Monthly Archives: March 2011

Budget Cuts and Cherry Blossoms

Well, I’m heading Inside the Beltway for a few days. And I figured that since I had to go to DC at some point late March or early April anyway, this was as good a time as any. The federal government appears still to be operating. The cherry blossoms cling to the trees. And the Cleveland Indians are still in first place.

Play ball.

By this time next week, things could change. The federal government — since the folks in Congress can’t agree on a 2011 budget let alone spending for 2012 — could be closed for business in early April. Here’s from the NYT, “Budget Impasse Increases Risk of U.S. Shutdown“:

With time running short and budget negotiations this week having reached an angry impasse, Congressional leaders are growing increasingly pessimistic about reaching a bipartisan deal that would avert a government shutdown in early April.

Senior Democratic officials involved in high-level efforts to bring House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House to a budget agreement said that while some progress had been made toward an accord on an overall level of spending cuts, the parties remained divided on the final figure and had to resolve the fate of ideologically charged policy provisions demanded by House conservatives.

Some senior Republicans, after relying on House Democrats to help pass the most recent short-term measure, are also uneasy about having to team up with Democrats again to pass any compromise that dips too far below the $61 billion in spending reductions endorsed by the House for the current fiscal year. Senate Democrats want to wring some of the savings out of mandatory spending programs like Medicare, an approach Republicans are resisting.

Aides said that even if myriad outstanding issues were resolved and an agreement struck late next week after lawmakers returned, it would be a challenge to write the legislation and move it through Congress before the current financing bill expires on April 8.

Well, good luck to those in Congress who have dithered over this for a year or more now. And I know that eventually the budget-cutting axe will hover over the big three — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Wow. Grandma won’t have the money to pay for gas to drive for her appointment with the death panel. Oops. I digress.

Sorry. I’m back. As our elected officials opine and seek the TV Talking Head high ground on budget and spending issues in the days ahead, consider a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. Here’s from WaPo, “Government overlap costs taxpayers billions, GAO reports“:

You think the government redundancies President Obama recently griped about were bad? Federal auditors found plenty more.

During his State of the Union address, Obama noted that 12 federal agencies or offices deal with international trade and at least two regulate salmon. Top administration officials are planning to revamp how the government handles trade issues — and may later turn to other programs.

They’ll have plenty to choose from, according to a Government Accountability Officereport released Tuesday. The U.S. government has more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, 82 monitoring teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 47 for job training, 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 different grant programs for disaster preparedness. Another 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five are working to ensure the federal government uses less gasoline.

“Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services,” the GAO said. Merging or terminating operations as recommended in the report could save up to several billion dollars.

The study, mandated last year as part of legislation raising the federal debt limit, is likely to be cited by lawmakers pushing for deeper spending cuts as part of ongoing budget negotiations. Several congressional offices received advanced copies of the report on Monday; The Washington Post obtained a written summary from congressional aides.

“This report will make us look like jackasses,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who read the report, told reporters Monday. He sponsored the amendment requiring the report’s publication.

An outspoken critic of government waste, Coburn has said that Congress and the executive branch are equally to blame for failing to control spending. Last Halloween, his office published a report concluding that the federal government has paid nearly $1 billion to at least 250,000 dead people since 2000.

Wow. Did Sen. Coburn really say “this report will make us look like jackasses”? Most likely. Although admittedly, people living in most any part of the country other than DC don’t need a GAO report to reach that conclusion. Just sayin’.

So while I’m Inside the Beltway I’ll keep a close eye on the jackasses — and the cherry blossoms, which will most likely vanish at about the same time as the federal government is set to close its doors.

I’ll have to leave the Cleveland Indians to others. Some problems are too big to solve.

The Obama Doctrine: Bam, Zap and Pow

I kinda liked the way the Prez made the case last night for the express delivery of Tomahawk missiles to Mad Dog’s doorstep in Libya. He was animated, engaged, kept on message — and he didn’t interrupt Dancing With the Stars.

