Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama speech: still more questions than answers

If Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, Barack Obama is the great synthesizer. In an artfully designed presentation, he pulled together all the disparate themes that have been raised in the last three weeks regarding our Libyan involvement and wove them into a (superficially) coherent tapestry of history, policy, philosophy, critical analysis and doctrine. It was a performance worthy of the law school professor that he was. But, as with a full-course dinner of Chinese food, an hour later you’re hungry and looking for more.

President Obama, as anticipated, defended the necessity of the Libyan action as a way of halting brutal atrocities and the potential flow of refugees into other, new and fragile regimes in the region. Now, he said, the United States, having halted Gaddafi’s deadly advance, will turn over responsibility to NATO and other allies. We, however, will continue to provide support, especially in intelligence, logistics, “humanitarian assistance” and communications. But, while it’s comforting to think that the United States has, with international collaboration, “done what we said we’d do,” we’re left with many serious, nagging questions for which the President didn’t provide answers. All the “what if’s.”

As Robert D. Kaplan wrote last weekend in the Wall St. Journal,  the Middle East crisis has just begun.

The President has described our “unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for freedom.” But do freedom and democracy mean the same things to the Libyan opposition coalition as they do for us? Will the material assistance we provide the coalition end up being used against us?

He said we are safeguarding $33 billion of Libyan frozen assets to help rebuild a system of government. How heavily involved will we be? What long-term commitments is he actually making to build a replacement government? How far does one go in taking sides in a civil war? The UN resolution said one thing. The Canadian in charge of the NATO mission said another.

The President said we can’t police the world. We can’t use our military wherever repression occurs. But, he said, that can’t be an argument for never acting. With the Libyan people facing the prospect of atrocities on an enormous scale, he argued, not to take action at this time would be “a betrayal of who we are.”

So what happens if there’s a similar uprising in Iran, more of a threat to regional stability than Libya? What about Yemen, which, located on the Gulf of Aden, is much more crucial to American interests than Libya? And what would our interest be in the democratization of Saudi Arabia, where we are so in bed with the monarchy and  so dependent on them for oil?

With so many Middle East nations in turmoil, Kaplan says we “must avoid entanglements and stay out of the domestic affairs of the region.” And, oh, by the way, he also points out that “every time we intervene somewhere, it quickens the pace at which China, whose leaders relish obscurity in international affairs, closes the gap with us.”

The speech was comprehensive and had a lot of feel-good rhetoric. “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.” And the President asserted that we aren’t going down the road toward regime change in Libya which, he reminded us, is what got us into trouble in Iraq. But there’s an inherent contradiction here. He may say he looks to the future “with confidence and hope,” but there are a lot of unanswered questions, the answers to which may well end us up in a lot of trouble.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Libyan strikes spur rampant ambivalence

I listen to Cong. Michael Capuano and Niki Tsongas criticize President Obama for not taking the Libyan military action to Congress and, as an old anti-Vietnam War activist, I applaud their stance. It’s hard not to be concerned that what starts out as a police action may suck us into something more prolonged, costing American lives, blood and national spirit. But, mindful of America’s failures to take action in the Rwandan genocide and even President Clinton’s slowness to take action in Kosovo, I find myself also joining those critical of President Obama for taking three weeks to participate militarily enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone.

Was he simply weighing American interests and his personal interest in the 2012 reelection campaign, or was he just hoping that the squirrelly Arab League and others wouldn’t get it together to get the United Nations to act, giving him cover?

So I look to the President’s scheduled speech to the nation tomorrow night to clarify just what is America’s policy in the fermenting Middle East generally, and what the end game is in Libya in particular. On the Sunday morning political affairs discussion programs, even Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not exactly singing from the same hymnal regarding how vital Libya is to our vital national interest.

Clinton talked about the intervention as a way of keeping Gaddafi’s military from killing civilians and preventing the bloodshed from driving refugees into the precarious environments of Egypt and Tunisia. In a Meet The Press roundtable discussion, Koppel pointed out the hypocrisy, saying our air action was the “humanitarian defense sweepstakes of 2011.”  Five million civilians were killed in the Congo, two to three million in the Sudan, and, he noted, the United States did nothing. Nearly a million refugees were driven out of the Ivory Coast, and the United States did nothing. We clearly pick and choose in what righteous cause to involve ourselves. Where is the guiding principle?

Our military is spread too thin already, which helps to explain why Obama wants others to take the lead and describes our expected presence as getting in and getting out. But it’s more than practicality that spurs our ambivalent position. Who are the rebels in Libya anyway? Whose cause are we backing? How many of the rebels are the same ones who joined Al Qaeda and went to Iraq to kill Americans? How many want to replace Gaddafi with an anti-American Islamist state more sympathetic to Iranian interests? Who in the U.S. government has the answers to that? Will we hear those answers tomorrow night?

Barack Obama was the anti-war candidate in 2008. He can’t be happy about who he is now. And we can’t be entirely happy about what he is doing.

