Tag Archives: public employees

Unemployment and the Declining Middle Class

I know there are plenty of big fish in the skillet these days: the disaster in Japan, the civil war that we’ve forgotten about in Libya, and the fact that the right side of my NCAA bracket has already collapsed like a tent in a tornado.

Still, I’m fretting about unemployment, especially the fact that our economy is not creating or sustaining quality, well-paying jobs. And I’m back to a now familiar theme: the growing divide in this country between those at the top of the economic and job ladder and those at the bottom.

And when you combine those two issues, you get a glimpse at why the debate over public employee jobs and unions — especially in a state like Ohio that has bleed the manufacturing and other jobs that supported a vibrant middle class — is so important and so contentious.

Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed this morning — “The Forgotten Millions” — looks at unemployment and the reality that jobs and job creation are on the back burner these days if they are on the stove at all. Here’s an excerpt:

More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

Jobs do get mentioned now and then — and a few political figures, notably Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are still trying to get some kind of action. But no jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job-creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

So one-sixth of America’s workers — all those who can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job — have, in effect, been abandoned.

It might not be so bad if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.

In short, we’re well on the way to creating a permanent underclass of the jobless.

Why doesn’t Washington care?

Part of the answer may be that while those who are unemployed tend to stay unemployed, those who still have jobs are feeling more secure than they did a couple of years ago. Layoffs and discharges spiked during the crisis of 2008-2009 but have fallen sharply since then, perhaps reducing the sense of urgency. Put it this way: At this point, the U.S. economy is suffering from low hiring, not high firing, so things don’t look so bad — as long as you’re willing to write off the unemployed.

Yet polls indicate that voters still care much more about jobs than they do about the budget deficit. So it’s quite remarkable that inside the Beltway, it’s just the opposite.

Well Dr. K, consider that for the elected officials and their staffs, lobbyists, K Street lawyers, government bureaucrats, policy wonks and other miscreants Inside the Beltway there is never a recession, let alone a Great Recession.

Yet everywhere else, people are worried about jobs — whether they have one or not — and Krugman is right. Unemployment can be a trap. Here’s a NYT editorial “The Unemployed Need Not Apply“:

The Federal Reserve is projecting unemployment to continue at or near 9 percent for the rest of the year. That is 13.9 million Americans out of work. Here is more grim news: Barriers to employment for jobless workers may be even higher than previously thought.

As the Fed updated its forecast last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a forum on discrimination against unemployed job seekers. Members of Congress had urged the commission to explore the issue, after reading press reports of numerous instances in which employers and staffing agencies refused to consider the unemployed for openings.

The message — “the unemployed need not apply” — has at times been explicitly stated in job announcements. In other cases, unemployed job seekers have reported verbal rejections after a recruiter or employer learned they were not currently working.

And many of those long-term unemployed — or long-term underemployed — once held jobs that provided middle class incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits. But as those jobs have disappeared, so has the support for public employees who still have incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits that afford at best a middle class lifestyle.

Again, from the NYT, “Ohio Town Sees Public Job as Only Route to Middle Class“:

GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — Jodi and Ralph Taylor are public workers whose jobs as a janitor and a sewer manager cover life’s basics. They have moved out of a trailer into a house, do not have to rely on food stamps and sometimes even splurge for the spicy wing specials at the Courtside Bar and Grill.

While that might not seem like much, jobs like theirs, with benefits and higher-than-minimum wages, are considered plum in this depressed corner of southern Ohio. Decades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work that makes public-sector jobs look great in comparison.

Now, as Ohio’s legislature moves toward final approval of a bill that would chip away at public-sector unions, those workers say they see it as the opening bell in a race to the bottom. At stake, they say, is what little they have that makes them middle class.

“These jobs let you put good food on the table and send your kids on school trips,” said Monty Blanton, a retired electrician and union worker. “The gap between low and middle is collapsing.”

Gallipolis (pronounced gal-uh-POLICE) is a faded town on the Ohio River, one whose fortunes fell with the decline in industries like steel in bigger cities along the river. That erased a swath of middle-income jobs in the area, said Bob Walton, who, as a commissioner for the Southern Ohio Port Authority, an economic development agency, has tracked the economic history of the area for decades.

“It’s a real big change,” Mr. Walton said. “It has changed the complexion of our community.”

Today, storefronts are mostly dark. About one in three people live in poverty. Billboards advertise oxygen tanks and motorized wheelchairs. Old photographs in a local diner look like an exhibit from a town obituary. The region has some of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the state, with more people dying from overdoses than car crashes, according to Ed Hughes, executive director of the Counseling Center in Portsmouth, about 55 miles west of here.

David Beaver, 65, a barber, said that when he got out of high school, “you could go anywhere you wanted to and pick your job.”

