Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unused sick days: use 'em or lose 'em

I’ve never worked for the public sector, except indirectly. I work, I earn money, I pay taxes on that income, which supports public employees, among other things. Most public employees do important jobs for their communities, but too many of the perks they get are beyond my comprehension. Not having to pay more than a small percentage for health insurance, for example. And getting money for unused sick days.

This latter just staggers my imagination. To me, sick days are for when you’re sick. They’re to protect workers, not be backdoor paydays. The recent case of Tom Kinton is an egregious example of the sick day system run amok. Don’t get me wrong. Tom Kinton was the consummate professional at MassPort, both before he became head of the Authority and during his stint at the top. But he exemplifies the problem with sick days. His retirement package, (retirement pay of $200K per year is a very generous one, by the way,) is fattened by nearly half a million dollars in unused sick days that he’ll receive as he departs his post next June.

Before you say there oughta be a law, I should point out that there now is. Now state workers can only cash in a fifth of their unused sick time, something which probably wouldn’t happen in the private sector either. But Kinton and others have been grandfathered in to the 100% cash-out. WBZ’s Jon Keller has done the arithmetic and pointed out that preserving the benefit for some 700 workers grandfathered in because they were hired before 2007 will cost the state $16 million.

There’s a mentality on Beacon Hill that a) we don’t want to change anything, but b)if we absolutely have to, we won’t have it apply to anyone who is there right now. So change comes very slowly indeed.

Some people want a “use it or lose it” approach to sick days. You get so many days each year to be sick and the calendar starts over the next year. But, if a person goes for years without taking sick days and then develops a serious, perhaps life-threatening illness, that worker should be able to carry over the time in some way. But that doesn’t mean taking it out in cash if you leave the job without having been sick enough.

Kinton is top-level management, so this isn’t a union issue. But it’s a public sector entitlement mentality like this that feeds public exasperation with unions, especially the public worker unions. Cashing in unused sick days is enough to make you, well, sick.

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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 brings the world a lot closer

Last night, Boston-based web site partnered with WGBH’s Frontline program to document the youth movement that fueled the ouster of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Half the program explored The Muslim Brotherhood, in a far more nuanced way than conventional network coverage. The program, produced by Charlie Sennott, GlobalPost’s managing editor, formerly Boston Globe foreign correspondent and bureau chief, is yet another demonstration of the growing importance this two-year-old web site in providing international news.

During the recent crises in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, GlobalPost’s coverage has been focused, timely and useful, in effect a primer on what is important is global affairs at any given time. Its on-the-ground video often makes you feel "you are there."

In normal times, there are too many stories for most of us to keep up with to stay well informed about international events, but GlobalPost provides a helpful distillation of international news you can use. Even before the recent demonstrations , GlobalPost provided insightful reviews of trends in Africa and the Middle East, with thumbnail sketches of events from Tunisia to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Albania along with profiles of the key players.
GlobalPost followed up with daily updates, and Sennott went to Afghanistan to interview General David Petraeus for his perspective on the implications of Egypt for the entire region. On Friday, Feb. 3rd, the web site laid out four scenarios that could play out in Egypt. Last night, in the collaboration with Frontline, we learned still more about what actually happened. has recently launched a redesign of its web site, a user-friendly testament to the increasing success of this web-based source of news from around the globe. Launched three years ago by Phil Balboni, a former program innovator at WCVB-TV5, founding head of New England Cable News and highly respected leader in the media business. (Full disclosure: he hired me in 1979 as chief editorial writer, and I succeeded him in 1982 as editorial director when he became news director.)

With the national networks closing their foreign bureaus and newspaper skimping on global coverage, Balboni rightly surmised that there was a hunger for solid international reporting, and he came up with a model to fill that void. He raised money to start the project from 20 investors, including lead investor Amos Hostetter, the Cablevision founder who recognizes a solid bet when he sees one. His model called for free access to part of the site, paid access for those who want to delve deeper, on-site advertising and syndication. Thus, he now provides global stories to CBS, NPR, and PBS' News Hour.Reporters started out working for a pittance, plus a small equity share in the enterprise. His staff of full-timers is growing, as are the salaries of the core group.

