Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
[One of series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article.]
Every year public companies must file what’s called a 10k report with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). This is a summary of the firm’s financial performance. There are stiff penalties for lying to the SEC, and investors aren’t too thrilled with less than the truth either.
These are powerful incentives for honest accounting, so you can accept 10k statements as reasonably credible accounts of what a firm really thinks.
Here’s what the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison management firm in America, had to say in its 10k about the risk to their profitability:
“A decrease in occupancy levels could cause a decrease in revenues and profitability.”
Similarly, the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut), the second-largest American prison management firm, reports in their 10k:
“…most of our revenues are generated under facility management contracts which provide for per diem payments based upon daily occupancy.”
Right away, we see a problem. The costs of prison management are borne by you and me, the taxpayers. We want this done effectively at reasonable cost with minimal overhead expense, like a non-profit organization.
Private prison management has a different goal – to make money. They provide a service, and expect to make a profit over and above their costs. Here’s a clear misalignment between the wishes of the taxpayers and the wishes of private business.
Profits can come from cutting costs or increasing income. Private firms can be expected to attempt both.
Cutting costs too steeply has consequences. Here are some of the cost-cutting techniques that private firms have implemented at prisons:
In 2008, private prisons in Texas paid their corrections officers $24,000/yr – that works out to $12/hr – which was $2,000 less than the lowest salary earned by personnel doing the same work at public-run prisons. Result? A sky-high staff turnover rate of 90 percent. Imagine the chaos in your workplace if 90 percent of your co-workers left each year.
The U.S. Department of Justice notes that public prisons average 5.6 inmates per officer, whereas private prisons average 7.1. A point and half difference might not seem like much at first glance, but remember some of the population we’re dealing with here has a history of violence and aggression. The lower ratio exists for a reason. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has observed, “the greater the inmate-to-staff ration, the higher the levels of serious violence among inmates.” If security becomes too lax, prisoners escape. It does happen.
Some prisoners are more expensive than others. Some due to health care, some for behavioral management. Troublesome inmates tend to get transferred out to state facilities, so taxpayers pay twice – once for the inmate, and again to sustain the private firm’s profit margin.
The other strategy – increasing income – requires more inmates, creating a powerful incentive to generate high incarceration rates. That strategy is part of CCA’s proposal to buy and operate state prisons:
“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”
Now think about that. It creates a contractual obligation to keep the prisons as full as possible. How would that obligation be fulfilled?
CCA already has some ideas. They’ve hired several lobbying firms to support legislation that will – surprise! – likely result in more inmates.
The current focus is on immigrants. After 9/11, the industry saw opportunity in the new anti-immigrant sentiment and spent millions in support of legislation that would increase detentions. Since 2002, CCA alone has spent more than $17 million to lobby Congress.
The Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) saw the value of their contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expand from $33.6 million in 2005 to $163.8 million by the end of 2010.
In the most recent report available, “Prisoners in 2010”, the U.S. Department of Justice graphs the growth of federal and state inmate populations since 1990:
1990 was the first year that CCA contracted with the federal government to handle immigrant detainees.
Can you think of other areas for prison growth? Remember, the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and at this writing most prisons are still owned and operated by the public. What could happen to prison growth fueled by the profit motive and contractual obligations to keep prisons full?
Take that thought one step further. What if cheap labor became available in prisons? It’s already happening. The America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted, and the Department of Justice implemented the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).
The lion’s share of income from the program pays for inmate’s room and board. An obvious strategy looms — fill prison beds, get the inmates to work off a big chunk of their own costs, and pocket the difference.
Good business? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. A column by Liam Denning opens with the business perspective:
“Imagine a real-estate business where your tenant finds it hard to move and you provide the barest of amenities. No, this isn’t the world of the New York apartment landlord. It’s the private prison business.”
I’ll leave you with a final question.
If private prison firms succeed in replacing public prisons and expand beyond immigrants, where will they look for further growth?
[One of a series written for UnitedRepublic.org in 2012. Original article.]
“The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads.
