us. But despite their occasional dissatisfaction, they constantly appeal to us as parents to fulfill their desires.

As government grows, its tentacles invade more portions of our lives through endless regulation. Regulation is a way of coercing people to behave in ways that moral people (like ourselves, of course) should behave. This necessarily creates a paternalistic relationship between the government and the citizen. The bureaucratic organization seeks self sustenance and growth above all else. Although the Founders intended government to be the servant of the citizens, it continually works to become the master with citizens as subordinate entities. That’s simply the nature of the beast.

The more paternalistic government becomes, the more the individual — capable of functioning more independently — increasingly finds dissatisfaction with the relationship. But as the government increases its role as benefactor, the individual increasingly sees government as a major outlet for fulfilling desires. Thus, individuals grate against governmental constraints, while simultaneously appealing to government for more services.

Last year, my two oldest children began delivering newspapers (by my wife’s design). I wasn’t happy about this. I was a news carrier for over half a decade in my youth, but at that time it was afternoon delivery except for Sunday mornings. The schedule functioned reasonably well. Now our local paper is delivered early every morning, and it is frankly a huge pain in the tail for the whole family.

My children’s earnings from this venture don’t really amount to much when considered in light of the total cost of their support, but they suddenly have a revenue stream separate from their parents for creating disposable income. Suddenly, all kinds of possibilities have begun to come to view for my children. Instead of appealing to me for a new gaming or personal media device, my children have simply bought their own. They now talk in terms of what they will do with their future earnings instead of talking about plans they are impotent to carry out.

The change has been particularly interesting to watch through the eyes of my 10-year-old, who took over his oldest brother’s route when that brother went away to work at Scout camp for the summer. His newfound sense of self direction and personal capacity has bled over into every portion of his life.

Oh, my children still grate against parental authority with regularity. But they also see that they will eventually be able to seek other kinds of jobs. This is a good thing. What starts out as a desire to personally fund what I view as superfluous junk can eventually grow through successive jobs to become complete self sufficiency. This will help me do my job as a parent to transition from the role of sole provider to a more independent role. Just as I long ago quit thinking about dissatisfaction with my parents, my children will eventually lose their need to chafe against my authority as they become increasingly independent.

Likewise, if government’s paternalistic role diminishes, so will both dissatisfaction with government and desire for more government services, as citizens become more independent. Alas, this seems to be a pipe dream. Our major political parties now bicker about how or how rapidly government will provide more services, rather than debating how to increase liberty. And citizens who are increasingly wards of the state in one way or another will continue to clamor for these services, even as they gripe about the government.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Norwegian Spirit

Norway is an enigma to most Americans. Sometimes when I mention Norway, people ask something like, “Isn’t that the capital of Sweden?” It’s a bit different for me. I have Norwegian ancestry. I have lived in Norway and I speak, read, and write Norwegian. I try to keep up on news and events by reading Norwegian newspapers and websites. (People also seem brought up short when they ask what language is spoken in Norway and I respond that it is Norwegian.)

Norway is part of Scandinavia, which has always been regarded by the rest of Europe as irredeemably backward. The other Scandinavian countries, in turn, have regarded Norway as hopelessly rustic and only slightly more sophisticated than Iceland. Norwegians for the most part are comfortable with this assessment, considering it something of a badge of honor. Sometimes, however, a desire to be accepted by peer nations seems to shine through.

In fact, other Scandinavian and European countries harbor some jealousy toward Norway. Since Norway is an oil rich nation (it has undersea oil fields along its west coast), it has refused to join the EU (and its predecessor, the ECC). Not that it hasn’t been tried. Every time it has come to a vote, however, Norwegians have overwhelmingly voted to stay out of these confederations. The economic incentives for Norway to join are weak. But it goes far beyond that. Norwegians have an innate sense of independence that they themselves seem incapable of fully conquering. Perhaps it has something to do with living in such a harsh land and climate.

Norway emerged from centuries of being a ward state variously of Sweden and Denmark for several centuries, finally achieving full independence in 1905. At that time, many European nations were questioning the whole centuries-old social and political structure of monarchy and nobility. Many European nations were in the throes of dumping their kings. Norway, desiring to prove itself a peer among nations enlisted a Danish prince to become their king. He took the name Haakon VII. His British wife never did learn to speak the language. His grandson, Harald V reigns as king today. In typical fashion, Norway came late to the party and is still looked at by the rest of Europe as something of a throwback. In this we see the Norwegian spirit of independence coupled with a desire to fit in among peers, but then pulling it off in a way that makes it look backward.

