Uncommon Sense

May 29, 2010

Tea Party Bunkum

The news media are all aflutter about the “Tea Party,” with most describing it as a new force in American politics. A force, maybe, but “new” is certainly inaccurate. Simply put, the Republican Party has shrunk so much that these people, formerly a reliable core of republican voters, can compete with it. The so-called Tea Party is nothing more than the far right of the American polity. They have always been there, buried within the Republican Party which seemed like their only option for candidates to vote for. But the Republican party has so weakened itself, both in numbers and quality of politicians, that these “core conservatives” no longer feel like it provides their only options. They are going out and getting their own candidates.

And some of those candidates are winning. Stunning? Hardly.

There are so few Republicans left to vote that beating them is no great feat. Take Rand Paul’s “stunning” victory in the Republican Senate primary election in Kentucky. Even though he won in a near landslide, both of the Democratic candidates got more votes that did he. The numbers of Republicans are so small, that this large voting block is pushing the party even farther to the right. mainstream Republicans like John McCain are embarrassing themselves trying to reframe their records as hide bound conservatives, just to save their jobs. So, they are having an effect . . . on republican primaries; whether they will have an effect in general elections remains to be seen.

So, who are these “new” Tea Party folks? According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll, “The Tea Party Movement: Who are They” from April 5-12, 2010:

“89% are white; just 1% is African American. Tea Party supporters are older than the general public, including 29% who are seniors.

“In terms of politics, more than half (54%) identify themselves as Republicans, and four in 10 are independents. Only 5% of Tea Partiers are Democrats.

“Tea Partiers are more likely than Americans overall to attend religious services each week (38%) and to indentify themselves as evangelical (39%).”

They are also more well to do than the middle class with 20% reporting incomes over $100,000 per year and a greater proportion of these folks get Medicare and Social Security benefits than does the population as a whole.

Basically these are older conservative Americans who have fairly good lives and they don’t want to lose what they have. Just the election of a black president has raised fears that black people are going to extract revenge upon whites by benefiting “poor” people at their expense. This is where the phrase “I want my country back!” stems from.

Again, from the poll: “Negative perceptions of President Obama extend beyond his job performance. 84% of Tea Partiers have an unfavorable personal opinion of him, while Americans overall hold a more positive view (33% unfavorable).” (My italics.)

And “25% of Tea Party folks feel blacks are favored over whites by the Obama administration as compared to 7% by non-tea party white people.”

These people have been around forever and have become the unwitting dupes of the rich. Because they want to hold on to what little they have, they share a basic attitude with big business and rich people and therefore espouse many of the same attitudes. The Tea Partiers biggest issue is smaller government, which leads to less regulation and less taxes, which are right in the wheelhouse of the monied interests.

Their belief in their own vision of what is happening is so strong that 64% of Tea Party supporters think the Obama administration has increased taxes for most Americans, (while only 34% of the general public says that) and when, in fact, their taxes have actually gone down.

Just an aside, the Republicans argued that the Federal Economic Stimulus wouldn’t work (a big Tea Party belief); they argued only tax cuts would work, so the Obama administration included $200 billion of tax cuts in the $700+ billion bill even when the economic evidence shows that tax cuts do not stimulate the economy in hard times (people just save the money or use it to pay bills, they don’t spend on new things). Republican leaders have since claimed that “not one job was saved” while the Tea Partiers were claiming “our taxes have gone up.” Apparently a connection with reality is not needed.

The Tea partiers faith in their own vision may be related to the following poll finding: “63% of Tea Party identifiers say they get most of their political and current events news on television from Fox News Channel.” Fox “News” is really Fox Propaganda as it engages in lies and deceptions on a daily basis. These Tea Party folks apparently don’t care about veracity and continue to look to this network for their information.

So, is the “Tea Party” the new power in American Politics? Will there be an actual organized Tea Party? In a word: no.

These people didn’t come together by accident. They were gathered by “Astroturf” specialists as anti-Obama shock troops. (Astroturf organizers are people who organize “grass roots” events, events falsely appearing to have occurred spontaneously.) Whether the Tea Party will find its political footing and organize into something potent is really a moot point. Since these folks were subsumed by the Republican Party, pulling them out of there will reduce the Republican Party to a nonviable size or at least split it into two very small parts which, when they contest with one another over the conservative vote, will surely alienate some of their own voters which will actually reduce the influence of the right wing of the country.

But, but, . . . what about Rand Paul and Scott Brown, and. . . . Hey, Scott Brown never identified himself as a representative of any Tea Party. And, whatever happened to “all politics is local”? The Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s old seat ran an awful campaign and deserved to lose. The primary cause of the loss? Taking the attitude that the position was a safe, Democratic seat in Congress. No one likes being taken for granted, which is what the Republican Party is finding out about their extreme right wing core aka “the Tea Party.”

May 27, 2010

Capitalism Run Aground

Right-wing bloviators are fond of saying “we shouldn’t tax the rich because they are the ones who create the jobs.” They don’t specify whether the jobs are good jobs or not or whether they are overseas instead of here, but let’s look at the basic claim. This claim reminds me of the platitudes served up when I was in grade school and there are plenty of reasons to believe this is just protective camouflage for what is really going on.