“Now, it’s depressing,” Mr. Beaver said. “I hear the boys talking. They can’t find anything.”

It is not that there are no jobs, but rather that the jobs available pay too little and have no benefits, resulting in, as Mr. Beaver put it, “just scraping by.” A private hospital and two power plants do offer good jobs, but they are highly competitive and many require some higher education, something that fewer than one in five people here have, according to 2009 census data.

This strikes me as a situation to be concerned about and not just in Ohio: a lack of good jobs, an increasing number of people without the education and skills to compete for the good jobs that are available, and a declining middle class in both the public and private sectors.

And, as Dr. K writes, “Why doesn’t Washington care?”

By the way, as we slide head first into the weekend, I wanted to revisit an earlier post this week where I opined that taking action at the ballot box these days was more important than taking to the streets in protest.

Well, I read a story later that made we reconsider — at least in one instance.

It appears as though students at Tufts University took to the streets in what was described as a partially nude run around campus to protest the decision by university officials to ban the annual Naked Quad Run, held in mid-December to celebrate the end of classes.

Now that’s a street protest worth joining. Just sayin’.

And on reflection, if the union officials, teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin had taken a similar approach, something tells me Gov. Walker and the Republicans would have folded their tents immediately.

C’mon. Think about it.

Arlo Guthrie and the Protests in Wisconsin

Well, I made it to the Kent Stage Friday night to see Arlo Guthrie, following a traditional stop at Ray’s for a few brews and a turkey club.  And it was an excellent AARP hootenanny.

I know I need to be careful when I call Guthrie an aging lefty — since I don’t mean that in baseball terms. But hey, we were both born in the same year: 1947. Both of the generation that came of age in the ’60s convinced we were going to change the world. Not.

So I had to chuckle when Guthrie said that he has been opining — via his music and that of others — on the same issues for decades. And the issues — problems facing working Americans, corporate greed, the concentration of wealth in this country and so on — never seem to go away or get much better.

An example: He received enthusiastic applause when he mentioned Wisconsin and the fact that thousands were taking to the streets there and elsewhere to protest the legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and workers.

Do the street protests really matter these days? Did they really ever matter?

I’m all for peaceful protests — which as best I can tell has been the situation at least up to this point in Wisconsin and Ohio. But I am becoming more and more convinced that the protest that really matters is the one that people make — or not — at the voting booth. If you don’t vote, it’s tough to complain when elected officials actually lift themselves off their collective thumbs and do something.

Saying all that, I understand why teachers and other public employees are going to have to take some cuts in pay and benefits. The perception, wrong in my opinion, is that they have it better than other workers in the private sector — and people aren’t going to support pubic employees as they watch their own retirement savings, house values, medical benefits and middle-class jobs sliding down the rat hole.

So Guthrie is right. It’s a positive sign that people are willing to get out and protest. But the important protest comes at election time.

 

 

Why Blame the Teachers?

I opined yesterday — “Teachers and Scapegoats” — that at the heart of our many serious problems and issues about education in this country is the fact that as a nation we have for years enthusiastically devalued teachers and teaching. And in the long run, that is going to have significant consequences for our economy, our ability to compete in today’s global economy, our businesses, our young people, our communities and our very democracy.

Now The New York Times joins the debate with an interesting feature — “Why Blame the Teachers?” — that provides a number of different viewpoints on the issue. Here are excerpts.

Diane Ravitch — “It Started With No Child Left Behind.” [Ravitch is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."]

A historic strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought has merged with fiscal conservatism, producing the present campaign to dismantle the teaching profession. It echoes a deeply-ingrained American belief that anyone can teach, no training or experience necessary.

Although politicians and corporate leaders claim they want to reform education, it is impossible to see how the campaign against teachers will advance that goal. No high-performing nation in the world is reducing the status and rights of the teaching profession.

Frederick M. Hess — “A Policy Debate, Not an Attack.”  [Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” His most recent book is "The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas."]

So, today’s debates about teacher tenure, evaluation, or benefits hardly constitute an anti-teacher assault. Rather, public officials and union leaders have negotiated problematic policies that have dispensed benefits while hurting schools and creating unsustainable obligations. In response, some officials (most famously, Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker) have argued that modest concessions aren’t enough, and have sought to use this moment to address structural problems with public employee collective bargaining and teacher tenure.

The response of the teachers unions and their allies has been to insist that such efforts represent teacher bashing. President Obama has spoken of an “assault” that has “denigrated” and “vilified” public employees. As an article in the Times last week noted, “Many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.”

