Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Illusion of Security

America has a security problem, but it isn't the one we hear about on the news. It's a pretty serious one in my book, and it is one that impacts all of us. It's also a bit of a strange problem.

We're safe, you see. We really are pretty safe. We are also afraid, and react out of that fear in strange, often bad ways.

So obviously, 9/11 is going to be a big part of the background for this one, because it really lead to a lot of where we are today. I feel like I should do the token "inspirational monologue" about it, but that's not the point here, and I think we all realize nothing I am going to say really matters on that front. Let's just say it was a really bad day that has had widespread effects on the world, and move from there.

After the attacks, a lot of things changed fairly quickly. The PATRIOT act was brought to the house and passed before most of congress was even given a chance to read it. Almost immediately this was a controversial law that had a pretty profound impact on American discourse. You had a lot of people throwing around a lot of quotes from a lot of people about the relationships between security, privacy, freedom and my favorite, the old "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to hide." The emotional state of this country got, understandably, a little nuts.

Another big change was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). We had this grand plan of opening up communication between our various security agencies and trying to streamline intelligence. This hasn't really worked the way we hoped. There are also the many many problems with the TSA. Along with the low success rate with internal testing, we are seeing lots of privacy and safety concerns with their newest line of defense, the backscatter scans.

And some of these concerns are due to the very agents who are implementing these security protocols. The supposed last line of defense. If the entire intelligence community fails to catch them before making it to where they can hurt us, then we obviously want the best and the brightest there to catch the bad guys. Of course, all of this is rendered a little silly when you look at the fact that here in the U.S. you have almost no chance of being killed by a terrorist anyway.

When did America get so scared? We used to be the big bad superpower that would shake the world from time to time, and now we're hiding behind ineffective security that makes us feel "safer" without really doing much good.

Humans, in general, are really not very good at dealing with probability. When it comes to risk assessment from an evolutionary standpoint, all this fear makes a lot of sense. We are fairly easily eaten. But when we move this same instinct to the modern world, well, it just makes us a little nuts. We are afraid of being murdered, even though violent crime is on the decline. We are afraid of our children being kidnapped so we shelter them, even though statistically it really isn't a likely event.

And the problem with all of this is that we use these fears as excuses for all kinds of terrible things. We give away our rights in order to protect ourselves. We give up privacy and safety to get a false sense of security. We have militarized our police forces, giving them a new mindset along with new weapons and tools.

I pretty clearly think this is a bad thing, however I'm not suggesting that the response to any of this should be anger. Anger is even less rational an emotion than fear, and I'm all about rational. What we need to do is recognize our own emotional responses, and then think through it. What we need to do is stand up, calmly and rationally, and say "no... it's ok... we're not afraid, and we don't want this."

Send well thought out and calm letters to your congress folks. Go to city counsel and talk to them. Get involved and get things done.

But most of all, keep calm and carry on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Education and Economics

Economics is meant to play the long game; it just functions better that way. Sure, you can sell short, or flip a house and do very well, but it's very risky and not just to you. This should be one of the lessons of 2008. People ended up gambling on all of our futures, and damn near lost them because of the short game.

We talk about sustainability in the environment all the time, but economic systems need it as well. We need systems that are dynamic enough to adjust to changing times and events, but with a foundation that is solid, and well rooted to prevent collapse. 

We, the people, on the whole are not very good at long games. We like our instant gratification and are easy to panic. It's not good, but it also makes a lot of sense. Our brains really haven't caught up with civilization yet. As flexible and adjustable as our minds can be, we still have those hardwired responses and instincts that are just damned hard to override. When the market takes a down tick, people start selling, pushing it further than it would have gone without the fear response; it's what we do. 

But we need to be more clever than that. We need to be playing the long game.

Right now the U.S. has around $16 trillion in debt. That is a truly unimaginable number. We also have around a $1 trillion budget deficit. Neither of these things are good, by any stretch of the mind; we really need to do something about this.

Now, the obvious answer is to cut spending and possibly raise taxes, though that second part is certainly contended in a lot of circles. On a base level it's like balancing a household budget. Spend less and bring in more, and the deficit goes down; easy as lying.

Sadly, national economics are a bit more complicated than this. We also need to look at things like unemployment and job growth along with GDP, social security, and the social safety net in general. Things get tough very very quickly.