The stories are not just the same stuff you’ll read in the NY Times, Washington Post or the weekly magazines. They go further, but they do it succinctly. GlobalPost offers an intimate style of reportage, which creates a sense of the fabric of the countries from which GlobalPost is reporting.

It emails a collection of weekend reads each Friday, and has recently initiated a weekday “Morning Chatter” email that includes stories you 1)Need to Know, 2)Want to Know, 3)may findDull but Important, 4) a story that may seem Wacky but still bears on some larger truth, and 5) a final “Just because” item, which is always delightful. One recently caught my attention on the increase in the price of truffles to $30 an ounce, leading one farmer to shoot at another suspected of “rustling” truffles from him. This tasty item was of significance to my gustatory interests and my having lived in France many years ago.

I also liked the wacky category story about how one Japanese company instituted a “Beloved Wife” day to teach people how to hug one another. Exercise included a map to indicate correct positioning of the feet.

Another Just Because item: Consider a story about one small farming town in Mexico, off the usual news track, where the entire police force has been eradicated, one by one. A stark depiction of the havoc being wrought in Mexico by drug traffickers.

That same recent Morning Chatter included a story about how the hordes of people returning to the Sudan for the January referendum election were straining food and water supplies. Another story told of how thousands of Facebook users were defending the killing of a Pakistani politician who had dared to criticize the harsh anti-blasphemy laws. In the Dull but Important category was an item about how the price of oil may affect the global economic recovery. As they said, “dull but important.”

Themed stories might deal with a particular topic as seen in places from South Africa to South Korea, Azerbaijan to Spain.  One such series explored the status of gay rights around the world.

GlobalPost is already getting 1.5 million distinct visitors each month. Balboni aspires to between four and five million a month within the next couple of years. And he hopes to be operating in the black by the end of 2012. A tall order, but, if anyone can do it, Phil Balboni can.

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Do we need our politicians to become Oprah-ized?

Revelations by Senator Scott Brown that he was sexually abused follow by weeks Governor Deval Patrick’s going public with the depth of wife Diane’s depression. Do we really need this tell-all trend? Do we want to know the gory details?

Certainly it will help sell their memoirs, about to be published. Is that what it takes in this message-overloaded media environment? Maybe. And, for some readers, it may make them even more sympathetic human beings.

But really, isn’t what really matters what these political figures do, what are the values they pursue in their work? Traditionally, the only place it has been helpful to know these intimate details is in measuring the hypocrisy quotient in an official’s behavior: the guy who vehemently opposes abortion but whose teenage daughter had one; the anti-gay zealot who is secretly homosexual; the insistent promoter of traditional marriage who plays around on the side.
And yet, Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan raises an interesting point: Brown, she says, is performing a service for silent abuse sufferers, those afraid to come forward, those who believe they can never trust anyone or be successful in life, those who believe they are ruined and can never rise above the incident of abuse.

Diane Patrick says she has stepped forward about her history of depression and early domestic abuse (prior to her marriage to the Governor) precisely because her story may help others believe they, too, can overcome. It does take courage to come forward with one’s intimate history of events that have caused shame to burn in one’s soul. If doing that can bring relief in one’s own life and help others resolve turmoil in theirs, then it’s probably a good thing.

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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Health law bill includes nasty surprise, due in 2018

Congressman Stephen Lynch was against the President’s health reform proposal before he was for it, and now he thinks that Republican efforts to repeal the law are “a colossal waste of time.” Better, he says, to focus on improving it, especially to get costs under control. Meanwhile, speaking at a New England Council briefing this morning, he revealed (a surprise to me, anyway) that embedded in the 2500-page law, is a provision to tax Americans on the value of their specific health plans, starting in 2018. This, he says, is the first time in the country’s history such a tax has been levied.

