Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Headline wishes for 2011

My colleague Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, always prepares for New Year’s Day an aspirational list of headlines from which we could all benefit. Here, with my own imprint, are the headlines I’d like to see in 2011.

Economic Recovery Narrows Federal Deficit

Republicans Back Off Attack on New Health Care Law

Congress Passes Dream Act

Congress Passes Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Patriots Win Super Bowl

U.S. Withdraws from Iraq on Schedule

Pakistan Routs Taliban from Strongholds

U.S. Withdraws from Afghanistan Ahead of Schedule

Tea Party Triggers Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill

Congress Closes Loopholes in U.S. Tax Code

Spring comes Early to Massachusetts

State Helps Cities and Towns Join Group Insurance Commission

Patrick Health Cost Containment Law Passes, Embraced by All

Jobless Rate Drops Below 8 Percent

Legislature Draws Districts that are Compact, Contiguous and Equal

John Boehner Stops Crying, Starts Caring

Boston Celtics win 18th Championship

Democrats Lead Fight to Raise Social Security Age

Republicans Support Raising Income Threshold for Social Security Tax

Film Bureau Loses Tax Credits; Movies Shoot Here Anyway

Boston Schools get Donation of 10,000 Desktop Computers

Shaquille O’Neal Funds Urban Music Education

U.S. Companies Bring Offshore Jobs Home
Tech Support Trains Call Centers to Speak Intelligible English

Harvard University Resumes Construction in Allston; Fills Hole

Downtown Crossing Cuts Ribbon for Filene’s Replacement; Eyesore removed

Wall Street Bonuses Pegged to Quality not Volume

Congress Passes Global Warming, Energy Independence law; Obama Signs

US Passes China in Green Technology

Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez Lead Red Sox to AL Pennant and World Series

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Obama's end-of life planning is all about "The Conversation"

President Obama’s “end-of-life plan” is all about The Conversation, but, for it to make sense, he has to shape the dialogue. What’s important is the language. What’s regrettable is that the NY Times headline today heralded “Obama Institutes End-of-Life Plan that Caused Stir.”
The opening of the article refers to the infamous “death panels” that caused a firestorm and nearly derailed the health reform law earlier this year. The notion of death panels is a huge distortion. The proposed reimbursement regulations are not talking about death panels, and the Obama Administration can’t let critics control the public debate, as it did before .

Health reimbursement practices have always paid doctors for procedures, but, especially in the case of primary care physicians, not enough for extended, thoughtful conversations. What the administration intends to do is pay them for the extra time they would spend on The Conversation that each and every one of us would do well to have with our doctors as well as our families.

The Conversation should be part of our wellness care, a routine part of health planning. The Conversation may indicate that, if we are terminal and on life support, we don’t want our lives artificially prolonged by modern technology. Or maybe, for a variety of reasons, we do want to be sustained indefinitely on a breathing machine, hovering between life and death. Having The Conversation is all about making our wishes known while we are mentally and physically able to make those decisions for ourselves. We need information from our doctors if we are to make informed choices and help shape our own medical outcomes.

Maybe we want to write a living will. Maybe we want to know what’s involved in organ donation. Maybe we want to learn more about designating a health proxy. Maybe we’ve already executed such documents but haven’t talked about them with our loved ones or with our doctors. Health experts indicate that more people have spoken with their loved ones about this than with their doctors.

But doctors need to hear our wishes as well. After all, for most doctors, the mission is to save lives, to try absolutely everything, even if the likelihood of a positive outcome is slim to none. The more experienced and thoughtful ones know that part of their mission needs to be explaining to patients what things will look like if life is artificially sustained, and what a “good death” can be with the options of hospice, pain medication, and other palliative care. This isn’t about the government deciding who shall live and who shall die, but our taking charge of our care, deciding, as patients, what we want for ourselves under different circumstances.

Studies show that, while 70 percent of patients say they want to die at home, fully 70 percent in fact die in the hospital, often in the Intensive Care Unit. For survivors, that can translate into guilt and depression. How much better to be able to say, in our grief over a loved one’s passing, that that loved one had the death he or she wanted. Those who have studied this area tell us that sometimes patients who choose palliative rather than aggressive care enjoy a better quality of life at the very end.

Aetna Insurance has experimented with a “compassionate care” program, letting patients with life expectancy of a year have hospice care without having to give up other, curative care. In the program, the percentage of patients choosing hospice care nearly tripled. People want to be able to choose how they’re cared for once they know what the different possible outcomes are. That’s what The Conversation with doctors is all about, and why it should be part of the ongoing care that doctors provide, an important regular conversation that health care reimbursement plans take into account. The Obama administration should keep focused on that and not lose control of the public dialogue. And media headline writers should resist the temptation to exploit the political extremes that grab attention but undermine the public good.

Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shattered dreams: No Dream Act for now

When I was eight years old, I knew my family, my neighbors and some of my elementary school classmates. I knew we lived in Boston, scarcely understood Massachusetts and had no sense of nations or nation-states. If my parents had decided to move, we would have moved, no questions asked. As told in the New York Times today, Benita Veliz, 25, graduated from college in San Antonio and wants to go to law school. She came here through no decision of her own at the age of eight, the child of illegal immigrants. She is faced with deportation, her dreams shattered by the failure once again of Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for people like her.

There are thousands of students like Benita, the kind of hard-working people seeking to improve themselves or serve the country, the kind whom we would want to become upstanding tax-paying citizens, to strengthen our workforce and/or our military. They are talent to be embraced.

The Dream Act would give certain undocumented individuals, who had come here as children and lived here for several years prior to consideration under the bill, the ability to gain legal status, either through college or military service. As Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow told the Globe’s Renee Loth, turning our backs on such students by not passing the Dream Act is “ not only morally wrong but wrong-headed.” Also writing for the Globe, Rob Anderson could find no college president opposed to the legislation.

It seems such a no-brainer. The Dream Act’s failure is a sad reflection on the politics of the day. Support for the bill used to be bipartisan. Now former supporters like Senators John McCain of Arizona, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas have done a 180 and, faced with harshly conservative opponents, have left the Benita Velizes out in the cold. Opponents called the Dream Act amnesty, which is echoed by Senator Scott Brown in a statement

It’s too bad that Brown, in charting his independent course, felt the need here to succumb to such nativist arguments. Not all Republicans did. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar voted yes, as did Utah Senator Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She supported the Act but felt it was doomed to fail because the Democrats had restricted debate and amendments. The vote failed by five votes, but it need not have. Five Democrats voted against bringing it to the floor, and one took a walk, so there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Texas Senator John Cornyn says the bill would have allowed illegal immigrants with criminal records to obtain citizenship. But that seems to be a red herring. The bill, which was first proposed nearly a decade ago, says that eligible high school graduates would have to be of good moral character. That term, in immigration law, is quite specific in barring people who have committed any of a laundry list of crimes. If there’s any doubt that there is a loophole, then the Congress should fix it and pass the Dream Act next session. But I fear, as I wrote September 29 about comprehensive immigration reform, whenever objections are met opponents move the goal posts.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the Dream Act would be a down-payment on a comprehensive immigration reform, which may make passage all the more challenging in the next Congress, expected to be well to the right of Congress today. Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner sheds tears every time he thinks of giving young people an opportunity to achieve “the American dream.” It remains to be seen whether his tears are those of selfish referential gratitude, acknowledging what he personally has been able to achieve, or whether he’s serious about opening up the American Dream to thousands of worthy young people who have much to contribute to us and our economy.

Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Menino links proposed school system changes to potential economic growth

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino this morning delivered one of the best speeches of his political career, and it brought the crowd of several hundred at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast to their feet in an enthusiastic ovation. In it, he laid out a compelling vision for a comprehensive overhaul of the Boston Public Schools. In the process, he said things that have needed to be said for a long time.

He strongly backed Superintendent Carol Johnson’s plan to close a $60 million budget gap and simultaneously improve the quality of education. There are 5600 empty seats in the city. The Boston School Committee tomorrow night will vote on Johnson’s proposal to close nine schools and merge eight into four, saving an estimated $20 million a year. But this isn’t just about bricks and mortar.

Menino’s and Johnson’s vision is that every classroom will have a highly skilled teacher whose salary, in part, will be tied to performance. He wants a teacher contract that will allow principals across the city hire the teachers whose skills best meet the needs of their students. He also wants to reform the teacher evaluation system. Noting that Boston has the shortest school day in the Commonwealth, he wants to extend the school day. Outdated contract rules will have to change.

And that’s not all that will outrage the unions. The school system’s health insurance has doubled in the last decade, meaning that one in eight dollars goes for employee health insurance. Millions could be saved by joining the Group Insurance Commission plan that covers state workers. Resistance to this reasonable change among municipal workers is virtually statewide. Menino will ask the legislature to approve a home rule petition that will enable Boston to make the change.

Boston’s 61 percent graduation rate is “one of the highest in urban America,” but, he said, we “can’t accept that more than a third don’t graduate.” He understands that quality education is the foundation of economic growth and prosperity, not to mention competitiveness.

I asked the Mayor how, in light of the need to enable principals to choose their own teachers, he is actually going to get agreement on modifying the bumping rule, where those teachers in closing schools could actually displace other, sometimes better teachers elsewhere solely because of seniority. He acknowledged the challenges presented in upcoming union talksAsked where the preliminary talks are, the Mayor said they’re still “in the on-deck circle.”

More than one observer mused that the strength of this speech and the force of its message could well signal that Tom Menino may not be planning to run for yet another term. He didn’t mince words, and he indicated a willingness to go head-to-head with the teachers union on issues where it has been largely intransigent. But, as he well noted, education is “the issue of our time,” and, even if he doesn’t get 100 percent of what he wants, he has definitely raised the bar on what is needed well into the future.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On taxes, Obama never delivered the right message

In the wake of a proposed tax package deal, there’s plenty of finger-pointing, especially by Democrats, about how Obama caved to the Republicans on tax cuts for the rich. There’s even whispering about mounting a liberal Democratic presidential candidacy against him in 2012. (Those who flirt with that should remember the lesson of Ted Kennedy’s taking on Jimmy Carter in 1980.) And many Democrats, including most of the Massachusetts delegation, are digging in their heels in opposition.

They have a right to be outraged about the debt-expanding “tax cuts for the rich.” And, as Paul Krugman notes, the deal sets itself up for a repeat scenario next year, with even worse results. The pity is that the President should have been more forceful earlier this year so the extension of unemployment benefits would have been less likely to be held hostage to the extension of the Bush tax cuts. And the Democrats should have handled the Bush tax cut extension issue, before and during the election, better. As Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate, Obama failed at every step in the tax-cut poker game, and he ended up being the mark.

Ron Elving pointed out on WBUR, the Democrats have been outplayed at every step along the way. Had it been otherwise, the Congress now ending would have passed a public option in the health care bill, tougher regulations on banks, a tougher set of standards on carbon emissions and a totally different tax package to substitute for the expiring tax cuts from the era of George W. Bush
On the tax package, the President failed in strategy and in timing, and worse, he failed even to control the message.

The Democratic alternative, sustaining the Bush cuts for those earning up to $200,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a couple, might have been more saleable if the President had consistently said, Look, everyone will get the tax cuts on income up to that level. The Bush era tax reduction for incomes higher than that will expire because 1) given the growing structural deficit the nation can’t afford it and 2)the additional breaks for those who don’t really need it will not result in either job creation or new consumer spending.

This really needn’t have been portrayed as discriminating against the high earners; they would have been understood to be getting exactly what everyone else was getting. What’s unfair about that? And it would have meant that an equivalent amount would not now need to be borrowed from the Chinese to help keep the economy afloat.

But that’s history now. The Republicans are controlling the game, and they haven’t even officially taken control of the House! Perhaps the White House has the votes without those on his liberal flank, which leaves them free to vent their outrage. But what happens if their votes are really needed? I can’t believe that Barney Frank, Jim McGovern, Steve Lynch and Michael Capuano are going to leave the unemployed without benefits. Sure, some last minute tweaking of the bill could be in order, but waiting a month to try to work out a compromise after the first of the year with an even more cohesive opposition is not a prescription for national renewal. Some economists say that the impact of a month’s delay would cost a million jobs and render our recovery even more precarious.

At this late stage, the compromise to which President Obama agreed may indeed have been the best that could be achieved. So let them get on with it, pass the bill, then see if they can get the START treaty ratified. After the holidays, the agenda will be even more daunting.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Scott Brown gets it right on "don't ask, don't tell"

After the Senate takes up tax and spending issues, Senator Scott Brown now says he will vote to repeal the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy, which effectively bars gays from serving. The change of heart comes in the wake of a Pentagon review that predicted minimal problems if the change is made. Brown is now aligned with a significant majority from all walks of life, not just in Massachusetts but around the country.

A Washington Post poll showed that 75 percent of all Americans support repeal, including majority support among conservatives, Republicans and seniors, traditionally opposed to repeal. Even a majority of those on active duty say gays serving in the military would not negatively affect those serving. (The Marine Corps were least supportive.)

Retired General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said on This Week Sunday morning that now is the best time for change because the focus is on war. When Americans are in combat, they pull together because they are Americans, according to Clark

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has testified before Congress that don’t ask, don’t tell forces people to lie, and “that’s not who we are.”

Welcome aboard, Senator Brown.

“I have visited our injured troops at Walter Reed and have attended funerals of our fallen heroes,’’ he said in a statement.  “When a soldier answers the call to serve, and risks life or limb, it has never mattered to me whether they are gay or straight. My only concern has been whether their service and sacrifice is with pride and honor.’’

A gratifying aspect of the Senator’s statement is that he had pledged to keep an open mind and kept his pledge. Not so Senator John McCain who, as a Boston Globe editorial points out, remains obdurate on this issue.
If Scott Brown continues to behave in this reasonable way on other issues, not voting in anyone’s pocket, he could take the next step toward fulfilling his image of himself as an authentic change agent.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, December 3, 2010

R.I.P. James DiPaola

People who knew Jim DiPaola say he was a nice guy, very gregarious. It’s hard to succeed in politics if you’re not. Others say he cared about other people, was loyal to his employees and committed to providing the social services needed by prisoners if they are to reenter and adjust to life outside. But he committed suicide last week, just after Thanksgiving, in the wake of media reports that were less than flattering.

