Archive for February 2013


February 28, 2013

Most newspapers today are running Van Cliburn’s obituary.  He was a brilliant pianist and a welcomed celebrity most everywhere.  Mr Cliburn was a private person and when he made a public appearance, it was always in controlled and reserved fashion.  His fame rested on winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky contest.  Mr Cliburn, however, never flaunted that accomplishment and played concerts for many years thereafter with grace and ease.

The obituaries are lengthy.  They recount his friendship with various conductors and his fondness for Texas.  Buried near the end of each obituary, there is a line that reads roughly…  “surviving Mr Cliburn is Joe Blow (not this person’s real name) who has shared his home for many years”.

Mr Cliburn lived in times before same sex relationships were openly discussed.  He was a very kind and polite person, and the press seems to have chosen to honor Mr Cliburn’s privacy wishes.

Good for them.


The Philadelphia Way

February 27, 2013

The Philadelphia School District is in trouble.  This is not new news.  The K-12 system graduates less than 50%.  Too many of those who do complete 12th grade cannot read or write at grade level.

There’s more. The District’s finances are just as bad.  There is a looming $ 1 billion deficit unless significant reductions are made.

Hmmm.  Poor educational results.  Giant budget deficits.  How does this get turned around?

The School District has wisely taken aim at the finances as its first step.  Recently the district announced the closing of 29 “neighborhood” schools.  These are the ones across the street or around the corner, where for years parents have walked their children to school.  Shifting demographics and declining enrollment has made these poor performing, under utilized schools an attractive target for savings.

The idea is that closure will save money, make other schools more efficient, and allow the district to focus on fewer locations in their effort to improve the educational product.

Hmmm.  Sounds logical.  But…

Residents living in those “proposed closing neighborhoods” have objected loudly.  And, yes, so has the Philadelphia Teachers Union.  This is business as usual… in times that are not usual.

The School District dropped another shoe today.  There are reports (Philadelphia Inquirer) the District will ask the Union for significant “give backs”.  For example, pay reductions of 5-13%, no pay increases until 2017, and providing “hire/fire” authority to principals.

In the past there would be public protests, union protests and strike threats, and then suddenly the City or State would increase the revenue the School District have to use.  The crisis would have been patched and life would go on.

While this could happen again, the possibility seems remote given the national and State’s budget dilemmas.  So is the School District’s proposals sensible?

The answer is no… but they are clever.  The Teachers Union needs to wake up to the world around them.  School closures save money.  Trying to reverse those decisions without an alternative plan to save an equivalent amount is simply irresponsible.  The School District is cleverly telling the Union they had better think about being part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Cutting teacher’s pay or granting principals hire/fire authority (without due process) are bad ideas.  Pay should be fair.  It is a fair question, however, whether shifting to a “pay for results” renumeration plan is an idea whose time has arrived.  Good performing teachers could receive increases while poor performers would not.

Principles with hire/fire authority begs the question of what process would be used and frankly are the principals qualified to judge.  Favoritism or incompetence unchecked will not improve education.  But with the education product so poor, why not try some other method like this?

The School District has cleverly told the Union if you want to employ your old methods and block everything we are proposing, then your members pay is at risk.  Hmmm.

Marriage Equality’s Big Day Coming

February 26, 2013

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Hollingsworth v Perry (California’s Proposition 8) on March 26, 2013.  Their decision could tip the balance and move the Country towards full marriage equality.

Also being heard on the 26th will be US v Windsor better known as the Constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Proposition 8 is about the California Constitution while DOMA is about the US Constitution.

Former Governor Jon Huntsman has just written in “The American Conservative” that marriage equality is a conservative issue.  Now a number of prominent Republicans are signing a brief Ted Olson plans to file with the Supreme Court this week.  Olson’s intentions are to show the Court the degree to which public opinion has moved in America.


Olson’s arguments will be similar to both cases.  Both Constitutions speak of equal rights.  So why should committed same sex couples not receive the same treatment under the law as heterosexuals?

Counter arguments will range from a religious based “marriage is a union only of one man and one woman” to recognition that it was a California popular vote that passed Prop 8, and a duly elected Congress passed DOMA by a large majority.

