Monday, March 29, 2010

The job satisfaction metric

Too much of a good thing?

California community colleges are a mixed lot, lacking the kind of central authority enjoyed(?) by the University of California or the California State University. Instead, the Golden State's 112 two-year colleges are broken up into 72 largely autonomous districts. The colleges have various reporting requirements to the state chancellor's office, but the chancellor has minimal direct authority over any of the individual colleges or districts.

That makes things more exciting. Community college districts don't march in lock-step. We wander in all directions. Sometimes the results aren't pretty, as when Compton College ceased to exist. (It lost its accreditation and was reduced to an educational center under the administration of neighboring El Camino College.) Or you can be like Sierra College and suffer from a fractious board of elected trustees who fire the president and spend as much time on political posturing as setting educational policy. Then there's Solano College, which played a game of brinksmanship with the accrediting authority for community colleges until a state-appointed trustee was imposed on it and an interim president was brought in to kick butt and stabilize the situation.

And I think we've all heard of San Francisco City College's shot-down trial balloon to allow corporate sponsorship of class sessions.

Normally, the less excitement you have, the better.

My friend Steve is mild-mannered and usually doesn't brag about how boring things are at his school, but it's difficult to remain modest when other school districts are cutting programs to the bone and yours is hanging in there. He has enough seniority now to fear no lay-offs, but Steve tells me they're not in the works at American River College and the other Los Rios institutions. (Apparently Los Rios did something weird and socked away a bunch of money in a contingency fund, into which they are now dipping. Unheard of!)

Steve admits that even the Los Rios colleges have to deal with reality in the Governator's dystopia, cutting back on class offerings and reducing (or eliminating!) teaching loads for part-time faculty and limiting overload teaching by full-time instructors. The lengthy budget crisis is taking its toll and now Los Rios faculty and staff are looking at creative remedies: pay cuts!

Faculty salaries are a big-ticket item at any college, of course, which is why cuts have already been imposed on UC and CSU campuses—generally by means of mandatory unpaid furlough days. Sierra College has similarly trimmed work schedules and salary costs. According to Steve, the idea for pay cuts in the Los Rios district actually came from a faculty member, not an administrator.


It appears the idea is that a voluntary pay cut would free up cash to support retention of class sections and adjunct faculty. (I hope the faculty gets a written guarantee that's where the money would go before they cough up part of their salaries.) Some members of the Los Rios community are willing to argue they are overpaid, so it would be easy to give up a little of the “excess.”


Steve forwarded to me the most compelling argument in support of the claim that he and his colleagues are too richly remunerated. His cover note suggested that Steve was not entirely persuaded by the message writer's logic. Behold:
Subject: RE: Pay cuts are the answer!

I must agree with Professor C. I have been an adjunct instructor at ARC since roughly 1963 and I still love it. I have said that I would be willing to teach for nothing. Actually, I did teach one class for nothing and believe my students felt I was worth every penny of it. It is the only class I ever taught where I had more students at the end of the course than at the beginning.

I believe a 5%-10% pay cut is fully justified. When a colleague died at Sierra College a few years ago, I taught one of his classes for 20% less than ARC pays me and was happy to do it.

One way to tell that "the talent" may be overpaid is by considering the turnover rate. When an instructor quits at ARC, it is talked about for years. One professor at Sierra College told me that in the years from 1996 to 2004, exactly two professors had quit. One joined her husband who had been hired at Chico State and the other was hired by the Air Force Academy. How does this compare with the turnover rate at almost ANY other business?
You follow that line of reasoning? Excessive job satisfaction is evidence that monetary compensation is too high.

It makes a cruel kind of logic. Surely it would be more cost-effective to churn the faculty regularly by setting salaries as low as possible. Instructors would always be leaving and a big fraction of the faculty would always be on the first steps of the entry-level salary scale. Savings galore!