Yet, those accused of espousing anti-teacher sentiment keep taking pains to explain they’re focused on solving problems and to honor the importance of teaching. Indiana’s state superintendent and veteran educator, Tony Bennett, said in the Times article, “This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers; it is a comprehensive effort to reform a system.” Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels has remarked, “I’ve been praising teachers and public education and trying to support it relentlessly for six years. It does no good. When you cross the union, you’re the enemy.”

When the president declares in the State of the Union, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation…become a teacher,” the profession is doing pretty well indeed. At such a time, it’s useful to keep in mind that policy debate is not the same thing as personal attack.

Richard D. Kahlenberg — “A Bipartisan Attack.” [Kahenberg s a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice," and "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy."]

American teachers and their elected union representatives are under unprecedented attack across the country, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Indiana. The dominant narrative suggests that teachers are both stopping us from balancing state budgets and preventing us from adopting reforms that will improve education for students.

How did the budget crisis — brought on by a recession caused by Wall Street — end up in the laps of America’s schoolteachers? How did teachers, most of whom work very hard every day to educate schoolchildren, become the scapegoats in education reforms circles?

Historically, before teachers unionized, they were underpaid, pitied and well thought of. In the early 1960s, when Albert Shanker and others convinced teachers to band together to fight for greater dignity and decent wages and benefits, teachers became important political players, generally supporting Democrats, who tend to favor greater investments in education than Republicans.

Molly Putnam — “What Politicians Don’t Know.”[Putnam has taught at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn for almost seven years. She currently teaches government and economics in the social studies department.]

Politicians are threatening to lay off thousands of teachers and then using that threat as a bargaining chip with the teacher’s union. They are specifically aiming at seniority rights, contending that the “last in, first out” rule, when applied, will cause great harm to the public schools.

They’re trying to convince the public that the most “effective”/newer teachers will be laid off and the “ineffective”/older teachers will be left behind to foist a sub-par education on our children. They claim this approach — by ridding the system of highly-paid senior teachers — will allow them to balance the budget and make their teaching force younger, less costly and more effective.

Anyone who believes it will work out this way hasn’t spent time in a public school.

Jeffrey Mirel – “Discouraging New Teachers.” [Mirel is the David L. Angus Collegiate Professor of Education and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author, most recently, of "Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants."]

Recent right-wing attacks have described teaching as a “part-time job” or a glorified form of “baby-sitting.” This characterization of teaching is simply wrong, and the initiatives that it supports — cutting salaries, benefits, tenure and collective bargaining — are maliciously wrong.

Teaching on the kindergarten through 12th grade level in the United States today is an incredibly challenging, complex and difficult enterprise. Teachers in 21st century American public schools need to be skilled managers of large classes that are increasingly diverse in terms of race, culture and special needs. These teachers need to understand: what discipline-based content and skills their pupils need to acquire; how their pupils learn; and how to best represent content so that their pupils master it. None of these things are simple, easy or natural. Teaching is learned over years of practice.

Can and should the work of American teachers be improved? Of course. Are there inept teachers in some schools who should be fired? Yes. But it is absurd to believe that mocking and maligning the teaching profession as a way to justify cuts in salaries and benefits, and putting an end to tenure and union protection, will in any way aid the process of improving public schools.

Pedro Noguera — “Reforms Driven by Education Fads.” [Noguera, a sociologist, is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is also executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and serves on the State University of New York Board of Trustees.]

The recent attacks on teachers can be traced to the convergence of three distinct but related trends: continuing concerns about the lagging academic performance of American students, a belief among policymakers and some foundations that firing “bad” teachers would lead to significant improvements in student achievement, and a desire among lawmakers to balance state budgets by reducing financial commitments to the pensions, salaries and benefits of public employees, particularly teachers. There have also been a number of high profile news stories and movies (“Waiting for Superman”) that have reinforced the idea that the prevalence of bad teachers is at the root of America’s education problem.

What is most troubling and dangerous about this convergence is that it is drowning out a rational analysis of what should be done to support and invigorate the teaching profession in the United States. If measures are not taken quickly to slow down the push toward sweeping, ill-conceived reforms, the damage could have long-term consequences for American education.

Donna Foote — “Elevate, Don’t Denigrate.” [Foote is the author of "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America."]

The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Knowing this, along with the fact that American students rank in the middle of the educational pack among industrialized nations, and that the achievement gap in the U.S. between lower income kids and wealthier students is widening provides us with tremendous challenge and real opportunity.

Instead of initiating endless rounds of educational reforms often based on nothing more than wishful thinking, we should attack the real problem: the quality of our teachers. Unlike those countries whose students score in the top tier in the education rankings, America no longer values teaching as a profession. If we want to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap, then we have to elevate the status of our teaching corps. The classroom must become as desirable a destination as the boardroom or courtroom or operating room. For that to happen, we must develop an entirely new, highly selective system to attract, train, support, evaluate, retain — and amply compensate — high quality teachers in our classrooms.

