Archive for July 2013

How Long Will The Grand Bargain Take?

July 31, 2013

I can understand some of the critical reviews of President Obama’s time in office.   The more serious reviewers find him as only an average chief executive.  His opponents find him an utter failure, worst ever.  Hmmm.

The expectations for this “post racial” President were very high indeed.  Living up to the hype would be very difficult for anyone.    President Obama’s shortcomings, however, lay not so much in his goals (what he wanted to do), but in how he has tried accomplished his agenda.  As chief executive, he has proposed legislation and Congress has said “no thanks”.

The President identified (correctly in my opinion), healthcare, as the most important strategic objective.  He wanted to correct health care injustice and get control of its spiraling cost.  For example, Obama pointed to upwards of 50 million Americans who had no coverage, to Americans who were denied coverage on the basis of a “pre-existing condition”, and to millions who were one illness away from complete financial failure.

His goals were worthy but his actual achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is a pigmy compared to what is actually needed (and what is found in the rest of the modern world), and ACA is still a fight he must wage every day.

Compounding his problems, the President has been pushing on a rope trying to get anything through Congress.  The GOP has lapsed into a “just say no” approach.   In their zeal to blacken (get the pun) President Obama’s record, Congress has turned its back on the needs of the greater USA.  The President has tried to stand above the “food fight-like” Congressional behavior but instead has too often appeared aloof.  (It took former President Bill Clinton to adequately explain President Obama’s first term because Obama either couldn’t or wouldn’t try.)  The end result, no action.

Today the New York Times published an article comparing the US performance on global inequality measures.  Simply stated, the US appears to be “exceptional”, unfortunately in a disappointing way.

Comparing other countries, the US rated on (1) Income inequality (5th worst), (2) literacy inequality (5th worst), (3) Infant mortality (4th worst), (4) child poverty (4th worst), and (5) single parent families (worst).  Hmmm.

The President has said often “we can do better”.  And for sure doing better is not lower taxes for corporations or the top 2%.  Rather “doing better” is far more likely linked to increasing the economic strength of the middle class which should raise all boats (even those of the top 2%).

Improving the middle class’ economic strength will require a greater share of corporate returns being shared with ordinary workers.  It must also involve bringing under control the staggering cost of health care, particularly the annual increases.   A revamped health care system such as a universal system like Germany’s would replace Medicare and Medicaid and allow the US to focus on the costs of a single health care delivery.  If the US could find the resolve to move to a system like Germany, health care costs would drop by as much as 50% while health outcomes would increase.  Businesses would no longer be saddled with contributing to health care through employee contributions, and the Federal Budget could more easily be studied with Medicare and Medicaid eliminated.

Regrettably, there is no interest in Congress.  To improve the US position in these “inequality” measures will require an interested and dedicated set of public servants.  And to turn the current crop of Congress Members into public servants seems just as remote a possibility.

So maybe all that is left for President Obama is to lay out just how exceptional the US really is (pretty nice place for the top 2%), and what strategic changes need to be made (much less income inequality, tax reform (including new taxes), sharply lower health care spending, and corresponding reduction in government spending (Medicare, Medicaid replaced by universal health care).

The chances for any serious action seems not timely at this moment.  I wonder how long it will take?


Will History Repeat?

July 24, 2013

Shutting down the Government is risky business.  When Republicans followed Speaker Newt Gingrich’s advice and refused to approve legislation funding daily Government operations in 1995/1996, President Bill Clinton called their bluff.  Unfortunately for the GOP, it was not a bluff and the Government was forced to suspend all but essential services for 28 days.  The GOP paid the price for this irresponsibility in the next election.

The tables are almost set for a repeat.  President Obama has proposed a budget which calls for modest increases in spending while the GOP is calling for significant cuts (except in Defense and State).  They know their proposals won’t pass in the Senate but that hasn’t reduced their bravado.  To the contrary, Senate Republicans are spewing their own “Armageddon” warnings.  And what would be a better target than the Affordable Care Act?