It is just as interesting what won’t be argued.

The most obvious is why are States and the US involved in marriage at all.  Why is marriage not left to private associations like churches or even the Elks Club (if you are not a church fan).  These institutions should be able to set the rules as they see this issue.  Hmmm.

The role States and the US government play is more related to contracts, written or implied.  The government’s arena is documenting these “civil unions” and laying out the playing rules.

Who can marry (like at what age, existing relationship), what is common property, what happens to that property if the “union” should end, and who can represent the other in end of life decisions are a few obvious issues where the Government must have a role.

The Supreme Court has historically looked to public opinion in deciding cases where the Constitutional issue is cloudy.  With these two cases, many would predict that the conservative Justices would prefer to keep the “one man, one woman” practice.  Unfortunately, both of the Constitutions as well as public opinion now favor marriage equality.

The Supreme Court can, if it chooses, place itself on the winning side of history.


Whose Economic Policy?

February 25, 2013

The media is having a field day.   Will there or won’t there be a sequestration?  I wonder who is in charge of White House economic policy.

News report after news report tells us of impending disaster at airports, in food prices, and military preparedness.  Yet compared to the size of the deficit and total government expenditures, the cuts are de minimis.  Why has the White House fed this frenzy through carefully orchestrated news conferences and interviews?

The President is said to be seeking more tax increases with any additional cuts.  The “Buffet Rule” tax (at least 30% rate on those earning $1 million or more) is thought to be his goal.  Unfortunately, President Obama wants to offset any reduction in  cuts with new revenue.  Sensible policy would more look like “in addition to” cuts.

The nature of the sequestration law is foolish.  It mandates across the board cuts rather than cuts where department heads decide the specific programs.   What is not foolish is beginning the long road to fiscal sensibility.

The tragic comedy being played out almost seems as if there are competing interests within the White House, all the while playing in a land of Republican wolves.  Where are the adults?

First the Administration must acknowledge that the country faces two problems, (1) national health care costs and (2) non-healthcare government spending that exceeds tax revenues.  Until these problems are separated, all government actions will be set up for failure.  Further, we live in a real world.  Any steps to deal with the two problems will encounter potential adverse impact upon the economy, or vested interests who support the current forms of Medicare and Medicaid.

Instead we are hearing a rhetorical melody about the poor middle class and the need for strong national defense.  In the background are chords of pure “gotcha” politics.  Maybe we need a different type of change, finally one we can believe in.

Ironically, simply cutting entitlements will shine a bright light upon Congressional members who would continue to enjoy a very rich and costly healthcare plan.  Hmmm, where would the shared sacrifice be?

The silver lining seems to be that the 24/7 news media has something to write and talk about.  They will again look out of touch when the immediate consequences turn out to be not severe.

The longer term implications, however, such as misidentifying the real issues and the need for all Americans to participate in its solution will be avoided once more.  What type of economic policy is that?

A Name From The Past

February 23, 2013

Former Governor and Republican Presidential Nominee hopeful, Jon Huntsman is back in the news.  And as has been the case in the past, Huntsman is speaking again with reason.  Marriage is about committed couples.

Speaking in an article published by “The American Conservative”, Huntsman writes that Republicans need to start leading again on a range of matters that they have previously tried to use as wedge issues.  Without saying wedge issues (or at least the ones popular with conservatives) do not resonate with enough voters, Huntsman emphasized how Utah has made some of these issues work to grow the State economy.  Marriage Equality and Immigration Reform, Huntsman said, should be Republican issues.

It is still a couple of years before Huntsman must decide whether he will try again for the Republican Presidential nomination.  Lets hope he remains interested.


Getting Real

February 22, 2013

The past few days the news has been filled with dire warnings about Sequestration.  The Defense Department has done a particularly good job pointing out how they will find themselves if the $46 billion sequestration cuts occur.  With Defense spending running north of $600 billion per year, one is struck with this is not a “business mindset”.

The business world is often struck with economic downturns.  The fittest businesses adjust by reducing costs.  The best businesses reduce these costs in a way that prepares them for future growth while improving efficiency now.  The Defense Department is long over due for this type of a “come to Jesus” experience.