Why blame the teachers? Wonder if Charlie Sheen is at all worried about this?

Just askin.’

Teachers and Scapegoats

Well, I’m back in sunny, warm cold, snowy Northeast Ohio after spending a week in sunny, warm Dataw Island, South Carolina. And I can report that from what I saw last week — flowers blooming, trees budding, grass growing — that spring will make it here: eventually.

While  in Dataw, I managed to climb to the roof often enough in the early a.m. and giggle the laptop just right to connect to the Internet — so I wasn’t off the grid entirely. And as I opined from my perch overlooking the marsh, I don’t understand why we as a nation continue to so enthusiastically — and mistakenly — devalue teachers and teaching.

Here’s an editorial cartoon from Clay Bennett at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as reprinted in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning. On the door: Scapegoats’ Teachers’ Lounge.

Teachers as scapegoats. Sweet. And true — at least from what I have seen during the last 20 years or so and more recently in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere.

OK. I understand that what is going on now in Ohio, Wisconsin and so on involves more than just teachers — it touches all public employees and focuses on issues involving unions and collective bargaining, pay, benefits and the fact that middle class jobs have declined if not vanished in many states and communities beyond jobs in the public sector.

And there have been plenty of thoughtful commentaries about how the move to trim collective bargaining rights for public sector employees and unions is a political move to diminish political power and campaign contributions among groups typically aligned with the Democratic Party. I guess I’m not that cynical and that seems to give too much credit to people like Scott Walker and John Kasich. But maybe so. We’ll see.

But back to teachers. If we don’t attract, support, retain and reward excellent classroom teachers then this nation is sunk. And yeah, I know, teachers unions protect some poor teachers — just like other unions and civil service rules protect poor pipefitters and federal and state government miscreants. But we are devaluing education. And that matters.

I don’t typically watch Ed Schultz, the liberal Talking Head host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” but he has an interesting post on The Huffington Post, “Why Wisconsin Matters.” Here’s an excerpt:

Governor Scott Walker has leveled the largest assault on public education in the history of the state of Wisconsin. This is an attack on the middle class and an attack on teachers who are being treated as political tools and pawns. They’re bargaining chips in negotiations.

Teachers, who play more of a role in economic development than anybody who wants to take a chance on Wall Street, are being vilified and targeted unfairly.

Nobody goes into teaching to get rich. They do it because they love helping people. They love the reward of seeing kids reach their potential. It takes a special person to be a teacher.

The wonderful thing about public education is that everybody’s welcome — the gifted, the talented, the challenged. The socioeconomically challenged kid can walk in the door and have a chance to learn and his or her only hope, because that home life might not be the best, their hope is that teacher.

Republicans are placing the burden of economic recovery on the backs of the middle class and our teachers. An economic recovery required because of the policies put in place by Republicans, resulting in wealth distribution from the middle class to the top two percent.

My mother was a high school English teacher at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia. She had three accelerated classes and three regular classes. My mother graded papers until the wee hours of the morning. She got her kids off to school every day. And when she came home in the afternoon, she was still grading papers, and then she was working on lesson plans on Saturdays.

My mom used to take tremendous pride in knowing that one of her students went off to the University of Virginia and became a doctor. She took a tremendous amount of pride in being part of that student’s education.

And here are two segments from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that really have a lot to say about what’s wrong with public education — and what’s wrong with the attack on teachers. Both are worth the time to watch.

OK. Well, I’m back and enjoyed survived an early a.m. run in the ice and snow.

And I’m going to continue to opine in my role as a pajama-clad citizen journalist about teaching and teachers. Why?

Well, I’m proud to tell people that I was a classroom teacher — if only for a relatively short time during a 40-year career.

And I believe that if we continue to devalue teaching and teachers — in part by making teachers scapegoats for everything that is wrong with education in this country — the USA will suck an economic and jobs tailpipe that will diminish our prosperity, reduce opportunities for the majority of our young people, and undercut the vitality of our communities and nation as a whole.

Just sayin’.

Ohio and the Value of Teachers and Education

True story: I’m sitting in a small roadhouse cafe, Boondock, just outside Dataw Island last night, enthusiastically eating just-caught shrimp and downing draft beers when a woman approached the table for a stop-and-chat. Her question: “Where you from?” My reply: “Ohio.” Her response: “Oh, too bad.”

Gulp.

But she has a point. The perception among people whom I work with, visit in other states and talk to is that Ohio isn’t really where you want to be these days: high unemployment with little prospect for growing quality and well-paying jobs, crappy weather, housing market in the toilet at best and so on. And it’s a state where as best I can tell young people can’t wait to leave. It’s the old people who are stuck.