“And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials …
The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America – except whether we are proud to be Americans.”
– Robert Kennedy, 1968
Money in politics is nothing new — corruption has always been part of governance. It accumulates like rust on steel and barnacles on boatsides. Without regular maintenance, the decay grows and overwhelms the structure it builds upon. We recognize the problem, we understand we must deal with it — especially when there comes a point where corruption crosses a line from gaming the system to being the embodiment of evil.
Case in point: The Red Light Cam Scam. Traffic cameras — specifically the timing of the yellow lights — have been manipulated to optimize the chances drivers will cross the stop line at red lights. Here we have a system of traffic lights, designed to protect the safety of all — ALL, mind you, including children — and it’s being shamelessly perverted to generate money. If that’s not evil, what is?
In Orlando, courts are administering disparate treatment to citizens who fight back against unfair red-light camera tickets and those who passively accept the status quo.
We see a similar pattern emerge in lobbies to defeat efforts to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthier food. While the First Lady is advocating change in how food is created and marketed to children, food industry representatives are working to thwart movement in that direction.
For example, Reuters reports that 24 states and five cities contemplated taxes on soda to discourage consumption. Every single proposal failed, save one in Washington State — a tax of two cents per can. One win in 29 tries. But even there, an industry consortium mounted a $16 million referendum drive that defeated the tax proposal. Zero for 29. All this in direct conflict with a clear good — the health of our children.
There were congressional consequences as well. Supporters of the food and beverage industry saw contributions from PACs increase. Senator Tom Harkin, who supported tougher food standards, got nothing at all from the food and beverage people. That’s how Washington works.
The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC — is now working with industry leader ExxonMobil on disclosure rules for the fluids used in gas extraction. Why should you care? Because the ‘fracking’ technique injects these fluids into areas that may also contain groundwater used as drinking water.
If gas extraction products might be contaminating your drinking water, wouldn’t you want to know about it? ExxonMobil wants to limit disclosure by invoking a trade secrets clause in relevant law. And as far back as 2005, at the behest of energy interests, Congress exempted the practice of fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Corporations have, by law, a fiduciary duty to maximize profits. Moreover, CEOs, shareholders, and management all have ample incentive to bolster their income. Everyone wants the best deal. But when business effectively substitutes dollars for votes in our representative government, when it actively subverts our health, safety, and natural resources in the pursuit of endless growth, it has embraced evil.
This is why we fight.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Physics is often an intimidating subject because it encompasses so much – it is the foundation for how everything else works. Our understanding is advanced and growing, but not yet complete. There are still holes, and this is where the excitement lies – exploring the unmapped territories, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing farther than any have seen before. The easy parts have been mapped, and the hard parts beckon. Teens with the academic capacity for this subject can benefit from strong parental encouragement and support. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs are proliferating, and physics provides a reliable foundation for these areas. Check your teen’s school to learn about local courses.
The most fundamental questions have been asked for centuries. Where are we from? How did we get here? Physics is part of our pursuit for answers. By examining the most basic building blocks that everything is made of, we discern the properties of both matter and energy, and how matter is essentially a form of energy. Chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry, the basis for life, all originate in particle physics. It’s like the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” shows, but this is the detective work of reality – physics underlies a lot of criminal investigative work.
Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s powerhouse of particle physics, offers a solid list of books on physics for regular people, and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh offers a selection of engaging physics books for teens — such as the “Manga Guide to Physics” — that are accessible without being dumbed down.
Fundamental particles carry positive and negative electrical charges, and these charges regulate the interaction of matter. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, at the particle level electrical charge is so powerful that the absence of only one electron out of every billion molecules in two 70-kilogram (154-pound) persons standing two meters (two yards) apart would repel them with a 30,000-ton force. If you want to understand how that works, “Physics for Idiots” has good explanations, even if you’re not an idiot. Teens looking for the story behind the science can also enjoy “Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World,” an overview of the history and human drama behind electromagnetism’s discovery.