I remember being in grade school (the late 1950’s maybe) and we took a field trip to the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. We were being taught about how the stock market worked. Basically the stock market was a clearing house for investments in various businesses. It worked like this: businesses “sell” part of their company in the form of stock certificates. Investors buy those “shares” in the company as a way to invest their money for a profit. The investors rarely would have enough money to by a significant interest in any one company but they can afford to buy a tiny fraction of even many companies in the form of one or more of these shares. The businesses then use the money from the sale to expand or modernize the company. If the company did well, it took part of its profits each year and paid a small bonus (a dividend) to their stockholders and, if the company did well over time, the stock became more valuable, and an additional profit could be made when it is sold (but low, sell high). Over time, the stock market has been a source of excellent returns for the investors and has been a boon for business.

That’s how it was explained to grade school kids then and, unfortunately, this is what most adults believe is going on now. Except it is not true.

In 1929 the New York Stock Exchange had a massive collapse, leading to investor suicides and a world-wide depression that lasted over a decade. Businesses collapsed and millions of people were thrown out of work and into poverty. The people blamed for this debacle were “speculators.” Speculators were people who looked at stocks as something that had value outside of the small slice of the company they represented. People “talked up” various “securities” to the point that people thought they were very desirable in and of themselves and a bidding race was on. Stock prices spiralled higher and higher. But eventually people realized they were paying many times what their shares were actually worth and began to sell off these bad investments which lead to a stampede which dragged down the values of all of the stocks to the point that a great many were worthless.

This is the problem with the Stock Market in general. It’s focus is not on the companies themselves but in the return on the stock certificates instead. So, why is this still a problem? Well, in the 1930’s the word “speculator” was used as a curse word, but we have never really done anything to curb speculation, in fact we have glorified it. In the 1970’s, the relative amount invested in regulated stock exchanges worldwide that corresponded to real economic value was 90% with about 10% of the money invested was speculative. By 1990, these two numbers were reversed and the percent of the money invested in all of the world’s exchanges that was merely speculative went up from there. In 1994 it was up to 95%. What it was before the 2008 crash we may never know.

And herein lies the problem. The basic system is receiving feedback that is skewed all out of recognition. In the old days, if a company did well, had steady growth, good labor relations, and good prospects for the future, it’s stock was considered a good value. But speculators are not interested in investments in good companies, they are interested in good profits. So, companies who don’t make good short-term profits, get hammered by the market. The shares of that company are devalued and the reputation of the company suffers along with its ability to borrow money, etc. A company which makes a great profit, say 12% annually, can get hammered if Wall Street analysts think they should have made 15%. In other words, actual performance, even great performance means little next to the virtual performance expected by speculators.

You have probably noticed that CEO pay has grown astronomically while working class wages (adjusted for inflation) have been stagnant for at least 40 years. Why is this? It is because if a CEO delivers short-term profits to speculators, he is rewarded by an increase in the companies stock value, some of which he is usually paid with (in actual stock or options to buy shares at a lower price). The better the short-term performance the better the pay for the CEO, to ridiculous levels. If the CEO doesn’t deliver quarterly profits, he is likely to be fired and replaced with a CEO that can. In other words, CEO’s have a rewards structure that has nothing to do with long term viability and success of the company and everything to do with delivering profits to speculators.

Top this with the right-wing bloviators claim that “regulation stifles innovation!” (And they say this as if it were a bad thing!) While the monied interests were slowly chipping away at federal financial regulations from the Reagan era to the Clinton era, the stock market slowly innovated with wonderful instruments like penny stocks, micro-trading, derivatives, and collateralized debt obligations. Some of these “innovations” were not really innovations, derivatives were just tools of the commodities markets used in financial markets, but the uses to which all of these were put were simply to fuel speculation. Basically because stock market people are paid by the transaction, the more transactions and the more money involved in them, the more money they made. Again, the wrong feedback for a health economy.

Regulation is supposed to stifle innovation! That is its purpose. It is supposed to stifle stupid, purposeless innovations and it is time we had more of it. What we need stifled is speculation!

In 1972, speculation was primarily in currency and Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, suggested that there be a tax on all short-term currency conversions. This was referred to as the Tobin Tax and was, of course, never implemented. It is time we had another look at the Tobin Tax, this time applied to all monetary transactions that do not involve goods. This or some other idea has to be found to stifle speculation to force it to reasonable levels.

So, the next time someone claims “we shouldn’t tax the rich because they are the ones who create the jobs,” challenge them to prove it. The mere fact that the very rich have an ever increasing fraction of the nation’s total wealth indicates that they are not doing as claimed. Or if they claim, “regulation stifles innovation” ask them to identify any innovation in, say, the financial domain in the last 20 years and ask them to explain how that innovation was a benefit to society.

We should tax the rich, so they are paying their fair share and because they are ruining the economy with their excess funds and we should stifle innovation, stupid speculative innovation first, please.