So why this threat to repeat history?

  • Bluffing.  President Obama has demonstrated that he is a poor negotiator preferring to show his best hand right away.   The President, however, has no history of yielding as much as the GOP is asking.  Is this a wise GOP strategy?   Hmmm.
  • Principle.  The GOP has been consistently calling for a balanced budget and that will require significant spending cuts.  How can the GOP suddenly change its message?
  • Appeasing their base.  Most GOP supporters do not favor Democrat spending priorities and believe cuts are necessary.  How could the GOP not respond to this grass roots appeal?
  • Emotional reasons.  The GOP seems to believe that spending cuts, especially to entitlements and healthcare programs are a fundamental truth of life.  America is an exceptional Country, they believe, and pulling oneself up by the boot straps is simply part of what makes America great.  Hmmm.
  • Clear and logical reasons.  The GOP is supported by a brain trust of conservative economic thinkers who believe lowering taxes, emasculating Government services, and basically throwing fate to the hands of private enterprise is the way to go.  These same thinkers dismiss the notion of global economic connections (the US can prosper alone) and the experience which all the European Union nations have endured when they instituted austerity economic packages over those which could stimulate growth.  Hmmm.

In the end, it makes little difference why the GOP is so directed.  The GOP is flirting with serious damage once the American people find an alternative.  While Democrats represent more sanity on this issue, Democrats fall far short of having any long term plan for producing growth and a sound economy.

The answer to this predicament is, of course, doing nothing.  A budget compromise where spending increase below the rate of inflation and the national debt is extended without incident are the sensible answers.  The world’s economies are connected.   There is no place for the US to grow other than within its boarders  But is Congress smart enough to recognize this?

The GOP’s consistent and persistent rage against the Affordable Care Act is shameful in the absence of specific and actionable alternatives.  The GOP claim that ACA is flawed is most likely correct.  The question is where is it flawed?  (Remember the ACA is originally a Republican think tank proposal and it is a near copy of Mitt Romeny’s Massachusetts healthcare legislation.)

There is still a lot of time for reason to prevail.  The danger is that with each day, GOP leaders are gaining headlines with messages that also march them closer and closer to the cliff.  One of these days, the GOP will wake up and find that Americans (maybe not the very rich) are feeling good about the economy and the steady hand the President has carried towards domestic policy.


What’s Wrong? Look In The Mirror

July 22, 2013

Today’s New York Times carried an article about Paul Villas  and his travails with the citizens of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  As a veteran School Superintendent from cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans, why should Bridgeport be so tough?

The answer probably is that Bridgeport is no tougher than Philly, Chicago or New Orleans.  When a school districts have problems (like not enough money, failing grades, and low graduation rates), mysteriously no one is to blame and no one is allowed to make any changes.  Hmmm.

For silver bullet wannabe educators, there must be a handle, someplace to rest their change plan upon.  It must be the teachers, or it must be the inadequate school funding, or how about the absence of progress measures (testing)?  Or how about all three?

Vallas was appointed by a State take over board.  This is strike one with respect to local control.  For strike two, Vallas wants to institute standardized testing.  His third strike is he wants his administrators to spend more time class rooms in order to evaluate the teachers.  Those recommendations did not go well with the teachers union.  Now there is a food fight.

In a school district (according to the NYT) where 49% of the students are Hispanic and 39% black, Vallas does not strike a cord of “he’s one of us”.  So the stranger must be wrong.

Logic should be clear that doing nothing different will not lead to improvement.  And certainly testing by itself will only confirm what is known already.  But what about getting rid of poor teachers?

This idea seems on the right track… until one asks, “how do we know which teachers are good teachers, and which ones are not”?

The chain of command is the answer.  But, how do we know the chain of administrators are qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff?  Hmmm.

In failing schools it is extremely difficult to separate “good teachers” from the rest.  Of course, with observation, one could detect the totally disinterested teacher.  But the rub comes in identifying good teachers when there is a need to first establish proper class room discipline before any type of teaching can effectively take place.  So, are the best teachers, the best disciplinarians?

