April 28, 2011

Business-Like Public Education

The governor's "bonus" program for schools gives more money to schools that are making progress. Presumably, this means less money for schools that are not making progress (assuming there is a fixed amount of money for all schools).

This is a very business-like approach -- reward the performers, penalize the non-performers until the no...n-performers quit or get fired. But government is not a business. Government is about seeing that everyone does well and gets what is needed.

So, taking money from the non-performers would just make them continue to decline, wouldn't it? And giving that money to the performers would make them continue to grow. And the gap between the two would widen, until the bottom falls out and those kids in those schools are left with nothing.

That may be good business, but it is not good government, and it is not in the public good.

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April 27, 2011

The Inmates Are Running The Asylum

The President released his birth certificate to the public today.

When the nation is trying to deal with radically different solutions to a problem that may have dire effects in our lifetimes, the stage is being occupied by clowns, carnival barkers, paranoids and lunatics -- and hate-mongers whose debating skills begin and end with vilification.

The President released his birth certification to the public today.

It changes nothing, really. Those who assaulted his legitimacy will continue to do so. Those who believed him three years ago believe him today. Those who were confused by the ruckus will remain confused, whether about this or something else.

And those who were afraid to contradict the hateful opposition will wait fearfully for the next craziness from the lunatic fringe.

And that is the real lesson here -- the fear and cowardice of those who should be leading. Rather than charting a course to a rational debate about the economy, health care, war, unemployment, infrastructure and defining the future of the nation as a nation -- all the legitimate concerns of government -- rather than facing and defining the future, those who should be leading are looking fearfully over their shoulders for the next insane, unsubstantiated, hateful, racist notion from the far outreaches of their lunatic followers. They are letting the lunatics run the asylum.

Is this the kind of leadership that should -- or even could -- guide good government?

The President released his birth certification to the public today. Again.

We don't have time for this kind of silliness. These are serious times and they require serious people with serious thinking. The carnival needs to fold its tent and move to some other town. And they need to take their ringmasters and barkers with them.


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April 26, 2011

Private transactions: you, me and the rest of the world

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on the case of Sorrell v IMS Health, arguing the merits of a law in some New England states to prohibit dissemination (selling) of prescription records to pharmaceutical marketeers. These records, purged of patient identifying information under HIPAA, contain the specific identity of prescribing physicians and dispensing pharmacists. The marketeers want to mine for information about who is dispensing what so they can direct marketing campaigns promoting their pharmaceutical alternatives. The doctors and pharmacists are demanding privacy protection.

This is an important case in the whole business of data selling -- a critical, and presumed legitimate, use of your private transaction data by marketers to "personalize" your advertising experience.

I trust that, if the marketers lose and the states prevail, that this same principle can and should be extended to other areas -- marketing certainly, but more importantly consumer credit reporting which is the scaffolding upon which the credit industry stands. Imagine what happens if credit bureaus are prohibiting from selling, or even collecting, your transaction data (billings and payments) from your mortgage firm, your auto loan company, Visa/Master Card/Amex, department stores and so on. Those credit reports -- and the mysterious "credit score" -- make the credit industry work. What happens if the flow of data is cut off?

What about those loyalty cards that stores use to offer you "discounted" prices? They are collecting personalized data about your shopping habits, and probably selling that info to product makers (Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, Coke, Purina, etc.) for their marketing. This "360-degree view of the customer" has been in play for several decades, but it depends on the flow of your personal shopping data out to the world. What you think is a private transaction between you and Target  and Visa turns into a transaction shared with most of the product suppliers. You buy a 10-pound bag of Purina Puppy Chow at Pet Smart and you are suddenly inundated (at home and by email) with ads for dog products from Purina, its competitors and other unrelated suppliers and merchants. How did they know?

This may turn out to be an important case if the states prevail. My guess is that they will not, given the current court makeup and tendency to give for-profit business plaintiffs the advantage over private individuals. Still, I am curious about the nature of the arguments to be made.

The governing principle here lies in the answer to the question: who owns the data about me? When I enter into a private transaction with a store, does information about that transaction belong to me? to the store? to the credit card vendor? I believe the answer is "Yes" to all of these, but the answer is a clear "No" to each of these individually. Here's what I mean.