May 23, 2010

Sometimes the Answer is Right in Front of Our Eyes

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 10:44 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Not so long ago (1984) the Toyota Motor Corporation created a joint venture with General Motors to make cars in the U.S using Toyota’s manufacturing systems. The result of this was the Fremont, CA NUMMI plant. The motivation on Toyota’s part stemmed from U.S. limits on sales of cars made overseas and Toyota wanted to such limitations on the numbers of cars they could sell in the world’s biggest car market. The problem is “Could American auto workers adapt to using Toyota techniques?” Complicating this was the fact that the plant undergoing the transformation was one of the worst performing plants in GM’s stable (it had been closed two years earlier).

To make a long story short, the NUMMI plant was an instant success. It lead all kinds of quality measure categories and performance categories, too. Attempts to export the NUMMI model to other GM plants met with total failure, though, as the imposition of the NUMMI model met stiff opposition from GM managers and from the auto worker’s union (UAW).

Now, if you are a conservative, you see that this little story has a moral: labor unions are an absolute impediment to progress. If you are a progressive, you see that this little story has a moral: corporate management is an absolute impediment to progress.

The story continues, of course, GM insisted on making cars no one wanted due to poor design and poor workmanship, and lost its #1 company in the world position (ironically to Toyota) and eventually got taken over by the federal government and is just now climbing out of the morass.

But was this a union problem or a management problem? Well, we have to stop thinking in “either or” dichotomies. The problem lay in the relationship between management and the union, that is, it was a problem of both.

When Toyota and GM began their joint venture, they took over a hundred GM workers to Japan, for training and to introduce them to Toyota’s corporate culture. There these grizzled GM veterans saw a system in which workers were treated as an integral part of the quality system and not just as cogs in a machine. They were transformed. When they returned to work and used Toyota’s systems, the number of mistakes made per vehicle almost disappeared. Workers were happy, managers were happy.

So, why didn’t this work at other GM plants? The basic reason was a lack of trust between labor and management. Neither management nor labor had any reason to put aside decades of lack of trust in their relationship. They didn’t get the transformative trip to Japan. They didn’t even get a trip to the NUMMI plant. But, they were supposed to drop years of hardened attitudes for, . . . , what was the reason again?

Managers found themselves being asked to eat in the same lunchroom as workers and park their cars in the same lots. But they had no respect for their own workers and saw these as demotions. Workers were asked to give up job seniority. This was asking way too much, in their opinions.

I am not going to defend making decisions based on job seniority. (Aha, surprised you, didn’t I?) There is no rational basis for using seniority to make job assignments except that it is a totally arbitrary, unbiased system, one that cannot be manipulated by either party. It is also a dead end in decision making, like flipping a coin to decide who makes the NFL playoffs (Look it up, it is in the rules!). The reason the seniority rules existed is because of a lack of trust, trust in management to make good decisions. And the longer such rules exist, the more calcified they get and these rules had been in place for decades. It order to break free of such bad relationships, something transformative is needed and GM didn’t supply it for the other plants. Which, of course, is another example of bad decision making.

Being a strong union guy does not mean that I will whitewash the union and just blame management. In this case both were wanting. And, things are always more complicated than the typical “let’s just blame one party” approach can decode. Both the UAW and GM management lost a huge opportunity, an opportunity to make money, save jobs, increase worker job satisfaction, and enhance GM’s reputation. It almost cost the company its existence.

Solving real problems requires focus on the real issues, which are almost never exposed in newspapers, news magazines, or blogs. Serious people want to know more details and want serious consideration of issues before deciding them. Are you a serious person?

PS You do know, don’t you, that Toyota’s methods were developed based on the seminal work of W. Edwards Deming, an American? Deming never got embraced in this country.

May 21, 2010

Why Conservatives and Progressives Can’t Get Along (But Should Try)

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:29 pm
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Sometimes clarity can come through oversimplification. I will attempt to explain why conservatives and progressives do not agree and why they need to learn to respect one another.

Oversimplification #1
Conservatives are people who yearn for an overly idealized past.
Progressives are people who yearn for an overly idealized future.

Realize that, of course, anything said about a large group of people doesn’t necessarily apply to any individual. Plus, I freely admit this is an oversimplification, so please don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Conservatives obviously have something they want to conserve. They want things to continue to be they way they were in the past. Many harken back to the way things were in the 1950’s and 1960’s, for example. Well, an incredible amount of picking and choosing has to go on for this to work. Would we want to go back to a time when women were refused jobs because they would be taking a job away from a man? (For those of you under 50, this was a standard practice in this time period.) Would we want to go back to racial segregation? Would we want to go back to black and white TV?

Progressives, on the other hand, are always saying “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if . . . ?” Change, sometimes radical change, is the topic of the day. The problem is that change is just that, making things different. Making things better rather than worse is always the goal, but not necessarily the outcome. Progressives want progress, want things to be better, but sometimes we settle for things being just different.

These differences create a great deal of the tension between conservatives and progressives. One group looks forward to a new, and different, future. One group looks forward to a future much the same as is the past.

Here is the second oversimplification:

Oversimplification #2
Conservatives are people who prize group cohesion most highly.
Progressives are people who prize individual rights most highly.

