Saturday, September 26, 2009

Big Waste at the Big House

Can you believe that Maine spends an average of $44,379 per year for each of our prison inmates?

That's right - a meth-addicted sex offender wasting away in Warren is worth more more than I am as a sixth-year teacher with a master's degree.  Thousands more, in fact.

I learned this uplifting statistic from The Maine View, my favorite news commentary blog, which I started reading after its author, Derek Viger, ripped me a few months ago for writing that merit pay for teachers would be hard to implement. 

It's payback time.

Derek, who consulted for his stats, has been seething over the fact that Maine is only one of six states that lavishes more money at convicts than beginning teachers. 

But he didn't consider all the facts.

For one thing, teachers get summers off, plus several weeks of vacation during the school year. Prisoners don't get time off. They have to be prisoners all the time. It's like they're on call 24/7.

Secondly, teachers get the satisfaction of knowing they're making a difference in the lives of children, guiding the development of tomorrow's leaders, war veterans, and Wal-Mart greeters. Prisoners get one conjugal visit per month, at most.

So, after thinking it over, I'd rather be a teacher than an inmate.

Still, the whole issue made me wonder: why does Maine have the highest per-prisoner cost in the United States? Do the inmates get health insurance? TiVo? Matching IRA contributions? Strippers to perform at their birthday parties?

I called up the Department of Corrections and spoke with Associate Commissioner Denise Lord, who set me straight. It's clowns, not strippers, for the birthday parties.

Ha! Just kidding. We all know what a great sense of humor Maine corrections officials have, right? If you don't believe me, watch "Shawshank Redemption."

Associate Commissoner Lord blamed the inefficiency on "economies of scale." We have "the lowest incarceration rate in the country," she said, which means the math can't be spread out among thousands and thousands of criminals like it is in, say, Massachusetts.

Our prison system is not centralized; instead, we have several smaller facilities sprinkled all over a relatively large area. 

Compounding the problem: "Most of our facilities are more than 75 years old," says Lord, which makes them that much more fun to heat and maintain.

Derek at The Maine View probably didn't consider that the per-inmate figure includes the costs of buildings, but the teacher salary figure does not.

In other words, he's not comparing apples to apples. He's comparing apples to cakes with hacksaws hidden in them.

Lord is also quick to point out that inmates save others money through forced labor. They weld and repair equipment for other state agencies and help clean and maintain parks. They alo provide umpteen thousand hours worth of community service.

Lord told me they even had some helping out at the American Folk Festival (maybe someone should take another look at why the festival keeps losing money).

Anywho, what have we learned from all this? 

First: If anything, we should be consolidating prisons, not school systems. Let's build one giant jail next door to Derek Viger's house, and send everybody there. Funnel the savings into education, so today's youth will be less likely to get derailed by criminal pursuits like drugs and volunteering at the folk festival.

Second: One conjugal visit per month doesn't sound too bad, the more I think about it...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Marital Problems?

You've probably heard: marriage is in jeopardy.

Whose marriage, you ask? Don't be silly. Everyone's, of course.

To find out just how bad things are, I set out to do some research, and learned that the government agency responsible for keeping track of marriages is the Centers for Disease Control. 

The fact that our government considers marriage a disease has to raise a red flag.

As you probably know, roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. The other half end in death. That's not a good track record for Holy Matrimony, if you ask me.

But what happens after divorce? Nearly 40% of women who remarry will divorce again within 10 years, often after another set of kids has been born (the CDC doesn't offer a corresponding statistic for men - go figure).

Most divorces happen early - statistically, if you and your spouse can make it past 10 years, you're much more likely to stay married until one or both of you lose all of your mental and physical capacities and have to rely on surly, underpaid nursing home staff to make you feel sub-human. 

But those first 10 years can be tough. There are usually small kids running around, needing attention. If you're lucky, your job and your kids are all that stand in the way of you working on your marriage.

Good luck finding a marriage counselor available at 9:30 pm. You can TiVo Dr. Phil, but that's not going to cut it.

Let's face it: our society does not demand that we nurture our families. It demands that we make money, first and foremost, and hopes that we can keep our families together on the side.  We teach the former in schools and colleges; the latter you figure out on your own, if you're lucky.  

So, yes, the nuclear family, once the backbone of our society, has a slipped disc or two. 

At this critical juncture in our cultural history, conservative churches are devoting immense resources to supporting young families. They're sparing no expense in offering and publicizing free professional marriage counseling and courses in parenting and interpersonal communication. 