This concept could undoubtedly be extended to the banking industry, where we can tell that salaries are currently too low because the top executives in the financial sector don't stay in their jobs very long.


By the way, Steve pointed out to me that the above message was written by one of his colleagues in the econ department.

Maybe I'll sign up for a class when he teaches it for free.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A grave injustice

Postmortem testimony

There is a long and continuing tradition of dead people who refuse to shut up. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is pretty chatty in Sunset Boulevard despite floating face down in a swimming pool. Susie Salmon has a lot to say in The Lovely Bones even though she has been raped and murdered.

You can't keep a good corpse down, so why not let the dead have their day in court? The good folks at TLC have risen{!} to the challenge.
Kevin McDonough

‘Paranormal Court’ takes family feuds into afterlife

TLC ventures into seriously creepy territory with “Paranormal Court” (10 p.m. Saturday).

Robert Hansen, a psychic medium famous among people who believe in psychic mediums, will mediate disputes between family members squabbling over possessions left behind by the deceased.

Hansen goes right to the source and communicates with the “owners” to set
things straight. If it's a hit, we can expect only more superstition and ignorance passing as entertainment on the network formerly known as The Learning Channel.
My psychic powers predict that the sheep will stream in to be shorn and TLC will have a big success. Unless, of course, Robert Hansen keeps telling the suckers that the dearly departed really intended to leave all of their earthly possessions to Hansen's pet cat, with him as trustee.

If only Paranormal Court had been around when my family went at each other's throats over my grandmother's will. It would have added an entirely new dimension of insanity and inanity.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lying down on the job

Never to thine own self be true

House minority leader John Boehner is forthright in explicating his theory of representative democracy. He speaks without ambiguity:
We have failed to listen to America, and we have failed to reflect the will of our constituents. And when we fail to reflect that will, we fail ourselves and we fail our country....

Shame on each and every one of you who substitutes your will and your desires above those of your fellow countrymen.
Rep. Boehner spoke these words immediately before a majority of the House of Representatives declined to heed his passionate exhortation and enacted landmark health care reform legislation.

The minority leader is on record, therefore, as explicitly repudiating the position of Edmund Burke, the British statesman and member of parliament who was once an icon of conservative political thought. He is perhaps most famous for the aphorism, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” although you will search his writing in vain for those exact words. Nevertheless, we can be confident that Rep. Boehner would have given ardent testimony that his speech in the House was a valiant effort to oppose evil. He is, however, in strenuous opposition to words which really are from Edmund Burke:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Burke spoke these words in 1774 in a speech to the electors of Bristol. It encapsulates his definition of representative government, which is the antithesis of the Boehner formulation that calls for members of congress to be supine servants of the public passion of the moment.

We could, I suppose, concede that Boehner has a right to his own perspective on our representative democracy and to disregard Burke's strong words. I am not willing to be so charitable. I find it difficult to be kind to such scum-sucking bottom-dwellers as Boehner, and I choose my words with care and delicacy.

Boehner is a rank hypocrite and it is impossible to believe that he takes his position innocently or sincerely. He has worked tirelessly as the leader of the House minority to ensure that not one Republican congress member dared to vote in favor of health care reform—not even the 34 men and women who were elected from districts that favored Barack Obama in the 2008 general election. By Boehner's theory of representative government, these people should be falling over themselves to support the president whom their constituents elected.

In the case of Joseph Cao, the Republican congressman from Louisiana's 2nd district (which Obama carried with 75% of the vote), Boehner appears willing to countenance Cao's betrayal of the sacred principal of walking in lockstep with one's constituents. In fact, Rep. Cao sounds positively Burkean in his statement to CNN:
Asked about the fact that his congressional district is overwhelmingly Democratic and in support of health care reform, the Catholic lawmaker responded, “It is not wrong to vote against what my constituents want but it is wrong to vote against my own conscience.”
Funny how Boehner holds his tongue in the face of such blasphemy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Treason! Insanity! Really!