An allegedly disgruntled former employee was reported to have said he had used campaign contributions for personal purposes and that he had had an employee drive him home in a government vehicle when he had too much to drink. The Boston Globe had called him on a scheme to double dip, retiring temporarily from his sheriff’s post to collect his pension while also collecting a pension from earlier stints of public service. It was legal but too cute by half. In a slow news week, the gambit and his reaction to it dominated the headlines. He decided to leave politics, concluding that he didn’t want, as reporter Sean Murphy had warned, that story to be his legacy.

But his suicide doesn’t compute. He came out ahead of the pension story when he decided against the ploy, saying that while it was legal, it wasn’t right. And the use of campaign finances for personal purposes? Not right, but penny ante stuff. If true, it most probably would have resulted in a fine and a slap on the wrist. As for having a staff person drive him home after having had a few drinks, should he have driven alone having imbibed? As I said, I didn’t know DiPaola, and I don’t have information about what he did or didn’t do. I have no idea whether there was another shoe to drop. But none of what’s come out seems to explain suicide as a response.

DiPaola’s friends are stupefied. They have no answers. Political consultant Michael Goldman, who worked with DiPaola for many years and was his friend, has written a piece that appears in the Salem News. Unless I learn otherwise, Michael’s column tells me all I need to know about Sheriff Jim DiPaola. I reprint it here, with Michael’s permission.

Sometimes the Dragon Wins

Nobody had a bigger laugh, or a bigger heart, than did Jimmy DiPaola.

For years, when I would introduce him at political events, I'd always tell the same story.

It was about a day 14 years ago, shortly after he was officially sworn in as Middlesex County sheriff, and we had made our way back to the office he would occupy for the next decade on the 17th floor of the county courthouse in Cambridge.

The previous sheriff, an interim appointee selected a year earlier by former Gov. Bill Weld, and whom Jim had defeated in what was described by the media as a "huge upset," was gone, as was his entire staff.

Gone, too, was just about everything else that had been in the office, including pens, pencils and even paper clips. All that remained, it seemed, was a single desk and chair.

Jim made his way over to the desk and started opening its drawers, only to discover that they, too, had been cleaned out. Then he opened the very top drawer, took out a single piece of paper, read it, and let out a classic Jim DiPaola roar of laughter.

Someone had left a cartoon as a greeting for the new sheriff. It depicted a knight in shining armor lying on the ground looking up at a smiling dragon holding his sword.

The caption read: "Sometimes the dragon wins."

"I guess they think I'm the dragon," the still-laughing sheriff said.

The truth is Jim was never the dragon. If anything, for 14 years, Jim was a dragon-slayer. Nobody did more to take on the many "dragons" who resisted his big vision of what the sheriff's office could and should be.

His e-mail address was simply, "thesheriff@..." The message on his cell phone bellowed, "It's the sheriff! Leave a message!" His personal notes were always signed, "Your friend, the Sheriff."

It was never "Sheriff DiPaola," It was always just, "the Sheriff."

The fact is, it would be too easy for me to simply repeat stories already reported in other media outlets about just how special a person Sheriff Jim DiPaola really was.

His success at turning the Billerica County Jail from the facility with the highest rate of recidivism in the commonwealth, to the jail with the lowest rate of prisoner re-incarceration, is a documented fact. The training programs he implemented for jail personnel are now the models of professionalism used by virtually every other sheriff in the state.

His culinary program; the Youth Academy; his acquisition of a state-of-the-art mobile communication vehicle using federal grant money; his post-Katrina trip to Louisiana, where he was the first outsider to bring food, water and hope to hundreds of traumatized victims of the hurricane; his inmate education, addiction and violence prevention programs; and, most important, his success at never overspending his budget in any of the 14 years he ran the system, are a huge part of the reason he easily won re-election less than a month ago.

But there was one thing more. There was Jim himself.

Serving as sheriff in the 23rd biggest county in the entire country, the reality was that there was virtually no place you could travel with him where someone didn't recognize him, and then choose to come over to shake his hand to thank him for some private kindness he had done on their or another person's behalf.

From downtown Lowell to distant Marlborough; from liberal Cambridge to conservative Dracut; from the town of Acton to his beloved hometown of Malden, it didn't matter. Someone had met him at some political event, or at one of the thousands of parades he attended, or through some veterans group he'd supported.

Jim would always smile and, to my astonishment, tell me who the person was, where they lived, and how he'd met them. His memory was a steel trap; his love of the business of politics contagious.

This has obviously been a sad week for me, as it has been a sad week for the hundreds who called James DiPaola friend. Sadly, I have no answers for what he did.

He adored his wife, beamed with pride when he spoke of his daughters, and never tired of sharing pictures of his beloved grandchildren. In the end, the simple answer may just be that sometimes the dreaded dragon does win.

Rest easy my friend, the Sheriff, rest easy.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Marty Meehan's decision to stay put for now

By all accounts, Marty Meehan has done a terrific job at UMass Lowell, expanding the campus, lifting academic standards, sharpening connections with the business community, raising funds and enhancing the overall brand of the university. Not surprising then that he became a prime prospect for replacing University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson, who will retire in June.

As discussion became more public about the search for said replacement, critics speculated that tapping Meehan for the system’s top spot would be Marian Walsh redux, demonstrating the political establishment’s inclination always to promote its nearest and dearest. Not a good thing at a time when Beacon Hill is poisoned by the Probation Department patronage scandal.

Mindful of the pitfalls of appointing an insider, Governor Patrick apparently communicated to search committee chair UMass Trustee James Karam his concerns that the search be as broad, deep and authentic as possible to ensure the next president was absolutely the best for elevating the University of Massachusetts to a higher tier in higher education. I found myself thinking it would be too bad if, in order to keep up appearances, Meehan would be disqualified simply because he has been a successful politician.

But columnist Joan Vennochi has presented a very compelling argument for seeking a president with greater academic credentials.  Vennochi notes Meehan’s accomplishments, concedes that he isn’t burdened with the baggage that former Senate President William Bulger brought to the presidency of the University, but credibly asserts that “his resume lacks the experience and heft of those who lead the most elite public universities.”

Vennochi looks at the credentials of the presidents of the top-ranked universities in the country (according to US News and World Reports) and shows how they have weighty experience in running institutions of higher education and significant scholarly accomplishments in their respective fields. And many have also achieved substantial success in fundraising. Recent studies, she reminds us, have shown that top high school students are still not, in general, going to the University of Massachusetts as their first choice.

In withdrawing from consideration, Meehan told the search committee that, upon reflection, he prefers to “ directly lead an academic institution and interact on a daily basis with faculty, staff and students” and thus his “interest remains in running UMass Lowell.”  Clearly, he has a lot on his plate at UMass Lowell, and it will take some time to achieve his stated goals there.

However, his decision is particularly interesting because his name is also mentioned frequently as a possible successor to Suffolk University President Dave Sargent, who has already become President Emeritus. A search is underway. At Suffolk, Meehan would earn more, could be a perfect fit for the University’s Beacon Hill location right next to the State House, and might be able to run the institution with less media scrutiny than that which comes with public colleges and universities. He would bring to the post his political and fundraising bona fides and his track record running another urban university. This chapter has yet to be written.