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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Getting mad and getting even don't always sync

The public can derive enormous satisfaction from taking action against public worker misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance or just plain nuisance, but that visceral satisfaction can be short-lived, whether you’re talking about ending “hack holidays” or even voting to recall public officials.

Sure, it was delicious when Beacon Hill eliminated irritating Suffolk County holidays like Evacuation Day (really celebrated as St. Patrick’s Day) and Bunker Hill Day.  (Growing up in Boston, I also remember celebrating Flag Day in June!) 

But look what happened this week on Evacuation Day. State workers will get an alternative day off later in the year. And that will cost. Plus, according to the Boston Globe, those who worked yesterday at City Hall in Revere will get two and a half times their regular pay for doing so.  So, what did taxpayers gain?

The same can be asked in Miami, where, on Tuesday, 88 percent of those who went to the polls voted to recall the Miami-Dade County mayor and county commissioner.  They were angry about a large property tax increase (imposed to prevent public employee layoffs) and the mayor’s push to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for a new Florida Marlins stadium. The final straw was the mayor’s giving pay hikes to close aides and driving around in a sleek, expensive BMW 550i Grand Turismo sedan at taxpayers’ expense. (He apparently already had two Chevy Suburbans to use for official business.)

The recall petition was financed by a billionaire car dealer unhappy with the property tax increase.  But it’s really the taxpayers who will foot the bill.  A special election to replace the ousted Carlos Alvarez and Natacha Seijas will, according to The Miami Herald, cost between $4 million and $5 million.  That, in addition to a similar amount spent to run the recall election, in which just 16 percent of voters turned out.  And, writes columnist Fred Grimm, Alvarez would have had to leave next year due to term limits.  Voters would have weighed in on Seijas in November, 2012.

Instant gratification has its place, especially when most people are feeling out of sorts in today’s economic climate and dollar costs aren’t all that matters.  Recall may be appropriate in Wisconsin, for example. But, in Boston as in Miami-Dade, it may penny wise but pound foolish to throw the bums out or make the bums come in, if you don’t think through the consequences.  Voters should weigh the costs of acting on their anger whenever righteous indignation leads to a demonstration of the power of the people.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Judging today’s college students by yesterday’s standards

Today’s college students are reading less and partying more. So says New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, based on a new book entitled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”

Authors Richard Arum of New York University and Joseph Roksa of the University of Virginia surveyed 2300 students at 24 colleges over a two-year period and found that students are not improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. In fact, more than a third of the students hadn’t improved in those areas even after four years of college. According to the authors, students are spending just half as much time studying as students did in the 1960’s. This, after spending – in some cases – close to $200,000 on their education.

Most insulting of all perhaps is that their lack of academic focus doesn’t show up in their performance assessments. Thanks to grade inflation – after all, colleges and universities need to keep as many “customers” as possible enrolled and professors are afraid of poor student evaluations – they all have decent GPA’s and can assume, wrongly it turns out, that they’re doing just fine.

Okay, I admit that, after a freshman year of partying more than I should have, I settled down to become something of a grind. I got into it. And I was surrounded by students who were serious, for the most part, about their studies. And I do tend to be judgmental about the loosey-goosey attitudes of some college students I have observed.

I despair of the communication skills – or lack thereof – of some college students who interned with or near me, who don’t know what a semi-colon or a compound sentence is, who are swayed by glitz and propaganda, who are living in the moment and don’t “get it” about informed citizenship.

I find myself wondering if those who are indeed “academically adrift” are not in some arrested state of adolescence. They’ve been motivated in secondary school not by learning for its own sake but by the need to get into college. Once there, it’s time to reward themselves. The joke at Harvard used to be it was hard to get in, but even harder to flunk out.

But I also see students who are supremely committed, working 20 to even 40 hours a week to earn the money to go to college, who may already be supporting families, who are intensely focused on shaping a career path and who, I know, are going to make an impact on their communities and perhaps even on the world.

College education may not be for everyone. And four year colleges right out of high school may not be the appropriate model. Maybe lifelong learning in which after a two year boot camp, students join and leave higher education communities for varying lengths of time to further and refine skills and career choices and then return later to put their life experiences in new contexts. Perhaps we need a European approach to tracking, and identifying those who are better suited to technical/vocational education. Clearly we need a more thoughtful, non-ideologically driven, national discussion.

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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster in Pacific prompts local concerns

You never know when a natural disaster on the other side of the world wreaks havoc with lives right in our own community. These CNN photos are just the beginning of our education about this.  

Middlesex Community College is a case in point. It works with exchange study programs and cultural organizations in Japan and Hawaii.  Friends and colleagues in the Greater Lowell area have been directly affected by the disaster, and they're trying to get the word out about support services they're offering on both their Lowell and Bedford campuses.

In Lowell, you can visit the city campus cafeteria at 33 Kearney Square, and in Bedford, the Dean of Student's Office (Building 9) on Springs Road. All students, staff, faculty and community members are welcome.

