Insane Incentives

Spring is in the air.

Standardized Test

Standardized Test (Photo credit: biologycorner)

At my son’s school, that means it’s time for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests.  These are the standardized tests created by the No Child Left Behind Act that determine if a school is doing its job in educating children.  If too many kids have lousy scores, the school gets put on the “Adequate Yearly Progress” list and will eventually get penalized financially.

That creates a perverted incentive in the school system.   The main metric for a publicly-funded school’s success in Minnesota is the MCA.  If a school can churn out illiterate trench-diggers, they will get increased funding as long as the test scores are good.

For a full two weeks before this test, the school effectively shut down the education program to prepare for the MCA test.   That’s two weeks of studying for a set of standardized tests that focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic.  I’m a fan of schools prioritizing the three Rs over other subjects, but that’s not what they did.

They spent two weeks studying testing strategies, not the material contained in the test.

In science class, they covered essential scientific elements like “Answer all of the easy questions first, so you can go back and spend time on the hard ones later.”

Spanish class covered verb usage similar to “When the time is almost out on the test, answer ‘C’ for all of the hard questions you have left, que?

They weren’t being educated, they were learning the most effective way to solve a test to gain funding for next year.

For 2 weeks.

That’s not reading practice, or reviewing the parts of speech, or covering the necessary math skills.   It’s “This is a #2 pencil.  This is a circle.  Practice until lunch.”

Is this really what NCLB was trying to accomplish?   Standardized tests to measure school proficiency should be a surprise.   Let’s randomly send in test proctors to take over a school for a day and see what the kids have actually learned.

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Recently, a friend of mine told me about a friend of his who was attacked by a flash mob.  This was a negative flash mob, not the fun kind.

She was walking down the street with her phone in her hand when around a dozen thugs surrounded her, knocked her down, and stole her phone before running off.

With me being the person I am with the hobbies and side-hustles I have, certain things came to mind.

  1. This is why standard capacity magazines should never be outlawed.   Sometimes, a six-shot revolver just isn’t enough.
  2. Before anyone complains about #1, when you are beaten to the ground by a pack of violent thugs, the length of your life is up to them, not you.  They are the problem.
  3. Walking down the street while talking on your cell phone is not the best way to stay aware of your surroundings.   Would she have been able to get away if she had been paying more attention to the thugs on the corner than her conversation?  I have no idea, but it’s certain that talking on a cell phone is a distraction.
  4. Walking down the street with an expensive gadget in your hand is asking for trouble.
  5. What were these thugs thinking?  Even a $500 cell phone turns into a $50 mp3 player the moment the victim gets to a real phone to call the cell phone company.   That’s a generous $50 payout.   With 12 people, that’s means everyone gets $4.10 as their share.   The federal poverty level is just under $12,000 per year, which means they would have to do this 8 times a day, just to get to barely enough money to survive.

    In Minnesota, this is, at a minimum, 3rd degree assault, which carries a possible 5 year sentence and $10,000 fine. That’s 8 public attempts to throw away 5 years of their lives, every day.   How can they consider this a good risk.

    It was pointed out to me that this thuggery is probably made possible by direct government sponsorship, in the form of welfare checks, so this is probably just a way to pass the time.   Somebody should tell those brutes that welfare checks stop when you’re in prison.

So I’m considering launching a basic economics class for thugs and street rats.  I want to teach them how to do a risk assessment by comparing the level of loot to the possible outcomes of getting caught.

Possible test questions include:

  • I could stab that guy for the $10 in his wallet, but if I get caught, I’m facing 40 years in prison.  Should I do it?
  • My flash mob makes $50 per phone we steal from defenseless women.   Would my buddies rat me out to avoid 5 years of hard time, and do I consider that worth $4?
  • Meth makes the faces of my customers dissolve from the inside before killing them.   Is it possible to build a sustainable business based on slowly killing my customers?  What marketing skills do I need to develop to replace the natural attrition of poisoning my customers?
  • Meth labs explode.  Is it better to hire my own junkies, or should I outsource that risk and take a smaller profit margin?
  • This is a shall issue carry permit state.  There are nearly 100,000 carry permit holders here.  That’s 1.87% of the total population and 2.6% of the adult population.   Statistically, how many people can my friends and I jump before getting justifiably shot?  Is that number times the $4 profit considered a good return on investment?  What would the ROI have to be to make this a worthwhile career choice?

Anybody know any violent thugs willing to beta test my new class offering?

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My First Major Side Hustle

This post was published a year ago as part of Budgets Are Sexy’s Side Hustle series.

On a chilly February day in 2007, I went with a friend to get a permit to carry a pistol. It was partially on a lark, and partially because a right not exercised is a right lost and I am a strong believer in the right to self-defense.

I spent the morning in an overcrowded classroom and the afternoon on an outdoor shooting range when it was -9 degrees Fahrenheit.  I was cold numb, but I had the paperwork I needed.  As my friend and I slowly thawed out on the drive home, we looked at each other and said “We can do better than that.”

After picking up teaching certifications from the NRA, the Minnesota Dept of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Association of Defensive Firearms Instructors and finally, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, we started teaching as Metro Defense Training, LLC.

