Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Oscars: Knowing When to Leave the Stage

OK. Let’s admit it. There are plenty of big fish in the skillet these days: Libya, legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere aimed at public employees and unions, the possible shutdown of the federal government and so on. But since I’m on spring/winter break and letting the lamestream media keep a watchful eye on events foreign and domestic I’ll opine on something that really doesn’t matter much: the Academy Awards.

I managed to watch 90 minutes or so of the broadcast last night. And it was boring. You would think that professionals in the entertainment business could figure out how to put on a, well, entertaining TV show. Go figure. Hey, what was up with James Franco? He seemed less interested in what was going on than most of us. I digress.

Here’s from an article in WaPo, “At the Oscars: The kids were all right and the Speech was well-prepared“:

Anne Hathaway hosted the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on ABC Sunday night, as scheduled. And her co-host, James Franco, did what exactly? (Besides be handsome? Besides a little Marilyn Monroe drag? And besides shouting “NYU, whassup!” to the Best Live Action Short winner? What, that’s not enough?)

And:

As for your hosts, Hathaway worked her derriere off and Franco came off like that lacrosse boy you wish your daughter didn’t hang out with so much, sort of heavy-lidded and smirky and … well, let’s give him credit for being James Franco, the 23-hour-a-day workaholic/grad student/filmmaker/soap-opera/not-Best Actor wunderkind of his generation.

Turns out hosting Oscars is when the dude decides to take a rest. The only required trick for Franco and Hathaway was to manage to not look like they were doing one of those flirty commercials for a phone plan. (He’s so laid back! She’s so hyper! And now they get unlimited 4G downloads and texting! etc.)

Anyway, I managed to watch most of the movies that were nominated for the major awards, and I liked The King’s Speech, which deserved the nod for best picture.

But here’s the point. For a broadcast that was aiming for a younger demographic in terms of audience, did the producers really need Kirk Douglas slurring his speech and trying to balance on a cane while announcing the award for best supporting actress?

I thought it was embarrassing for Mr. Douglas and pathetic really. Hey, this guy was Spartacus. And I’m not making fun of him. He’s 94 and appears to still be playing with a full deck. I should be so lucky. But the point here is that many — most? — of us won’t be, and there has to be a time when you have to be willing to leave the stage, whether that stage is in entertainment, politics, sports, government or business.

What got me thinking about this? It’s a book by Susan Jacoby, “Never Say Die.” Here’s from a NYT review by Ted Fishman:

Susan Jacoby has long made it her project to uncover ill-formed, cynical “junk thought” and administer a cold dose of reason and logic against it. But Jacoby is no Mr. Spock. Her rationalism is delivered in an angry barrage peppered with enthusiastically snide asides. In previous books, including “The Age of American Unreason” and “Freethinkers,” her targets have been right-leaning religionists, social Darwinists, and the paucity of reason in a generation that stares too much at glowing screens and too little at learned books. In her latest jeremiad, “Never Say Die,” she fights to slay the conspiracies of ignorance and greed that she believes conceal a single, and indeed irrefutable, truth: extreme old age can be nasty, brutish and long.

Jacoby sees a new ageism that doesn’t just stigmatize old people for their years, but blames them for physical ills that no lifestyle adjustments or medicine can yet forestall. In particular, she believes that our dreams of active, vital old age block a clear vision of “old old” age, the highly vulnerable stage that begins around a person’s 85th birthday. Among other perils, the “old old” have a roughly even chance of being counted among the mind-eaten ranks of Alzheimer’s victims. We may not like to think that poverty, social isolation, crippling pain, dementia and loss of autonomy are likely to come calling the longer we live, but it’s a fact.

Jacoby argues that Americans, and baby boomers especially, are blinded to the most regrettable facts of old age because we (I am 52, Jacoby is 65) have been steeped for decades in the national can-do, self-help, will-can-make-it-so stew. Boomers may believe they can reinvent life past 60 just as they reinvented adolescence and young adulthood. They may think their late years will be filled with vigor, work, active social lives and “giving back.” And they may believe that medical science will transform human biology and spare us all from decrepitude. Dream on, Jacoby says. Or rather, don’t.