For conservatives security comes with predictability. Since we adopted living in larger societies, family ties are insufficient to be able to control the future, so other institutions are needed, preferably ones with some authority to wield. (Conservatives, though, are very “pro-family,” whatever that means.) Conservatives are pro-business. While many conservatives extol the virtues of unfettered free market capitalism, when in political power, they provide legislative and tax breaks as well as outright subsidies for business interests. Conservatives are pro-religion. Conservatives’ interests in religion is not from a real family values or morality perspective (conservatives have moral and familial lapses as much as do progressives) but for the stabilizing influences that churches exert. Churches have rules and techniques to ensure people follow them. Conservatives are pro-military, being especially enamored of generals, people who wield authority for the military. Conservatives are anti-abortion primarily on religious grounds even though they take the stand that government should be “small” and not intrude upon the rights of individuals or businesses.

Progressives are pro-labor and hence are assumed to be anti-business. (Being “pro-labor” is the definition of being anti-business in the conservative dictionary.) Actually, progressives are fine with business as long as it is well-regulated and pays its share of taxes. Being pro-working people is basically focused on being fair to the people actually creating the wealth of which others are reaping the lion’s share. Progressives are somewhat ambivalent about religion, because the hierarchical structure of most religions ends up creating a power hungry class of the “religious” who wish to intrude on people’s individual freedoms, e.g. various religious leaders trying to influence politics or, in the case of a number of Popes, actually dominating politics and the lives of citizens (who weren’t free to choose a religion or not choose a religion). Progressives are all in favor of faith and spirituality as long as it is in the form of something freely chosen (or not) by individuals. Progressives are not pro-military, they are pro-soldier. They generally support the troops, but not the war. Those who spat upon soldiers returning from Viet Nam (if that actually occurred), were not progressives. Progressives are generally pro-abortion because this “choice” is a right of individuals and government and the church shouldn’t be interfering.

While these are admittedly oversimplified arguments, they expose enough of the core differences between conservatives and progressives to explain a lot of the antagonism between the two. But it is very, very important that each group view the other with understanding and with some respect, too, because both represent real streams of people flowing through American politics and, more importantly, both groups are needed. In fact, a near balance is needed between the influences of the two.

I know, I know, right-wing commenters are using language that makes it sound like a war for our very existences is going on. (The current administration is a “regime,” the President is not an American, the President is a Nazi, a socialist, they are coming for your guns, etc.) So, don’t listen to them; they couldn’t be more wrong. The current President is very close to President Eisenhower in his actions, he is a slightly center-left pragmatist, where Eisenhower was a center-right pragmatist. The “commenters” have worn out and disparaged the term liberal, so they leaped over that term and embraced “socialist” to describe President Obama as a way to push him even more toward the right. If President Obama were a socialist, he would have nationalized all of the health insurance companies and run them as a government service, instead he handed them major new profits. Some socialist!)

Here’s why we need to ignore the crazy commenters and learn to respect one another.

If conservatives ruled permanently, we would suffer the excesses all too familiar from the recent Bush administration. Government would be in bed with business and unrestricted greed would lead to environmental degradation (BP insisted on regulating its own business and the Bush administration said ” . . . , uh, sure!), financial shenanigans (You know, Wall Street collapses, etc.).

If progressives ruled permanently, we would suffer the excesses of impractical social legislation and business stagnation; we could lose sight of some of the core values of our society.

Down one road is stasis, down the other is willy-nilly change. One road is “preserve the past, preserve the past” and the other is “create the future, create the future.”

What is needed is a balance between these two sensibilities.

And I am a progressive!

(Unfortunately, right now the progressives have an effective spokesperson, and the conservatives have clowns like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity drowning out sensible people like David Brooks. We need to send the clowns to the bench and push the sensible people to the fore.)

May 20, 2010

The Middle Class Pays, The Wealthy Play

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:31 am
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According to conservative commenters, advocating raising taxes on the rich is “class warfare” and that it is counterproductive because it is just those wealthy people, and the captains of industry, who create jobs. Is this a good argument? You can’t answer this question without looking at the situation in more detail.

For example, early in George W. Bush’s administration, Mr. Bush pushed through significant tax cuts for both the wealthy and for corporations. According to the dogma outlined above, this was supposed to have lead to growth in the economy and increased tax receipts for the government. Let’s see . . . the federal government collected $1.004 trillion in income taxes from individuals in the fiscal year 2000, the last full year of President Clinton’s administration. Three years later, after the Bush tax cuts were implemented, it collected $794 billion in income tax receipts (2003). So, the immediate effect is completely the opposite. That lost $200+ billion was roughly equivalent to the “budget deficit” of that year. Humm, this is starting to sound like a scam, no?

The argument that it is the wealthy who create the jobs is hard to support, too. I suspect because it isn’t true or is no longer. The normal argument goes like this: wealthy people invest their capital in stocks and bonds and that money is used by businesses to expand and grow and innovate. For the use of their money, the wealthy get a handsome return on investment. Except, we now see what Wall Street was doing with the money they were supposed to funnel to business. They created paper “securities” that represented nothing of real value and set up a casino operation causing the financial sector to swell to being the biggest segment of the economy. This money was not invested in businesses, did not create jobs, did not grow the economy. Then, of course, they crashed the entire financial sector, and lost millions of middle class people’s investments as collateral damage.