Like most geopolitical entities, Norway has its own internal regional rivalries. People in the more populous southern portion of the country consider those living in the sparsely populated northern arm of the nation to be wildly independent and even more backward. And the general way of thinking among Northerners is indeed different. It’s difficult to explain. But you ought to live up north through a summer with midnight sun and a winter with midday night if you want to comprehend the people there.

Norwegians enjoy a high standard of living. Many measures show that Norway’s general standard of living exceeds that of the United States. And this might be true on paper. But, in my opinion, the actual human experience does not bear this out.

Despite the Norwegian spirit of independence, the nation has fully bought into the whole socialist agenda. Like the U.S. Congress of late, opponents in Parliament scrap over how to increase the nanny state rather than how to foster liberty. Norwegians consider themselves very merciful and willing to go overboard (often way overboard) in the name of fairness. In the early 20th Century, Parliament declared that 20% of the people in the nation more or less spoke (or at least ought to speak) a brand of Norwegian called Nynorsk (developed by intellectuals) that was more pure and less encumbered by Danish and Swedish influences. Thus, all official publications are printed in both regular Bokmål Norwegian and Nynorsk. The government mandates that a certain percent of TV broadcasts occur in Nynorsk in the name of fairness.

Norway was among the first nations to welcome Vietnamese Boat People with open arms, which gave rise to a sizable Vietnamese expatriate community in the country. Norway has also had a very open policy to asylum seekers fleeing the Middle East. Besides, they argue that these people come and do jobs Norwegians don’t like to do. Three decades of this lax policy has brought serious problems with Islamic militancy and restrictions on free speech intended to prevent offending some Muslims. Norway has been at the forefront of pursuing peace in the Middle East. Its efforts, however, have been increasingly one-sided and have either been the source of or the catalyst for causing many problems.

One of the major news stories of the day (see here, but you’ve got to be able to read Norwegian) is that the Norwegian Crown is currently 100% overvalued in comparison to the U.S. Dollar according to the Big Mac index. It is somewhat comical that almost all Norwegians today understand this index. As recently as two decades ago there was no McDonald’s restaurant in Norway due to the nation’s harsh anti-business franchising laws (that were later made somewhat less restrictive). The index is a way to (sort of) measure the real purchasing power of different currencies. Today, the average price of a Big Mac in the U.S. is $3.41, while the average price of a Big Mac in Norway is $6.88.

Don’t get feeling too smug. The article also notes that in China a Big Mac costs only $1.45. This is due to the fact that standard of living is much lower in China. The index includes, for example, housing costs. The (admittedly imperfect) Big Mac index is most useful for comparing purchasing power between nations with somewhat similar standards of living. Norway’s strong Crown is both a blessing and a curse. It means that Norwegians have an advantage in buying foreign goods but they also have difficulty marketing their own goods abroad. Local goods also compete with cheaper foreign goods.

To put it flatly, it is just darn expensive to live in Norway. The nation’s policies do little to improve this situation. Many well intentioned policies have directly contributed to the problem. Without oil, Norwegians would have difficulty maintaining their independent (some would say isolationist) approach. I will always have a special place in my heart for Norway, but I am grateful to be an American.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Educational Gridlock

The D-News’ John Florez says here that the very structure of our education system stifles innovation and prevents the kind of changes required to meet the needs of students in today’s world. Florez discusses how the various parties involved have created the unwieldy behemoth of a system we have today.

Florez’s article springboards off the current issue of “Provo School Board member, Sandy Packard,” who is being stonewalled by the bureaucracy in her attempt to fulfill her duty to oversee finances. Having studied organizational behavior and having worked in government bureaucracies, the district is simply doing what bureaucracies do: erecting “bureaucratic barriers government agencies create to protect and insulate themselves from public scrutiny.”

Locally elected school boards often create their own barriers or accept ones suggested by the bureaucrats. “Professional education administrators,” says Florez, “have created volumes of policies and procedures to pump up school board member egos and "protect" them from having to make decisions.” Many school boards won’t let a board member bring up any issue without consent from at least one other member. This prevents one malcontent from dominating meetings, but it also stymies discussion of important matters.

Districts are not the only problematic part of the equation. Florez asserts that “legislators unknowingly contribute” to the problem. By proliferating legislative committees that seek to increase accountability, they actually “dilute the responsibility so everyone and no one is accountable for whatever the education system is supposed to produce.” I’m sure that legislators take a different view of this.