According to the law, there will be a 40-percent excise tax on "excess benefit" health coverage, the additional coverage beyond a threshold amount ($10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for families.) This was referred to during last year's debate as a tax on "Cadillac" health plans.  It may be imposed on the coverage provider, but it will undoubtedly be squeezed out of workers' benefits and salaries in the final analysis.

As a result, Lynch notes, increases in wages over the ensuing years due to the recovering economy could well be “sucked up” by the imposition of this new tax (to the tune of $32 billion over ten years). In taxing the "excess" value of the health plan, the government would be penalizing those who have acted responsibly and provided decent coverage for themselves and their families. Workers like those at Gillette (in Lynch’s district) who have a “gold-plated health plan” will, he says, “get croaked.” Rather than impose this tax across the board, Lynch recommends a health care surcharge only for individuals earning $500,000 or more, or couples bringing in at least $1 million.

He says Congress should focus on containing health costs in other ways. For one thing, Lynch would eliminate the anti-competitive anti-trust exemption currently enjoyed by health insurance companies. (The only other industry exempted from anti-trust laws is major league baseball, but that’s a subject for another day!)

Another way Lynch would introduce more competition into the health sector is by creating a public option. He wouldn’t do it at a national level but would direct that states offer such a choice. Massachusetts could, for example, offer a low-cost, barebones policy the existence of which would force insurers to compete with that basic option. By doing it at the state level, the coverage would be geared to regional cost differences. Eventually, he figures, neighboring states in New England, with comparable cost structures, could have a regional public option.

Congress’ popularity, says Lynch, is “somewhere on the spectrum between the Taliban and swine flu.” And, this independent moderate Democrat who works across the aisle says regrettably it’s not apt to get any better given the election last fall of 89 new Representatives, half of whom have never even held elective office. They ran on promises that may not be wholly practical and don’t know how to compromise. One of those promises was to repeal “Obamacare.” Now that repeal has failed, the question is: can they function in a bipartisan way and work out some improvements to the new law and other issues? Let us hope. Otherwise, it’s going to be a very long two years.

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

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Richie Neal - a pragmatic politician looks at Obama's energy ideas

A million electric cars on the road by 2012? Utilities getting 80 percent of their fuel from clean sources by 2035? These and other clean energy goals are exciting to contemplate as part of the President’s agenda, especially given volatility in the Middle East. But how realistic are those goals? Especially since the Republicans have made clear that major comprehensive energy legislation is a non-starter. And especially because, as Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield recently noted at a New England Council briefing, you can trace the demise of Democrats in the House, 63 seats to be specific, to the cap-and-trade provision of last session’s House energy legislation. Throughout the autumn, the talking heads were all over the issue in opposition and legislators treated the bill as "cap and tax."

President Obama has cleverly linked advances in clean energy to our becoming more competitive with the Chinese. The idea works philosophically, but what about practically? Neal notes that getting to clean energy will be a long slog. We will be dependent on fossil fuels for a long time. Wind power, for example, may work in North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, Neal point out, but elsewhere will be but a small contributor to energy supply. Right now, it’s less than one percent. Solar is a long way off, and China has already stolen a march on us in that department.

When it comes to energy, all politics is regional. If you’re from a coal or oil state, regional alliances trump partisan affiliation. President Obama suggested ending tax subsidies to fossil fuels, yesterday’s energy, and providing tax subsidies instead to fund clean energy development, tomorrow’s energy. Using the tax code to encourage alternative energy may provide poetic symmetry but, given the pressures of regional politics, it’s not going to happen overnight. Or over many cold nights.

Congressman Neal makes it clear why he came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the Ranking Member on the House Ways and Means Committee. He’s keenly intelligent on the substantive issues and savvy about the personalities and pressures of legislative maneuvering. I’d like to think he’s wrong about the prospects for progress on energy and the environment this session, but I fear I must defer to his wisdom and experience.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below