The “captains of industry” are taking that wealth and moving our jobs overseas because that is more cost effective and offers a great return on investment for the shareholders. Then they advocate more focus on selling internationally because “that is where the customers are.” Of course that’s where the customers are, they have our jobs, they are earning our pay, they can afford it!

How is it that the “wealthy” have accumulated an ever increasing to the point of being obscene fraction of the entire countries wealth while “creating jobs, growing the economy, . . . , etc.” How come they have so much money, an all-time high percent of total wealth in this country, when they are supposedly spending it to “create jobs?” They can “spend it and have it, too?” Why are we underwriting the wealthy just getting wealthier and wealthier while doing almost nothing for the economic health of the country as a whole?

It is past time to roll back the clock to a time when the rich were taxed more. If we were to roll back the tax codes to the time of Ronald Reagan, hardly an enemy of the rich, much of the budget deficit would disappear, the national debt would stop growing, and we would have the opportunity to pay down some of that debt, before the bill gets submitted to the middle class in crisis mode when the entire economic house of cards tumbles down.

Even Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America, is advocating higher taxes for the rich. He asks how it can be fair, how it can be right, that he pays a smaller fraction of his income on taxes than do his employees (and this without exotic tax reduction strategies employed by many).

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Warren Buffett

How’s this for an argument. Raise the real incomes of middle class people and we can afford to buy more of what American companies are selling. This argument was espoused by Henry Ford, of all people, and the implementation of that idea as a strategy lead to the most dynamic economic boom in the history of the country, the 1960’s.

May 19, 2010

Chasing Arizona’s Tail

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 2:41 pm
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I am a scientist. As part of my training it was drummed into me that it was really, really important to understand “the problem,” “the question,” before trying to answer it, because if you got the question wrong, you could waste a great deal of time and effort trying to answer it, and even if you did it wouldn’t be satisfying because it isn’t the answer that is needed.

Which brings us to Arizona.

The current brouhaha in Arizona is over their “immigration” problem. The state legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement officers to ask anyone “looking” like they might be in the country illegally for identification papers. This “papers, please” law has created a firestorm of controversy. Some say it leads to racial profiling. Some say it is a law enforcement nightmare. But has anyone challenged the reasoning of the sponsoring politicians? Remember we are talking about politicians here, not people trained to think well.

The stated rationale is that Arizona is suffering from a perfect storm of violence and crime from an unprecedented wave of illegal immigrants streaming over the Arizona-Mexico border. And since the Federal government has failed to act, Arizona was forced to do so.

So, is there any evidence to back up this argument? For example, what are the crime statistics?

Well, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the violent crime rate in Arizona was lower in 2006, 2007, and 2008 (the most recent years from which data are available) than any year since 1983. The property crime rate in Arizona was lower in 2006, 2007, and 2008 than any year since 1968.

A border county sheriff stated that the number of arrests of illegals is way down from ten years ago and that the standing procedure has been to turn those people over to the Border Patrol who then deports them right back across the border. (Unfortunately, the federal system is considerably backed up at present and many illegals are given temporary work permits and driver’s licenses until they can have their deportation hearing.) The new Arizona law requires these people be locked up in state run jails, being housed and fed at the citizen’s expense, while they work their way through the AZ judicial system. Sounds a lot more expensive to me. And law enforcement officers say the are afraid that the illegals, who up until now have been fairly docile when caught, will react differently if they know they are going to jail and/or prison, which will make law enforcement’s job much tougher. That doesn’t sound good, either.

Well, that kind of blows a hole in the “need” argument.

So, why was Arizona’s state legislators so worked up about a problem that was slowly getting better?

The answer is simply fear. There has been a great deal of drug-related crime violence just across the border and it has been leaking into the U.S. But still the statistics are what they are. The fear that is most threatening is the fear in the minds of these people. It is being fanned to white heat by the conservative fear mongering media. People who are afraid can be controlled and it doesn’t matter is the fear is real or imagined. There are real problems but the problems these conservative “commentors” are imagining are not the real problems.

Spending a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem that isn’t real is a tremendous waste of time and effort and spiritual energy, that is such “problems” sap our spirits, leading us to think we are inundated with problems, that we are making no progress, when in fact things are quite different from what we were lead to believe.

And, we have enough real problems, thank you, and we shouldn’t we wasting time on Arizona’s stupid law. How about dealing with the real immigration problem? How about offering amnesty to all of the current illegals (with the appropriate hoops for them to jump through to achieve legal resident’s status) while simultaneously announcing that this is the last time such an amnesty will be offered . . . ever! To reduce the flow of people across the border, all we need do is require people to prove citizenship (or legal resident status) when they get a job and we need enforcement with severe penalties on employers who hire people without such proofs. If there are no jobs, people will not come. The reason they come now is the same reason drugs flow fairly freely across the same border—demand.

Why do we just swallow whole the rationales and claims of people making such divisive claims? Why don’t we check the facts first and get the problem right before we start “solving” it.

May 12, 2010

Teacher Tenure Not the Problem (Really!)

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 2:22 pm

I read a newspaper editorial recently with the title “Teacher Tenure Must Go.” I imagine there must be a zillion of these by now and each and every one of them couldn’t be more wrong headed. In the author’s “throw the baby out with the bath water” world the apparent solution to hate speech is to eliminate free speech. Teacher tenure is not the problem appallingly poor management is. I won’t disagree with the opinion that the quality of many teachers is lacking. But conservatives always feel that what is needed is a strong “boss” to throw the bums out. Unfortunately the bosses can’t seem to tell which teachers are which.