Monday, November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks communications dump: embarrassing, uncomfortable, but, we hope, not irreparable

The news that WikiLeaks is making public over 250,000 secret State Department communications is shocking. But, while many of the diplomats who wrote (or were written about in) the messages may be angry, embarrassed or having to do damage control with their colleagues and others here and abroad, we all have a better understanding of how U.S. diplomacy is conducted in very challenging times.

The potential outcomes are mixed. What was particularly fascinating in the New York Times analysis was a look into some of the deals the Obama Administration has to make in its efforts to reduce the Iranian nuclear capability, a threat of equal concern to others but which nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and others are loath to express publicly. The question now is whether and to what extent the Saudis now have to become more hostile publicly and privately to ward off criticism in the Arab world that it is too close to the United States. (The Saudis, for their part, were willing to guarantee oil to China if, in supporting Iranian sanctions, Iran cut off oil to China.)

The Times laid out its rationale for publishing the State Department communiqu├ęs.  The paper said it withholds information that would expose confidential sources to reprisals or that would reveal operational intelligence that could benefit our adversaries. The Times, which gave the White House an opportunity to redact still further the material it was going to publish, says it would not hold back material simply because it would embarrass officials here or there.

But in what category do we put the revelation that President Ali Abdullah Saleh took the responsibility for strikes on Al Qaeda strongholds in Yemen even when it was the United States who had carried out the attacks? And how will making that public affect our skittish allies in that country, or others? Sometimes simple embarrassment does have far-reaching policy implications.

The arrogance of WikiLeaks is breathtaking. Does the public have a right to know everything? All too often governments keep secret information years beyond any reasonable national security defense. Timing is important. Does the public have a right to know the disclosures now, when it can affect the course of events, or later, when it is history? And how do we discern what down the road we will wish we had known contemporaneously to avert disaster or improve the prospects for conflict resolution.

Jonathan Schneer, in his tome The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,  lays out the details of the duplicity of the shifting alliances leading up to the 1917 British declaration that the Jews had a right to a homeland in Palestine. Along the way, the British had been negotiating with the Zionists, the French (who laid claim to Syria), the Arabs (whom the British were encourage to revolt against the Turks in a larger effort to break up the Ottoman Empire) and the Turks themselves (whom the British were trying to break out of their alliance with Germany during WWI.) Simultaneously, then, the British were promising certain land to the Jews, the Arabs, the French, and reassuring the Turks that their flag would fly over Palestine. Would knowing that this was going on at that time have provided greater clarity in the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict? Perhaps. Certainly people today are still paying the price of the now-century-old pattern of diplomatic deception.

What unsavory deals, ripe with unintended consequences, are being made today, albeit with righteous intentions?

The State Department bears some of the blame for this controversy. Now, belatedly, it is reportedly limiting the ability of its computer messages to be downloaded to a portable device and is reducing the number of employees with access to the thousands of messages. A little like locking the stable door after the horse is gone.

But what should the media do when institutional barriers to diplomatic secrecy are breached and newspaper or electronic media receive sensitive information? Even media critic Dan Kennedy in his MediaNation blog reflects the ambivalence that both journalists and the general public rightly feel about this WikiLeaks event. This is not an easy call. It’s one thing to understand the implications of that secrecy after the fact; it’s another to alter the course of events, for good or for bad, by knowing the information up front.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Deval Patrick: Basking in the afterglow of election victory is sweet but short

Nearly a year ago, I used the word “circling the drain” in writing about Deval Patrick’s inauspicious prospects for reelection. I’m not the only one whose premature assessments proved wrong. Patrick turned around his campaign. And, in the end, the voters of Massachusetts definitely preferred his message of optimism and his ability to build on Administration accomplishments to Charlie Baker’s unrelenting attacks on the Commonwealth and his more dour demeanor. But the celebratory afterglow for the Governor is already dimming, and the act of day-to-day governing is back upon him.

Perhaps reflecting that hard reality, the Governor has scaled back plans for his inaugural celebration, as the Herald’s Joe Battenfeld reports today. This is clearly a lesson well learned from the flack he ran into when one of his first acts four years ago was to redecorate the Corner Office, costly more for the political fallout than the actual drapes. Scaling back today reflects 2010 economic constraints and his increased public relations maturity.

Patrick is expected to face a significant fiscal 2012 budget deficit, and that will mean pain all around. To help cities and towns face their own budget gaps, many will be asking the Governor to take a stronger position on municipal worker health care plans. Boston Mayor Tom Menino is filing a home rule petition allowing Boston to move its employee coverage to the state’s Group Insurance Commission. Let’s hope the Governor steps up to the plate on this issue, which, as documented by The Boston Foundation, would mean significant savings for local communities.

The Governor also will need to deal with General Electric’s attempt to extort $25 million in tax credits for not laying off people. As the Globe’s Joan Vennochi noted yesterday, Massachusetts’ history includes clearcut examples of companies that get tax breaks to protect jobs and then can the workers anyway. (Think Fidelity and Raytheon.) The Governor said he’d think about G.E.’s request, but here’s hoping he was just being polite.

Governor Patrick was more vocal when asked about a (legal but supremely unacceptable) scheme by Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola to collect both his sheriff’s salary of $123,000 and a $98,500 pension from earlier years in public service as a police officer and state rep. Asked about DiPaola’s plan, the Governor called it “outrageous.” Questioned on the scheme by Globe reporter Sean Murphy, DiPaola slept on it and announced the next day he’d resign his position as sheriff. But now it’s up to Governor Patrick, who during his first term signed some pension reform into law, to commit to closing that and other loopholes in public pension law that so separate public employees from the rest of us.

Patrick said that he would not be averse to using some of Charlie Baker’s ideas for reform where they made sense. Further ideas on employee pensions and state construction contracts are among those that are ripe for the taking.Other items in the Baker’s Dozen are worth pursuing. Let’s hope that, buoyed by his win and validated in his accomplishments to date, the Governor hits the ground running in his second term and throws himself headlong into solving the seemingly unsolvable problems the Commonwealth and we face.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Scott Brown: He’s tired of the fluff, but where’s the depth?

Scott Brown told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce this morning that he’s “tired of the fluff.” He says that, in nine months in Washington, the Senate has only focused for 12 days on jobs and the economy. Agreed, jobs and the economy should be the #1 focus. But, while he decries the fluff, Brown is remarkably short on substance, even if he is long on charm. Check it on in the video.
He’s still skating the surface of issues in his presentations, relying on campaign-type slogans about lowering taxes, cutting spending, making government less intrusive. His approach is three-pronged. He wants to reenergize business by changing the business environment through simplifying regulation, getting rid of waste and fraud, creating more certainty by lowering both the corporate tax (to 0% for new start-ups) and capital gains tax rates. All this, he says, will spur creativity and stimulate jobs.

