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.