Physics of Motion
Energy and matter together becomes motion. Isaac Newton formulated the Three Laws of Motion on an English sheep farm in the mid-17th century and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. He worked out how the motion of the moon affects the oceans on Earth and creates tides. The same laws that govern the fall of an apple from a tree form the basis of our understanding of orbital mechanics – how the planets orbit the sun through the principles of inertia and mass. The online Physics Classroom presents these laws in a clear, accessible way for teens.
Physics of Relativity
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity picked up where Newton left off by showing that space itself is warped by gravity, and that even light is affected by it. This effect is so powerful it enables us to see galaxies hidden behind clusters of other galaxies because the galaxies in front create a lensing effect, warping the light around them. Relativity also gave us light’s speed limit – 186,000 miles per second. By this measure, the sun is 8 minutes distant, Saturn is 15 minutes away, and the Voyager 1 space probe at the edge of the solar system is over 17 hours out. Cornell University, the workplace of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, has a good overview of Einstein’s theory, and yes, there’s a “Manga Guide to Relativity” too.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
Cultural differences in moral reasoning are driven by various influences — history, leadership, religious belief, experiences with peace and warfare, available resources and the strategies for extracting and distributing those resources. These cultural differences are not limited to the scale of nations. There can also be differences in the culture and moral reasoning between schools, communities, companies, even families. Moral reasoning has a way of adapting to or being shaped by people’s needs and perceptions.
Absolutes vs. Relativism
There’s an ongoing, cross-cultural debate on whether moral values are absolute or relative. Are there universal morals that apply to all regardless of culture, or are moral values a negotiation between the environment, natural selection and social conditions? It’s a hotly debated topic, but clearly moral reasoning diverges among cultures. In some areas, gay marriage is accepted and not in others. Some countries permit personal firearm ownership, in others you can be jailed. The same is true for possession of certain plants.
Overpopulation has led China to impose some restrictions on family size. Today it has over 1.35 billion people and most Chinese live with an average density of 326 people per square mile. People living at that density calls for, and perhaps requires, a moral system that emphasizes cooperation and harmony — exactly what Confucianism teaches. In China, conditions and moral reasoning lead to limits on family size.
In Russia, conditions and moral reasoning lead to an opposite conclusion. Russia’s population density is slightly below 14 people per square mile, with about 143 million total population. Government policy encourages families to have as many children as they can (which also requires cooperation and harmony).
Japan’s situation is complex. They face a rapidly aging population and steep decline in fertility, in part because strong Confucian values demand marriage before children, but marriage rates are dismally low. Japan is caught between cultural values and an inevitable economic decline unless fertility and immigration increase; thus Japanese moral reasoning is now forced to resolve this conflict to maintain national prosperity.
Consider a simplified example of conflicting interests between a factory owner and a farmer. To remain in business, the factory owner must balance costs and expenses. This may mean discharging pollutants in the atmosphere because it is the lowest-cost way to eliminate wastes. If costs are not well-controlled, the factory could fail and people would lose jobs. From this perspective, cost control is a moral good.
From a farmer’s perspective, if crops are contaminated by mercury particulates from the factory, the moral good of cost control becomes the evil of food poisoning. Similarly, an agricultural society will have a different moral perspective on some issues than an industrial society. Cultural values — morals — tend to dovetail with practical needs.
On the issue of global warming, there’s a clear clash between the view in academic culture, which is driven by several lines of evidence pointing toward anthropogenic climate change, and the views of fossil fuel and other industries, a culture that tends to combat any conclusion that will affect profits. When scientific facts and self-interest diverge, the effect on moral reasoning is illuminating.
Cultures vary in how they value others in their midst. Slavery is a stark example, and had its advocates. It is now widely condemned, yet persists in the form of human trafficking, or sex slavery. Sexual slavery victims tend to flow from economically insecure areas to regions of relative stability. When times are hard, the young women who comprise the majority of victims can be manipulated and entrapped with promises of phony jobs. Some locales, most famously Bangkok and Amsterdam, tolerate the sex trade by reasoning that it’s a matter between consenting adults. This blurs the line between consent and coercion and complicates enforcement against human trafficking.