This quickly begs the question, why do so many students not come to class thirsting for knowledge?  Why is there a classroom order question at all?  And why do parents not hold their children to account for their learning or lack there of?  And why are not parents insisting upon test scores so they have some evidence that their children are learning?  Hmmm.

A mirror for anyone?

In my opinion, these thoughts are getting close to pay dirt.  The problem in American education begins at home.  Parents who want their children educated find a school they trust if at all possible.    Unfortunately far too often that is all the parents do.

It would seem to me parents should demand testing and be especially interested in two test scores.  (1) How well is my child doing compared to other children (locally, nationally, and internationally)?  (2)  Is my child improving versus his/her peers each year?  One measures the overall school performance and the other measures the child’s personal achievement.

Given these results, parents could then responsibly support changing or leaving unchanged union seniority and teacher work rules.  School superintendents would also have ammunition to support training their subordinates (developing more competent and accountable administrators or weeding the weaker ones out.  And at the end of the day, test scores would support changing the superintendent and ultimately the board of education.

Oh, and one last thought.  There should be no class room preparation for the “test”.  No teaching to the “test”.  Teaching should be aimed at igniting the individual spirit to learn.  And if there is one measure of what a good teacher is, it would be the student seeking to learn on their own.  Hmmm.



Affordable Care Act (Is)(Is Not) Necessary

July 20, 2013

House Republicans attempted to stop the ACA for the 38th and 39th time this week.  As is par for the course, the House vote offered no alternative so one must assume the GOP favors the way things were.  You know, 30 plus million Americans without health care insurance, insurance companies free to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions or rates which accomplished the same outcome, and “run away” health care spending where the US overall spending was twice as much as other modern industrial countries and US residents were receiving only mediocre health care outcomes.  Hmmm.

This week the New York Times published Manhattan’s “before and after” health insurance rates comparison.  These rates were for non-group, individually purchased plans. While there was variation amongst insurance providers, single person coverage averaged about $1,500 per month ($18,000 per year).  No minimum wage takers there.

For family plans, a family of 4 would need to pay about $4,500 per month ($54,000 per year).  No average income earners need apply.

Well, this is about New York City where incomes are high and the cost of living is too.  But how much high?

Also included in the NYT report were the newly approved 2014 rates when ACA kicks in.  Single coverage for the second of four tiers of coverage would cost about $800 per month ($9,600 per year) and family of four would cost about $2,300 per month ($27.600 per year).  While still a lot, the rates are about one half the current rates. Hmmm.

When a fire breaks out at horse racing tracks, horses tend to panic and run back into the barn where the fire takes their lives.  Maybe the GOP should change its emblem from the elephant to a horse.  Their behavior seems much more in line with the horse.

Sense Of History

July 16, 2013

Senator Harry Reid says he is laying down the gauntlet.  Either the Republican minority allow an up or down vote on 6 Presidential executive branch appointees or he will ask his Democrat colleagues to change Senate rules.  This issue shows the Senate at its dysfunctional best.  Where are the grown ups?

Filibusters are designed to protect strong minority views from being trampled by a simple majority vote.  This feature is a marvelous gift from our founding fathers and was meant to provide protection for minority opinions… on important matters.  The filibuster was not intended to block appointment of executive department heads just because the current Senate members do not like a certain department.  If they do not like the department’s duties, then change the law.

The GOP has been sliding down a slippery slope since 2008 when they determined that just saying no was a way to block President Obama proposed activities.   Not surprisingly, just saying “no” carries with it apparently unforeseen consequences.  To be effective, more and more nominees had to be blocked, even those clearly qualified and deserving.  Departments, some with no controversy, must be left leaderless.  Hmmm.

As a consequence, the Senate role of advise and consent becomes laughable and meaningless.  The GOP has consequently put Democrats in the position of either accepting a meaningless Senate or changing the rules which have historically protected both Democrats and Republicans when they were in the minority.