The reality is much more complex. Just try your hand at some of the trade-offs laid out in the Sunday NY Times.  There are short-term savings to be achieved, some of which can be achieved with an improving economy and increasing revenues. There is a mid-term deficit, brought on by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Medicare prescription drug plan, the Bush tax cuts and the stimulus act. There is the long-term structural deficit we face, which will require facing up to some of the hard choices being laid out by the Simpson Commission. Brown didn’t want to get into any details on that.

He’s still basking in the afterglow of his January success (“Mine was one of the most historic elections in the country.”) He’s still marveling that Scott Brown from Wrentham is in the U.S. Senate. And he’s still in campaign mode, repeating the mantra of cutting taxes, spending and the size of government, all the while getting the audience to smile when he mentions the 214,000 miles he has on his truck. Spare me the truck. Spare me the barn coat. Spare me the campaign slogans.

Tell me what you want to do about global warming, the long-term solvency of Medicare and Social Security, the military budget, including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t pay for everything with cuts, so where should we raise taxes? Do we, for example, increase the income on which Social Security taxes are levied? Do we raise the retirement age? Do we reduce the mortgage interest deduction on mortgages above a certain amount or cut the deduction for second homes? Do we reduce the number of troops we have in places like Japan and Germany as an unnecessary vestige of World War II?  How is he sorting out the trade-offs?

Compared to the “take no prisoners” Tea Party cant we hear nationally, his call for bi-partisanship is refreshing. But with Scott Brown it sounds like another facile slogan. The Simpson-Bowles deficit panel is bi-partisan, and already both parties are horrified by some of the choices we face. Today, at least, Senator Brown sidestepped any specifics, rendering his answers not much better than the fluff he so decries.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting kids into science and math is vital for our economy

Stickers with icons of science and technology embedded in letters of the alphabet. Posters of kids with beakers and stethoscopes. Decks of cards with numbers in the shape of solar panels or a double helix .A music video by Boston-born artist Tezz Yancey . What does that have to do with the future of the Massachusetts economy? Plenty, it turns out.

Massachusetts has frequently patted itself on the back for leading the nation in test scores. State officials’ decision to adopt federal Common Core Standards was met with much unwarranted chest thumping and hyperventilating because of concerns we’d be watering down our standards. Our self-satisfaction may not be justified however. A recent Harvard University study reported by James Vaznis in the Boston Globe notes that, while nationally Massachusetts has the nation’s highest math skills, we lag behind countries in Europe and elsewhere. And that’s bad news on the economic front.

The study says our percentage of graduating high school students with advanced math skills are less than half the rate of peer students in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. That’s particularly problematic given the high representation in the state’s economy of high tech, bio-tech, health care and other science-related work. One problem is the need to pay higher salaries to recruit highly qualified teachers in math and science.

Another problem is the challenge of interesting young students to go into science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM subjects.) Enter Joyce Plotkin.

Plotkin, the former head of the Mass. Software and Internet Council (now called the Mass. Technology Leadership Council) has founded The DIGITS Project to whet students’ appetites for STEM subjects as early as the sixth grade. While the average level of interest nationally in those subjects is 33 percent, she says, only 28 percent of Massachusetts sixth graders express that interest. Compare that to 38 percent in North Carolina. Plus, she says, kids who are high performers on MCAS, often suburban, want to go into finance and other professions—not engineering. Low MCAS performers (in poorer school systems) are more interested in engineering, for example, but lack the skills to get from here to there.

This can be turned around, and Plotkin is intent on doing just that. Working with  a coalition of five Massachusetts science and technology associations representing over 1500 companies  and 300,000 people who work in software, Internet, telecommunications, biotechnology, medical devices, engineering and clean energy, they created DIGITS. With the pro-bono creative support of Arnold Advertising, they have developed graphics, workshops, games, a music video and website to make these studies fun. Representatives from industry sectors visit classrooms. The idea is to make science, technology, engineering and math learning fun. Wish someone had done that for me when I was in the sixth grade!

Evaluation of the one-year results is, said an independent evaluator, “statistically significant.” That means that kids have an increased understanding of why math is important, the kinds of careers that would be open to them and what they have to do to get there.

The state and the MA Technology Leadership Council provided two years of funding for DIGITS, but the third year of the grant disappeared in the state’s budget crisis. Now it’s up to Plotkin to raise some $325,000. She is a third of the way there, thanks to The MathWorks, Analog Devices, Verizon, Cisco, PTC and IBM. But she’s looking for more money and for volunteers to be STEM ambassadors to classrooms across the state. The project is all about making it cool to do math, science, engineering and technology. And it would really be cool for all of us to have DIGITS succeed.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I’m shocked, simply shocked, to find political donations from Fox and MSNBC hosts

Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” for violating NBC’s policy barring donations to political candidates turned out to be just two days’ off the air. Which probably makes sense because his misstep was not in making the donations to three Democratic candidates but in not informing the NBC powers that be, as the network’s policy demands. Put in that context, the “punishment” was just a company’s way of showing who’s boss, of not letting an employee act “too big for his britches.”

The real question remains unanswered: should real journalists make donations to political candidates? The short answer to that is No. Not. Never. If you’re gathering and reporting the news, you need to project an open-mindedness and the ability to tell a story without bias. The Globe’s Brian Mooney and the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack would be sacked if they ever contributed to candidates, I am sure, and their writing would lose credibility.

Keith Olbermann is a journalist only in the broadest sense of the word, “a writer or editor for a news medium.” But the definition of journalism I grew up with was closer to Webster's definition of one engaged in “the direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” That is not what Keith Olbermann is about. Given how clearly he states his political opinions and preferences, he is really more of a news entertainer, just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox. If NBC really cares about separating news from opinion, it should bar Olbermann from anchoring coverage of election night returns.

Even when I earned my living as an editorialist, always writing and airing opinion, I would never contribute to a candidate because it would appear to compromise my ability to gather information (on which the opinion would eventually be based) in the most neutral way. I would hope that today’s editorial writers abide by that rule. For they are, in the best sense of the word, opinion journalists.

But in the cable news business, the pitchmen (and women) on Fox and MSNBC are shilling for their viewpoints and favorite candidates on a daily basis. As David Carr points out in Monday’s NY Times, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators. Its website headlines Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and Joe Miller.

Fox is fine with all this (hey, Rupert Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association). MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups. This is a distinction without a difference.

In today’s cable environment, a defined point of view is part of the station’s brand. It’s why those inclined to the right tune into Fox and those on the left tune into MSNBC. What difference can it make at this time that their stars are donating to candidates? I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, November 8, 2010

To understand urban education, walk in the principal’s shoes

She got on the phone with facilities people to get the heating system working, met with two guidance counselors about arrangements for Spirit Day, caught up with another administrator about making sure teachers had turned in student grades, negotiated with a School Department researcher about an up-coming health and wellness survey and how best to keep it from intruding on class time, discussed the whereabouts of a missing staff person with her administrative assistants, dropped by science and English classes to observe, supervised the lines in the lunchroom to make sure food lines didn’t back up and made sure students were cleaning trash off the tables, met with a program director to determine if it was appropriate for the school to apply for a particular science and math grant and discussed budget and union realities with a visitor.
That was a scant half day’s activities for the remarkable Emilia Pastor, Headmaster of Boston Latin Academy. Over five years of observing school activities as part of the Boston Plan for Excellence’s Principal for a Day (PFAD) program, I understand this range and level of activity happens across the city. Cosponsored by the Boston Plan for Excellence  and the Boston Public Schools, with support from Bank of America, the PFAD program seeks to involve business and civic leaders in city schools.