Just kidding. They're actually trying to keep gay people from getting married. Apparently, that's the bigger threat.

Marriage has been in trouble for a long time. Why wait until gay people asked for it before coming so ardently to its defense?

Maybe it's because they're afraid homosexuals will do marriage better. Maybe the divorce rate among homosexuals will be half of what it is for the rest of us, and they think people will want to turn gay in order to have stable families.

Or maybe, as I've long suspected, it's not as much about defending marriage as it is about not tolerating homosexuality. Recent ads for the "yes" campaign would suggest as much. They claim homosexuality will be taught in schools, even though the marriage equality law mentions nothing about education. 

It makes me laugh at anyone who defends the "yes" vote but still claims, "I don't have a problem with gay people." Right. You just want to perpetuate their feelings of isolation and shame by erasing all public acknowledgement of their existence, and you want them to only marry people to whom they're not attracted.

Yowza! I'd hate to see how you treat the people you do have a problem with!

Like a spouse, maybe?

Friday, September 18, 2009

This May Not Be Very Funny in About Six Weeks

When it comes to swine flu, Americans have a variety of questions, starting with:

"Will we still have individualized funeral services or one collective mass burial scheduled each week, to save time?"

Ok, maybe I'm just speaking for myself on that one. It turns out most people aren't very worried at all, at least if you believe a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicating that almost 75% Americans think the government will handle this health threat just fine.

Gee, whiz! I guess the poll didn't happen to query many conservatives, judging from the fact that conservatives consider everything the government touches a colossal failure (apparently, they don't consider The Pentagon part of the government).

Maybe some of those 75% think the threat has been overblown, and the media is just complicit in some conspiracy to boost stock in Purell and in whatever pharmaceutical company produces a vaccine.

I guess we could reasonably expect the government to keep swine flu under control if swine flu doesn't actually exist.

Me, I'm betting on catastrophe. I'm certainly not looking forward to it, but I think we Americans get a little too big for our britches sometimes and need to be put in our place. The grisly demise of a few thousand people I don't know, with God-knows how many more suffering through repeated doses of Pepto-Bismol, all because of a speck so small we're not even sure it qualifies as a life form, should accomplish that quite nicely.

Of course, I'm only saying that so it won't happen. You know, the whole jinx thing.

If that doesn't make you feel more chillaxed about the situation, then I have even better news for you.

As part of an effort to make sure Americans are safe, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has announced that we're wrong to keep calling the H1N1 virus the "swine flu." He says "swine flu" has been around a long time, but the virus we're supposedly worried about is new and does not infect pigs, come from pigs, or even enjoy the company of pigs. This virus even gave the movie "Babe" a bad review on its blog.

Ah, I see. Maybe if we stop confusing it with a different virus, H1N1 will stop taking offense and threatening to suddenly and violently evacuate all our digestive systems?

"By continuing to mislabel the 2009 
pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, the media is causing undue and undeserved harm to America's agriculture industry, especially to pork producers," stated Vilsack, in what was undoubtedly one of the most riveting press releases ever written.

With all undue respect, the American agriculture industry deserves all the harm we can heave at it. Just rent "Food, Inc." or look up some slaughterhouse footage on youtube, then tell me if you think Tom Vilsack's urgent efforts to protect the health and safety of pork industry profits represent proper alignment of priorities.

Maybe we should rename the position "Secretary of Agri-business."

Anywho, assuming you do get sick, at least you can rely our the best-in-the-world health care system to take care of you. I haven't checked lately, but that's what most of our political leaders were calling it about a year ago; I can't imagine anything has changed much since then.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is...

Everyone in politics lies, but you have to admit, Republicans seem to have an easier time of it. 

It's easy to see why, when you think about it.

Look at this small sample of questionable right wing utterances I've kept track of since last year's political season: Obama is a socialist; Obama will convert the government into a dictatorship; Obama is going to take away your guns; Obama wasn't actually born here, so he might be a terrorist; Sonia Sotomayor hates white people, gay marriage will destroy America.

Normally, I would include a phony exaggeration in that list for humorous effect, but I can't come up with one that outdoes reality.

The latest volley of prevarication relates to health care: Obama wants to save money by letting people die; people routinely kick the bucket waiting for emergency life-saving surgeries in countries with socialized medicine; 300,000 additional breast cancer patients would have died last year under Obama's plan, including your mother; and (my personal favorite) Obama's system could track party enrollment in order to be able to deny health coverage to Republicans.