Voters also fall into the crosshairs of Florez’s blame thrower. “[I]f you ask most citizens to name their board representative, they would draw a blank.” Presumably most voters also have little idea of what their board members do.

The whole system works together to prevent positive change. So what solution does Florez propose? Well, he doesn’t really propose any solution other than to say that we need a governance structure that can adequately respond to the constantly evolving need for educational change. That paints a lovely warm and fuzzy picture. I guess Florez might respond, “Hey, I pointed out the problem. Let somebody else come up with the solution.”

Florez does include two specific pieces of advice. The first is that partisan school boards won’t change the underlying problem. The second is that we need to get rid of local school boards. They’re a sham anyway, he says. And replace them with what? Oh, I know, let’s have a single district at the state level. Well, hey, if a high level district is good, why not just have one big national district? Well, gee, maybe because huge monolithic government programs are the least efficient most unchangeable organizations on the face of the earth.

If you want an educational system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of students in a modern world, the answer is more local control and less high level control, not the opposite. The ultimate local control is personal consumer choice. We ought to be considering how to get closer to this goal, not further away from it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Governor Huntsman Wants to Limit My Parental Rights

Summertime, but the livin’ ain’t easy around my house. OK, so the normal routine is more relaxed, but we’re up to our eyeballs in busy. My wife runs a short home school program throughout the summer based on Summer Bridge Activities workbooks to keep the kids’ brains engaged. We’re running kids to church activities (including Especially For Youth), band camp, Scouting activities, summer camps, swimming lessons, music lessons, service projects, and a variety of family activities.

During the summer our kids are not engaged in the standard school classroom type of learning based on the old Prussian education model. Instead, they’re engaged in entirely different types of learning activities. It requires a lot of parental dedication to give our kids these opportunities, and to tailor the various options we choose to the needs, abilities, and interests of each child. There are costs associated with these activities, and frankly, we make a number of sacrifices to make them possible.

But Governor Huntsman is proposing to limit our ability to choose these types of opportunities for our children. Hewing to the concept that the state needs more control of children and that education can be properly achieved only through the formalized Prussian-style school model, Governor Huntsman is proposing an idea that just won’t go away: year-round schooling for our kids.

Speaking to our education system’s apparent inability to adequately teach children math and science, the Governor believes that simply doing more of what we are already doing is going to improve the situation. He and his likeminded believers in the infallibility of the educatocracy point to studies showing that children in other countries that outperform our students in these core subjects often spend more time in the classroom. This is, of course, an apples and oranges comparison that fails to control for a variety of other variables, including actual mode of instruction and percentage of population actually tested.

To me, the plan once again appears to approach the issue as if schools are more important than students; that students exist to serve the needs of schools rather than vice versa. Like the Governor’s cherished all-day Kindergarten, it expands government-run day care for parents that seek to use the schools in that manner. And in the end, it will not achieve its goal of substantially improving educational outcomes.

Coming at this issue from another angle is engineer Kenneth Nielson, writing in this D-News op-ed piece. Nielson writes that the Governor’s proposal appears to have four main points: “(1) Year-round school will help teachers earn a more competitive salary; (2) Year-round school will provide better utilization of the large buildings on each school campus; (3) Year-round school is being promoted as budget neutral; and, (4) Year-round school will help students progress better, particularly in the areas of math and science.” Nielson looks at each of the four points on its own.

#1: Since teachers that spend the summer working at other jobs will have that possibility eliminated to achieve only 10 additional days of instruction, many will experience a real income decrease. We’ll be able to pat ourselves on the back that we’re paying teachers more competitively, but we will actually be harming many of them.

#2: Although we’ll use large buildings more, we will increase wear and tear, while simultaneously reducing the capacity to perform major maintenance and upgrades during non-use times. From an engineering perspective, Nielson says, “Mobilization and overhead costs of such projects will occur three times,” instead of once annually. Short-term schedules will increase premium pay to contractors. Facility costs will go up.

#3: The budget neutrality claim is bunk. Nielson asserts that “if you are operating schools and paying teachers for extra days, you will pay more. If you are operating programs during the summer, costs of logistics and support must also be added.” Some school districts have discovered that the cost of air conditioning alone for a few days during the hotter times of the year is extremely expensive.

#4: Although an “additional 10 days may be helpful to students, particularly in the areas of math and science,” it might be better to provide “10-day workshops at the end of the year” or to develop programs to lift students that need the most help.