Boston Latin Academy is one of three exam schools in the city. It used to be Girls’ Latin School, which I attended as a 7th-grader. It was a much different education back then, much more rote memorization, for example. (As I pulled into the Latin Academy parking lot, my mind was reeling through the list of intransitive verbs and recapitulating the sixth canto of Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel.) Literature classes today break down into small groups to discuss and analyze, compare and contrast. The students, whatever the course, are really engaged in the learning process.

To graduate from Latin Academy, students entering in Grade 7 have six years of English, 5 years of Math, including pre-calculus , 5 years of science, 4 years of Latin plus 3 years of a second language (Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese) and 5 years of history. The student body today is ethnically diverse, and nearly half the students quality for free or reduced-price school meals. The students here fare very well on MCAS, but the focus at Latin Academy looks well beyond MCAS to Advanced Placement and SAT scores. One hundred percent are college bound.

As wonderful a school as it is, Latin Academy, like others around the city, is not without problems. Budget cuts have had an impact. Teachers have been laid off, which translates into some students having two study halls a day rather than one. When a 10th grade writing class turns into a study hall, it is dispiriting.

Union regulations also have an effect across the system, limiting a principal’s ability to put together the very best team of teachers. Teachers who get laid off from so-called underperforming schools may have first dibs on positions that open up in other schools. Getting rid of teachers who don’t work out is a daunting challenge. I have observed many dedicated and inspiring teachers, but principals should be able to decide how to help those with potential to be better and not have to dilute their teams with those who aren’t up to the task.

AFL-CIO chief Robert Haynes, speaking at a Boston Plan for Excellence/Bank of America luncheon after the school visits, seemed to interpret even questioning the impact of the teacher hiring rules as an attack on all teachers. It is not. But the system needs to be able to differentiate the good from the not so good, help those who can improve to do so, and focus on what’s in the students’ best interests.

There’s also a shortage of computers, with around 50 on the premises for more than 1700 students. Only half may have computer access at home. Companies can donate their “gently used” computers to Project Refresh in the Boston School Systems. Not as easy perhaps for individual donors because it costs about $150 to make them ready for classroom use. It costs $600 to make a room ready for wireless.

Despite the problems and the day-to-day struggles, a visit to Boston Latin Academy is a reminder that urban education can work very well. But it will take the support of more than just political, business and civic leaders to communities to make sure that we don’t sacrifice students on the altar of balanced budgets and counterproductive labor rules.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Feeling blue while seeing red? Thoughts on other winners and losers

Nationally, angry voters pulled the lever for change, but here in Massachusetts a majority cast their ballots for optimism. Winners and losers weren’t defined just by the metrics however. Scott Brown, while not on the ballot, lost some sheen because Massachusetts voters turned their backs on candidates who, like Sean Bielat and Jeff Perry, claimed to be riding the wave that had swept Brown into office in January. The anti-incumbent tsunami anticipated in Massachusetts was greatly overestimated.

Brown lost again, along with Mitt Romney, for wrapping his arms around Perry, tainted by the then-police sergeant’s connection years ago to an illegal strip search of a teenage girl. The Boston Herald lost when its major office endorsees went down, as did the full panoply of newspapers statewide who backed Mary Connaughton for auditor, an endorsement that should have had clout in a low-visibility race .

In losing, 4th District Republican Bielat can hold his head high. He made Barney Frank work very hard and spent lots of money for a much narrower margin of victory that he is used to. Bielat comes out of the campaign with the foundation for an organization that may be successful next time, if not for Congress then for some other office. (Remember Joe Malone’s success after losing to Ted Kennedy in the eighties?)

In his victory speech last night, Frank was characteristically ungracious, typically irascible and factually correct. The election’s over. No more Mr. Nice Guy. He’ll need that tough-mindedness when he returns to the House, having to fight to defend gains made last term in a more hospitable environment.

With the House turning Republican Frank and other members of the Massachusetts delegation, including Congressman Ed Markey will lose their committee and subcommittee chairmanships. The MA State House is the local GOP’s silver lining. Republicans doubled their numbers, and, while far from reaching critical mass, will have an opportunity to begin rebuilding a two-party system….sort of.

Governor Patrick won convincingly, what Joan Vennochi calls “A Massachusetts Miracle,” but lost over $100 million with the peel-back of the sales tax on alcohol. Add that to the $2 billion estimated deficit he’ll have to deal with the next fiscal year, and he may wake up with a voice in his ear chanting, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Charlie Baker lost his “fair-haired boy,” wunderkind image not just in losing but in never living up to his long-anticipated promise as a candidate. That said, he added immeasurably to the policy debate and raised some solid ideas (notably many of his “Baker’s Dozen.") All of us will win if he stays engaged in the civic process.

Obviously, President Obama lost in losing the House and in seeing so many state offices go red. In today’s press conference, he called it “a shellacking,” But if he doesn’t act nimbly the worst could be ahead. In holding on to the Senate, he will lose the Harry Truman opportunity to run cleanly against a do nothing Congress.

The final tally of winners and losers won’t really be known until the overwhelmingly red state legislatures, reinforced by the sea of red in governors’ offices across the country, draw the lines redistricting the House based on new census numbers. The consequences of November 2, 2010 will be felt for a long time to come.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Seventeen hours and counting

I’m not given to quoting Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s blog, but, as we embark with certain misgivings on the last 17- hour countdown till the polls open, I note that his exhortation to Catholics to vote speaks of hope guiding civic participation. I found myself thinking, yeh, but doesn’t it depend on what you hope for?

I was a big fan of Charlie Baker when he started running. He exuded competence, and his Baker’s Dozen concrete ideas for saving money and rationalizing the abuses made sense. I thought his ideas could inform the discussion during the race, even though many of the ideas had already been rejected by the legislature. I hope that Deval Patrick, if he is reelected, will do as he said, and adopt some of Baker’s ideas.

But something happened during the campaign. Despite awkward attempts to be a Scott Brown-type man of the people, Baker came across as elitist, a numbers cruncher without a sense of warmth and compassion that he can exhibit in private. We know he’d increase unemployment by 5000 people to start, the state workers he’d eliminate. And there would be more. We know his tax policies cannot be achieved without cutting into the heart of programs that government is all about, from higher education, to infrastructure to human services. We question his commitment to clean energy if that entails public investment to spur private sector initiatives. Deval Patrick has not been without flaws, some of them foolish newby mistakes, some of them a reluctance to go far enough with reforms he initiated (after four Republican governors had done nothing.) But there’s an optimism and humanity to Patrick that is very important in these divisive times.

Many will be looking to Patrick’s success or failure as a signal regarding Obama. They both have approval ratings of less than 50 percent. 

Given the pessimism most voters are feeling about the economy, it’s amazing that a scant half are still somewhat approving, of both the Governor and the President. No surprise, however, that Patrick and Baker are running neck-and-neck in the race for the corner office. We have an ADD society in which people’s short attention spans don’t fuel patience with a slower than desired pace of improvements, even if we are doing measurably better than the rest of the country.