Tenure was invented to protect teachers from arbitrary whims of management, like firing a teacher to free up a position for one’s nephew. (I didn’t make up this instance, I didn’t have to.) And tenure is still needed because of the paucity of management talent in school districts.

On top of this, teacher’s unions are accused of protecting the incompetents because that’s what they are for. On the contrary, teacher’s unions are required by law to defend all of their members. A teacher’s union who refuses to defend a member can and will get sued and lose. It is an absolute fiduciary duty of the union to defend any member requesting representation. But in conservative eyes, all unions are, by definition, bad and need to go because they infringe on management prerogatives, primarily the prerogative of bad management.

The characterization of teacher tenure as representing “lifetime job security” is another conservative “literary darling” that needs to be killed. All teacher tenure is is due process, a set of rules needed to be followed to remove someone from their job. And it works. I know this because, as a former teacher’s union president and chief negotiator, I have seen every aspect of the system work and work well when managers did their homework and did it well.

If the required steps are followed, the general result is a teacher retires or “leaves to spend more time with their families,” or some other such euphemism; it is rarely the case that a teacher sticks it out until fired. (Fired teachers rarely if ever get hired again. People are shocked that someone didn’t take the easy way out and persistent to the point of being fired.) As a union officer, I felt the umbrage of having to represent people who were known by all involved (by “all” I mean management, union, and the general population of teachers and students) to be incompetent. I suffered through the difficulty of trying my best for someone who wasn’t deserving. Union officials certainly don’t sit around in their offices cackling to themselves saying “Ah, another incompetent’s job saved.” As a ordinary faculty member serving on a “last” (pre-firing) review panel of a fellow teacher in my next to last year of work before retirement, I told my union’s steward, “Get her to retire, it’s her best option.” He did. This is how it works. The process requires that managers review teachers to document failings that the employee is given time to correct. Repeated failings merit further discipline including being fired. Violations of law, ethics, or board policies can get one moved to the front of the firing line. The ordinary process, if done correctly, can take a couple of years at worst. This is why tenure takes more than a couple of years to acquire.

But, if managers are lackadaisical and don’t cull poor teachers in the tenure acquisition process, it takes yet more work to get rid of them. Good teachers know this and they resent the bad ones. They resent the fact that the bad ones get paid as much as they do. They even resent their union defending the bad ones! (Repeatedly we had to remind members that we were required to represent each and every member.) But the good teachers support tenure, because they see that the quality of management is so poor and don’t want to be at the whim of that management.

This most recent editorial gave the impression that it is common for teachers to make $100,000 per year. I retired in 2006 as a professor of chemistry from a California community college. You know, California, with the lovely cost of living and astronomically expensive housing. (This is before the “housing bubble” burst and $645,000 fixer-uppers were common.) My final salary, after 35 years, was $72,000. Apparently I needed to be working in New York where all of the teachers make $100k. The author also makes the mistake saying that teachers get ample “vacations.” Calling it “vacation” is completely arbitrary. I could as well call it a “low season furlough” or “temporary layoff.” Teachers aren’t opposed to working through the summer, many do by teaching “summer school.” Often “summer school” pays less than “regular school” and often substantially less. (In my district it was about 65 cents on the dollar compared to “regular season” work.) How would you feel if you were laid off from your job for three months but your boss offered to hire you back, part time during that period for two thirds of what you made per hour prior?

In conservative circles, unions are always the problem, never management. If the military requires a court martial to kick out a soldier, is it to much to ask that there be some due process to kick out a teacher?

May 8, 2010

Rabid Right Attack Dogs

Part of the strategy to dismantle America’s middle class is to attack any person or agency that wants to help poor and middle income folks. Hence President Obama, who is a center-left politician, is a flaming liberal, a socialist, a radical to the attackers. Unions are dangerous agents of socialism. Organizations designed to help the poor manage their lives and participate in our democracy, like Acorn, are targeted with dirty trick campaigns and forced to close. Straw dogs are so prevalent, they have become a fire hazard and if ignited they will burn our house down. The cornerstones of the misinformation campaign are the Internet and right wing radio and television. These are the people who have claimed “left wing bias” so loudly about our traditional media sources, a claim that cannot be verified by any independent study, that people have believed that big lie. If our current media have proven anything is that they are pro income—they will do almost anything for money. I happen to like PBS a great deal and when I was commuting to work, I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition regularly. I was also perplexed to hear that the lead story most days of the week concerned Israel. I understood that when there were big stories coming from the Middle East, but often when there was no significant change in anything going on in Israel, there would be some sort of story near the top of the show. NPR didn’t try to hide anything, they were getting fairly large grants to report the news from Israel which meant they had money to cover events in Israel even when they had little money to cover anything else. As a listened I had been lulled into thinking that stories occurred in order of their importance, which is generally true, but the story you have because a grant allowed you to acquire it always trumps the story you don’t because all you have is a wire service (or now web-based) report.