And:

Even if we prolong our healthy lives, she writes, our last years are likely to be as full of handicaps as ever: “At 85 or 90 — whatever satisfactions may still lie ahead — only a fool or someone who has led an extraordinarily unhappy life can imagine that the best years are still to come.” The advances of modern medicine may just draw out our unhappy ends even longer. Jacoby, an avowed atheist, argues that suicide is hardly immoral when one’s final days are an unbearable compound of physical and psychological insults.

Jacoby repeatedly hammers home the suffering of the very old, reminding readers how large the risk of dementia looms. Indeed, we need to face this individual truth in order to face the broader social one. By 2030, the 70 million aging boomers will nearly double the ranks of Americans over 65, straining Social Security and, especially, Medicare to the breaking point (though Jacoby is quick to argue against the “greedy geezer” stereotype, which she sees as a half-truth pushed by conservatives who want to gut entitlement programs). Jacoby persuasively argues that the needs of the old old can be met only with a stronger government role, but that younger Americans would be unlikely to support this unless their health care needs were better met, too. She also notes that our insistence on personal choice in health care often leads to the obliteration of personal autonomy in late life, when the prohibitive cost of home care forces older people into low-rung institutions where they lose control of their lives.

Ouch.

See. This is what happens when I stay up after nine o’clock. Unless, of course, it’s to watch Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars.

So I better get up and run now — with a great six-mile loop around Dataw Island.

And note to self: Send the producers of the Academy Awards a copy of Jacoby’s book before they start lining up presenters and hosts for next year’s show. There really does come a time when you have to leave the stage.

 

 

 

Wisconsin, Libya and Going Fishin’

Well, as a pajama-clad citizen journalist can I ever really justify taking a vacation? Well, of course. Why not? I mean we still have to rely to some extent on the lamestream media — NYT, WaPo, USA Today and so on — to keep a watchful eye on events foreign and domestic.

And what a difference a week makes.

This time last Saturday morning I was enjoying brunch by way of a saline drip at Akron General Medical Center. This week, I’m opining from Dataw Island in South Carolina where the breeze is gentle, the living is easy and the Internet access is about what it was like in Egypt during the waning days of Mubarak’s tenure.

And I managed to make it out of Ohio just ahead of another major snowstorm. What’s up with that damn groundhog anyway? I digress.

Anyway, I’m a news junkie. So I’ll try my best to keep up with events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Libya and elsewhere during my brief stay here — even if it means clutching my BlackBerry and taking to the roof in search of a strong digital signal.

And since I am relying on other media outlets to do some heavy lifting during my brief absence, here’s two articles that I mulled over yesterday as providing some perspective on the situation in Wisconsin and Ohio involving public employees, unions, collective bargaining, jobs and the economy.

The first is from the NYT, “In Columbus, Conflicted Emotions on Unions“:

When protesters descended this week to oppose a bill that would weaken collective bargaining for public workers, Elaine, a cashier at a Dollar Store in a crazy quilt of strip malls in southern Columbus, had little sympathy.

“Adults acting like children down at the Statehouse,” she said, ringing up a customer’s paper plates. “The unions are getting a little bit out of control.”

For a city so important in the formation of the modern American labor movement, Columbus, Ohio’s capital, seems remarkably free of affection for unions.

In interviews on Wednesday, some people, like Elaine, a woman in her 50s who did not give her last name because it was against her store’s policy to speak to reporters, were openly against them. But most people had mixed views, expressing sympathy for the deteriorating condition of the middle class, but also frustration that a union member could get a better deal.

So it goes in America’s often conflicted relationship with its working class, a tangled history whose next chapter is unfolding, among other places, here in Columbus, where the forerunner to the modern labor movement, the American Federation of Labor, began in 1886 and the United Mine Workers four years later.

And the second is from Charles Krauthammer in WaPo “Rubicon: A River in Wisconsin“:

The magnificent turmoil now gripping statehouses in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and soon others marks an epic political moment. The nation faces a fiscal crisis of historic proportions and, remarkably, our muddled, gridlocked, allegedly broken politics have yielded singular clarity.