Anyway, something clearly has to be done — and I voted for John Kasich so I’m willing to give him the opportunity — along with the Republican-dominated legislature — to actually improve the economy, create jobs and attract industries to Ohio that offer jobs that require more than asking whether you want fries with that burger. (As an aside, here’s an interesting WaPo opinion article from about a month ago written by George Will about John Kasich, “John Kasich: Spoiling for a fight in Ohio.”)

And I understand that we are in the politically popular era of first cutting budgets and government spending and then trying to figure out how to expand the economy and jobs later. Hard to argue with that since Obama’s stimulus money had about the same result as a fart in church. I also understand that there are going to have to be some tough decisions that will translate to sacrifices for all of us in terms of what we can and should expect to see from government in the way of pensions (Social Security included), health care (yep, Medicare as well) and services.

Saying all that, my concern with what is happening in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees and unions reflects the continuation of a decades-long move in this country to devalue teachers, teaching and education in general. And I don’t understand why we have headed down this road since education is the key to maintaining our standard of living and our economic prosperity — and our very democracy.

And I understand that I am pretty much just a retired college gasbag these days — but at least I have some support on this notion that all the talk about cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers is going to make it harder to attract and retain qualified and dedicated teachers. And hey, if you think this is easy — especially in an era where teachers have almost total accountability for student success, or not, as measured by test scores — give it a try.

Here’s from a NYT article, “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?“:

The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.

“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Ms. Parker, a high school science teacher in Madison, Wis., where public employees’ two-week occupation of the State Capitol has stalled but not deterred the governor’s plan to try to strip them of bargaining rights.

Ms. Parker, a second-year teacher making $36,000, fears that under the proposed legislation class sizes would rise and higher contributions to her benefits would knock her out of the middle class.

And:

Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.

Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers — Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy — education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

And here’s from Matt Miller, opining in WaPo, “The public-sector employees on which our future depends.” (Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly column for The Post.)

I get that public-sector workers are on both sides of the table, and that there’s something suspect and rigged when pols lifted into office by these unions return the favor with generous health and pension benefits that break the bank. I also get that this conspiracy to roll taxpayers is equally at work when pols backed by business reward supporters with tax breaks and subsidies worth many times the political contributions received.

I know that Republicans want to use today’s fiscal strain to bust public-sector unions and kneecap the Democrats’ biggest funders, and that budgets are being balanced partly on the backs of public workers that didn’t cause the financial meltdown that blew a hole in these budgets in the first place. This, while Wall Street bankers and assorted billionaires pay taxes at marginal rates that could easily be higher without affecting productive economic activity at all.

I also know that public-union work rules often create crazy inefficiencies that help account for why the United States spends more for less in education and health care than other advanced nations. But I also see that the savings Scott Walker seeks from Wisconsin’s unions amount to only 10 percent of the state’s budget gap. I also think the Democratic Party has a serious problem when an outsize portion of its political clout comes from organizations that are largely detached from private enterprise and wealth creation.

In other words, my holistic understanding of the arguments on all sides is capacious and complete. I say this not to boast but to show that I come by my confusion honestly. I’ll admit that in weighing these points I’m not sure where I come down on the question of who should “win.” I don’t think the sky will fall if public unions lose some of their current power and benefits, and I don’t think stripping them of some current powers and benefits will do anything to address America’s biggest challenges.

The one thing I know for sure, however, is this: The future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers. That’s because unless we dramatically improve our educational performance, America’s standard of living will be at risk.

The second thing I know for sure is that we’ll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays far more than it does today. With starting teacher salaries averaging $39,000 nationally, and rising to an average maximum of $67,000, it’s no surprise that we draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class; for schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third. We’re the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a “strategy” of recruiting mediocre students and praying they’ll prove excellent teachers.

C’mon, folks. We need excellent teachers — and we need to value teaching and education. It’s that important.

OK. I’m finishing this post just as Mr. Sol is starting to peek over the marsh that surrounds part of Dataw Island, South Carolina.

But today it is back to reality as we return to Ohio.

Oh, too bad.

Libya, Democracy and Civility

Something tells me that events in Libya are not going to end well. Gadhafi said Tuesday he will continue fighting until “he dies a martyr.” That doesn’t sound like he is preparing to go gently into the good night, joining Mubarak at the retirement villa for deposed dictators and  playing shuffleboard to while away the long afternoons before happy hour.

And to put matters into perspective in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East — Egypt included — here’s a NYT article, “When Armies Decide“:

There comes a moment in the life of almost every repressive regime when leaders — and the military forces that have long kept them in power — must make a choice from which there is usually no turning back: Change or start shooting.

Egypt’s military, calculating that it was no longer worth defending an 82-year-old, out-of-touch pharaoh with no palatable successor and no convincing plan for Egypt’s future, ultimately sided with the protesters on the street, at least for Act 1.