Other forms of devaluation persist, cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, age and disability, resulting in societies stratified by economic class (U.S.), social castes (India, Pakistan) and ethnicity (U.S, Japan). Social stratification is inherently hierarchical, a pre-rational behavioral pattern, and proactive moral reasoning is working to reduce it through affirmative action programs in the U.S. and India.
Moral reasoning varies by culture in accordance with what the culture values. As noted American author Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” It’s clear that moral values are relative in practice. If there are also absolute universal moral values, no clear consensus has yet emerged that identifies them.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Legally, refusal to provide or access medical care for children can be termed medical neglect. According to the latest available national statistics, documented child abuse and neglect in 2011 affected more than 675,000 children, or nearly 1 in a 100 kids. On average, 3 percent was stemmed from medical neglect in 41 reporting states. Some states average higher. Arkansas’ medical neglect rate is 7.5 percent, while the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York and Puerto Rico all average about 5 percent. The lowest rates are in Delaware and Utah at 0.04 percent and 0.02 percent respectively, plus both Wisconsin and Nebraska at 0.01 percent.
Medical neglect can have several causes, including economic hardship, lack of access to care or health insurance, family chaos and disorganization, lack of awareness, knowledge or skills, lack of trust in health care workers, impairment of caregivers, caregivers’ beliefs and children’s behavior, according to a 2007 article in the journal “Pediatrics.” Of these causes, two can involve active refusal of care: caregivers’ belief systems and children’s behavior.
In most instances, medical neglect is legally actionable. The exception is faith-based exemptions, which are written into law in most states, according to Childhealthcare.org. These exemptions vary in scope. Forty-eight states permit exemption from immunization programs. Most states permit exemption from metabolic testing of newborns that can detect developmental problems, including some that can be prevented with treatment. Ten states have religious exemptions for eyedrops that can help prevent blindness in children who contact a venereal disease carried by their mothers. Seventeen states have religious exemptions to felony crimes against children.
A study titled “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect” in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal found that of 172 cases of child fatalities attributed to faith-based medical neglect, 140 had excellent (90 percent positive) prognosis with standard treatment. Many of the remaining 32 children were treatable, with good outcomes likely. The consequences of not participating in immunization programs can be widespread. In 1991, “The New York Times” reported on an outbreak of 492 measles cases in Philadelphia that led to the deaths of six children, two of them unrelated to the Faith Tabernacle and First Century Gospel churches at the center of the outbreak. A later check of the Faith Tabernacle school found 201 of the children in attendance had never seen a doctor.
Most faith-based cases of medical neglect leading to illness and death are preventable. The nonprofit educational charity Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty lists other treatable conditions that resulted in the deaths of children in the care of Christian Science parents between 1974 and 1994; five by meningitis, three of pneumonia, two of appendicitis, five of diabetes, two of diphtheria, one of measles, one of septicemia, one of a kidney infection, one of a bowel obstruction, and one of heart disease. In the Philadelphia outbreak, three children were hospitalized under court order to ensure treatment. However, as long as religious exemptions remain in place, the justice system has legal limits on what they can do.
American Academy of Pediatrics: Religious Objections to Medical Care
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Maltreatment 2011 report
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention
American Academy of Pediatrics: Recognizing and Responding to Medical Neglect
American Medical Association: Miracle vs. Medicine: When Faith Puts Care at Risk
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
In school districts with sufficient budgets and facilities, high school students can choose from beginning, intermediate and advanced swimming courses, often modeled on the American Red Cross’s Learn-to-Swim program. Some schools also offer competitive swimming. Knowing how to swim well is a valuable skill, for both safety and physical fitness. Regular swimming can yield lifelong benefits as a low-impact activity that can continue as one grows older. For students who desire additional challenges, swim programs also often offer diving lessons and lifeguard training. CPR training is another possible pursuit.