At the federal level, President Obama’s budget makes clear that Democrats are determined to do nothing about the debt crisis, while House Republicans have announced that beyond their proposed cuts in discretionary spending, their April budget will actually propose real entitlement reform. Simultaneously, in Wisconsin and other states, Republican governors are taking on unsustainable, fiscally ruinous pension and health-care obligations, while Democrats are full-throated in support of the public-employee unions crying, “Hell, no.”

A choice, not an echo: Democrats desperately defending the status quo; Republicans charging the barricades.

Wisconsin is the epicenter. It began with economic issues. When Gov. Scott Walker proposed that state workers contribute more to their pension and health-care benefits, he started a revolution. Teachers called in sick. Schools closed. Demonstrators massed at the capitol. Democratic senators fled the state to paralyze the Legislature.

Unfortunately for them, that telegenic faux-Cairo scene drew national attention to the dispute – and to the sweetheart deals the public-sector unions had negotiated for themselves for years. They were contributing a fifth of a penny on a dollar of wages to their pensions and one-fourth what private-sector workers pay for health insurance.

The unions quickly understood that the more than 85 percent of Wisconsin not part of this privileged special-interest group would not take kindly to “public servants” resisting adjustments that still leave them paying less for benefits than private-sector workers. They immediately capitulated and claimed they were only protesting the other part of the bill, the part about collective-bargaining rights.

Indeed. Walker understands that a one-time giveback means little. The state’s financial straits – a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years – did not come out of nowhere. They came largely from a half-century-long power imbalance between the unions and the politicians with whom they collectively bargain.

In the private sector, the capitalist knows that when he negotiates with the union, if he gives away the store, he loses his shirt. In the public sector, the politicians who approve any deal have none of their own money at stake. On the contrary, the more favorably they dispose of union demands, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of union largess in the next election. It’s the perfect cozy setup.

OK. Let the games continue in Wisconsin, Ohio and Inside the Beltway. And while we’re waiting for the final score in these high-stakes legislative showdowns, d

Wisconsin, Ohio and the Divided Economy

OK. Here’s a pop quiz. Do you have now — or expect to have — enough money in a 401K (or similar) savings account for retirement? If you have a defined benefit pension, how secure is it? Do you have guaranteed medical benefits from your employer now and as you enter the golden years and beyond? If you’re working and lose your job, could you find one with equal pay and benefits?

I expect that many Americans — in all age groups — are giving some thought to those and similar questions. And the answers help shape perceptions about what is happening now in states throughout the country and Inside the Beltway as the federal government prepares for a possible shutdown.

And I know there are plenty of important issues on the table now in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states about government spending, deficits, public employees and unions, and collective bargaining.

Oh, sorry. One other question. Does America now have essentially two economies?

What got me thinking about that was an editorial cartoon in the Akron Beacon Journal. I most likely won’t get this exactly right but the cartoon depicts two guys. One labeled a public employee is lamenting the fact that his pension might be cut. The other asks — what’s a pension?

Anyway, if you struggled with the answers to today’s pop quiz, here’s some background info.

Here’s from Robert Reich, “The Jobs Report and America’s Two Economies“:

We have two economies. The first is in recovery. The second remains in a continuous depression.

The first is a professional, college-educated, high-wage economy centered in New York and Washington, that’s living well off of global corporate profits. Corporations continue to make money by selling abroad from their foreign operations while cutting costs (especially labor) here at home. Wall Street is making money by taking the Fed’s free money and speculating with it. The richest 10 percent of Americans, holding 90 percent of all financial assets, are riding the wave. And their upscale spending has given high-end retailers and producers a bounce.

The second is most of the rest of America, and it’s still struggling with a mountain of debt, declining home prices, and job losses. In coming months most Americans will also be contending with sharply rising prices of food and fuel.

Our representatives in Washington see and hear mostly the first economy. The business press reports mainly on the first economy. Corporate and Wall Street economists are concerned largely with the first economy.

But the second economy will determine our politics in 2012 and beyond.

Here’s from a WSJ.com article, “Retiring Boomers Find 401(K) Plans Come Up Short“:

Facing shortfalls, many people are postponing retirement, moving to cheaper housing, buying less-expensive food, cutting back on travel, taking bigger risks with their investments and making other sacrifices they never imagined.