One of the first places we see the tightening of belts is in education. As the author of that piece explains, although real dollars spent in education is going up, its relation to the GDP is steadily dropping; we are investing a lower percentage of our income into education. We have seen it in the cutting of arts programs, music programs and now even physical education programs. We are seeing class sizes grow and school libraries shrink. And it kind of makes sense. On that basic budget model, we have to make a cut somewhere, and education is expensive.

But again, I want to talk about the long game.

There are lots (and lots and lots) of scholarly articles about the relationship between education and crime, and I'm linking you to one of the better ones that doesn't require downloading things. It's pretty simple and even logical; the better educated people are, the lower the rates of crime you see. Now, there are lots and lots of factors that can go into this, including education level of the parents and a whole host of other issues, but education is absolutely a big factor.

Education is also, for some obvious reason, a good indicator of future success. It should come as no surprise to anyone that places with higher poverty rates also have lower levels of education. Now, to some degree this is going to be a chicken and egg argument, which is actually one of the big issues with poverty; it is a cycle. Low income families don't have the same access to education, and educational activities, so the children of low income families are at a disadvantage, so they are more prone to staying poor.

It is also worth noting that low income children are more likely to miss school than their higher income counterparts.

We are also in a place where people with lower incomes, lower education levels, and who are on public assistance are having significantly more children than those who aren't in those social strata. Breaking tone for a moment, I've tried for a good chunk of time to post the link from the census data to demonstrate that, and apparently I just can't. It's a PDF that you can get at If you want to fact check me, search for p20-558 and look at pages 6 and 7.

The effects on the individual are pretty clear. A lack of education increases the likelihood of dependence and future incarceration for our children. This, in and of itself, is obviously a negative, but one could make the argument that it isn't "our" problem. One could make that argument, assuming they didn't look any deeper into the social and financial effects that this has on society as a whole; we should probably do that though.

Right now, the cost of sending a child to public school from k-12 runs right around $10,000 per year per student, though there is a pretty wide variation state to state and district to district.

We, as a nation, are spending about $800 billion on welfare for about 56 million people. This comes out to around $14,300 per person.

And, at least in California, it costs around $47,000 to keep an inmate in prison for a year.

So as it stands, we are spending less on our students than we are on taking care of the consequences of a bad education.  If we could lower the incarceration rate by one person, we could double the education budget for 2.3 students. Higher levels of education also reflect a lower chance of being on welfare and a lower rate of childbirth, which means the social safety net gets less use.

As is almost always the case, prevention is less expensive than dealing with the aftermath, and we are not doing nearly enough prevention. I'm also not saying that we need to just throw money at it. It needs to be a reasoned and rational response to the issue, targeting money into places where it has the highest chance of helping and using methods with the highest returns. I'm not going to go into all that right now, if for no other reason than a hope of getting this posted soon.

I would also like to touch on the argument that all of this support should be coming from the parents, not the government. This is an absolutely fair argument, and I don't disagree. I personally went to public schools in a mediocre school district, but luckily have fantastic parents that pushed me to learn, think, and try more every day to better myself. The problem is that some parents are busy; so busy trying to support their families financially that they can't support their educations. Some parents aren't educated enough themselves to help out. And tragically, some parents just don't care enough. In none of these cases can any blame be put on the children, but it is without question the children who suffer. The "American Dream" is that everyone has a fair shake at life, but we're not actually offering that; we can, however, get closer to it.

The United States became a superpower in the world because of innovation and technology booms, along with some philosophy and political growth that changed the world. If we hope to maintain that position we are going to have to keep pushing in those fields. We need educated, intelligent, and productive people to keep driving this country forward. With innovation and creation comes growth, making the country stronger, reducing our reliance on other countries in every possible way, and strengthening our position in the world.

But regardless of that, if we tactically invest in the youth of the nation, even without all the growth that will come, we can save money and cut the deficit just by giving children the tools to get off, or stay off, welfare, and to stay out of prison.

It's not complicated, but it is a long game.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hey Folks,
        I have been offered the opportunity to contribute to my friend Brendan's blog. As a shipmate and fellow free thinker I both appreciate and support what he does with words and actions. As a graduate student in history I bring a fair amount of critical thinking, and writing skill to the table and I look forward to diving into this mix to help promote thought, and civil dialogue among human beings. Thus far I have not completed a topical entry of any kind and have been serving in an editorial capacity only. I believe my first true post will center on the idea of civilian oversight of police and some of the problems I see with the way things work as of right now.

Jeremy Stolz.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

excuses excuses

So I don't have anything for this week. I've had a bunch of traveling going on, and then some decompression time from the end of the season. Now I'm watching the election. I promise, next monday I'll have something for you.