No bureaucrat, worth his salt, sits still for cuts.  Every penny the bureaucrat’s agency has spent has been worthwhile and necessary for achieving the agency’s charter.  Businesses have shown, however, that there is always room for greater productivity and efficiency.

Stepping back, Congress passed the Sequestration law and the President signed it.  Maybe both political parties thought compromise could be found and this law replaced with other measures.  That has not happened.  But think about alternatives.

Does it make sense to give a pass to the Defense Department and instead raise taxes on certain segments of income earners?  Does it make sense to do nothing and allow the deficit to continue driving up our debt?  Does it make sense to ignore entitlements and not raise taxes on everyone?

There certainly can be reasoned arguments about the pace of spending cuts.  But how can there be questions that such large government spending segments such as entitlements or defense are not included?  The same reasoning applies to taxes.  Why should the tax code present during President Clinton’s term not apply?  Why shouldn’t, in addition, not instead of, a millionaires tax (where anyone earning $1million pay at least 30% tax rate) be included too?

There are of course all sorts of reasons why each special interest does not want to implement one or more of these “why not questions”.  What is also the case, there are no alternative ideas coming from the President, the Senate, or the House.

Hmmm.  Businesses do not merrily reduce costs.  Business Bureaucrats cry just as loud as government ones.  And once the cuts are made, surprise, surprise, life goes on.

Former Representative Pleads Guilty

February 21, 2013

What is so newsworthy about the headline “Former Representative Pleads Guilty”?  It is a bit like “dog bites man” – nothing so surprising.

The headline, of course, I am referring to was written this time in reference to Jesse Jackson, Jr.  The allegations refer to Jackson’s use of campaign funds for personal purchases.  Hmmm.  (Still not man bites dog.)

Hubris is a strange bird.  Politicians often catch this bird once they are elected to office.  After 17 years in office, It is hard to avoid.  There are so many people seeking ones opinion or help.  And naturally this attention is accompanied with a willingness to pay.  The pay is called campaign donations and/or “considerations” for family and close friends.

Federal prosecutors allege that Jackson misappropriated about $750,000 from his campaign treasury.  That is a pretty good headline.  But there’s more.  Jackson bought expensive watches, Michael Jackson memorabilia, furs for unnamed recipients, and much more.  Spending that much money on things is not easy.  That is another good headline.

Over the past several years, Jackson managed to have an affair, get involved in a Federal probe of trying to bribe former Governor Rob Blagojevich, and hid out in various medical facilities claiming “mood disorders”.  Any of those would be a good headline too.

Yesterday, however, Fox News shared with the world their take.  The fair and balanced news station mused that they were astonished that other networks and news media were reporting “former Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr pleads guilty”.  Why, asked Fox News, did those stations not report that “former Representative (D,IL) Jesse Jackson, member of President Obama’s party, pleads guilty…”

I now have a better appreciation for “fair and balanced”.  I had always thought that greed was a human condition and greed was neither red or blue, but both.  


Governing By Polls

February 20, 2013

Former President Bill Clinton perfected “triangulation”, a process of launching a policy idea as a trial balloon, polling to determine its public’s acceptance, and then adjusting the trial ballon, and repeating the process until public acceptance reaches a desired level.  Then, and only then, Bill Clinton took a public position.  Democrats and Republicans both seem to be attempting to play that cleaver but gutless game with sequestration.

The sequestration measures rapidly approaching would chop about $100 billion off the budget ($1 trillion over 10 years).  Democrats are now bemoaning the law and seeking to change it to make it less onerous.  Less onerous to Democrats means less spending cuts and more taxes.  Republicans want to see no new taxes and no cuts to defense spending.  In the best of circumstances, spending cuts, for Republicans, would be all in entitlements.  The current sequestration law gives neither Democrats or Republicans what they want.

This is white knuckles time.

Each side is sure they have the public’s preference on their side.  How do they know that?  Bingo, the polls.

There is little evidence that Democrats or Republicans see a greater picture.  Cutting a trillion dollars from the budget (the size of our yearly deficit) could have major consequences.  It has to mean increased unemployment (at least temporarily).  Unemployment could compound itself into a recession and only time would tell for how long.