It seems like a no brainer decision to me.

The best outcome I could imagine (other than the GOP changing its ways) is that Senate Democrats would vote to change the rules, and having accomplished the requirement of a simple majority on executive appointments, Harry Reid would resign as Senate Majority leader.   If not, we can look forward to the next Supreme Court nominee waiting until hell freezes over hoping to get confirmation.



Hitting For The Cycle

July 15, 2013

In baseball there is a term, “hitting for the cycle” which recognizes a play who gets a base hit, double, triple, and home run in the same game.  This is both an exciting and remarkable accomplishment.  There is another cycle one often reads about.  Its called the cycle of poverty.  It is also remarkable but not in a positive way.

The cycle of poverty explains why it is so difficult for poor people to gain upward mobility.  The cycle suggests why an individual remains poor and why his/her descendants are likely to wallow in poverty too.  Those caught in the cycle of poverty for some reason can not break out.

The cycle might contain episodes such as lack of education, broken families, too many children, poverty, lack of education, broken families, too many children, and more poverty etc.  After some number of iterations, one of the children reproduces and for that descendent, the new cycle of poverty branches off and follows that person.  Why can’t something be done?

We have government programs like “no child left behind”, SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and dozens more.  Regardless of these program’s merits and meaningful intentions, poverty continues and few escape.

The right says “enough”!  It’s time to stop waste spending money and getting nothing in return, they say.  The current budget deficits have been red meat for these conservatives.  What a chance and a time to sharply reduce these expenditures or better yet, eliminate them altogether.

Progressives counter with the tried and true,  “How could anyone be so inhumane as to leave the most vulnerable further exposed”, the liberal side would say?

Of course both sides are demagogues.  Both sides’ advice will do nothing to break the cycle of poverty.  If positions such as cutting education funding (head start, school lunches, after school programs, etc), or eliminating food stamps, or making Medicaid less available prevail, the cycle will remain intact.  And if these programs are kept as currently established, guess what, the poverty cycle will remain intact too.

The average US family income is about $50,000 per year.  The minimum wage income is $15,050.  Healthcare for a family of four, if purchased openly, is over $20,000 per year, more than the cost of food according to Forbes .

Education can not simply be measured by a high school diploma.  Emotional intelligence (controlling ones emotions and desires, appropriate behavior with others), and executive function thinking skills (decision making, priority setting, problem solving) are critical to being able to use high school skills effectively.

Without total education, it is near impossible to see how the poverty cycle can be broken.

Broken families is a mystery.  Why form a family and then break the unit?  Some argue the welfare benefits associated with the number of children encourage family size to increase.  Hmmm.

Maybe, but I would look to the lack of education and unhelpful advice from religious groups which lead to family planning ignorance.  In example after example, lack of family planning (population growth) in the poorest countries coupled with religion over education simply locks in poverty.

The idea, however, that the US can cut food stamps (or other welfare programs) and somehow reduce poverty (recipients will begin finding work), to ludicrous.  Similarly, maintaining food stamps (or other welfare programs) will reduce poverty is just as ludicrous.  Hmmm.


Lonesome George

July 14, 2013

A six member, all female jury found George Zimmerman innocent of second degree and third degree murder charges yesterday.  For someone who did not follow the trials developments day by day, I was a surprise that “man slaughter” was not an appropriate charge and a guilty verdict for that specification not found.  Hmmm.

The most basic facts were not in dispute.  Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watch person.  He spotted a stranger in the community and began following.  At some point he called “911”, reported the stranger, and was told to back off and await the police.  Instead, Zimmerman got out of his car and intercepted the victim on foot.  What happens next is somewhat in dispute but Zimmerman did confirm he shot the victim with his personal weapon.  The victim died at the scene.

It seems the case focused on what happened in the confrontation.  Were there grounds for Zimmerman to “fear for his life”?  While that might have been germane to first or second degree murder, it seemed to miss the point for manslaughter.