I can't retort any better than this quote from The Onion: "It's appalling that political affiliation would be used to determine eligibility for health coverage. That's what race and socioeconomic status are for."


Look. The government already runs health care for millions of Americans: the very poor, the very old, and the very wounded in battle. You rarely hear people in the first two categories complain about their coverage; for some reason, we haven't figured out how to take care of veterans quite as well. I'm sure we'll get around to it once we make sure we have a few more of them around.

Meanwhile, 82% of Canadians think their health care system is better than ours, according to the Associated Press. They spend nearly half as much as we do, per capita, but live an average of three years longer.

(Not that any of the proposals in congress even remotely resemble what Canada has, anyway. It's looking more and more like we won't even see a public option.) 

Knowing all that, it's hard to believe a campaign of fear would gain much traction in the health care debate. But the right has a well-conditioned audience.

If you observe the pattern, you'd have to conclude that the people who are likely to believe Republicans are a bunch of nervous ninnies who still have to sleep with a night light, perhaps in fear that there is a homosexual lurking nearby, just waiting for it to be dark enough to spread his gayness on your weaponry so it won't work properly when the hippies show up to try to make you stop worshipping Jesus.

Whereas left-wing lies tend to consist of scattered, disorganized exaggerations and over-generalizations. There's no system to it, which makes it hard to generate the same kind of loyal following the conservatives have with their bed-wetting wimps.

Scare tactics play right into conservative ideology, which emphasizes protection and preservation over progress. That's why old people are disproportionately Republican. They're not known for their reckless bungee-jumping or rights-giving, and "change" is a concept they rarely relish, unless it refers to "change back to the way things were in the 1950s."

So take heart, fellow liberals.  Once Obama gets rid of all the geriatrics with his new health care plan, we'll be even more invincible.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Getting Physical

"That will be twenty-five silly sentences for you, mister man!" No sound was more dreaded throughout Eddington Elementary school than those spirit-crushing words from Mrs. Ford's thundering voice.

My class wrote enough "silly sentences" to fill up a notebook. I did my share after one particularly exciting food fight.

But if you believe conventional wisdom about behavior management, you have to assume most of Mrs. Ford's students now hate writing or are no good at it (exhibit number one: yours truly).
If you want kids to love something, don't punish them with it. It's a sound principle, but in some cases it's being taken too far.

Did you know you're not supposed to make kids exercise, or withhold them from recess, as a form of punishment?

The Centers for Disease Control has its underwear in a bunch over the number of gelatinous, Stay-Puft Marshmallow kids squishing their way into our schools these days, and urges anyone supervising young people to avoid doing anything that would lead them to associate exercise with anything negative. You can find numerous other health and educational professionals who feel the same way.

Aren't they over-thinking things a bit?

As a boy, I loved basketball. It was pretty much all I did in my spare time. Then I got to high school, where my coach went out of his way to make sure I knew I had virtually no skills. He labeled me a "stiff" and made sure I never touched the ball in practice. He also made us run suicide drills and five-man weaves until we nearly choked to death on our own sweat. My Freshman year, every time someone missed a free throw in practice, we all had to run.

After high school, I continued to play ball whenever I could, often going to the gym to shoot free throws by myself for hours at a time. These days, if I weren't parenting and working all the time rather than dribbling and shooting, I could still shoot 90%. My high school coach's negativity failed to destroy my passion for the sport.

More evidence? Let's see... back in junior high, I watched a ton of WWF wrestling with my brother, absorbing the uber-masculine ethos and highly questionable treatment of women. I still remember Hulk Hogan's epic battle against Sgt. Slaughter, who sided with Iraq during the first gulf war, the traitor. When Slaughter put him in his famous "Camel Clutch," I feared the worst.

The referee kept asking if Hulk wanted to submit, and Hulk always managed to vigorously shake his head "no," even though his jaw was in the firm grasp of a 300-pound man sitting on his back. That just goes to show you the power of believing in America.

Anyway, no one watched more wrestling than I did during summer of 1990, but somewhow, regrettably, I did not turn into a steroid-crazed bodybuilder who thinks women are only good for wearing bikinis and distracting authority figures so I can hit someone with a folding chair.

We often forget that role models and adult influences make more a difference than anything else. My mother deserves credit for being a strong female influence in my life. My father instilled my competitive streak and my interest in sports.

No coach or pro wrestler could stand a chance against my parents. Especially not with Mrs. Ford on their side.