So in Libya — and in other nations in the Mideast and elsewhere — I guess it’s game on. Wonder when we’ll see the first bumper sticker: Make love, not limited, kinetic military operations. Oops. I digress.

Anyway, plenty of commentary on what the Prez said — or didn’t say — available today online and via dead tree media, but here’s an interesting perspective from Roger Simon in Politico, “Obama’s BAM! ZAP! and POW!

It was “Mission Accomplished” but without the banner.

In a strong, almost pugnacious, speech Monday night, President Barack Obama said he had achieved his initial goals in Libya. “So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do,” he said.

Slashing the air with his left hand, he used language that was not only robust, but martial: “We struck regime forces….We hit Gaddafi’s troops….We targeted tanks.”


Obama admitted that he militarily intervened in Libya even though America was not at any risk. “There will be times…when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,” he said.

And that is why we are fighting in Libya. Our interest is to have a stable world and our values are to promote democracy and to prevent a “massacre” in Libya and “violence on a horrific scale.”

“We must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed against one’s own citizens; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people,” Obama said.

Hard to sit back while someone like Gadhafi (does anyone know for sure how to spell Mad Dog’s name?) attacks and kills his own people to retain power. I guess in the area of democracy — and values — it’s hard for the USA to be just a little bit pregnant these days.

Still, I wonder how the French and others will feel about a no-fly zone over countries like, let’s say, China, Iran (remember Neda?) and North Korea?

BAM! ZAP! and POW!

ObamaCare and the Reality of Medical Costs

Ah, I thought ObamaCare was going to reduce medical costs. Well, it’s only been a year, and most of the provisions don’t take hold until 2014, but if my recent experience inside the medical gulag is any indication, guard your purses and wallets.

OK. Here’s the backstory.

Last month I managed to end up first in the emergency room and then as an overnight guest at Akron General Medical Center. Diagnosis: vertigo caused by a virus, most likely intestinal. And no question I was sick, flopping on the floor as though I just anchored a month-long fraternity kegger.

In fact, I am still a little nauseous from the experience, particularly as I open the medical bills that somehow find their way now to my snail mailbox every afternoon.

First a disclaimer. The treatment I received as best I can tell was comprehensive and excellent and the staff was professional and yada, yada and yada. And my primary care physician — remember when they were just doctors? — said that anytime someone at my age pulls a stunt like that they have to check for a heart attack or stroke. Wait a minute. At my age? Sigh.

Anyway, here’s the rub. Total cost: nearly $10,000.

The visit to the emergency room and overnight hospital stay topped $7,000. The fees for the doctors — and they assembled like lawyers at the site of a traffic accident — came to another $1,000 or so. Then you add a host of tests and lab work and so on — and pretty soon, just like the federal deficit, you’re talking about real money.

And then get this. I had to make my way via ambulance from the emergency room to the hospital — a distance of about 15 miles. Cost: $783. And they didn’t even offer a double Jameson during the trip. Woot.

Fortunately, I have insurance that will cover most of these costs. A lot of people in this country don’t. I’ve seen some estimates that put the number at 25 million or so. And what happens if you don’t have insurance? Or if you are really sick over an extended period of time and didn’t have enough — or good enough — insurance?

And the point of all this.

Like most, I have no clue whether ObamaCare will reduce escalating health care costs — or not.

But I know that something has to be done — and soon. There is no way that this country — whether you are talking about government, employers, insurers or private individuals — and support the continual escalation in medical costs.

Just sayin’.


Libya: Here We Go Again

Well, to paraphrase Dutch Reagan: “Here we go again.” Are we going to take Mad Dog Gadhafi out? Or let him stay if he once again promises to behave himself? Hey, sounds like the start of a country song. And who’s in charge? Looks like the NATO alliance has crumbled faster than my NCAA brackets.

Here’s what got me fretting about all this early this a.m. It’s an AP story on NPR: “U.S. Likely To Keep Combat Role After Libya Shift.”