Current practice is for the merchant to assert complete and independent ownership of this data. In line with this assertion, the merchant believes that it can do as it wishes with the data -- publish it on the internet, sell it (as a non-rival product) or exchange it for money or data in kind,  destroy it, re-use it internally. All of those actions can be taken with no permission from you, and with no notice to you.

But what are your rights to that data? Did you surrender this data -- who you are, where you shopped, what you bought, how you paid, what you paid -- did you surrender this data to the merchant with full license to do with as it wishes?

As case can be made -- and perhaps, is being made in Sorrell v IMS Health --  that the data is, in whole or in part, as much your property as it is the merchant's. And because you have ownership in the data, as property, the merchant cannot do anything with it without your permission.

This is not a viewpoint that has traction in the business community. The data mining industry is huge, and every business is or wants to be a player in that industry. But the industry cannot continue if there is a constraint on the data.

Suppose, for example, that the merchant needed your permission for each piece of data it transferred to someone else? The sheer logistical burden would be overwhelming. And imagine if the data collector needed your permission to mix your data with others and then to sell the results? They wouldn't do it. The cost would exhaust all possible benefit.

But cost aside -- what's the right thing to do here? Do you get real benefit from all this back-room data transacting that started with you? Could you live without getting personalized advertising in the mail? Could you shop just by making your own choices, without the merchant guiding you to "your" preferences? I'm betting you can.

So, cui bono? Who benefits? You started a transaction, gave up information about yourself in doing so (often without realizing it -- any credit card transaction or loyalty card gives it all up), and got nothing back. Yet you started a chain of events that results in benefits and profits for companies and services you've never heard of.

Under good government, the question of ownership of data about me would be asked -- and answered -- openly. And if data is property, to be bought and sold, and I created the data by participating in the transaction, then the data is my property and cannot be sold without my permission.

It will be an interesting decision to watch.

Special thanks to Joanne for positing the ownership question in the first place. And acknowledgement to Seth Godin, whose "Permission Marketing" arguments got me started thinking about this 10 years ago.



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April 16, 2011

FAA & ATC: How to mismanage a problem

FAA orders 2nd Controller on Night Shift

This story in the Washington Post (April 16, 2011) details how the FAA is responding to air traffic controllers falling asleep during the night shift.

The response seems completely wrong-headed -- add a second controller -- and seems to ignore lots of other problems here. Remember that the controllers were fired 30 years ago and replaced by a new set of controllers when PATCO, the Air Traffic Controller union, went on strike and then-President Ronals Reagan stood tough against them. So there are probably a large number of controllers who have done their 30 years and are ready to retire. It would be interesting to know (1) what percentage of active controllers started in 1981-82, and (2) how quickly the newer controllers are coming up in the ranks.

But beyond that, there are some interestingly stupid quotes in this article:

...Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general, said sanctioned napping is still a nonstarter.

“I just don’t think Americans are going to buy that,” she said. “If you come to work for an eight-hour day, you ought to be able to stay awake for it.

I think Americans would be okay with that if it keeps planes from crashing into each other.

[FAA Administrator Randy] Babbitt has said the increase in known errors is due to better reporting...

Well, that doesn't give me any confidence that they are willing to recognize, and treat, systemic problems. This is a real denial that any solution is required

It has been known for decades that fatigue is rampant among controllers. FAA rules forbid any sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate those rules can be fired.

So you have to take a rest break (under the rules), but you're not allowed to rest (under the same rules). This sounds like a rule imposed by an accountant or an HR staffer who has no idea what the workers are doing. And it aligns with the thinking behind Mary Shiavo's comment.

... controllers are being added to the overnight shift. Not only are controllers at those facilities likely to be working night shifts more often, they are also likely to be putting in more overtime since the FAA doesn’t plan to increase the number of controllers assigned to the airports.

FAA management recognizes that they don't have enough controllers to service flight safety, but they won't staff up so that there are enough controllers. They'll just make everyone do more work. That's a familiar refrain throughout our economy, isn't it?