The exploding head hour

This morning on San Francisco's KSFO, the Bay Area's one beacon of unbridled right-wing insanity, the 7 o'clock hour began with Brian Sussman's introduction of Sacramento-based political commentator Steve Frank (“the smartest guy in Sacramento”). Sussman asked Frank how he was doing. Frank had a pithy answer:
We will remember December 7th, September 11th, and March 21st as days that will live in infamy for this country.
Nice, huh? Some smart guy from California's state capital thinks that the passage of (nearly) universal health care is comparable to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the empire of Japan and the destruction of New York's World Trade Center by extremist Muslim terrorists. That's “conservative” political analysis for you!

Later in the broadcast, Frank traced the origins of national health care back to the progressive politics of the era of Woodrow Wilson—a hundred-year campaign by liberals. “Glenn Beck is right,” said Frank, alluding to the deranged Fox News broadcaster's obsession with “progressives” and conspiracies.

Whenever someone says that Glenn Beck is correct about something, you know exactly how seriously to take him.

As if his political acumen was not already sufficiently well exposed, Frank then complained that provisions of the health care bill would determine whether or not he would be permitted to eat doughnuts. (Do they also cover cinnamon twists and maple bars? America has a right to know!)

Yes, it was an hour of exploding heads on KSFO this morning. Though, now that I come to think of it, perhaps it was really the imploding head hour. When you have that much hard vacuum where the brains should be, catastrophic collapse is only a matter of time.

Will it be covered by the new health care plan?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ragging on the daily rag


Back when the Sacramento Bee prided itself on being the journal of record for the state capitol, the newspaper had a local news section that billed itself as “Superior California.” It was a dig that irritated many of the southern Californians who worked under the capitol's golden dome, since it implied that the lower part of the state was “inferior California.”

The Bee still covers the state capitol and still carries news of the Sacramento Valley region, but it has long since abandoned any pretense of superiority. In fact, it has in recent years abandoned any pretense of journalism. The Bee's lack of editorial integrity and journalistic judgment was in full display on page one of the edition for Tuesday, March 16, 2010. The day's top story was emblazoned with an eye-catching headline:

Speaker's top aide
gets $65,000 raise

The article had the undoubtedly desired effect: hundreds of people crowding into the Bee's website to post denunciations of the greedy profiteers in state government and a raft of furious letters to the editor. The Bee basks in the glow of cupidity revealed.

There is only one problem with this supposedly newsworthy story. It turns out that the Bee could have published the exact same article with the following headline instead:

New Speaker's top aide gets exactly
same salary as old Speaker's top aide

Of course, that would hardly be interesting, exciting, or rabble-rousing. Not front-page news. The Bee knows its job, but that job does not appear to be journalism.

The focus of the Bee's faux exposé is a woman who worked as chief of staff for John Pérez, who until last month was merely one of eighty members of the state assembly. Now, however, Pérez has been elevated to the position of speaker, the lower chamber's top job. He brought his office chief of staff into the speaker's office, appointing her to a brand-new job that now involves working with all eighty assembly members' offices at the same time.

Am I splitting hairs when I insist that it is misleading to describe her new salary as a pay raise in a newspaper headline? What she has is an entirely new job. She will be making significantly more money than before, but her responsibilities have taken a great leap upward. The Bee makes it sound as if her boss simply decided to capriciously give her a big fat pay raise.

One is welcome to debate whether the speaker's top staff assistant should earn more than he does (she'll make $190,000 while he earns $110,000—recently cut back from $134,000 because elected officials' salaries were reduced in consequence of the recession). That's a legitimate argument. What the Bee is doing, however, is a bastard form of journalism.

It's mere sensationalism.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

Suburban superstition

Pacific Gas & Electric has been installing new meters throughout its service area. I've had one since last year. The PG&E meter reader no longer needs to bustle up to the side of my house to check on my electricity usage. Instead, my meter dutifully reports in wirelessly. No more hassles with locked gates, growling dogs, or other yard hazards.