Nielson admits that the year-round model “does keep a student in the learning mode and somewhat mitigates the problem K-12 teachers now face of spending two to three weeks at the beginning of the year getting students back to where they were when school ended previous school year.” Apparently he is unaware of conflicting studies that suggest that students in year-round schooling actually require more review when starting a new grade than students that have had a summer away from the classroom grind to refresh themselves.

My oldest son is working all summer at a Boy Scout camp. The main adult leaders that run this camp are all schoolteachers. It takes two weeks to get the camp set up and ready to run. It runs for seven weeks, and then it takes time to winterize the camp. If year-round schooling were implemented, this camp could not operate, as it is reliant on schoolteachers and high school students to function. Who is to say that a camp of this nature is a less worthy education experience than spending 10 more days in a traditional classroom?

Who is to say that the activities my wife and I carefully choose and craft for our children throughout the summer are less worthy educational experiences than 10 more days in a traditional classroom? Ah, but what about the children who don’t live in such fortuitous circumstances? OK. Let’s develop programs to help provide options for parents of those children. But let’s not force all students and teachers into a model that will limit parental choice, economically harm many schoolteachers, narrow the students’ overall education, and ultimately not be in the best interest of society.

Education is vitally important. But lifetime education is about a heck of a lot more than what you can get in a classroom. And I resent government encroachment on my right to provide extracurricular educational opportunities that I believe to be essential to my children’s development and wellbeing.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

My Hometown Parade Seen Through New Eyes

We attended, as we do every year, our little hometown Independence Day parade yesterday morning. As we watched the parade, my family found itself situated next to some newcomers to our town. One was a young man from New York. Another was a young man from Mexico City. A couple that had children ranging from mid-20s down to elementary school age had recently moved from a populous area of California.

None of these people had ever seen a celebration like the one they were witnessing. They were truly amazed to see how a small town celebrated Independence Day. When a Scout troop carrying the American Flag passed, almost everyone stood and gave the appropriate salute. The man from Mexico City (a legal resident, but not an American citizen) seemed unsure of what to do. My 14-year-old son explained to him the proper protocol, and he cheerfully joined in putting his right hand over his heart.

The parade this year seemed to take longer than in years past. By my estimation it lasted about 15 minutes longer than last year’s parade. That would be entirely due to having more parade entries. One thing that seemed unusual was a lack of equestrian groups. Of course, that meant less cleanup.

Knowing it was forecast to be a hot and sunny day, we had come prepared with a backpack loaded with containers of ice water, which we gladly shared with our new friends who were less prepared for the dry, hot conditions.

Just before the parade began, a fighter squadron of four military jets from nearby Hill Air Force Base screamed overhead (quite close to the ground) in close formation, followed by a refueling plane at a higher altitude. The crowd was thrilled. A few minutes later several local skydivers jumped from their plane and expertly guided their parasails to land on the street directly in front of the announcer’s booth.

Our parade’s entries are seldom fancy. Local businesses sponsor entries, often as a form of advertising. The city officers and other local politicians ride in cars. There are a handful of restored antique vehicles. Some churches sponsor entries. There are only a few floats that are fancily decorated. The local high school and two junior high schools have entries. They’ve got their cheerleaders and drill teams, their student officers, the high school marching band, and some of the sports teams on display. The city’s emergency vehicles drive the route, flashing their lights and sounding their sirens. Everybody is happy. The atmosphere is festive and patriotic.

The big draw for the younger kids is that many entries pass (or throw) out candy along the parade route. My three younger kids were right out there on the front lines grabbing up all of the candy they could get their hands on. A few entries chucked out other goodies. My kids scored a little plastic football and a T-shirt. My 10-year-old managed to gather four Frisbees, two of which he gave to the men from New York and Mexico City. Each of these men was thrilled to score a T-shirt from the local trout farm.

Some businesses are gauche enough to simply hand out advertisements. Neither the kids nor the adults seemed much impressed with that tactic. A few of the entries squirted water on people that were on the front lines. It was all in good fun. And since it was a hot day, nobody seemed to mind. My 10-year-old requested and received an entire bucket of water dumped on his head. He loved it.

The best things I got out of attending this year’s parade were the comments and perspectives of our new friends from California, New York, and Mexico — and the looks on their faces. Their expressions of delight and amazement were almost childlike. They had never experienced anything like this event; something that I have taken for granted most of my life. They just don’t have events like this in the population centers from which they hail. You can see things like this on TV, but you can’t understand them unless you’re physically present. The newcomers couldn’t believe the feeling of community and goodwill that were present; the natural freedom and exuberance expressed; the easy mixing of people of all ages.