“Inevitably, we find that, for the average person, there is not enough there,” says financial adviser Paul Merritt of NTrust Wealth Management in Virginia Beach, Va., who has found himself advising many retirement-age people with too little savings. “The discussion turns out to be: What kind of part-time work do you want to do after you retire?”

He has clients contemplating part-time work into their 70s, he says.

Tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts came into wide use in the 1980s, making baby boomers trying to retire now among the first to rely heavily on them.

The problems are widespread, especially among middle-income earners. About 60% of households nearing retirement age have 401(k)-type accounts, according to government data, and those represent the majority of most people’s savings. The situation is less dire for those in a higher income bracket, who tend to save more outside their 401(k) accounts and who have more margin for error if their retirement returns fall below the recommended 85% figure.

And here’s about new jobs,  from The Huffington Post, “60% of New Jobs in 2010 Were in Low-Paying Industries“:

TrimTabs drills into the Labor Bureau’s data for new jobs added in last year, to reveal some unsetting details: “Of the 1.1 million private jobs gained in the last year, 650,000 or 60% are jobs that have absolutely no real wealth creation capacity, nor do they provide any real benefits.”

60% of new jobs went to Temporary Help, Leisure & Hospitality and Retail trade. Leisure and hospitality pays an average hourly wage of $13.14, while a retail salesperson brings in an average of $11.84 an hour, according to the BLS’ database. Temporary help services can be slightly more lucrative at the higher end (Registered Nurses earn $32.77 an hour), but packers and packagers only earn an average of $8.62 per hour.

As TrimTabs puts it:

These jobs are certainly better than no jobs. But for the economy to grow sustainably — without the crutches of $1+ trillion per year in federal deficit spending, zero percent dictated interest rates, and tens of billions per month in central bank debt monetization — American companies need to start generating more higher-paying jobs at home.

I know. It’s tough to spring a pop quiz on you at 4 a.m. So go ahead and review your answers. And take a minute or two to consider some additional reasons why people are standing out in the streets in the dead of winter in Madison, Columbus and elsewhere shouting at each other.

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

Public Employees, Unions and Lithuania

Wonder exactly where Lithuania is? I guess somewhere in Europe. But Lithuania may be closer — at least symbolically — to Wisconsin, Ohio and other states than we might think.

Here’s why.

In case you’ve been focused on the myriad problems involving Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen and missed this, there is a European-style controversy brewing right here in the USA.

And it involves public employees, unions, government spending and state and local politics. Wow. A blogger’s wet dream come true. Oops. I digress.

Here’s from NPR, “Wisconsin is ground zero for battle over unions“:

Wisconsin’s effort to cut public workers’ benefits and bargaining rights has quickly turned into a high-stakes national issue involving President Obama, congressional Republicans and other states.

Wisconsin is the first in a long line of states under Republican control that will consider requiring government workers to pay more for pensions and health care while limiting the power of employee unions to negotiate contracts and work rules.

Ohio is next, likely to vote within weeks on an equally dramatic limit on public employee rights. Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New Mexico are among the two dozen other states considering narrower but substantial changes in how government treats its workforce.

The moves are aimed at saving hundreds of millions of dollars and cutting the burden of pension and health care costs at a time when state and local government finances are weak.

An aside: In Wisconsin the situation apparently is so dicey that real leadership is required — so a number of Democratic lawmakers fled the state yesterday to prevent a vote. Wonder if those lawmakers are among those criticizing teachers who are calling in sick. Oops. I digress again.

Anyway, a similar protest although on a smaller scale took place yesterday in Ohio where supporters and opponents of a bill to restrict collective bargaining rights met toe-to-toe in Columbus.

So, what’s up with Lithuania?

Well, Lithuania, like many — most? — countries in Europe has promised way more to public employees and most everyone else than they can ever pay for now in terms of pensions, health care and so on. And cutting back is, well, a bitch — with people hitting the concrete in Lithuania, Greece, Spain, France, England and elsewhere.

Here’s from a NYT story, “From Lithuania, A View of Austerity’s Costs“:

VILNIUS, Lithuania — If leaders of the world’s many indebted countries want to see what austerity looks like, they might want to visit this Baltic nation of 3.3 million.

Faced with rising deficits that threatened to bankrupt the country, Lithuania cut public spending by 30 percent — including slashing public sector wages 20 to 30 percent and reducing pensions by as much as 11 percent. Even the prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, took a pay cut of 45 percent.