In so doing, they ignored the advice of the Saudis, who, in calls to Washington, said that President Hosni Mubarak should open fire if that’s what it took, and that Americans should just stop talking about “universal rights” and back him.

As the contagion of democracy protests spread in the Arab world last week, Bahrain’s far less disciplined forces decided, in effect, that the Saudis, who are their next-door neighbors, were right. They drew two lessons from Egypt: If President Obama calls, hang up. And open fire early.

Gulp.

OK, the situation — revolution? — in Libya is serious to say the least, with plenty of lives already lost — I heard an estimate on TV this morning of 1,000 or more  — and many others certain to be on the line as this thing plays out.

And that’s why it is a major league stretch — for me at least — when pundits and members of the chattering class equate what is going on in Libya, Egypt and so on with the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio over the pension and benefits of public employees, collective bargaining and unions.

Folks, we already live in a representative democracy, and the last time I checked, we go to the polls at certain prescribed intervals and elect our government officials. And if things don’t work out to the satisfaction of voters, then we toss via the ballot box the miscreants out of office and they pack the good china and leave by the front door.

That’s why I have a tough time swallowing Paul Krugman’s suggestion in the NYT that the situation in Wisconsin — and now elsewhere — is somehow making America less of a functioning democracy and leading the USA down the road to becoming a third-world-style oligarchy.

Saying that, I don’t believe that what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana now should be a complete surprise. Hey, as someone opined, elections have consequences — and as best I can tell the governors and legislators in all the states involved were elected to serve. So it strains my sense of civility when we start calling elected officials a Hitler, a Mubarak, a Gadhafi and so on.

Full disclosure: I voted for John Kasich in Ohio, mostly because it appeared to me that Ted Strickland sat for four years with two thumbs solidly up his ass while the state of Ohio shed jobs and industries. So at this point I’m willing to give Kasich the benefit of the doubt. I got what I asked for –a fiscal conservative who appears willing to make some tough choices that are clearly needed in the Buckeye State.

But I don’t see how drawing a line in the sand on collective bargaining rights for public unions contributes to job growth in Ohio at all. I suppose I’m missing the big picture here

But in any event, couldn’t we tone the demonstrations down a notch? There has to be a more reasoned approach to legislation and policy making than one group shouting “kill the bill” followed by a chorus of “pass the bill.” Wonder if they do the wave? Oops. I digress.

And by the way, four years from now if things don’t improve here in Ohio, I’ll vote to replace John Kasich. And if enough others agree that he hasn’t earned the job, then he’ll pack the china and exit. And voters will have arranged an orderly transfer of power in one of the most serene settings anywhere: in the voting booth. And that’s a long way right now from the streets in the Middle East.

Wisconsin: What’s Really Happening?

Does anyone really understand the issues involved in the contentious — remember when a few weeks ago we were looking at a new era of civility? — protests taking place in Wisconsin involving public-service employees, unions and, in my view, philosophically the role and reach of government in this country.

I’m not sure, despite my best efforts, that I completely understand what is happening in Wisconsin — and what is about to happen in Ohio and other states as elected officials attempt to reduce government spending, cut pensions and reduce health care expenses, and restrict collective bargaining rights.

One problem is the way this and similar stories are reported: more like an OSU-Wisconsin football game with signs, crowds, music and so on — but absent facts and context. (By the way, I found out yesterday that 24 states already limit or deny entirely collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. But I’ve only seen that mentioned in one article.)

Another is that we may have reached the point where there is just too much information, much of it conflicting. Here’s from an informative NPR article by Linton Weeks, “Media Black Hole: So Much News That We’ll Implode“:

Have you noticed? The news cycle is spinning faster. And faster. Andfasterandfaster.

Congressman Christopher Lee (R-NY) resigns because of a scandal even before the scandal is known to the public. On websites we get Tuesday’s news on Monday. As online commenters, we discuss articles we haven’t read and dis movies we haven’t watched. Google anticipates the stories we want to see even before we know we want to see them. And as one person tweeted recently: “Tunisia’s revolution took four weeks. Egypt: 17 days. Who’s next and how much time do they have?”

When it comes to the news of the day, newspapers, websites, bloggers, cable networks and aggregators all trip over themselves to be the fastest and the first. The competition has always existed, but technology has ramped up the rivalries.

And the point:

Still, with news — and reaction to news — moving more quickly than ever, says Louis Gray, a Silicon Valley blogger who chronicles the ever-increasing speed of computers and companies, “it is safe to assume the public does not know about many top stories or issues, and cannot be assumed to have enough data to ascertain truth versus spin, and right versus wrong.”