My enjoyment of this year’s community parade was enhanced because I was able to see it through the eyes of newcomers. I enjoyed it more because of how much they loved being a part of the celebration.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

My Annual Liberty! Pilgrimage

I am about ¾ths of the way through my annual pilgrimage of watching Liberty! The American Revolution (see also IMDB page). I try to watch the series sometime around each Independence Day. I wrote about this last year. This series of six one-hour segments is one of the finest documentaries in existence about how a remarkable new democratic republican nation formed from 13 loyal British colonies over a stunningly short period of time.

I have been watching Liberty! for the past few days during my morning workout. The end of this morning’s workout had Cornwallis camped at Yorktown awaiting resupply while resting from chasing Nathanael Greene’s American forces around the South for half a year. Washington is at New York and is frustrated at what is going on. The French, who have come to assist the Americans, have been camped out in Rhode Island for over a year without doing anything other than to supply the Americans (which was essential to the war effort).

At this point in the war, it is not at all clear that the Americans will prevail. Washington has lost most of the battles in which he has engaged. Many major seaport cities throughout the colonies have fallen to the British. Green has lost every single battle with the British in the South. One of the American’s greatest war heroes, General Benedict Arnold, has recently defected to the British (treasonously attempting to turn over West Point to the enemy), convinced that the Americans cannot win the war. Support of the citizenry for the war rises and falls with each bit of news. At this point in the war, all is not necessarily lost, but it seems nearly to be so.

In retrospect, the tide had already turned in the Americans’ favor. Greene had understood that to win the war he had only to turn the hearts of the people against the British. That did not require winning battles. It only required forcing direct interaction between British forces and average Americans. Thus, his months-long strategy of leading the British away from their supply channels and through a string of American villages. The British were forced to plunder for supplies. And they plundered everyone, including loyalists and neutrals.

The British were fighting a hopeless war because a significant core of Americans felt what liberty was like and were not ready to give it up in any case. The British were used to war being between professional military forces. They were completely unprepared to deal with a hostile population (loyalists notwithstanding).

Another important factor was that France had engaged Great Britain on the sea and in areas far away from America. For the British, what had begun as an internecine struggle had become a world war. The conflict in America had given rise to conflicts far worse and more costly than the one in America. Support for the war in Britain, and particularly among the ruling class, was foundering.

It is interesting to see these issues in hindsight. But none of this was apparent to American political leaders, military leaders, and average citizens at the time. Many were quite disheartened. Washington was the quintessential man of the hour. He courageously soldiered on, never publicly displaying any doubt concerning the justness and final outcome of the revolution.

Tomorrow morning I will watch as the documentary discusses the miraculous turn of events that made possible the Siege of Yorktown. It will be explained that even when Cornwallis surrendered it was not really clear to anybody that the war was over. I may even see part of the final segment, which delves into the problematic postwar era that finally resulted in a new form of government, codified via the Constitution (and later the Bill of Rights), with George Washington as the first Chief Executive.

It is truly marvelous to me to review how our nation came to be. So many little things along the path could have resulted in an entirely different outcome.

Two days ago as I relaxed on the couch with my 10-year-old, I asked if he knew what our nation was celebrating on Wednesday. He said, “Its birthday.” “Yes,” I replied, “but what event happened to cause the birth of our nation?” He thought for a moment, and then said, “The end of the Civil War.” I knew I had some work to do. So we discussed the Declaration of Independence. My 14-year-old chimed in to say that many of its signers didn’t sign the document until August 1776. “What matters,” I responded, “is that it was formally adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, and that is why we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July.”

Tomorrow we will attend our community’s small parade. We will volunteer at the city park to run some of the city sponsored children’s games in the hot sun. One of my sons will play the National Anthem on his trumpet as a large flag is raised at the park by the Boy Scout Order of the Arrow chapter of which he is a member. Later we will gather with extended family members to celebrate a noted family member’s birthday that coincides with our nation’s birthday. Finally we will set off a few (very few and completely legal) fireworks in front of our house. We will have a lot of fun. But mostly, I hope my kids understand the importance of what we are celebrating.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Devolving Government

Today’s Utah Policy Daily includes an article by LaVarr Webb that echoes his regular calls for more federalism to solve problems with the federal government (scroll down to Monday Musings). Webb says that last week’s failure of the Senate’s immigration bill shows that Congress is “entirely inept” at solving the major issues facing our nation.