While cuts to general spending as well as defense spending are almost certainly a good idea, how much and over what time period is not clear.   Raising some new tax revenues is also wise, but how much and from whom is unclear.   Ignoring entitlements, however, overlooks the main driver of the deficit.  And within entitlements, it is health care that must be tackled.  Do the math.

The interesting things about polls is that their answers depend on what questions you ask and who you ask.  Long term solutions for our chronic deficit problem do not seem to be among the question being asked.

Even more to the point, I wonder whether the younger generations who must pay for the debt are in the polling population?


Massive Coverup

February 19, 2013

Senator John McWho gave an interviewer a catchy sound bite over the weekend.  There is a massive coverup underway, McWho said.  He was referring to the Obama Administration’s official position following the Benghazi attack.  Was it a spontaneous demonstration or a planned terrorist action?  McWho said he knew the answer.

McWho believes President Obama kept the cause of the Consulate attack a mystery so that he could continue his campaign statements that al-Qaeda had been smashed.  How could something be so broken, yet still be so lethal, McWho reasoned.

As with Iraq and US withdrawal, McWho is consistent.  He said “if US withdraws, al Qaeda will follow us home and we will be fighting them in the US”.  Hmmm.

McWho has missed a couple of important points.  Terrorism and terrorists are like bacteria.  There are many different types.  They are everywhere and what you do in one spot will have little or no impact elsewhere.  The 9/11 al Qaeda (what’s left of them) reside in Pakistan/Afghanistan, not Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, or Libya.

McWho also has not studied the Presidential election results very well.  President Obama won the election for reasons unrelated to foreign policy.  Mitt Romney lost the election for reasons unrelated to foreign policy.

So why exactly is John McCain continually harping on the Benghazi tragedy?  Does the former Presidential candidate harbor bad feelings about his defeat?

Or, is he like old soldiers (they never die, they just fade away).  I wonder whether McCain even realize he is becoming McWho?

Making Sense of Chuck Hagel

February 15, 2013

A new word may be emerging from the Senate halls.  The word, a noun, is “Hagel-ling”.  It describes a process where a minority party recklessly exercises a historic Senate privilege and blocks a Presidential nomination with no job performance grounds.

“Hagel-ling” continues a practice which gained momentum beginning in 2009 called “No-ing”.  This practice calls for the President’s opposition to simply say “No” to anything and everything the President proposes.

Both practices gain character when the invokers wear an American Flag lapel pin.  Looking a television camera straight on, the “No” sayer says, “the American people don’t want this, they want …. whatever.”

Who said English was a dead language?

To put “Hagel-ling” and “No-ing” is a fuller context, one should try to answer the following four questions:

  • Which Country spends more (twice as much as most) other countries on health care, does not include everyone in health care coverage, and accepts a system that delivers mediocre health care outcomes?
  • Which Country spends more per student on K-12 education than any other country (except Switzerland), and produces students whose standardized test scores are mediocre?
  • Which Country spends more money on Defense than any other country, almost as much as all other countries combined?
  • Which Country imprisons more citizens than any other country with little or no impact upon crime rates?

The answer to all four question is the United States of America.

The US finds itself in a peculiar spot.

  • The Federal budget is chronically unbalanced.
  • Most experts point to a shortage of educated and skilled workers to fill current and future jobs.
  • Defense spending bares little resemblance to imminent threats and a lot more commonality to Congressional districts.
  • Prison populations keep rising as well as the budgets to house more prisoners per capita than any place in the world.  Why is the US so law un-abiding?

Frankly, I am not sure of why “No-ing” and “Hagel-ling” have come into existence.  Their practice solves nothing and does not advance greater understanding of any issues.

I am pretty sure, however, that the “why” answer lies close to the answer to why our nation is not up in arms over these four questions.  How can America sit by and waste so much money on health care, education, defense, and prisons, and then lament the nation’s Federal budget deficit?

Just maybe, if we try to make sense of the Chuck Hagel situation, we can stumble on the much larger set of problems, fully in our control, which continue to drift along with or without Chuck Hagel.  We elected the members of Congress!

The continued rejection of looking at data, comparing worldwide, and then making decisions in the nation’s best interest is hard to understand.  Maybe Chuck can help us find the way.