No more meter readers, either, but I'm sure that workforce reduction was part of what PG&E was going for.

There were reportedly some initial problems when people started receiving ridiculously high utility bills. (No one complained about ridiculously low bills, so I assume there must have been none of those.) PG&E recalibrated or reprogrammed the new meters (or something like that) and the complaints faded away.

Time for new complaints!

The meters, you see, are trying to kill us.

Perhaps you thought the new complaints would be about the prospect of PG&E using the remote-control features to impose arbitrary and capricious black-outs and brown-outs during power shortages. (I think we're saving those concerns for the next round of complaints.) But, no, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the fearmongers have seized on the tiny, tiny emissions when the PG&E SmartMeters transmit their reports.
Some Sebastopol residents have questioned whether radio frequency radiation from the meters, which transmit their data to the utility via wireless communications, could threaten their health.

Their concerns grow from the heated debate over whether radiation from cell phones, Wi-Fi computers and other wireless devices can cause cancer or other ailments. They want a moratorium on installing the SmartMeters to measure electricity and gas use.
The meters are zapping us with electromagnetism! Arrggh!

There is solid science behind this concern, of course. Recall that microwaves from cell phones cause ear cancer. Or maybe not. A well-known Danish study followed a large cohort of cell-phone users for decades without finding any sign of increased incidence of cancer.

But absence of evidence is no reason to put off a panic attack. San Francisco is considering legislation to require a “radiation” warning on cell phones. Such a good idea. And, of course, concerned citizens want to stop the SmartMeters.
“We are being increasingly exposed to an exponential amount of radio frequency radiation,” said Sebastopol resident Sandi Maurer. “Now there are going to be two of these things in every home.”

Maurer is the founder of the EMF Safety Network, a clearinghouse for information on the possible dangers of electromagnetic fields. She and other residents persuaded the Sebastopol City Council this month to ask California energy regulators to stop SmartMeter installation while the possible health risks can be assessed.
Oh, good. An information “clearinghouse” is involved. Not surprisingly, the EMF Safety Network's website offers a plethora of advice and links about protecting oneself (and one's kids!) from EMF.

What we really need is a kind of early-alert system that warns concerned citizens whenever anyone installs any kind of transmission device anywhere.

We could use the radio!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Only when I'm drunk

Can't drive straight

It seems to have all the elements of a non-story: a state legislator caught driving drunk in downtown Sacramento. Why is that even news? The Sacramento Bee was typically discreet:
A spokesman for the CHP said that [state senator Roy] Ashburn's vehicle was observed weaving on L Street near 13th Street in downtown Sacramento shortly before 2 a.m.
Had the senator had too much to drink while dining at the Old Spaghetti Factory? The hour suggests otherwise, since the restaurant in the old railroad depot next to the downtown train tracks is not a late-night establishment. Across the tracks, however, there is a popular hangout called Faces, a well-known gay bar just a few blocks from the capitol building.

Sen. Ashburn was apparently caught on the wrong side of the tracks.

He also had a male companion with him.

The Bee glossed over those details, but other sources are bubbling with the news. The rest of the story—as if you didn't already know it—is that Roy Ashburn is a conservative Republican state senator who can be relied upon to cast a vote against any gay rights measure that might appear on the legislative docket. He's a Central Valley man who styles himself a stalwart defender of wholesome family values (as defined by the Republican Party, of course).

As far as I'm concerned, the cherry on the sundae is this: He represents my parents' senatorial district, one of the “reddest” regions of the state. (My father will be somewhat less than delighted.) In an ironic twist, it was one of Ashburn's predecessors, a laissez-faire Republican named Howard Way, who cast the deciding vote in eliminating California's sodomy laws. Ashburn could have followed in his predecessor's libertarian footsteps, but apparently chose closeted libertinism instead.