Early lessons stress water safety and comfort. Safety training begins with a review of pool rules, including how to use a life jacket, how to recognize another swimmer in distress and how to get help in an emergency. Then, beginning in shallow water and working progressively deeper, the goal is to become familiar with various positions and movement while supported in the water. Learning how to tread water, swim unassisted for short distances on the front, back and side, change directions and roll over are skills needed to move on to the next level.
At this level, your teen will be relaxed and comfortable in water and ready to build on and refine existing skills. This begins with learning strokes that aid efficient swimming by conserving energy and extending range. Strokes include front glide, front crawl, back crawl and butterfly kick, plus demonstration of longer float times and specific float positions, including the HELP and Huddle strategies for conserving heat in cold water, and how to do a survival float. At this point, the swimmer should be able to dive and retrieve objects from chest-deep water.
Skills introduced at this level include swimming underwater, specific dive types, several specific strokes for treading water, open turns for lane swimming and several safety techniques. Rules for safe diving, how to do a compact jump from a height while wearing a life jacket, how to conduct a throwing assist and how to care for a conscious choking victim are all reviewed. Swimmers demonstrate a back and survival float in deep water for a minute and the ability to swim using back crawl, butterfly, breaststroke and elementary back stroke between 15 and 25 yards.
Fitness and Lifeguard Readiness
Swim distances are lengthened, additional equipment such as pull buoys, fins, pace clocks and paddles are introduced. Training techniques, understanding target heart rates and principles of swimming programs and water exercise are reviewed. In preparation for competitive swimming, a variety of of open turns as they vary by stroke are practiced. Lifeguard readiness trainings build endurance in swimming and treading water, develop diving and submerged swimming proficiency, practice an assortment of rescue techniques, and demonstrate the ability to swim 500 yards — 10 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool — using six different strokes.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
As children develop, parents like to see them hitting normal developmental milestones. When it appears something is not quite right, a screening behavioral review is an early step. The widely accepted Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment offers two screens, one for children ages 18 months to 5 years, another for children 6 to 18. The preschool list has 100 questions, while the school-age list has 113. Some areas examined include anxiety, depression, aggression, attention, language and sleep.
Items on the child behavior checklists are graded by a short scale:
0 = Not True (as far as you know)
1 = Somewhat or Sometimes True
2 = Very True or Often True
The scale allows for a measure of intensity. Teenagers can be moody; some more or less so than others. Scale provides a sense of frequency and extent of the behavior. Some screens come with an additional component, such as the Language Development survey, which measures vocabulary. There are also multicultural supplements that adjust behavior scores as appropriate for cultural context.
Aggression is sometimes related to lack of empathy. This shows up in two items from the preschooler screening: “cruel to animals” and “hurts animals or other people without meaning to.” Actually aggressive behavior is signaled by several other items: “destroys his/her own things,” “destroys things belonging to his/her family or other children” and “physically attacks people.” Items asked of the K-12 set include these and some additions: “cruelty, bullying or meanness to others” and self-aggression — “deliberately harms self or attempts suicide.”
Items indicative of anxiety among preschoolers include “afraid to try new things,” “clings to adults or too dependent,” “doesn’t want to sleep alone,” “gets upset when separated from parents.” Among young children and adolescents, some additional markers are “feels he/she has to be perfect,” “feels or complains that no one loves him or her,” “feels worthless or inferior.”
Everyone experiences anxiety at some time; intensity is a key diagnostic element in assessment. Excessive anxiety can be alleviated with treatment.
Some items can apply to multiple syndromes. For example, “avoids looking others in the eye” could be a sign of inattention, anxiety, depression or anger, depending on context. Having multiple items related to single syndromes helps triangulate the source of the behavior to discern which syndromes are applicable. Attention-related items for preschoolers are “can’t concentrate, can’t pay attention for long,” “can’t sit still, restless or hyperactive,” “can’t stand waiting, wants everything now,” and “demands must be met now.” From 6 to 18, additional items are “fails to finish things he/she starts,” “daydreams or gets lost in his/her thoughts,” “impulsive or acts without thinking,” and “inattentive or easily distracted.”