As noted in a Ross Douthat op ed in today’s NY Times, a years-long, growing tilt toward progressive policies and politics culminated with the election of Obama, but the difficulty of implementing change in the worst recession since the Great Depression has cooled the ardor. People are impatient for change. Some say that Obama overpromised, that he engendered hope he couldn’t possibly fulfill and that he would have been a great President for times of prosperity. We all have a choice to make between dashing those hopes or embracing a politics of fear. I, for one, am not ready to give up on those hopes.

Massachusetts Democrats running for Congress will probably win tomorrow and, by and large, bring competency and experience to the table. But seeing them get slapped around during this contest makes one hope they wake up to the need to become better listeners.

I suspect that Mary Z. Connaughton will prevail in the low-on-the-ballot but important race for state auditor, and I haven’t a clue as to whether Steve Grossman will defeat Karyn Polito. You know, the one who shipped at least one job out of state by hiring (it is rumored) a professional Doberman for her “watchdog” television ad.

For now, whatever the outcome, polling day will bring relief from the unrelenting harangues and endless campaign advertising. One hopes it will also being an end to – or at least a diminution of – the mean and polarizing rhetoric. We have so much to do as a nation, and soon enough Campaign 2012 will intrude on how effectively we can accomplish anything.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Condoleezza Rice still has national potential

Condoleezza Rice was in Boston yesterday promoting her new family memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. Often lampooned on Saturday Night Live, the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush is anything but a stick figure. She is charming, highly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. And the lessons she has learned along the way help explain her positions on issues facing us still.

Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama before civil rights legislation started to peel away Jim Crow laws. Her parents taught her, “You may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to those circumstances.” While away from home, her parents would make her wait until she could use the bathroom at home so she wouldn’t have to use “Coloreds Only” facilities. They wouldn’t allow her to drink from a “Coloreds Only” water fountain. Each of their rules was to preserve their dignity and pride. When the public accommodations laws were passed under President Lyndon Johnson, the Rices were among the first to go to newly integrated restaurants. It would still be two years before her parents were allowed to vote. And attitudinal changes toward blacks took longer still.

Our own history, Rice says, reminds us it’s hard to replace habits of tyranny with habits of democracy. Looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, she reflects, “Who are we to scoff at people having difficulty with democracy?” But, she says, change will come. She recalls having met with a conservative cleric in Iraq, with whom she could not shake hands because she was an unrelated female. At the end of their meeting, he called in his modestly covered 13-year-old granddaughter to meet the Secretary of State, and the granddaughter told her, “I want to be foreign minister too.”

Rice embraces the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. When four little black girls, including one with whom Rice used to play dolls, were killed in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, her father and others formed a community watch, sitting on their front porches with shotguns. “We had the right to defend ourselves when authorities wouldn’t protect us. If (notorious public safety commissioner) Bull Connor knew where the guns were, they wouldn’t have let us keep them.”

Rice’s awareness of foreign policy began during the Cuban missile crisis when, as a child, she learned that Birmingham was within range of the Soviet missiles implanted in Cuba. As an adult and a political scientist with expertise in the former Soviet Union, Rice changed from a Democrat to a Republican because of Ronald Reagan ‘s anti-Soviet positions.

On the domestic front, Rice supports affirmative action (knows she benefitted from it) to provide access but not guarantee success, which must be earned. She is appalled by today’s scapegoating of immigrants. “The United States that talks of taking away citizenship of children of illegal immigrants born here, I don’t know that country.”

Rice dislikes identity politics, assuming we know what people think because they’re blacks, or they’re women, or immigrants. “Yes, we’re part of groups, but we’re also individuals.” Group labels, she warns, create feelings of victimhood, of aggrievement, whose twin brother is entitlement. And once you’re there, you stop working, and you stop caring.”

As for our economic problems, Rice says it is the private sector that is creative and innovative, willing to take risks. “The U.S. government, not so much.” But, she says, she won’t “chirp” at those now on the inside. She knows how hard it is to govern, and has respect for the process.

Regrettably, the format of Rice’s appearance provided only for written questions from The Commonwealth Institute audience, so, despite moderator Jon Keller’s well crafted questions, she was insulated from questions inviting follow-ups such as, “In setting foreign policy, which were the issues on which you disagreed most with President Bush?”

An athlete, a concert pianist, a political scientist and diplomat, Condoleezza Rice is a mighty interesting person with a lot of potential for the national stage, should she ever want to subject herself to what that requires. She may be too much of a lady.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Choosing a governor: let's get on with it!

“Ground Hog Day” is how Boston University Assistant Professor John Carroll, speaking on Jim Braude’s debate analysis on NECN, described last night’s debate. Helicopter into the debate at any point and you know you’ve been here before. The only slightly new matter under discussion was today’s revelation of a memo written by Charlie Baker when he was Administration and Finance Secretary in the Paul Cellucci administration. The memo “to the file” confirms Baker knew how staggering were the costs of the Big Dig and its “draconian” implications for other infrastructure projects. The possible solutions were, he wrote, to be revealed after the gubernatorial election.

Treasurer Tim Cahill made the most out of the matter by stressing that the public wants straight talk from its chief executive; Baker cleverly countered that he hoped someone in the Patrick administration was writing him a memo about how to deal with the looming $2 billion state deficit. Patrick replied that Baker’s line would have more credibility if he had actually “written that memo to someone, instead of just stuffing it in a drawer.’’ Jeff Jacoby calls the memo Baker’s Achilles heel.

On all other issues, there was nothing new. So where are we now, with (thankfully) no more debates to go, one week prior to the election? As we have been all along, we have Deval Patrick who has preserved his likable image, showing himself to be compassionate, consistent, optimistic, knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of day-to-day governing, patient about working our way out of our economic dilemma one day at a time, but somehow disinclined to land – or try to land – a knock-out punch. In fact, when invited, he refused to critique his opponents’ recommendations.

Baker did nothing to shake up the race. He came across as intelligent and unerringly on message about cutting government, cutting taxes, cutting government regulation. He was able to demonstrate some sharp elbows but was unable to paint his vision of the Commonwealth under Governor Baker. Except by exhorting “leadership,” he was unable to explain to moderator Charlie Gibson how he was going to get his proposals through a legislature that had already rejected half of them.

Like the other candidates, he’s opposed to the extremes of Question Three, but cutting taxes is still his mantra, and if he had his way he’d roll them back to 5 percent now, even in the face of the looming budget deficit, believing his regulatory reforms can make up the difference. (Patrick, too, says he’d like to go back to five percent, but not with the current deficit.) Baker perhaps scored some points by advocating a more muscular approach to illegal immigrants, a position more aligned with Massachusetts’ public support of the Arizona approach than the Governor’s.

Tim Cahill, despite his weak standing in the polls, showed himself to be clearcut, if occasionally simplistic, and rather likable in a way that makes his longshot staying in the race a plausible decision. Jill Stein can’t be labeled a flake, but her insistence that a major way out of the state’s deficit woes is by going to a single payer health care system underlines her irrelevance. It’s not going to happen. She dismissed any concern that she, like Ralph Nader in 2000, could ultimately be a spoiler in the race.