And the government didn’t stop there. It raised taxes on a wide variety of goods, like pharmaceutical products and alcohol. Corporate taxes rose to 20 percent, from 15 percent. The value-added tax rose to 21 percent, from 18 percent.

The net effect on this country’s finances was a savings equal to 9 percent of gross domestic product, the second-largest fiscal adjustment in a developed economy, after Latvia’s, since the credit crisis began.

But austerity has exacted its own price, in social and personal pain.

Pensioners, their benefits cut, swamped soup kitchens. Unemployment jumped to a high of 14 percent, from single digits — and an already wobbly economy shrank 15 percent last year.

Sweet Maria. Note to Ohio Gov John Kasich: If I end up having to go to a soup kitchen, could it at least serve a nice lobster bisque?  Just askin’.

OK. The issue with state governments, government spending and public service employees and unions really speaks to a big and serious national problem — and we need some thoughtful leadership.

Some key, although I’m sure certainly not all, points:

  • Most states are in deep doo-doo financially. And as best I can tell, unlike the federal government, piling one big budget deficit on top of another is not an alternative.
  • Everybody wants state and local government services — police, fire, education and so on — but nobody really wants to pay, certainly not in the form of higher taxes.
  • The Obama/Pelosi stimulus money — to the extent you can find where it went at all — went in large measure to maintain jobs of teachers and public service employees. Can’t imagine that under current conditions Inside the Beltway that a similar bailout will happen again.
  • There used to be a social contract between local governments and public service employees — certainly with teachers. You would trade lower wages for job security, benefits and fixed pensions. Those days are over, or certainly about to change radically. And full disclosure: I believe teachers, particularly in public K-12 education, are pathetically underpaid.
  • But the perception of those working in the private sector these days — those without employer-provided pensions and with little or no job security if they have a job at all — is that public service employees from the federal government on down have it much better. And it’s hard to argue with that. If you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to retire on your personal savings — now with little if any home equity — and a 401k account that treads water at best, well, good luck for the golden years.

So, we need to pay attention to what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states — and we need some leadership on these tough problems and issues soon.

Otherwise, we are going to end up understanding a lot more about Lithuania, and that’s a lesson we aren’t going to enjoy.

Lara Logan: “Thank You”

It’s easy to sit in the relative safety of your home or office and opine about events, big, small and Lindsay Lohan. But it’s much different to be out there on the streets, particularly when bullets and tear gas are flying or when a group of seemingly peaceful protestors decide they need to be a little less peaceful.

And, yeah, I know. It’s a Twitter and Facebook world. Still, most of the big, important stories need more context than you can get in 140 characters. So I have great appreciation and admiration for journalists who are willing to put themselves at risk to report the news.

That’s why the story about Lara Logan is so disturbing.

Logan, a CBS reporter, was covering the story in Tahir Square following Mubarak’s decision to pack his bags and head off to a retirement community. Logan was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Here’s a statement by CBS, contained in a story on Mediaite, “CBS News’ Lara Logan Subjected To Brutal and Sustained Sexual Assault In Egypt“:

On Friday February 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS Correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a 60 MINUTES story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into a frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently in the hospital recovering.

There will be no further comment from CBS News and Correspondent Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time.

Logan was released from a New York hospital Tuesday. But the attack on her points to the dangers reporters — and I include those using Twitter and Facebook here along with traditional media — face. Here’s a story on NPR:

The attack on a CBS correspondent in Egypt covering the fall of President Hosni Mubarak highlights the dangers that journalists face every day as they cover breaking news stories in foreign countries, especially regions that restrict freedom of the press.

Lara Logan, 39, was beaten and sexually assaulted by a Cairo mob Friday in the frenzied aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation after she was separated from her TV crew. She is among more than 140 journalists who have been attacked while covering Egypt’s political upheaval, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organization to promote press freedoms worldwide. Logan is an CPJ board member.

As I’ve been following this story for the past few days, I’ve also been disturbed about the nasty — no, not just nasty, vile — comments and commentaries about Lara Logan that have circulated through the blogosphere. Folks, this is the dark side of the Internet where people can hide behind computers and now smartphones and attack anyone or anything.

