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.