We’ve been doing this for 3 1/2 years, holding one class per month. In the first two and a half years, we taught about 80 people what they needed to know to legally carry a gun. Last year, it exploded. By March, we had made more money than we made in all of 2009.  The rest of the year rocked just as hard. We turned ourselves into one of the top 10 training organizations by volume, among a field of 200 competing agencies.

This isn’t a huge market, and it will never make us rich, but it is bringing us a decent chunk of extra cash.   It’s made a huge difference on my debt repayment. I don’t include this money on my budget, so every penny I take as pay goes straight to my debt.  This has pushed me two whole years ahead of my debt repayment schedule.

What did we do right?

The most important thing we did was to partner with each other.   We make a good team.   My partner is a natural-born salesman, while I’m an introvert. I couldn’t have built this without him. I am a super-geek, so our technical costs have been nonexistent, aside from a domain and hosting.   I’m also a bit obsessive about my passions, so I keep us up to date on any legal issues and developments. He’s working on an MBA and has run small businesses before, giving us valuable knowledge and experience.

We’ve never cut any corners. We give the best possible class we can, no matter what. No extra fees, or sardine-packed students.

We answer questions for our students for years after class.  If a student wants a refresher, they can come back for free as often as they’d like.

Word of mouth has been a godsend. The local sheriff–in the most populous county in the state–recommends us when people call. You can’t buy ads like that.

What did we mess up?

Marketing. If a tree falls falls in the business district, does anyone care? If you run a business, put up some ads or fliers and get the word out.  No matter how good your business is, you’ll never make a cent if nobody knows about it.

Scheduling.  The nice thing about a business like this is the flexibility. We can run a class whenever we’d like. Unfortunately, we forget to schedule the next class until the end of the current class. We could do better.  That still leaves a full month’s notice, but some people have to request time off from work far in advance, or do things like going on vacation.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely.   We found an accessible niche that serves a need in the community.   We’ve turned a passion into a healthy side income, without having to devote full-time labor to it.  The buy-in cost was low.  It only cost about $1000 and a few weekends to get the equipment and make our training presentation.

It  has been an excellent learning experience.  I’ve learned a lot about running a business, and I’ve become something of an expert on the related laws.  It’s led to my involvement with a  non-profit, which has put me in contact with a number of lobbyists and politicians.  I’m learning more about how our legal system works than you’ll ever learn watching C-Span and sending letters.   Even if the business failed, I’d still be ahead of the game when you count the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that, when you are looking for a side-hustle, you should find something you care about and chase that until it turns into money.   Not every hobby or interest can turn into a paycheck, but many can.    Ultimately, you have to do something you care about and care about what you do.

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Vacation, Shmaycation, Staycation?

Indoor kart racing

Image via Wikipedia

Last week was our family vacation.   This year, we decided to keep it cheap, since we raided our savings a few months ago to cover my son’s vision therapy.

Here’s what we did:

Friday (Yes, I started vacation on a Friday): My wife worked a half day, then we drove to visit my parents, roughly 120 miles north of our house. $110 for gas, round-trip, and $10 for drive-through lunch. $120 total.

Saturday:  We went to the county fair and Dairy Queen.  $18 for admission.  $30 for ride tickets.  $35 for food and ice cream.   The ride tickets were totally worth it.   My son and I discovered that he can handle the fun rides, which thrills me.  $83 total.

Sunday: We had a picnic at the bottom of Inspiration Peak, the third highest point in Minnesota, followed by a hike to the top.   That evening, my brother, his wife, my wife, and I tricked my parents into babysitting and escaped for several hours of adult time.     After a couple of overpriced drinks at a crap restaurant, we went somewhere nicer and cheaper.   A nice dinner, a few drinks, and a round of drunken go-karts later, we spent $90 for the evening.

Monday:  Back to the go-kart park for the afternoon, and the return drive home in the evening.  The go-kart park included 3 rounds of go-karts, mini-golf, and a round of bumper boats.  $40.

Tuesday:  A hands-on kids museum, a natural history museum that was hosting a portable planetarium, and a teppenyaki restaurant.  We used museum passes for the museums, so this cost a total of $160.   By far, the most expensive part was the restaurant.  The museums cost a combined $30.

Wednesday: We spent the day at the Monster Mall’s indoor theme park, Nickelodean Universe, where we tested my son’s ability to handle the fun rides for $70.   Then we ate at the Rainforest Cafe for $116, and we got my wife’s anniversary present, a family portrait at an “old time” photo studio.   We chose a 1920s theme.  I must say, I look dashing in a zoot suit.   $260 total.

Thursday:  My wife had to work on Thursday because she was short of vacation time, so I had the brats to myself.  We went to a pick-your-own apple orchard where we picked a large bag of apples, a bottle of real, locally-made maple syrup and 3 cookies-on-a-stick.   Afterwards, Brat #1 and I went to a Chinese buffet and the comic book store while the women-folk went to a saddle-club meeting. $60 total.

Friday:    We had a fried chicken picnic at the largest playground in the area, and otherwise took it easy.   $12.

Saturday:   On Saturday, my girls rode in a horse show for the saddle club while my wife put in her volunteer work hours.   Registration and the food for the potluck ran $40.

Sunday:  I had to teach a gun class, so I made money, instead of spending it.   My wife and kids played around the house.

Total, our vacation cost us $865, for 10 days of memories.   If we would have skipped the restaurants, it would have cost $465, but we wanted those experiences, too.   Our vacation fund has $906 in it, so we did all right.

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