The United States welcomed a partial handover for the Libyan air campaign to NATO, but the allies apparently balked at assuming full control and the U.S. military was left in charge of the brunt of combat.

NATO agreed on Thursday to take over command of the newly established no-fly zone over Libya, protective flights meant to deter Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi from putting warplanes in the air. That leaves the U.S. with responsibility for attacks on Gadhafi’s ground forces and other targets, which are the toughest and most controversial portion of the operation.

Oh boy. That sounds like shoe leather on sand — and plenty of it.

OK. I’ll admit it. I need help sorting all this out. So let’s see what Charles Krauthammer has to say as he opines in WaPo, “Obama and Libya: The professor’s war.”

President Obama is proud of how he put together the Libyan operation. A model of international cooperation. All the necessary paperwork. Arab League backing. A Security Council resolution. (Everything but a resolution from the Congress of the United States, a minor inconvenience for a citizen of the world.) It’s war as designed by an Ivy League professor.

True, it took three weeks to put this together, during which time Moammar Gaddafi went from besieged, delusional (remember those youthful protesters on “hallucinogenic pills”) thug losing support by the hour — to resurgent tyrant who marshaled his forces, marched them to the gates of Benghazi and had the U.S. director of national intelligence predicting that “the regime will prevail.”

But what is military initiative and opportunity compared with paper?

Well, let’s see how that paper multilateralism is doing. The Arab League is already reversing itself, criticizing the use of force it had just authorized. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, is shocked — shocked! — to find that people are being killed by allied airstrikes. This reaction was dubbed mystifying by one commentator, apparently born yesterday and thus unaware that the Arab League has forever been a collection of cynical, warring, unreliable dictatorships of ever-shifting loyalties. A British soccer mob has more unity and moral purpose. Yet Obama deemed it a great diplomatic success that the league deigned to permit others to fight and die to save fellow Arabs for whom 19 of 21 Arab states have yet to lift a finger.

And what about that brilliant U.N. resolution?

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is already calling the Libya operation a medieval crusade.

China is calling for a cease-fire in place — which would completely undermine the allied effort by leaving Gaddafi in power, his people at his mercy and the country partitioned and condemned to ongoing civil war.

Brazil joined China in that call for a cease-fire. This just hours after Obama ended his fawning two-day Brazil visit. Another triumph of presidential personal diplomacy.

And how about NATO? Let’s see. As of this writing, Britain wanted the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagreed, citing Arab sensibilities. Germany wanted no part of anything, going so far as to pull four of its ships from NATO command in the Mediterranean. Italy hinted it might deny the allies the use of its air bases if NATO can’t get its act together. France and Germany walked out of a NATO meeting on Monday, while Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who the hell is running the operation. And Turkey, whose prime minister four months ago proudly accepted the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, has been particularly resistant to the Libya operation from the beginning.

And as for the United States, who knows what American policy is. Administration officials insist we are not trying to bring down Gaddafi, even as the president insists that he must go. Although on Tuesday Obama did add “unless he changes his approach.” Approach, mind you.

Well, Chuck provides some excellent perspective, as usual. But he may be giving the Prez a little too much credit for planning all this. My understanding is like any good professor Obama was on spring break, after noodling over his NCAA picks.

Let’s see if Maureen Dowd can give some behind-the-scene insights in her NYT Op-Ed, “Fight of the Valkyries.”

They are called the Amazon Warriors, the Lady Hawks, the Valkyries, the Durgas.

There is something positively mythological about a group of strong women swooping down to shake the president out of his delicate sensibilities and show him the way to war. And there is something positively predictable about guys in the White House pushing back against that story line for fear it makes the president look henpecked.

It is not yet clear if the Valkyries will get the credit or the blame on Libya. But everyone is fascinated with the gender flip: the reluctant men — the generals, the secretary of defense, top male White House national security advisers — outmuscled by the fierce women around President Obama urging him to man up against the crazy Qaddafi.

