Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dinner with Kids

We have some hard and fast rules about dinner in our house:
  • We all eat dinner together
  • Once you leave the table, you're done. No grazing.
  • If you don't like what's for dinner after you've tried a taste, you can have bread and butter instead.
We don't have any rules about finishing everything on your plate, never use food as a reward or punishment, and, in general, try not to care about what the kids are or are not eating. I'm generally more successful at not caring than Michele. I was please to run across this today from Bryan Caplan:
Parents habitually try to influence what their kids eat. "Eat up." "Clean your plate." "No dessert until you finish your vegetables." "Soda? No, you get milk." At least in the modern U.S., parents' main goals seem to be to (a) Increase the total amount of food kids eat, and (b) Increase the healthiness of the food they do eat.

Does all this nagging actually work? You can't answer this question just by correlating parents' nagging with childrens' eating. As usual, we have to consider the possibility that the cause of the correlation is partially or entirely genetic. Maybe health-conscious parents sire health-conscious kids, and the nagging is just a lot of hot air.

What do the data say? The best paper I tracked down was John Hewitt's "The Genetics of Obesity" (1997, Behavior Genetics 27). It's got very strong results: Nature can account for all of the family resemblance in the Body Mass Index; nurture doesn't matter at all...
Or, in other words, nag your kids to eat their broccoli if it makes you feel better... but it won't make them any skinnier, and probably won't make them any healthier, either. I save my nagging for the really important stuff, like cleaning up Legos after they're done playing ("if I step on ONE MORE of those little bricks I'm THROWING THEM ALL AWAY!")

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yes, Nationalize the Banks

It's ironic that, at the very heart of our "capitalist, free-market" economic system, sits a government-controlled monopoly. Money and banking are strictly regulated; we have neither a free market in money nor a free market in banks.

It doesn't surprise me that bankers and "money people" managed to influence or work around the regulations so that they became fantastically wealthy at our expense. They are rewarded with concentrated benefits and the rest of us will now suffer diffuse costs.

An editorial in this morning's New York Times says:
Americans have a visceral horror of the word nationalization. So call it restructuring or majority ownership. Or call it the taxpayers’ due after pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars in capital and guarantees and standing ready to pour in hundreds of billions more.
The idea of nationalizing most industries is horrible; can you imagine what nationalized, government-controlled supermarkets would be like?

But banks are different; we trust them with our money, trust the government to watch them and make sure they don't lose our money, and let them profit for providing that service. It's an interesting thought experiment to consider what the world would be like under a "free banking" system, but that's not the system we've got. Some of the bankers have violated our trust; it is now the government's job to deal with their failure. Dealing with them quickly and decisively is the key to pulling us out of the recession.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Biking in Solvang

The Tour of California bike race is happening as I write this, and today's stage is a 15-mile time trial in Solvang.

That brings back lots of memories; in high school I lived at 1980 Alamo Pintado Road. Today Lance Armstrong will be racing up that street!

They'll be following the route of what was my favorite ride-- from my house up into Los Olivos, then up a short hill and down Ballard Canyon road, through Solvang, and back up Alamo Pintado road to home. There's a really fun, fast, almost-hairpin turn on Ballard Canyon road that was covered in gravel one day... I still have some faint scars on my knee from the crash ("merely a flesh wound"). Google Street View took a nice picture of it:

View Larger Map

It's a beautiful ride; on cold days near the end of winter like today I do miss California weather.

Friday, February 13, 2009

More $timulus Math: $2.4million for Amherst Schools?

One of the lessons I've learned as I try to hone my skeptical thinking skills is to mistrust second- or third-hand information. In that spirit, I've been reading bits and pieces of the economic stimulus bill that's being passed through Congress, trying to figure out how it will impact Amherst's school budget.

The stimulus bill is actually fairly easy to read; the only hard bits are all the references to other laws, and putting all the numbers into context. For example, they're gonna spend five billion dollars on grants that meet the requirements of "Section 1125, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965." And another five billion on stuff from section 1125A, and three billion from section 1003g.

So I wanna know: how much of that money will go to Amherst's public schools? Can the State hog it all and not pass any money to Amherst? Will it be enough to fill in this year's budget gap? Next year's?

So: how much? There are a few really big (more than $1billion) pots of money in the Stimulus bill related to K-12 education:

$13 billion more for ESEA (aka "no child left behind") Title I
$12 billion more for IDEA (special education)
$53 billion for State Fiscal Stabilization

(... there's also several hundreds of millions of dollars for other various programs that I'm going to ignore to be conservative and because I'm too lazy to try to figure out if any of that money will go to Amherst, and I'm rounding all the numbers down to the nearest billion).

I figure something like $800,000 of the ESEA and IDEA money will eventually end up in Amherst public schools. I got that number by multiplying the amount of money Amherst public schools got from those pots of money last year by the percentage increases represented by the stimulus.

And I figure at least $1,500,000 of the Stabilization money will eventually end up in Amherst public schools.

So, how much: It looks 2.4 million dollars, over the next 2 years or so (Google spreadsheet here if you wanna see my math).

Can the State hog it all? Nope-- the law is written so the money has to flow through to local schools.

Is that enough to fill in the budget gaps this year and next? According to the ARPS website, they need $3million/year more just to provide the same services; the stimulus should fill in less than half of that.

What'll happen in two years when the stimulus money is all gone? I have no idea. I think we're not supposed to be worrying about that-- the whole idea of the stimulus is to SPEND NOW. If the stimulus works, then the economy will be going gangbusters and we'll have no worries. I really wanna believe that this is what's going to happen... but I just don't.

If the stimulus doesn't work, then the economy will be in terrible shape, the Democrats will lose control of Congress, the Republicans will cut Federal education spending to the bone, and we'll have an even bigger budget crunch. Sigh.

UPDATE: My original estimates were off by a million dollars or so-- a bunch of the State Stabilization money will go to post-secondary schools (i.e. UMass).
7 April UPDATE: The State says Amherst is going to get $0 from the state stabilization fund...

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Infrastructure Jobs

I was cleaning out my email inbox, and ran across my congress-critter's latest update on the Stimulus.

I think there's good news and bad news in the stimulus. I agree with all of the efforts to help people who are being hurt (through no fault of their own) by the recession; lets extend unemployment benefits, etc.

But then there are claims like this one:
Modernizing Roads and Bridges – creates 835,000 jobs through investment in transportation, with $30 billion for highway construction.
My idealistic vision is that the government will hire lots of unemployed people to build or fix highways and bridges. But EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND?

How many people are currently employed building or fixing highways and bridges? Well... five years ago there were 410,822 (according to the Census Bureau). Their total payroll was about 15 billion dollars (which jives with the notion that if we spend $30 billion we can hire twice that many people).

So the plan is to triple the number of people working on roads for a couple of years and then fire most of them when the economy picks up again?

More funding for roads and bridges is a good idea, but we should find a sustainable way of paying for it-- it would make a lot more sense to raise the gas tax or implement a carbon tax rather than claim that we can hire and train 800,000 people quickly enough to help pull us out of this recession.