So here we are. Deval Patrick has maintained a slim lead in the polls throughout the campaign, but, depending on the survey, it’s close to the margin of error. And it’s less than that if more anti Patrick “undecideds” or Cahill supporters end up voting for Baker and if disaffected Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents stay home.

Charlie Baker offers a contrast in stated philosophy and an opportunity for change. But what are his chances of success and with what consequences if he fails ? Is the “devil” we know, who has learned from his early mistakes, better than the “devil” we don’t, who has yet to make his rookie blunders?

We campaign in poetry and govern in prose, Mario Cuomo said, and voters must look beyond the over simplified rhetoric of the candidates and their political ads to understand the serious choice that must be made. Next Tuesday is not Groundhog Day, it’s Election Day. Which of the candidates do we really trust not only to make the difficult decisions ahead but then to persuade the legislature, conflicting interest groups and the public in effecting the policies necessary to make our lives and the lives of children better?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Monday, October 25, 2010

To 40B or not to 40B, that is Question 2

More than 30 years ago, housing activists in Newton, mindful that young adults who had grown up in town couldn’t afford to live there and that elderly homeowners couldn’t afford to find replacements for their homes, set about encouraging low and moderate-income housing. Today it’s called affordable housing, but the principle is the same.

The Newton Community Development Foundation (NCDF),  founded in 1968, came up with the idea of building handfuls of mixed-income housing on around 10 sites scattered across the city. The theory was that, if you were building in all neighborhoods, no single neighborhood could complain it was being disproportionately burdened. The proposal backfired. People who had never had a thing to do with each other, from the rich to blue collar, from the south side of the city to the north, formed an alliance, beat back the housing proposal, and fielded aldermanic candidates in the next election who opposed the NCDF proposal. Opposition to affordable housing is a powerful force.

Not long thereafter, Newton did manage to institute a 10 percent rule, which held that a developer who set aside ten percent of the units in a project for affordable housing would be able to move more easily through the zoning approval process. Since then, hundreds of affordable units have been built. Even so, Newton’s percentage of affordable units has only hit eight percent.

In 2009, the median home price in Newton was $710,000, up more than 57 percent since 1999. Under the ten percent rule, 1,300 affordable homes have been built. Of these, 675 are restricted for households earning approximately $65,000 or less for a family of four. Since 1997, 86 percent of affordable housing built in Newton could not have been built without the affordable housing law, all of this according to Rep. Kay Khan, writing in The Newton Tab.
Which brings me to 40B, the state law that allows developers in communities that haven’t achieved ten percent affordable housing access to a comprehensive permitting process. That process makes it possible to build more units than zoning restrictions dictate if building only the allowable number of units is deemed to be “uneconomic” and if community needs for low-middle income housing make the larger size development desirable. Statewide, 80 percent of affordable housing units built outside the largest cities have been due to the ten percent rule. Some 130 communities are at or near ten percent affordable units.

Question 2 on the ballot would repeal 40B on the theory that local communities can’t handle the large number of units the law has permitted. Highly respected journalist and social critic Dan Kennedy has joined his voice to the opponents’ based on what he has observed in Danvers.
A 2008 change in the regulatory process may already have dealt with some of the earlier problems with 40B, requiring state regulators to weigh density and other factors that determine how a proposal fits in with local patterns.

Additionally, communities may be exempted from 40B if they are developing a comprehensive housing plan and acting on it, moving it forward. Ten municipalities are under this exemption. So there are ways to deal with 40B if a community is serious about meeting their housing goals.

My take: don’t jettison the law that has been the principal reason affordable housing has been built (some 58,000 units, according to those opposing repeal). Find ways to fix it. Better still, find ways to bring lagging communities up to the ten percent threshold for affordable housing. Vote no on Question Two.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mary Z. Connaughton in highly competitive race for state auditor

She’s likable, informed and, as a Republican on a Democrat saturated Beacon Hill, has a claim to being an outsider, were it not for her tenure working for Joe Malone and Mitt Romney. Mary Zarilli Connaughton wants to be state auditor, and she’s going head-to-head with former legislator and Labor Secretary Suzanne Bump to win over the electorate. Bump has a much tougher race on her hands than she did in the September Democratic primary against Guy Glodis.

Connaughton likes to remind people that she’s the only Certified Public Accountant in the race, as she did on WBUR this morning. That's not required by law but, she says, is a plus at a time when trust in government is at an all-time low. Her CPA license, she says, holds her to a higher standard. That license depends on her meeting that standard.

Few people will speak ill of the outgoing incumbent, longtime auditor Joe DeNucci, and Connaughton is not one of those few critics. She does, however, say that auditor’s reports on state agencies have to go out in a more timely way and believes that efficiencies are possible, starting right within the auditor’s office. Like Bump, she also speaks of going beyond financial and even performance audits to urge systemic changes. Bump asserts her good relationships with the legislature are necessary to get such changes enacted. Connaughhton speaks of working with agencies in the field to make changes and, if that doesn’t happen, “the public needs to be mobilized.”

Her critics maintain that Connaughton was too prone to leak to the press when she was on the board of the MA Turnpike Authority. She says she never spoke inappropriately about what happened in executive session. Frankly, a willingness to go to the media can be an important tool in informing the public and providing transparency when one is part of a circle-the-wagons board. But a different level of professional discretion is required of a state auditor prior to the issuance of a report.

Connaughton says she doesn’t take special interest money and says she is working to clean up her contributors’ list of lawyers who may also work as lobbyists. Critics say her part-time work as a consultant and financial compliance officer for Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC represents special interest money. (BlueMass Group call’s the relationship “a sweetheart deal” and wonders where she gets the time, given that she has said she’s “working 18-7” to get elected.) Connaughton dismisses the criticism but, if it is indeed illegal for any individual or group to subsidize a candidate while running because it exceeds allowable campaign limits, this may be an issue that has legs.

Bump herself still has to deal with the revelation (symbolically embarrassing for a would-be auditor) that she and her husband were claiming two primary residences, in Boston and in Great Barrington, to get tax reductions in both communities. She has since repaid around $6000 to Boston, even though she claimed that both deductions were legal.

Bump and Connaughton have also had a go-around about Connaughton’s actions while working for state Treasurer Joe Malone. At the time, Connaughton replaced a single firm contracting with the Abandoned Property Division for a $1 million fee with four firms charging a combined $800 thousand. Bump says the experienced single-firm contractor netted $16 million more for the Commonwealth than its replacement. Connaughton calls the arrangement she dumped a “sweetheart deal” and points out that the money was to go first and foremost to the private holders of that abandoned property and only then to the general coffers. This exchange appears to highlight a fundamental philosophical difference between the two candidates, with one focused on turning money back to individuals and the other eager to use the abandoned funds for needed public purposes.

The bottom line is that neither of these is a perfect candidate, but we live in the real world. They are worthy opponents, and each has an edge, albeit for different reasons. For Independents and independent leaning Democrats who still believe in checks and balances and two-party government, Connaughton may be the easiest choice to show they can still pull the lever for a Republican.

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