How odd to see the diplomats as hawks and the military as doves.

“The girls took on the guys,” The Times’s White House reporter, Helene Cooper, said on “Meet the Press.”

Rush Limbaugh mocked the president and his club of “male liberals,” saying: “Of course the males were opposed. It’s the new castrati. … They’re sissies!”

Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador and former Clinton administration adviser on Africa, was haunted by Rwanda. Samantha Power, a national security aide who wrote an award-winning book about genocide, was thinking of Bosnia. Gayle Smith, another senior national security aide, was an adviser to President Clinton on Africa after the Rwandan massacre. Hillary Clinton, a skeptic at first, paid attention to the other women (putting aside that tense moment during the ’08 primaries when Power called her “a monster”). She also may have had some pillow talk with Bill, whose regrets about Rwanda no doubt helped shape his recommendation for a no-fly zone over Libya.

How odd to see Rush and Samantha Power on the same side.

Oh well. Here we go again.

Reagan National: A No-Land Zone?

Oh boy. I’m now looking forward to my next trip Inside the Beltway even more than usual. I generally go to DC every month or so, taking a Continental shuttle from Cleveland Hopkins to Reagan National. Guess I better get the street address for the runway in DC and plug it into my GPS.

Seems like the air traffic controller on duty in the tower at Reagan National last night wasn’t available to help two planes loaded with passengers land. Hey. I understand. One minute you’re watching American Idol and the next your eyes bolt open and Dick Goddard is opining about the weather. Go figure.

Anyway, here’s the WaPo story about how Reagan National almost became a no-land zone, “National to add second controller overnight as tower goes dark.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered a second air traffic controller to be on duty overnight at Reagan National Airport, after the lone controller was unavailable early Wednesday as two passenger planes were trying to land.

LaHood also instructed the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the incident, to examine staffing levels at other airports around the country.

The two D.C. airliners, carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members, landed on their own shortly after midnight after attempting to contact the control tower and receiving no response.

The tower normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m. The on-duty controller did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line,” which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.

Both planes–an American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 people onboard, and a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 people onboard–landed safely, within minutes of each other.

The planes’ pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed. They also were communicating with controllers at a separate facility in the region that does not handle landings.

“Today I directed the FAA to place two air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower on the midnight shift,” LaHood said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

“It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical airspace. I have also asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country.”

Let’s face it. Airline travel is a hassle these days, although I’ll admit that the last few strip searches have been rather erotic in a perverted sort of way. And with the airlines cutting back on everything — from the number of bags you can check to the peanuts that now serve as lunch or dinner — I fully expect that at some point there will be a lottery after boarding to select which passenger has to fly the plane.

If it’s me, let’s hope the GPS on my BlackBerry is working on the next trip to Reagan National. As everyone knows, men will not stop and ask for directions.

Just sayin’.




Telephone Calls, Ma Bell and Big Mergers

Hey, didn’t we just break up Ma Bell? Nah, that was in the 1980s when government regulators figured it was better to have a bevy of Baby Bells rather than one mega-conglomerate controlling the phone lines.  Well, Ma Bell is back.

AT&T announced earlier this week that pending regulatory review and approval it planned to buy T-Mobile for $39 billion in cash and stock. You can be sure that if this deal moves forward employees of both companies and consumers will get screwed — but that’s not the point of my thoughtful analysis today.

Instead, does anyone really care about phones these days — mobile or ones still tethered to a landline? And no. I don’t mean for texting, or to scan the Internet, or to find out via Twitter or Facebook that some asshat has just checked in at a Starbucks somewhere in the USA.

I mean to use a phone to actually talk to someone else — one speaking while the other listens and back and forth and so on.

My landline phone these days is mute, save the dinner-hour calls from telemarketers, Democratic Party fundraisers and other miscreants. (Note to self: The inventor of caller ID should receive some sort of national humanitarian award.) And my BlackBerry beyond business-related conference calls and calling my Mother once a week would be worthless if it weren’t for the hundred or so email and text messages I receive most days.