The centers will officially open today at 2:00 for any students, faculty/staff, and community members who wish to discuss the personal, local, and global effects of this devastating event. Crisis counselors are on hand, and the College are providing internet access for anyone looking to track information via the web.
MCC is offering its blog to communicate personal experiences, as well as to offer prayers or support for those affected by this devastating tragedy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Union counter-proposal on health insurance falls woefully short

It’s hard not to think “fox in the chicken coop” in response to the public workers union proposal that, if the union were to agree to receiving its health insurance coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC), the union would want half the seats on the GIC board. They already have four of 15 seats. What are they smoking?

AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes, in offering a “spirit of cooperation,” also said the union would want employees to get half the $120 million the cities and towns would otherwise achieve in savings if public workers were to be covered by the GIC. He also wants to give the unions 45 days to come up with a better insurance plan design, after which everything would be submitted to binding arbitration, a recipe for interminable delay and equivocation.

All of which explains why the legislature must approve giving cities and towns the power to design their own employee health insurance plans or join the GIC without union approval.

Our local communities are in dire straits. Rising health insurance premiums are eating up their budgets, and more layoffs are inevitable if they can’t regain control over their health benefits.

Mayor Menino laid it out in no uncertain terms before the legislature yesterday. In the last decade, health insurance costs have more than doubled. (It’s 150 percent statewide, according to the Mass Municipal Association.) The hike has been five times larger than that for other items in the budget. Boston now spends more on health insurance than on its entire police department! That’s jaw-dropping!

Menino has been a real stand-up guy on this issue, asking for the legislature to approve a home rule petition if statewide change is not approved. His willingness to take the lead probably helped push Governor Patrick to get with the program. (In Patrick’s first term, he had pushed successfully to allow local communities to join the GIC with 70 percent approval of the unions. Such a threshold is ridiculously high, which is why of the 351 cities and towns in the state, only a scant two dozen have done so.)

Leaving veto power over insurance plan design in the hands of the unions makes no sense. Workers in the private sector don’t get that. Their employers decide based on a range of financial considerations. The fact is that local taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for benefits for public workers that they don’t have for themselves. And, if municipalities can’t manage employee insurance costs, both municipal employees and local residents will pay another way, by losing services through resulting layoffs. As Menino said at the hearing, “Pretty soon we’re not going to have City Hall; it’ll be the city insurance company.”

There’s something very wrong with that.

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

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cozy relationships lead to Blue Cross/Blue Shield excesses

The process for deciding and ratifying former Blue Cross/Blue Shield CEO Cleve Killingsworth’s exorbitant severance package seems to reflect what happens when movers and shakers in any sector get too comfortable with each other. We saw it on Wall Street; we see it in high-end non-profit health insurers. In neither area does coziness serve the public interest. Now it’s up to Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate how specifically certain decisions were made, explain all to the public and correct the course for the future.

Cleve Killingsworth is a decent fellow who offered great promise to the community when former CEO Bill Van Faasen brought him here in 2005. Van Faasen is a wonderful guy himself and did lead an earlier, major BC/BS turnaround. They both had roots in Detroit. Killingsworth’s concern throughout his tenure was cost control, and he set about developing and implementing the so-called Alternative Quality Contract. It has informed what Governor Patrick is trying to achieve to curb costs in health care statewide.

Everyone wanted a piece of Killingsworth, a rare African-American among Boston’s ranking CEO’s, but he never seemed to gel with the community. Then, when BC/BS financials went south, his departure was arranged, apparently “according to the terms of his contract.” But the economy had soured; premium costs had skyrocketed, and everyone was feeling the pinch. Did the BC/BS board have to cave, or could they have said No? In a time of great distress, when many companies, and especially non-profits, did serious belt-tightening, did the board deserve all its own munificent fees?

One can only speculate what discussions there were, if any. Many of the board members individually would be an asset to any board, but together make for an unhealthy, inbred collective.  Directors like Paul Guzzi, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Haynes, President of the Mass. AFL/CIO especially have egg on their faces because of their public position of concern about rising health costs.

Let’s face it. This board was largely an ol’ boys network. Even the women on the board were the usual suspects. (It’s only recently, in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley, that some corporate and non-profit boards have striven for more independent voices.)

What had been largely unknown was how handsomely members were paid (between $60,000 and $90,000) for sitting on the board. The Boston Herald did an outstanding job of bringing this to public attention. Subsequently, the Globe’s Brian McGrory noted that only the health insurance company boards (and one utility) among all non-profits in the state pay their members. Let’s hope that Coakley includes that in her review.

Come to think of it: why should health insurers be non-profits? Automobile insurers are not. These huge salaries give the lie to their “non-profit” status. That money, both symbolically and substantively, could have gone into providing health coverage for thousands of individuals. They don’t need to be non-profit to be subject to regulation. Of course, if losing their non-profit status means they’ll have to pay taxes, that could spur premium hikes. That potential pitfall certainly makes the idea of single payer more appealing.

But that’s not going to happen, at least in the foreseeable future. What can be changed are those salaries and fees . The Attorney General needs to look long and hard at these characters and their decision-making process. They claim transparency, but none of the board members is talking. It’s time to let the sun shine in.

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