One of the major causes of the ineptness of the federal government, per Webb, is that the fed has simply grown too big and has its fingers in too many things. Webb says that “the founders never intended the federal government to grow as big, as pervasive or as expensive as it is today. They didn’t intend it to take over nearly every government program impacting every aspect of life as it has today.”

Webb assumes that the probable cause of our current situation is “congressional overreaching over many decades.” While that is certainly a factor, I wonder if he remembers the Civil War. We fought a war over the issue of a weak central government vs. a strong central government, and the strong side won. Webb refers to “sovereign states” in his thoughtful article. But we do not in fact have sovereign states. The entire premise of the Civil War was that no state was sovereign and had no right, therefore, to secede from the Union.

The outcome of the Civil War and subsequent legal determinations mean that all states are subdivisions of the U.S. and are not sovereign members of a confederacy. For this reason, the Supreme Court has held that constitutional provisions that apply to the federal government, such as the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, apply to state (and sub-state) governments as well.

Like it or not, we live in a country that has a strong central government.

But Webb is right that the federal government was intended “to be limited to a few specific things, delegated by the Constitution, and to do those few things well.” Everything else was to be left to the states. The central government has far overstepped the boundaries of its enumerated powers and a willing judicial branch has supported this expansion.

Decentralization results in a lack of uniformity. Even as I write this, the federal government is being lobbied to take over various state responsibilities in the name of uniformity and easing of burdens. Many will argue that decentralizing activities essentially leads to lack of uniformity, which means problems for citizens, especially in today’s mobile society where citizens move between states with regularity.

In another essay, however, Webb eloquently calls for moving each function of government to its most appropriate level. To deal with the messiness this would otherwise cause, Webb calls for mimicking computer networking. He writes, “Just as in a computer network, states would have to agree on standards and protocols to deal with complex interstate issues. But the motto ought to be “national standards, local control,” not top-down, bureaucratic dictates from a one-size-fits-all central government.”

Having a strong centralized government need not mean that the central government has to deal with every single issue first hand. Indeed, even a strong central government could function well (arguably better than it does today) by sticking to those activities enumerated to it in the Constitution, and by delegating all else to the states and their subdivisions.

The major drawback I see with Webb’s plan is that the setting of national standards while allowing local control would either create a mass of unfunded federal mandates for the states, or else would require a huge centralized collection with federal officials controlling the purse strings. States decry the former and some of the current programs that function according to the latter are rife with problems due to overregulation. Could federal officials prevent themselves from over regulating? Sorry, but I just can’t see it. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

In the end, part of me agrees with Webb’s cynical suggestion that a gridlocked Congress might be the best thing we can hope for at present. “At least they’re not making things worse, which is always a real danger. The country may be better off with a do-nothing Congress.” Maybe he’s right.

Response to Disappointed Tax Increase Proponent

The Saturday edition of the Standard Examiner included this letter to the editor, which expressed “deep disappointment in the voters of North Ogden” for defeating the $2.3 million bond to cover a small portion of the city’s aquatic facility (see my previous posts here and here).

In reply to the letter, I sent this letter to the editor:

I feel some empathy for the letter writer that was disappointed that North Ogden’s bond issue failed to pass (Defeat of bond to cover pool disappoints, June 30). It is unfortunate, however, that she considers the 71% of her neighbors that voted to defeat the issue to be stingy, selfish, wealthy snobs rather than principled individuals who are interested in good government, and who made a conscientious choice after weighing the facts.

Perhaps the writer is unfamiliar with fellow citizens that are far from wealthy and that live on very tight budgets. Given the small percentage of the populace that receives home pizza delivery, the noted anecdotal experiences of stingy tipping are hardly representative of the generosity of all North Ogden citizens. For many, this was not a matter of personal generosity, but of whether it was right to be generous with other people’s money.

In this country, We The People are the government. Whenever we employ government, we are employing the power to coerce our neighbors. For this reason, we must be extremely cautious with how we choose to use our governmental powers. Many voters simply concluded that it would not have been right to force their neighbors to pay this tax increase.

Scott Hinrichs

The Standard Examiner included its own editorial in today’s edition supporting the bond, but chastising bond supporters for lousy organization. Like the editors, I like the idea of a pool cover. But the fiscal reality of this proposal is that it was just too darn expensive for what would have been delivered. Even many voters that are not generally opposed to increased taxes could see that.

The bond proponents would have needed a lot more than good organization for the issue to have passed. They would have needed a plan that made financial sense to the average voter.