Am I alone in all this? A citizen-clad citizen journalist paying two monthly phone bills — one from AT&T — while receiving no phone calls. Hardly.

Here’s from Pamela Paul, opining in the New York Times, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You.”

NOBODY calls me anymore — and that’s just fine. With the exception of immediate family members, who mostly phone to discuss medical symptoms and arrange child care, and the Roundabout Theater fund-raising team, which takes a diabolical delight in phoning me every few weeks at precisely the moment I am tucking in my children, people just don’t call.

It’s at the point where when the phone does ring — and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter — my first thought is: “What’s happened? What’s wrong?” My second thought is: “Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?”

I don’t think it’s just me. Sure, teenagers gave up the phone call eons ago. But I’m a long way away from my teenage years, back when the key rite of passage was getting a phone in your bedroom or (cue Molly Ringwald gasp) a line of your own.

In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”

“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

Ah, why so?

Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”

Though the beast has been somewhat tamed by voice mail and caller ID, the phone caller still insists, Ms. Martin explained, “that we should drop whatever we’re doing and listen to me.”

Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent. The reasons are multifold. Nobody has assistants anymore to handle telecommunications. And in today’s nearly door-free workplaces, unless everyone is on the phone, calls are disruptive and, in a tight warren of cubicles, distressingly public. Does anyone want to hear me detail to the dentist the havoc six-year molars have wreaked on my daughter?

“When I walk around the office, nobody is on the phone,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. The nature of the rare business call has also changed. “Phone calls used to be everything: serious, light, heavy, funny,” Mr. Burnham said. “But now they tend to be things that are very focused. And almost everyone e-mails first and asks, ‘Is it O.K. if I call?’ ”

Even in fields where workers of various stripes (publicists, agents, salespeople) traditionally conducted much of their business by phone, hoping to catch a coveted decision-maker off-guard or in a down moment, the phone stays on the hook. When Matthew Ballast, an executive director for publicity at Grand Central Publishing, began working in book publicity 12 years ago, he would go down his list of people to cold call, then follow up two or three times, also by phone. “I remember five years ago, I had a pad with a list of calls I had to return,” he said. Now, he talks by phone two or three times a day.

“You pretty much call people on the phone when you don’t understand their e-mail,” he said.

OK. Time to check my emails and text messages.

Please, don’t call.

Libya: Another Long War?

Wow. Talk about March Madness. One week Prez O was dithering about Libya while making his NCAA picks and the next Hillary has a coalition of the able and willing dropping bombs like three-pointers on Mad Dog Gaddafi and associates.

OK. I’ll admit to having some reservations about this latest military adventure — consider Afghanistan and Iraq before sending nasty emails — although I agree that something had to be done to prevent the massacre of civilians.

And I’m hopeful that this won’t become another American war where we commit ground troops to go on a search for the light at the end of some tunnel that never ends. Let’s face it. In just about every military action these days, the French head home following Happy Hour. Just sayin.’

Saying all that, it seems to me that the Prez should be taking some time to explain what is going on in Libya — the Middle East in general — and how we are going to get the hell out of this mess.

Here’s Richard Cohen opining in WaPo, “Mixed Signals from Obama and the Middle East.

The Middle East is a mess and a muddle, all of it happening at pretty close to warp speed. The search for a Unified Theory of What Is Happening is futile. Bahrain is our pal; Libya is not. Saudi Arabia has all that oil; Egypt doesn’t. Iran is our enemy and its enemies must be our friends. The scorpion that lethally stings the frog that’s transporting it across the Suez Canal is not a metaphor for the Middle East but a virtual position paper. Look: The Arab League’s Amr Moussa — its departing secretary general — called for a no-fly zone and then, appalled at the violence of this military strike, expressed second thoughts. Moussa has the countenance of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, a rare manifestation of form following function.