Had Zimmerman followed police instructions and stayed in his car, the victim would still be alive.  Seems pretty straight forward to me.

The question of why Sanford prosecutors chose to go for murder 2, and then include manslaughter at the last minute is a mystery.  Maybe they wanted to appear tough or maybe they just mounted an inadequate prosecution.  In the days and weeks ahead, pundits will share their thought.

There will be most likely civil suits against Zimmerman and most probably he will lose them.  This may be enough for the Martin family.

The greatest tragedy that may come out of this is the idea that it is ok to carry a handgun, act irresponsibly, and use it in the manner Zimmerman did.  He may have been losing the fight while on the ground, and he may have truly thought his life was in danger.  Proper behavior well before the fight, however, (and what other gun carriers should learn) does not entitle anyone carrying a gun to take aggressive and provocative actions against others.  That type of behavior should limit ones right to self defense to that used by his/her assailant.

Today George Zimmerman is a free man.  He owes this to a fair and just judicial system and the opinions of 6 peers.

America’s Social Conscience

July 10, 2013

On the east coast, it’s pretty hot.  Other parts of the country experience 90+ degrees routinely and nothing much happens.  When New York or Philadelphia get to enjoy this type of weather, its time for reflection.  What’s hot in the news?

Oh, there are stories about Syria, Afghanistan, and don’t forget Egypt.  But the “hot” new story is that Elliot Spitzer is running for elected office again.  Why would anyone who had resigned as Governor, then decide years after to run for a lesser position like New York City Comptroller?

This is a puzzling question since Spitzer is already wealthy and has been very successful in elected office.  What does he have to prove?

It could be that Spitzer is angling for some future run for Senate or even Mayor of New York, and it is necessary to get elected again to put his scandal behind him.  And what say ye, “scandal”?

As most TV pundits are quick to point out Elliot Spitzer resigned after it was disclosed in an FBI investigation that Spitzer (and his money) were partaking of a high class call girl service.  Oh my!

The first hoot was how much money the FBI wasted on the investigation where Spitzer willingly parted with his money for a woman who willingly offered her services.  The FBI agent in charge must now have a sought after resume.

The second hoot was the damage control Spitzer took.  He resigned and apologized publicly to his wife and family.  The hoot is not about the necessity of apologizing to his wife, but rather about the need to do it in public.  The public part was simply the first step in running for public office again.

The third hoot was the string of TV shows that Spitzer was featured in.  He became an instant pundit and show host.  The viewing public, however, did not like his TV presence and after a while, Spitzer was off the air.

Now the fourth hoot is all the experts who are rendering opinions on whether Spitzer is fit to hold any job.  You know he cheated on his wife, and prostitution is illegal, so he broke a law too.

Surprisingly, a lot of pundits are discounting the prostitution law breaking, in effect saying regulated prostitution is akin to marijuana use.  With respect to his wife, these pundits wisely say that is between the two of them and the public has no say in it.  I wonder what David Vitter would say on this subject?

The hot weather must be especially bad this year in Texas.  The Texas legislature is back debating a bill to restrict a woman’s right and access to abortions.  These pious lawmakers claim they are trying to make things safer for women.  Who’s asking?

The only way I will know Texas (or any other State that tries to restrict abortion access) is serious about trying to help women is when the bill contains rules that make Viagra (and its cousins) available one hour, once a week in one city, and only when the purchasers presents an official photo ID.


Immigration Misinform

July 8, 2013

Congress is wrestling with what to do about immigration reform.  Congressional efforts are giving new meaning to “disingenuous”.  Both parties have gotten so confused on what needs to be reformed and why that their legislative proposals make little sense.

The Senate bill calls for roughly doubling the size of armed security along the boarder.  These provisions would eclipse the famous Berlin Wall and would cost tax payers a smal fortune.  Democrats have willingly pandered this Republican requirement.  Why is this necessary?

