Tuesday, June 22, 2010

One month left in Georgia

I plan to start a new blog here: http://theworldwidewhat.blogspot.com/. But first, one final post to this long neglected blog.

As is obvious from my lack of posts in the past several months, this blog, like so many others, never picked up enough momentum to survive. Though I haven't been blogging lately, I have kept up the "blogging mindset." Namely, I have been reading, thinking, commentating, sorting, and synthesizing. And all along, taking notes, whether in my head, on a google document, or in cryptic emails to myself.

This summer I am finally feeling my interests and plans sealing together. Not that I have any definite specific plan, but at least I get a better feel for how my values, interests, and talents fit together. That is both an exciting and a daunting feeling. Once you begin to verbalize your ambitions and their implications to yourself--to make them palpable--then the prospect of disappointing yourself is also palpable.

My interests are not as Georgia-specific as when I started this blog, but my affection for Georgia has only grown. On July 20 I am leaving Atlanta to start a PhD in Economics at UC Berkeley, and though I have moved many times before, this is the first time I anticipate being homesick. This is my first attachment to a place. I have run so many times down its roads, admired the cityscape from every view at every time of day and year. Every idea, every trouble of the past four years, I have digested running through Atlanta. I know the streets and feel like they know me, having witnessed all my moods, trials, and triumphs.

I have seen (and contributed to) Georgia's quirkiness. I have also seen need personified. Here is the power of place attachment: desperation has a face and lives in Georgia. I used to know, conceptually, people are in need, and that, intellectually, motivated me. Now I know, my people need me! I know it sounds ridiculous here and now to talk about my people. But how else can I refer to the multitudes who share my Piedmont Park and Freedom Parkway, my downtown views and strips of shade, my incredulity at the weather?

In four years in Georgia, I have become intellectual, but not an intellectual. Georgia does not breed intellectuals. It breeds decency. Though my studies take me ever farther into abstraction, esoterism, academe, I stay grounded in the understanding that academia may be a means, but never an end.

I got to live in Georgia at a most marvelous age--young but not too. Some days you can positively feel the glow of being young, capable, and striving. It burns and glows so intensely that others older and younger than you can sense it. They look to you to surprise them. And you hope beyond hope to never stop surprising yourself.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Worm in the Apple?

I just finished reading "The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education" by Peter Brimelow. The book, if you can imagine, is even more one-sided than its title suggests, and in my opinion the chip on Brimelow's shoulder detracts a bit from his credibility. On the very first page he describes a teachers union meeting like this:
They're extraordinarily fat, for a start...You can't avoid the curious feeling that you've stumbled into a sort of indoor rally for human hot-air balloons. An alarming proportion of attendees wobble and waddle through the teeming crowds of teachers...with thighs like tree trunks, bellies billowing, jowls jiggling.

Overlooking the bad taste of page one fat thigh jabs, there is some merit to be excavated from the sensationalism in the rest of the chapters. Brimelow outlines the history and structure of the largest union in the country, the National Education Association. He describes a system led not by educators but by "educrats," yielding unthinkable lobbying power and plaguing the education system with perverse incentives and inefficiencies. For a briefer look at some of the main complaints against teachers unions, see the Teachers Unions Exposed website.

The Georgia branch of the NEA is the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), second in size to the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE). PAGE has a membership of 78,000, about twice that of GAE. In total about 93% of Georgia's teachers are unionized, and they sure can rally the troops.

Just this Saturday, they held an "Invest Now or Pay Later" rally at the Capitol. According to the AJC, 300 teachers attended. According to GAE, 1300. The "invest now or pay later" slogan is stylistically representative of the teachers unions' viewpoints and rhetoric: shallowly catchy, mind-numbingly repeated, and of dubious actual meaning. If I had a nickel for every time they used the phrase "brighter future," I could personally fix the state's school funding problems.

Actually, GAE thinks they can fix school funding not with nickels but with half pennies. At the rally, they advocated for a half cent sales tax increase earmarked solely for public schools.

Teachers unions are generally opposed to "pay for performance" if it ties teacher pay to student test scores. In the NEA article "2...4...6...8...How Should We Compensate?" (how could I have forgotten to mention the love of rhyme?!) they tout the merits of
21st Century alternative pay plans that reward teachers—not for student test scores or subjective evaluations—but for doing the kinds of things that actually improve the learning environment. None are intended to replace a strong, single salary schedule, but to enhance it.

They are referring to professional development programs, many of which have disputed merit. One in particular, called National Board Certification, became one of the hottest issues in the previous legislative session, and is likely to return to the spotlight this year. More to come on that soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Civil Rights Versus Human Rights

I'd like to explore the relationship and differences between civil rights and human rights. This will be a more philosophical post than usual, and should provide an important framework for considering policy issues you may come across in the future.

Human rights are rights that every person has for their entire life. Civil rights are bestowed upon people by governments upon entering their territory. Human rights are fundamentally based on a moral or religious code, whereas civil rights are based upon a constitutional or legal code-- at least, that's my simplistic way to distinguish them. Of course, attaining consensus on these rights is a continuous challenge.

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration consists of 30 articles and is definitely worth reading in full.In the United States, probably because so much of our country's early history and identity was centered on the Constitution, civil rights have taken a more prominent role than elsewhere. Some of the most vivid eras of our national history are the civil rights movements. Nearly every generation has witnessed, or is witnessing, the expansion of civil rights.

Currently disabilities rights are being treated as a civil right in the US, while elsewhere the issue is approached from a human rights perspective. The same might be said for issues like health care and employment.