Still, the Obama administration has applied incoherence to confusion. It is an odd, dangerous, mix. A day into the operation, the bedraggled chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, appeared everywhere but on Animal Planet to say that the operation he himself clearly did not favor might end with the man the president said he wanted gone — a certain Col. Gaddafi — still in power. “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome,” Mullen said on “Meet the Press.”

And the editors of the New York Times have some tepid reservations as well. Here’s from this morning’s editorial, “At War in Libya.”

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has long been a thug and a murderer who has never paid for his many crimes, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The United Nations Security Council resolution authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and was perhaps the only hope of stopping him from slaughtering thousands more.

The resolution was an extraordinary moment in recent history. The United Nations, the United States and the Europeans dithered for an agonizingly long time and then — with the rebels’ last redoubt, Benghazi, about to fall — acted with astonishing speed to endorse a robust mandate that goes far beyond a simple no-fly zone. More extraordinary was that the call to action was led by France and Britain and invited by the Arab League.


There is much to concern us. President Obama correctly agreed to deploy American forces only when persuaded that other nations would share the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law. The United States is already bogged down in two wars. It can’t be seen as intervening unilaterally in another Muslim nation. But even with multinational support, it should not have to shoulder the brunt of this conflict.

Not exactly a commentary or opinion that will stir the masses to action. Looks like the NYT editors are going to drive down the middle of the road on this one — unless a truck comes barreling the other way.

So let’s see what George Will has to say on what is certainly one of the big fish in the skillet here — “Is it America’s duty to intervene wherever regime change is necessary?

The missile strikes that inaugurated America’s latest attempt at regime change were launched 29 days before the 50th anniversary of another such — the Bay of Pigs of April 17, 1961. Then the hubris of American planners was proportional to their ignorance of everything relevant, from Cuban sentiment to Cuba’s geography. The fiasco was a singularly feckless investment of American power.

Does practice make perfect? In today’s episode, America has intervened in a civil war in a tribal society, the dynamics of which America does not understand. And America is supporting one faction, the nature of which it does not know. “We are standing with the people of Libya,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, evidently confident that “the” people are a harmonious unit. Many in the media call Moammar Gaddafi’s opponents “freedom fighters,” and perhaps they are, but no one calling them that really knows how the insurgents regard one another, or understand freedom, or if freedom, however understood, is their priority.

But, then, knowing is rarely required in the regime-change business. The Weekly Standard, a magazine for regime-change enthusiasts, serenely says: “The Libyan state is a one-man operation. Eliminate that man and the whole edifice may come tumbling down.” And then good things must sprout? The late Donald Westlake gave one of his comic novels the mordant title “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” People who do not find that darkly funny should not make foreign policy.

So we’ll see. Another foreign policy of shock and awe potentially to be replaced by hope and pray.

But I am standing behind Prez O on one thing no matter what.

We’ve both got Kansas at the top of the NCAA totem pole.

Why Pay the Teachers?

I’ve been dabbling in education — and what might pass at so-called attempts at educational reform — since at least the early 1980s when we became a “nation at risk.” First I became involved as part of my PR job at Goodrich during the era when the business pooh-bahs believed you could improve education by running and managing schools just like businesses. Then I was a faculty member at Kent State. And now I’m quasi-retired but still working part-time with an advocacy group in DC, Corporate Voices for Working Families.

So it’s interesting to me that after all these years, all the research, all the money and all the everything else — none of which has worked to actually improve education across the board — we’re back to the basics: teachers.

And more importantly, the educational gurus, policy makers, think tank advocates and other miscreants have all reached essentially the same conclusion: you ain’t going to have excellent schools and well-educated young people prepared for work and life without excellent teachers.

Unfortunately, we’ve devalued teachers and teaching as a career for so long now that I’m not sure that we can stop this sinking ship from taking on water.

Here’s an interesting perspective by Nicholas Kristof in his NYT Op-Ed, “Pay Teachers More.”