As a result, Gray says, “people are intentionally filtering the information they consume through sources they agree with, or are turning instead to entertainment and idle-time activities, becoming less informed.”

Hmm. And I was fretting last week about Lindsay Lohan’s dress. Go figure.

Anyway, back to Wisconsin. Let’s see if we can figure out what is really happening based on the comments of some leading pundits, writing in WaPo and the NYT. Also, my friend Bill Sledzik sent me yesterday an interesting post by Robert Reich on Salon.com that examines this situation from a political perspective nationally.

So here goes — and please remember that I am pulling information out of the context of an entire column or post. And as anyone who has written or graded a research paper knows only too well, that may not prove to be the best or most accurate approach.

Eugene Robinson, WaPo, “Starving Wisconsin’s unions“:

Let’s be clear: The high-stakes standoff in Wisconsin has nothing to do with balancing the state’s budget.

It is about money, though – but only in the sense that money translates into political power. At this point, it’s clear for all to see that Gov. Scott Walker’s true aim is to bust the public employee unions, thus permanently reshaping the political landscape in the Republican Party’s favor.

Democratic state senators who fled the state to forestall Walker’s coup have no choice but to remain on the lam. Protesters who support union rights have no choice but to keep their vigil at the capitol in Madison. This is a big deal.

George Will, WaPo, “Out of Wisconsin, a lesson in leadership for Obama“:

As Milwaukee County executive, he [Wisconsin Gov. Walker] had similar dust-ups with government workers’ unions, and when the dust settled, he was resoundingly reelected, twice. If his desire to limit collective bargaining by such unions to salary issues makes him the “Midwest Mussolini” – some protesters did not get the memo about the new civility – other supposed offenses include wanting state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans (most pay less than 1 percent), which would still be less than the average in the private sector. He also wants them to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums – up from about 6 percent but still much less than the private-sector average.

He campaigned on this. Union fliers distributed during the campaign attacked his “5 and 12″ plan. He says his brother, a hotel banquet manager, and his sister-in-law, who works at Sears, “would love to have” what he is offering the unions.

For some of Madison’s graying baby boomers, these protests are a jolly stroll down memory lane. Tune up the guitars! “This is,” Walker says, “very much a ’60s mentality.”

He does, however, think there is sincerity unleavened by information: Many protesters do not realize that most worker protections – merit hiring; just cause for discipline and termination – are the result not of collective bargaining but of Wisconsin’s uniquely strong and century-old civil service law.

“I am convinced,” he says, “this is about money – but not the employees’ money.” It concerns union dues, which he wants the state to stop collecting for the unions, just as he wants annual votes by state employees on re-certifying the unions. He says many employees pay $500 to $600 annually in union dues – teachers pay up to $1,000. Given a choice, many might prefer to apply this money to health care premiums or retirement plans. And he thinks “eventually” most will say about the dues collectors, “What do we need this for?”

Such unions are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it always wants to do anyway – grow. These unions use dues extracted from members to elect their members’ employers. And governments, not disciplined by the need to make a profit, extract government employees’ salaries from taxpayers. Government sits on both sides of the table in cozy “negotiations” with unions.

Richard Cohen, WaPo, “Government pensions, an obesity epidemic“:

But, really, enough is enough. The Wisconsin state employees who are demonstrating in Madison have my sympathy but not my total support. I recognize that they have offered givebacks, and I recognize, too, that Gov. Scott Walker has gone too far – if not trying to bust the unions, as it is alleged, then surely trying to cripple them. In the manner of Ronald Reagan taking on student demonstrators at Berkeley in 1966, Walker will become the champion of the common man, the Middle American and all of that. This works. Reagan, you might recall, went on to become president.

Reagan personified the disgust many Americans felt toward unruly (and ungrateful) college students. Walker is personifying the feeling of resentment and anger toward government workers who have so gamed the system that some of them retire on larger stipends than the average American makes in salary – and with health care, too. Like Reagan, Walker has tapped into a feeling of disgust – the always-dangerous sense that you and I have played by the rules and saved for our modest retirements, while government workers, on our dime, have run off with pensions they do not deserve. We feel we have been played for a fool.

Charles Lane, WaPo, “For Wisconsin unions, a telling concession“:

Wisconsin public-sector union leaders have offered Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-majority state legislature a deal. The unions will accept all of the fiscal aspects of Walker’s bill: Henceforth members will pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums, up substantially in both areas. All they ask in return is that Walker and the legislature not gut their collective bargaining rights. Sounds statesmanlike, right?