Personally, a lot of what draws me to public policy is my tendency to take a wide view of human rights. This may be my Catholic background speaking. It also seems, with all the talk of globalization and the international economy, that a notion of rights which stop at legal borders is unsustainable.

Atlanta played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement from 1940 to 1970. The Center for Civil & Human Rights is slated to open in Atlanta later this year and should provide interesting resources and events to contribute to this discussion.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I'd like to invite some people to contribute articles to the blog so that you can hear some different voices and perspectives.

-Do you have any suggested authors I should invite?

-Would you like to contribute one or more articles yourself?

-Can you contribute some original photography to add visual interest to the blog?

-Do you have any topics you'd like to read about?

Either post a comment here or email me at cconces@gatech.edu. If you want to contribute an article, I can "invite" you as an author and let you post directly, or you can email me your article and I'll post it for you. Thanks!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Triple Triple

Bond ratings may seem like the world's dullest blog topic, but bear with me, since this is a critical part of Georgia policymaking.

Like nearly every other state government, but unlike the federal government, the Georgia government must maintain a balanced budget. That means spending cannot exceed revenue. For capital outlay projects like infrastructure and new school buildings, however, states may issue bonds. This allows states to fund big ticket projects like infrastructure and new school buildings over the life of the bond, typically five or 20 years.

The three main bond raters, Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard & Poor’s, all gave Georgia's general oblication (GO) bonds the best rating, AAA. This makes Georgia one of only seven states with the "Triple Triple" designation. Our state-issued bonds are deemed safest from risk of default, which means we can sell bonds at a low interest rate, so we pay millions less in debt service.

Most states have the next best AA bond rating, while California's notorious fiscal situation has stuck them with BBB. The rating method is based on debt structure (e.g. the amount of debt relative to yearly revenue), economic conditions, and management and administration practices.

Why don't all states adopt the necessary practices to earn a AAA rating to score lower interest rates? Legislators often choose to finance a lot of project with bonds rather than with yearly revenue, because by paying later rather than now, they can avoid raising taxes on current constituents. Plenty of interest groups encourage legislators to undertake big spending projects which require issuing debt.

Georgia takes pride in its history of conservative debt management that has kept up the Triple Triple. In Gov. Perdue's words,
Our strong bond ratings and sound fiscal management have allowed us to achieve significant budget savings that will continue to benefit Georgia for years to come.
Legislators at the Joint Budget Hearings on January 15 drilled Director Susan Hart-Ridley of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission with questions and concerns about the state's potential to fall to AA ratings given this year's financial troubles. While she could not make them any guarantees, she seemed confident that continued top ratings were likely.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Your Salary is Showing

I am excited to be starting a part-time internship with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation! In 2008, Georgia passed the Transparency in Government Act,
to provide for audits and the examination of books and records; to provide for the creation and maintenance of a website which provides public access to certain state expenditure information...

This means there is now a dearth of publicly available data. Citizens can explore the Georgia Transparency website or the Open Georgia website to find extensive data on education, expenditures, salary and travel reimbursements, financial reports, and program reviews. If you play around in the salaries and travel reimbursements search tool, you can actually see a name by name list of pay to employees of the State of Georgia and employees of local boards of education.

For example, UGA President Michael Adams had nearly double the salary of any other University System of Georgia president. He made $607,417.98 plus travel reimbursement of $7,779.14. Some of my friends are graduate assistants, and sure enough, they're in the system too. Somehow it seems creepier for me to check their salaries, though. I even found myself four times (for different positions in different years).

The main purpose of the data is not to allow graduate students to check whose stipend is the least meager. The hope is that transparency will lead to efficiency. Taxpayers in one county may notice that their county spends significantly more per capita for a particular service than other comparable counties. Then they could pressure their local government to find a more efficient way of providing that service in order to lower their taxes. Right now, the data is so many layers deep that it would take a REALLY dedicated and statistically-adept taxpayer to figure out this kind of thing. So one project I may work on is some of the initial analysis and making things more user friendly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Super Speeders

I guess I shouldn't have implied that I had good street skill on a bike in yesterday's post. This morning I barely made it 100 yards from my building before rolling over a drain, blowing my front tire, and flying over the handlebars. I banged up my knee, hip, and elbows, but other than that I'm fine. I wasn't going particularly fast.

On the highways, excessive speed increases the trauma of accidents. Georgia's new "Super Speeder" legislation, which went into effect this January 1, adds $200 to the speeding ticket fine for drivers going above 75 miles per hour on a two lane highway or 85 on a three lane.

The interesting aspect of this legislation is the incentives involved. The purported primary goal is to slow drivers down to reduce injuries and deaths on the road. Lawmakers anticipate a secondary perk: an estimated $30 million in much-needed revenue in the first year, which will be used for our trauma system. The connection between "super speeding" and traumatic injuries makes this a logical funding stream.

So it seems like a win-win situation. One possibility is that the law will make people slow down and save lives. The second possibility is that the speeding will continue, but at least our trauma care system will improve. The second possibility is less preferable than the first, but still an improvement over the current situation.

The only potential downside is that the state is also running advertisements urging drivers to slow down, and given the state's drastic need for revenue, the advertising might not be as vigorous as it could be. The state is essentially getting paid for a behavior they are attempting to discourage--a kind of perverse incentive. I like to think that this won't end up being a problem, and that everyone involved will be good-hearted enough to keep human life the top priority. It wouldn't hurt for independent groups to run their own road safety campaigns. By independent I mean groups that are not impacted by the revenue gained from super speeders, for example student groups or nonprofits.

I don't know if anyone is reading this yet, but if you are: drive and bike safely!