Securing the boarder, on the other hand, at least gets to what the immigration problem is really about.  The estimated 11 million undocumented residents are mostly Mexican and until Congress proposes “Mexican Immigration Reform” there will be great difficulty in proposing sensible legislation (even if the legislators are truly interested in passing anything.

The root of the problem is that there are more jobs, admittedly low paying and manual, which American citizens either do no want or when employed in them are not productive enough.  These jobs supply the US with necessary services and foods.  Attempts to keep Mexicans out is costly and encouraging US employers to hire citizens falls on deaf ears once productivity is considered.  Mexicans are great workers.

There has been much talk about demographics.  Republicans find themselves in a crack with their mean spirited efforts to block a path to citizenship.  Undocumented Mexicans living here consequently see Democrats as more sympathetic to their cause even though the Republican mantras of family, anti-homosexual, and hard work generally describe the aspiration of most Mexicans.  So, why?

It is clear that most Congress members see their personal fortunes (like getting reelected) as more important than any single issue.  In districts where residents are fearful of America’s ability to assimilate immigrants, voting against reform is an easy (but unfounded) call.  In districts where voter sentiments are not clear, procrastinating seems safer (but gutless).

Republicans, I think, are missing a bigger issue.  Without a path to citizenship for these 11 million, the GOP is still on the wrong end of the demographic trend line. The Hispanic minority is growing strongly and they will vote what they see happening.

In addition, Hispanic voters do not understand why it is so wrong for people who have labored for years, raised good families, and now want to become citizens, should be denied this opportunity.  Elections do have consequences.


Old News

July 7, 2013

Syria is no longer front page news.  The killings and woundings continue.  They just don’t seem so newsworthy anymore.

The forces loyal to Bashar al Assad seem to be gradually regaining much of the land lost to the insurgents.  Syrian killing Syrian, Shiite killing Sunni (and vice versa), and a country decaying before the our eyes is no longer  qualify as new information.  With no end game in sight, this war’s 15 minutes of fame has come and gone.

And besides, there is Egypt.  The rich Egyptian fabric of social confusion offers much new to write about.  Like many third world countries, the discrete but powerful military is a cut of society all to itself.  The brass may speak of civil order, but behind those words is the unmistakeable intention to remain in power and in control of their way of living… (regardless of what some clerics say Allah wishes).

In Egypt, there are secularists and Islamists.  Some see modernity as the curse and others see the Koran as positive if balanced with western dress and technology.  The poor, like the poor everywhere, want bread and a place to live.  The young want jobs and then they will worry about Islam (isn’t it, Allah helps those who help themselves?).

Many Egyptians distrust the US and envy the paternalistic approach US foreign policy has taken.  On the other hand, those who hold the strings of power realize that US aide is essential to keep Egypt from blowing up in civil war.  The US quietly supports the Egyptian military and the military hold the reigns of power (new type of democracy?).

The intrigue of establishing an interim Egyptian government and the squashing of the inevitable street demonstrations will fill front pages and evening news reports for weeks to come.  Lost in this attention will be the gradual Assad consolidation of power.  The justice or lack there of concerning the continued rule of Assad will be lost.  Many Americans have thought it just sounded so right to want the insurgents to over throw a minority government.  Hmmm.

My guess is that when President Obama goes to sleep at night, his pragmatic mind dreams of Egypt finding some stable compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamic but religiously impotent government.  More of what Mubarak brought but this time without Mubarak.

Instead of counting sheep, President Obama thinks of Syria settling down with Assad at the helm.  This outcome is not ideal since there will continue to be Iranian influence (fueling Hezbollah for mischief in Lebanon and Israel) but the Sunni religious extremists who populated much of the insurgents don’t portend a great future either.  The President dreams that Iraq is too complex to even worry about, but an insurgent victory in Syria almost certainly would foretell of new Sunni versus Shiite trouble in Iraq.

What a mess the Middle East seems to be.  If there was anything in modern experience which is reminiscent of “pandora’s box”, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq certain makes my list.  Oh, for the good old days.