Back to the role of the right wing drum beaters. Calling Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and their ilk “entertainers” is a little like calling hoodlums who have ransacked your house “decorators.” Paying these guys premium wages to destroy our democracy under the guise of freedom of speech is really going to puzzle the social archeologists of the 22nd century. “Did they know that these guys were inflaming hatred and bias?” “Why did they allow them to do that?”

I was actually a fan of the Limbaugh show in the early 1990s, until Bill Clinton got elected and Limbaugh started titling his show with the tag “America Held Hostage, Day XX.” Huh? What happened to poking fun at Femi-Nazis, and pointy headed intellectuals (my people). As I listened and paid more attention, Limbaugh’s bias became more vitriolic and more unhinged from reality. Several people reported calling his show to correct stories he had gotten wrong and no such corrections were forthcoming. That’s when I stopped listening. I firmly believe that “the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story,” but that only applies to fiction and jokes, not politics.

Glen Beck, Limbaugh’s successor, as the crown prince of right wing attack dogs is hard to watch. I can’t imagine Jonathan Swift or Douglas Adams inventing thoughts such as this man is capable of. Bizarre connections between the attacked and anything with the label bad on it (socialism, being weak, being un-American, etc.) trip off of his tongue. I don’t imagine anyone can actually follow his tortured arguments, they are left with just President Obama Something Bad as a conclusion. At least the magicians of my youth had the courtesy to say “nothing up this sleeve, nothing up this sleeve, and voila” when they pulled a rabbit out of nowhere, but Beck chugs along merrily as if he is establishing a rock solid chain of argument. Amazing. And these guys get millions of dollars to undermine our country.

So, Limbaugh begets Beck, Beck pushes Limbaugh to new heights. The Obama administration is now a “regime,” behavior that was lauded when George W. Bush was president is now condemned and, because these diatribes are so successful in mobilizing the Republican “base,” Republicans in Washington are borrowing from their playbook. Republican leaders in Washington refer to centrist policy offerings as “dangerous socialist” policies. The health care plan, centered on big business insurance companies, is “experimental” and “socialist.” The president is called a liar in open meetings by duly elected representatives who then use that fact to raise money for their re-election campaigns.

What ever happened to “My country, right or wrong?” What ever happen to “Country First?” What ever happened to civility? All of these used to be right wing clarion calls.

Apparently they don’t pay and they don’t polarize; that’s what happened. The fact that such behavior is un-American apparently escapes these people.

May 5, 2010

Union-Anti, Union-Anti, Anti, Anti, Anti!

A spear point of the attack on the middle class by the monied interests is the undermining of the union movement in this country and it is working. Union jobs are a major source of stability for the middle class. Union wages are higher than non-union wages and those wages are generally spent in the communities where those jobs exist. The money is spent several times over, what economists call the “multiplier effect” (people paid with those wages, in turn buy things and pay for services, etc.), resulting in everyone in the community benefiting. But money paid to workers isn’t there to be paid to management or shareholders, so those folks have always opposed unionization of their businesses. But, because these jobs make customers for those selfsame businesses, one would think that the opposition would be mild. In roughly 1960 both Canada and the U.S. had about 32% of their jobs as union jobs. Now, Canada is at about 32% and the U.S. is at about 14%!

It will probably come as no shock that this period also corresponds to the time in which executive compensation has exploded, from being 3-4 times as much as what an average worker in the business makes to being 3-400 times as much, and in which a great many Wall Street workers have made millions and even billions without making a physical contribution to the economy.

So, how is this done? Typical of the attacks is one made by the CEO of Caterpillar, Inc. in my local newspaper recently. In an “Op-Ed” he spread disinformation about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This act is trying to return the law to the point where it was a few decades ago, where the powers of businesses and unions were fairly balanced. The points made in his article weren’t even the author’s own opinions; they were part of a standard anti-union diatribe that is being spouted by conservatives around the country. (Talking points are circulated on the internet! No “Old Boy’s Club” needed!) Plus, virtually every claim made by the CEO was incorrect. The EFCA will not eliminate secret ballot elections, elections would still be available to employees but as one of the options available to employees, not just employers as it is now. Currently management can demand “free and fair” elections and prohibit the historical card signing process. The rules (consistently distorted in managements direction since the Reagan administration) also allow them to hire union-busting companies to come in and intimidate their own employees with tactics like demanding to know how employees intend to vote in such an election! Also legal are threats, often delivered in private, that “if the union gets elected, we will have to fire you.” (This is more effectively done in private, because if you threaten to fire large groups of people, it is hard to say how that is an improvement over working with a union.)

So much for the sanctity of the secret ballot espoused by the author. This is a common tool in argumentation, though, to espouse something like the “sanctity of a secret ballot” which sounds like an absolute good. They also say competition is an absolute good. But, these are conditionally true ideas made to sound absolutely true. Competition is not always a good thing: imagine sitting around the dinner table with your kids and after some discussion you say “Well, Janey did best in school today, so she gets to eat.” This is ludicrous, I know, but sometimes competition is good, sometimes it is not. The same is true for a secret ballot. Before you try to hang me for being a democracy apostate, please note that none of your Senators or Congressmen get to vote secretly. Every time they cast a vote it is on the record. If voting in secret is so damned sacred, why don’t we let or federal representatives do so? (Hint, secret ballots are a tool, a good tool, like competition.)