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

OK. Hard to argue the point about relative worth. But do good teachers matter?

Kristof again:

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

And the point:

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

Unless we attract and keep excellent teachers in the classroom — at all levels and throughout the country — we’re not going to be just a nation at risk. We’re going to be a nation sucking a tail pipe,  with a declining economy and standard of living today and expectations for the future.

And one last matter. Here’s a letter by Sarah Simon to the NYT in response to Kristof’s view:

As a high school student, I can assure you that my teachers are intellectual and hard-working people, not lazy or greedy or incompetent, as some state officials have claimed. They arrive early, stay late and spend their free hours preparing for class.

Politicians are making a big mistake by criticizing all teachers and trying to limit their salaries or benefits. Teachers who guide students and inspire them to be the best they can be are the key to the future of our country.

If we don’t increase salaries and make the field more attractive for even better teachers, then these shortsighted governors, who have not been students for decades, will win.

Critics of today’s education system seem to forget that without teachers, there wouldn’t be any engineers, lawyers, doctors — or governors, for that matter.

Wonder if Sarah will consider a career as a classroom teacher?

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.

Risk and the Fukushima 50

I sure can’t figure out what is happening now at the nuclear power plants in Japan. Does anyone really know? While chasing the treadmill belt this early a.m. I saw a number of TV stories on several networks. Many contradictory. All confusing. And it doesn’t appear that U.S. government officials are viewing this exactly eye-to-eye with their counterparts in Japan.

And this is not a criticism of any of the reporters who are trying to cover this story. All they can do is report information that is provided to them — and then try to add clarification and context from “experts” who may or may not have a personal or professional axe to grind about nuclear power.

I also know from personal experience while in corporate PR at Goodrich that a situation that involves risk — let’s say a chemical spill — is the most difficult to manage from a communications standpoint, especially when the health and safety of employees and the public is involved.

Why? You can never say with complete certainty that there is no risk — and no potential for harm. And at that point you are left with trying to put the amount of risk into some context — doesn’t exceed federal regulations or whatever, none satisfying to the media, employees and their families or the public.

But the keys are to respond as quickly as you can — and as honestly and completely as you can while having some genuine empathy for those who are at risk.

Not sure that the Japanese government or the owners/operators of the nuclear power plants have done that up to this point. Consider this post on The Daily Beast, “Nuclear Crisis: Americans in Japan Frustrated by Government.”

And here’s a report from ABC News, “Japan Nuclear Crisis: High Radiation Hampers Efforts to Cool Fukushima Reactors.”

Let’s hope and pray that this doesn’t lead to a nuclear disaster in Japan. And that may depend in large measure now of the work — and heroism — of the workers who have remained inside the nuclear plant — the Fukushima 50.

Consider this story from ABC News: “Outpouring of Tears and Prayers for Japan’s Heroes: The Fukushima 50.”

There was an outpouring of concern and prayers today for the “Fukushmima 50,” the band of volunteer workers who have stayed behind at Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors to try prevent a catastrophe for the country.

“My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.

“My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,” said one woman. He told her via email, “Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile.”

An email from the daughter of a Fukushima 50 volunteered was shared on national television and said, “My father is still working at the plant — they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence…”

The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.

“They are probably drinking cold water and eating military style packages,” said Michael Friedlander, who worked in crisis management at similar American nuclear plants. “It’s cold, it’s dark, and you’re doing that while trying to make sure you’re not contaminating yourself while you’re eating.”

Their mission is called “feed and bleed.” They feed seawater onto the reactor to keep it cool, while steam bleeds away the heat.

These workers are aware that their lives are on the line, but they’re equally aware of what is at stake.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty they are absolutely committed to doing whatever is humanly necessary to make these plants in safe condition, even at the risk of their own lives,” said Friedlander.

Helicopter pilots are also risking their health, flying into high radiation levels to dump cooling water on the reactors and give back up to the emergency workers in the plant.

Those are some people who know about risk.

And about heroism.