I wonder if Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" cuts FAA ATC funding even further.

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April 13, 2011

America's Promise, Lost in the Noise

I still haven't heard the speech, but I read it carefully ([link to text]). There was much to dislike. And of course, the coverage of the speech pointed at the "4-part plan".

But for me, the key element was the President's description of the different visions of a future United States, based on either the Republican plan or the President's plan. He described the future Republican vision as "deeply pessimistic". He spoke in defense of the "basic social compact in America". He defended Medicare and Medicaid "as a promise we make to each other in this society" and "the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations".

The President moved "this larger debate about the size and the role of government" onto the table. It is the debate that should precede all conversations about what government should start to do, or stop doing. For me, the key element of the President's speech is changing the focus from "how do we cut the deficit" to "what are we as a people". Here's his closing:

This larger debate that we're having -- this larger debate about the size and the role of government -- it has been with us since our founding days. And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one that we're living through now, the debate gets sharper and it gets more vigorous. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. As a country that prizes both our individual freedom and our obligations to one another, this is one of the most important debates that we can have.

But no matter what we argue, no matter where we stand, we've always held certain beliefs as Americans. We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can't just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made these liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what's required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

This sense of responsibility -- to each other and to our country -- this isn't a partisan feeling. It isn't a Democratic or a Republican idea. It's patriotism.

This is reminiscent of a speech that the President gave at the end of the debate on Health Care reform, in which he voiced similar thoughts about the role of government and our social contract with each other.

If we move this part of the speech to the front of the national conversation, then we can have a genuine discussion about the "how" of changing the deficit.

Do I still believe the President has lost? Yes, because the speech was advertised not as a statement of the American promise to each other, but as a simple deficit reduction speech. And that is where the discussion is left.

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Just by Speaking, the President has lost

I haven't heard "the speech" yet -- you know, the one that the President is giving today on how to deal with the deficit. The talking heads are all a-twitter (can we still say that? or do I have to put "TM" on it?) -- I say they are all a-twitter about what he is planning to say. Once again, news is so up-to-date that it hasn't happened yet. The Republicans are dismissing it, of course, as they would anything that he says -- to that point, there's little to be learned by listening to their criticisms.

But I will say this -- the President has already lost.

He should not be giving a speech on the debt crisis, excessive government spending or how to trim the deficit without having first given a speech on what government is here for, what our current condition is, and why government is the only agency that can fix some of this mess.

The Republicans have taken away the agenda and replaced it with "spending cuts". Nothing else matters -- not safety, not health, not contracts, not rights, not anything. Cut wide, cut fast, cut deep. Period. Anyone who does not cut is a traitor.

That agenda must be dismissed. That should be the first thing the President says. It's the wrong conversation. Cutting is one solution to one problem, but that's not the big problem we face. So all attention is being turned to one solution to the wrong problem. The President needs to turn attention back to the other -- the real -- problem.

People don't have enough money to spend on what we produce. Why not? Because they don't have jobs, because their wages have been cut, because their costs have risen on critically-needed goods and especially services, because the money they saved was stolen by the bank crash, because the nation's wealth has been corralled by a very small portion of the nation's people, because someone 30 years ago said that "government is the problem", because we have been stripping away all of the safety-net provisions from government for 3 decades and now an entire generation has grown up believing that "greed is good" and that there is nothing they can, or even should, ask from government.

That problem -- the real problem -- needs to be attacked and attacked hard. Government is the solution -- the only solution, in many cases -- to the failures of unregulated marketplaces. Government is the only solution to assurance that the most vulnerable, the "cast-asides", have some safety net to help them not just survive, but to stand tall and push back. Government is the only solution to re-inventing our national priorities, re-defining what is critically needed today for this country, and its people, to participate in the world.

We have government for a reason, and the reason is clearly not just to protect the already well-off and the powerful. The reason is to attend to the needs, the safety and the welfare of the vast majority.

But he is scheduling a speech to reveal a plan that competes with a worse plan to solve a problem that is the wrong problem.

He has already lost, just by engaging in this misguided conversation.

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