Here’s from a WaPo blog post by Melissa Bell, “A thank you to CBS reporter Lara Logan for letting her story be known“:

On Friday, the world watched a gleeful, giant celebration. History was made, President Obama told the world. Men and women danced in the street. Fireworks lit up the sky over Egypt. Although there had been bloodshed and pain, it paled in comparison with what a disparate group of people had done when they came together in peace. The people had toppled a dictator.

On Tuesday, CBS released a statement, short and straight, that punched people in the stomach with its staccato message. Amid that joyful party, there had been “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating.”

Lara Logan, CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent, had been surrounded by more than 200 people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, separated from her colleagues and attacked.

After the news came the responses, in three distinct categories:

• Those who blamed her for being beautiful and blond in a foreign country.

• Those who blamed the Muslim country.

• Those who blamed journalism for not doing enough to protect women.

The responses make a terrible situation so much worse. (And cost at least one man, Nir Rosen, his job.)

Here’s why this story is not just about Logan:

A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women experience public sexual harassment, from groping to assault.

Here’s why this story is not just about Egypt, either:

In 2000, in New York’s Central Park, an assault similar to Logan’s occurred during a parade. Seven women were attacked. In the United States. Attacks occur everywhere, every day. Again and again.

The assault did not happen because Logan was a reporter in a dangerous country. It did not happen because that country happens to be Muslim. It happened because sexual assault occurs every single day to women everywhere in the world.

Here’s why this story is about Lara Logan:

That 2008 report also said nearly 97 percent of Egyptian women and 87 percent of foreigners do not alert police after an assault.

Logan did not stay silent. Through CBS’s statement, her story was heard. It gave voice to an incident that happens all the time, every day. Maybe it will push one more person to tell their story.

For that, I say thank you.

No question. Lara Logan, thank you and all the others like you. And among the lessons: Free societies welcome and depend on a free and vigorous press and fearless journalists.

Watson and the Federal Budget

Well, I actually watched a little of Jeopardy last night. You would think I could answer at least some of the questions. What gives with that? And what gives that Watson, a computer, thumped two Jeopardy wizards and former champions?

Full disclosure: I generally only see Jeopardy because it immediately follows Wheel of Fortune. And nobody turns letters better than Vanna White. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I’ll let the folks at NPR do the semi-heavy lifting this a.m. Here’s a blog post, “Jeopardy Suggests That It’s Really Time To Start Worrying About Robots“:

The puny humans are on the ropes.

On Tuesday night’s installment of Jeopardy!, the second night of a three-night challenge, the computer known as Watson gave a pants-down spanking to its two human opponents, champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. According to The New York Times, Watson was the first to buzz in on 25 out of 30 answers in the Double Jeopardy round, and it got 24 of them right. (Ultimately, Watson stumbled only on a question that indirectly involved Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. But honestly, by being completely confused when confronted with O’Hare, the computer only makes itself seem more deeply human.)

Watson has more than $35,000. Rutter has $10,400. Jennings has $4,800. Unless the final round includes a lot of questions requiring contestants to talk about their feelings or about how it feels to wriggle your toes in the freshly mowed grass of spring, things do not look good for our team. And by “our team,” I mean “those of us with brains made of brains.”

But don’t despair. We’re pretty sure there are still things you can do that a computer can’t do. Can a computer cry at Lost when Jack and Hurley were hugging? Can it giggle when a kid in a Darth Vader mask tries to start a Jetta? Can it care to an irrational degree whether the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl? Can it worry about whether it’s going to be replaced by another computer?

Wednesday night will tell the tale. But if Watson wins, you might want to unplug your coffee maker before you go to bed, lest you wake up with it standing over you, answering trivia questions and demanding all your jewelry.

Well, yeah, that’s a concern.

But I’ll opine that we are missing an opportunity here by not pressing Watson into public service, acting as an impartial arbitrator during the months — years? — ahead as members of the administration and Congress — and the related gaggle of hanger-ons (lobbyists, policy wonks and other miscreants) essentially march in place while searching for ways to cut federal spending without gutting economic and future growth and alienating large groups of voters and interest groups.

Nobody Inside the Beltway right now appears to have any answers.