I have my doubts. Certainly, this offer undercuts the unions’ claim that there is no budget crisis in Wisconsin, and that Walker manufactured one as a pretext for union-busting. If there’s no budget crisis, on what possible basis can union leaders instruct their members to give up an estimated $330 million worth of hard-earned, contractually guaranteed benefits over the next couple of years? Are they saying that the rank and file is better off giving up their money now, even though it isn’t necessary to fix the state’s budget, as long as they still have the chance to get the money back at the bargaining table later, maybe?

If that’s the way these guys negotiate, I really wouldn’t want to be a public-sector union member in Wisconsin. If they had the interests of their membership at heart, they would give in on bargaining rights, which can always be restored under a friendlier government later — but keep maximum cash in their members’ pockets here and now.

Looks to me as if Wisconsin’s union leaders have revealed their preference for political power. They want to preserve collective bargaining at all costs, because without it they will lose the flow of dues money. And without dues money, the unions have no political war chests, and without political war chests, they are no longer power brokers in state and local elections.

And David Brooks, NYT, “Make Everybody Hurt“:

Walker’s critics are amusingly Orwellian. They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do. It’s the Democratic minority that is thwarting the majority will by fleeing to Illinois. It’s the left that has suddenly embraced extralegal obstructionism.

Still, let’s try to put aside the hyperventilation. Everybody now seems to agree that Governor Walker was right to ask state workers to pay more for their benefits. Even if he gets everything he asks for, Wisconsin state workers would still be contributing less to their benefits than the average state worker nationwide and would be contributing far, far less than private sector workers.

The more difficult question is whether Walker was right to try to water down Wisconsin’s collective bargaining agreements. Even if you acknowledge the importance of unions in representing middle-class interests, there are strong arguments on Walker’s side. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack.

That’s because public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

OK. Now, about Lindsay Lohan’s dress…

Wisconsin: Spinning Out of Control?

Well, I learned over the weekend that they don’t serve Jameson during happy hour at Akron General Medical Center. In fact, they don’t serve much beyond a saline drip. Go figure.

The short story: For reasons that nobody — including me and the docs — can explain, I’ve had three episodes in the past two weeks of what appears to be vertigo. One minute I’m fine. The next the room is spinning and I’m experiencing all the side effects of someone who has just endured — barely — a week-long fraternity kegger.

So for the first time in more than 40 years, I ended up checking into a hospital Friday, where the docs probed and poked and concluded I was OK. And what got me there was not so much the vertigo, but the fact that I have what has been described as a “runner’s heart” — an abnormally low heart beat under regular conditions due to running and exercise, but really, really low on Friday.

Anyway, the cardiologist after suggesting I was an asshat for running more than a 1,000 miles a year nearly every year for the past 35 opined that as far as my heart was concerned I’d live forever. Or until the Cleveland Browns win the Super Bowl — which I take to be the same thing.

So, I’m back. And I ran seven miles yesterday morning just to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t going to die,  and I’m going to chase the treadmill belt this morning while watching Fox News to catch up on what’s going on in the world these days. Note to self: Don’t go to the emergency room again without taking your BlackBerry.

And I’m interested in what’s happening in Wisconsin where the state government is apparently all but shut down while protesters take to the streets to debate the merits — or not — of a proposed bill to limit public-sector unions. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to the hospital in Madison over the weekend, where doctors were found mostly out on the streets handing out bogus medical excuse forms — sick notes — to protesters. I digress.

Here’s from Paul Krugman, opining in the New York Times, “Wisconsin Power Play“:

In any case, however, Mr. Ryan [Rep. Paul Ryan] was more right than he knew. For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

Some background: Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away.

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. Partly that’s because he doesn’t want to share the sacrifice: even as he proclaims that Wisconsin faces a terrible fiscal crisis, he has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit worse. Mainly, however, he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.

And:

So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

Wow. Dr. K seems a little grumpy this morning. Wonder if his weekend was any better than mine? And if this is an argument about democracy, shouldn’t the Democratic members of the Wisconsin senate who are now on an extended road trip be at home, ah, representing those who elected them? Just askin’.

OK. I believe public, and private for that matter, K-12 school teachers are grossly underpaid. But as a nation we have devalued teaching to the point that nobody really believes that — and if Wisconsin, like most states, is on the road to bankruptcy, then it’s not unreasonable to ask teachers and other public employees to sacrifice along with everyone else.

But this appears to be something more than just belt-tightening. This might well be the start of a huge philosophical and policy shift — played out on the streets in this country by real people and not just by the chattering class on cable TV — about the role and extent of government at all levels — and the role and influence of unions in the public and private sectors.

Anyway, for another perspective read Michelle Malkin.

Or Howard Schweber, Associate Professor of Political Science and Law, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And ironically, this situation in Wisconsin — and next up: Ohio — continues to spin out of control on Presidents’ Day — a holiday that appears to have no other purpose than to give federal and other government employees the day off and shut everything down.

Go figure.

And