In arguing against the binding arbitration provisions in EFCA, the author refers to “government arbitrators” when it is a well known fact that the arbitrators are from independent associations, such as the American Arbitration Association, that have nothing to do with any government and that the choice of arbitrator is mutual and not one-sided. And yet another conservative bugaboo “the government wants to control your life” is slipped into an argument in an attempt to demonize the EFCA.

I am surprised the author didn’t bring up the argument of “union pressure” being applied to “force” employees to sign cards. Specious as that argument is, it is pulled out over and over in such arguments as these. I am willing to put the charges of union abuse of employees on any scale provided by the author if he is willing to put charges of employer abuses on the other pan. I have no doubt which way that balance would swing. Possibly he had to edit his article for length and that is why this hoary old argument didn’t appear.

Big business and the monied interests do not want this legislation to pass as it undermines their idea of being in complete control of their universes.

The unfortunate aspects of the anti-union campaign is that it undermines the American middle class. It undermines our income, it undermines our ability to provide for our families and, amazingly, it undermines our ability to be customers of the companies fighting unionization. The appalling result is that while these companies are fighting to make sure our jobs are as low paying as possible (union jobs pay more than non-union jobs) these bastards are fleeing overseas, taking all of their jobs with them rather than paying American workers a decent wage, union or not. This does tell you where their hearts are if not their minds.

May 4, 2010

Health Care Debate Ain’t Over, Part 2

We are going to need the public option after all.

The argument against a “public option” health care plan, and it is a valid concern, is that it would cost too much. Unfortunately for the naysayers, they again didn’t do the math (or did it and ignored it because it did not support their argument—this is called confirmation bias my friends and we all do it).

Let’s just use the round figure of $9000 per year for health insurance for a family of four (up from just half of that 10 years ago). This is close to the correct amount, but the exact figures aren’t important in this argument. What we are talking about is whether a government program would cost more than that $9000 to deliver the same service. It is that simple. Let’s start by recognizing that 20% of the total annual premium constitutes insurance company profit and overhead, so we remove that and we are down to $7200 that was spent to actually deliver health care. Now government based health care (e.g. Medicare) has 2% overhead (amazingly, the same overhead as the insurance industry had in the 1960’s!) and no profit so we need to add that back. We will call it $7350. This is the actual cost of the services plus overhead that $9000 in insurance premiums is providing.

So, the question is: Are you willing to pay $7350 more taxes to keep that $9000 in your pocket? No, really? Are you stupid or do you just think I am tricking you? Hey, most of us are willing to pay a realtor 3% of the selling price to sell our homes, but would you be willing to pay 20%? Why are we so willing to pay 18-20% of our health premiums to fill out a few forms and write a check?

Actually, with this argument I have short-changed the advantages to a public option system. The argument isn’t just about the cost, it’s about quality of service, too. Consider what the federal government’s VHA (Veteran’s Health Administration) accomplished when it adopted computerized record keeping. By computerizing pharmacy records they were able to compare the drugs prescribed with the health outcomes. They then adjusted their system to only include the drugs that actually worked. And, no, not just the cheapest ones! Because patients are with the VA forever, they discovered that cheap drugs that don’t work are way more expensive than expensive ones that do! But, doctors can override the computer system and prescribe non-recommended drugs, but that act comes up in their annual performance review. “Why did you prescribe a drug that doesn’t work as well? Oh, a drug company paid you to do it?” Interesting discussion, that.

For those of you who don’t want anyone or anything getting between you and your doctor when making your health care decisions, consider the fact that in addition to the health insurance companies being wedge firmly between you and your doctor, the bulk of the information doctors get on drugs is from pharmaceutical salesmen. These salesmen, who make quite nice salaries, are also allowed to sponsor trips for your doctor to speak to meetings of doctors as to how well those drugs he’s prescribing work . . . all expenses are paid, of course, and there is a stipend, of course, and . . . get the picture? The VHA system deliberate got between doctors and patients and nurses and patients as a check on mistakes. (Have you ever tried to read a written prescription from your doctor? In the VHA system, they have to be typed into a pharmacy request, resulting in instantly better communication.)

As part of the pharmacy system, the computer won’t allow a drug to be given to a patient until the patient’s ID number is typed or scanned in and the computer check against the doctor’s recommendation. In this manner the VHA has prevented tens of thousands of drug administration errors. A big deal? Well, independent hospital studies indicate that the rate of drug administration errors in ordinary hospitals is one, per patient, per day of stay! This is huge!

The opportunities for quality improvements are manifestly high. Private hospitals who have enacted quality assurance programs have, more often than not, either killed the program or they ended up closing their doors. The reason? The quality assurance efforts hurt their profits tremendously because of all of the unnecessary procedures that were no longer being billed. Some hospitals lost so much money not charging for services not needed that they went out of business. I’ll say this slowly so it has time to sink in: in the current system increasing the quality of delivery of health care results in a decrease in profitablility, so why is a profit motive good for your health?

So, do we need a public option? Or should we stay with a system built on good, old private enterprise? You choose.

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