Elections matter

Listening to a Congressman being interviewed on the radio last week, I was reminded of this quote from the movie Braveheart, where William Wallace explains how his view of the role of a government representative differs from the rep’s view:

You think the people of this country exist to provide you with your position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.

The Congressman said he was disappointed by how the talk among his colleagues in Washington DC wasn’t about doing right by the American people, but how to get more from the American people so they could continue to fund and grow government agencies.

That doesn’t surprise me, since that reflects generally who we’ve been electing.

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Parks & Rec

Amy Poehler at the premiere of Baby Mama in Ne...

Leslie Knope

I recommend watching this season of the TV show Parks & Recreation.

This show has a talented group of actors and writers and a good assortment of characters that makes it fun to watch.  It also has some interesting political satire that’s picking up this season as the main character, Leslie Knope, played by SNL vet Amy Poehler, makes a run for city council in Pawnee, Indiana.

Knope’s main opponent is Bobby Newport, son of the town’s rich guy and all around good-looking buffoon.

In a recent episode, Knope’s campaign has been gaining ground in the polls, so Newport’s Dad fires his campaign manager and brings in a Washington DC campaign and politics professional, leaving Knope and her campaign manager/boyfriend way out of their depth.

Knope meets the DC campaign manager and they hit it off and is then taken aback with how ruthless the campaign manager is in the public forum and how nice she is behind the scenes. In the public forum it’s like watching LeBron James play against an aspiring high school talent.

Leslie is getting into politics to make a difference. For the DC campaign manager, it’s just a sport. What’s said and done in the public forum for the DC pro isn’t real. It’s just meant to look good to voters.

In one scene, Knope tries to win over the senior vote by promising to construct Rascal (powered scooter) ramps at all buildings with stairs. The DC pro promises her candidate will build electric elevating lifts and the crowd goes wild.

Later, even the DC campaign manager admits the electric lifts are not practical or cost-effective, won’t be built and the ramps are a better idea, but none of that matters. It’s all about which candidate is perceived as giving out the most goodies.

The sad thing is that it is an excellent political satire.

“Stupid in America”

Check your FoxNews lineup and set your DVR to record John Stossel’s recent education special, Stupid in America.  If you know when it will next air, let me know and I’ll provide an update.

It originally aired last weekend.  I watched it tonight.  It’s worth watching.  He covers teachers unions, union bosses, firing teachers, the Washington DC school district, charter schools and Khan Academy.

In an interview, one union boss, who represented a district with bad student test scores, assured us that he knows his kids are learning because “he can see it in their eyes.”  Now that’s compelling stuff.  I certainly think there are numerous issues with test scores as a measure of teacher performance, but I much prefer those over what this man sees in his students eyes.

This same union leader defended bad teachers from being fired (I’m paraphrasing): It would be a tremendous cost and a major adjustment for the teacher. We need to seek professional development opportunities for that teacher.

lol?  I did.

I find it strange that we should have to train teachers to be teachers (isn’t that what they were supposed to do before they became a teacher?) to prevent them from not being a teacher. I also find it strange how a trade that’s based so strictly on credentialing (e.g. education certification), would then want to take on the expense of the training the teacher what he or she apparently didn’t learn before.  With that logic, why require credentials at all?  Just let anyone come in and they will be trained.

Of course, this union boss believes training will be the antidote.  What if the teacher doesn’t want to teach?  Why not free up the spot for someone who does?

Another union boss proclaimed that he would try to physically prevent people from going to charter schools in “our” (meaning teacher union) buildings.  Excuse me, aren’t those the taxpayers’ buildings? I didn’t realize that the teachers union now owns their buildings as well.

As Stossel so aptly put it in the show, much of what is wrong with education is that we have “adult fools” running things.

Stossel also showed lots of signs of progress education.

  • Charter schools where the kids love to come and learn.
  • Kids digging math because they’re watching Salman Khan videos.
  • Teachers in charter schools that say things like (paraphrasing again), why shouldn’t they be able to fire me?  If I was a bad doctor, I wouldn’t have any patients.
  • A charter school where the principal actively watches and coaches her teachers to improve their teaching (many businesses can learn from this).
  • A post-Katrina, charter school-based rebirth of education in New Orleans.  One founder of the Sci Academy started with just himself in 2008 and now has a “school” based in trailers and his students are testing well.  He said, if you hear someone in education talking about having top notch facilities, that’s a sign they’re not putting education first.

Government is overhead

In this post, I quoted from a Reagan radio address where I thought he created a good mental image of how the private sector and government work together.  Here’s the key point from his address:

To sum it up roughly 70 million Americans [working in the private sector] provide a living for themselves and 143.4 [million] additional people.

Those 143.4 million people included the non-working family members of the 70 million Americans and the folks who receive a check from government — be it through a government job or transfer payment.  (Though, come to think of it, I think Reagan neglected the private sector jobs that are paid by taxes, like with government contractors.  But, perhaps he was simplifying.)

Reagan’s analysis came up in a conversation with an old friend when we discussed the political theater that has been going on in Washington DC.  Specifically, how liberals are hostile to the private sector and business, even though the private sector and business pay for government. Or put another way, without the private sector, government wouldn’t exist.  And, therefore growing government faster than the private sector is not sustainable.

It then occurred to me that few people seem to understand the value creation process that goes on in the private sector and how that pays for government.  They don’t recognize that this value creation process is the very source of our standard of living, which provides for government and that government is just the overhead.

As a rough analogy for economy, let’s consider a business that makes burritos.

The burrito business has two types of costs — direct and overhead.

Direct costs pay for the materials to make the burritos like flour, meat, seasonings, tomatoes, labor and the cost of the space to make the burritos (I’m getting hungry).  This might also include the sales force and advertising used to sell the burritos and the cost of the trucks to deliver them.

Overhead are the indirect costs like accountants, lawyers, and HR and IT people and the resources these folks use like space and utilities.  These folks aren’t necessarily needed to make the burritos.  Their jobs wouldn’t exist without the value created from the burrito making operation.

Now, overhead does perform some useful functions for the business, just as government performs some useful functions for society.  It’s much better that the business has an accurate accounting of its financials and pays its bills on time.  These sorts of things helps the business remain in good standing with the folks they do business with.

But most people intuitively understand that there’s a limit to the overhead costs the business can support.  It’s not an exact number, but they understand that if a business grows it’s overhead costs faster than profits from making and selling burritos, it would not last long.  And everyone who depends on the business for a living and for good burritos would be in trouble.

They also understand that if the company’s burrito sales declined, the best strategy to fight this probably is not to expand overhead costs.  The best strategy is probably to focus on producing and selling burritos folks will buy.

Yet, when the economy declined, increasing overhead was the idea to save it.  Not surprising that it didn’t work.

This is one reason I dislike the equation for economic output or GDP.  It treats overhead costs, or government spending, as if it were interchangeable with direct costs, like buying more flour to sell more burritos.  And this leads politicians to do crazy things, like increase overhead when what really need to do is make a better burrito.