So as this year’s version of the budget game is just under way, let’s call in Watson from the bullpen. I bet he/she/it could put some real heat on the heavy hitters.

And yes. We’ll still have Vanna to help us go gently into that post dinner and happy hour snooze.

The President’s Budget: More Can Kicking

Well, this should be interesting. Prez O released the details of the administration’s proposed 2012 fiscal year budget yesterday, and it doesn’t appear that many of the lobbyists, policy wonks, policy makers and other miscreants who raced to get a copy are particularly happy. Go figure.

Yet the budget — framed in the big national issues of spending investing to “win the future” versus slicing the deficit (a WTF prospect for most of us, but necessary) — should provide material for the chattering class for months and may very well set the stage for national, state and local elections in 2012 that determines what we really stand for as a nation.

Here’s from a NYT article, “Obama’s Budget Focuses on Path to Rein in Deficit“:

With President Obama’s release on Monday of a budget for next year and House action this week on a Republican plan for immediate deep spending cuts, the nation is getting its clearest view since the president took office of the parties’ competing visions of the role of government, the urgency of addressing the deficit and the best path to long-term economic success.

Mr. Obama used his budget for the fiscal year 2012 and beyond to make the case for selectively cutting spending while increasing resources in areas like education and clean energy initiatives that hold the potential for long-term payoffs in economic growth. With this year’s deficit projected to hit a record, $1.6 trillion, he laid out a path for bringing down annual deficits to more sustainable levels over the rest of the decade.

Republicans said it was not nearly enough to address chronic fiscal imbalances and reduce the role of the federal government in the economy and society.

And even some of the liberal rags, WaPo among them, and liberal pundits and gasbags (see for instance Dana Milbank’s WaPo op-ed, “In his new budget, Obama kicks the can one more time“) opine that O’s budget doesn’t go near far enough to cut government spending and the growth in government in general.

Here’s from a WaPo editorial, “President Obama’s budget kicks the hard choices further down the road“:

THE PRESIDENT PUNTED. Having been given the chance, the cover and the push by the fiscal commission he created to take bold steps to raise revenue and curb entitlement spending, President Obama, in his fiscal 2012 budget proposal, chose instead to duck. To duck, and to mask some of the ducking with the sort of budgetary gimmicks he once derided. “The fiscal realities we face require hard choices,” the president said in his budget message. “A decade of deficits, compounded by the effects of the recession and the steps we had to take to break it, as well as the chronic failure to confront difficult decisions, has put us on an unsustainable course.” His budget would keep the country on that course.

OK, folks. Here’s my view of reality from where I sit at 3:30 a.m. as a pajama-clad citizen journalist.

Reality No. 1: Most people favor cutting government spending — as long as the cuts don’t touch something that is important to them. Take a look at a recent national study conducted by the Pew Research Center: “Rethinking Budget Cutting: Fewer Want Spending To Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular.”

Reality No. 2: There are three really big fish in the skillet: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. USA Today has a really informative — and easy to read and understand chart — about where the federal government’s money comes from and where it goes. As best I can tell: Annual payments for Medicare and Medicaid: $737 billion — Social Security: $761 billion. Annual revenues from Medicare payroll taxes: $202 billion — Social Security: $660 billion. Wonder what happened to Al Gore’s Social Security “lockbox” that was a highlight of a presidential debate now long forgotten. I digress.

Reality No. 3: Elected officials — for the most part — don’t look much, if at all, beyond the next election. And anyone who stands up and proposes substantial changes or cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid does so at considerable risk to his or her political future. Seniors tend to take names and kick ass at the ballot box.

Reality No. 4: Conservative Republicans and Tea Party members of Congress are about to test my reality No. 3 — and they well be willing to risk losing an election rather than playing it safe in the middle. And there are a lot of conservatives and independents in this country who would rather step up to the plate and go down swinging on matters of principle than play ball again with the John McCain Republicans.

And admittedly, I’m not enthusiastic about changes to Social Security or Medicare. But if nothing else I’m a jaded realist: something is going to have to change — unless we really do want to become France. We can’t sustain the path we are on without spending cuts or increased taxes. Probably both.

In the meantime, we are going see a lot of can kicking until after the next elections — and maybe beyond.