Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Donald Trump a buffoon candidate, but will the birthers go away?

Donald Trump takes credit for President Obama’s release of his full birth certificate, saying he’s proud that he (Trump) was “able to do something that no one else was able to do.” Well, if you say so, Donald. Guess you’re a can-do guy.

I’d like to think that this puts an end to the birther movement, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see supporters a) claim collusion between Obama and the Honolulu registry that produced the document; b) return to the assertion that the Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim (slurring the President’s credibility as a Christian and implying the unacceptability of all Muslims in the process; c) find some equally meaningless basis on which to condemn the President.

There are other reasons the attitude, if not the issue, won’t go away. Jerome Corsi, he of Swift Boat fame, is coming out with a book “proving” that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Where's the Birth Certificate?: The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President will be available May 17. It was #1 on the Amazon best seller list last week but dropped to #27 following the release of the birth certificate.

One wonders why the President didn’t put out the birth certificate earlier and put an end to the issue. Is it too cynical to think he delayed because it made sense politically to let these idiots build up their momentum, only to snuff them out at the time of Obama’s choosing. Enter the Donald, a buffoon who nonetheless moved the issue to page one again. As one writer put it, the birthplace challenge was “ the primary wind beneath the hairwings of Donald Trump.” So what will the Donald do next?

A Trump candidacy seems both ludicrous and unlikely. Bill Maher and David Letterman (on the Letterman show) each bet a week’s salary on whether Trump would actually run. Maher said yes; Letterman, no) Would Trump really want to submit his financial records to the kind of scrutiny a serious candidacy would require? But the mere possibility, not to mention his first-place standing in some polls, has to be an embarrassment to the Republican Party, even if it is the party of Sarah Palin. Candidates like Mitt Romney or even Mike Huckabee are serious and, despite their occasional reliance on mindless slogans and contrived 30-second sound bites (as do most candidates), they’re perfectly capable of debating policy differences rooted in different political philosophies. Trump is decidedly not.

No doubt Trump is building a bigger audience for the end of The Apprentice season. If that’s his goal, more power to him. As the great American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken wrote,” no one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

The political process is sometimes entertainment, but not always. For entertainment we can watch the royal wedding or the Red Sox. We need serious and thoughtful debate on the issues of the day, and political jokes should not trump political policy discussions.

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

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Municipal health costs solution may be within sight

Finally, some of our traditionally intimidated politicians are showing a bit of common sense on the issue of excessive health benefits for local public workers unions. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.
The problem is cost sharing, or, in the case of local public workers, lack of sharing. State employees in Massachusetts pay up to 25 percent of their premiums. Private sector works often pay 30 percent. Local workers typically pay a far less. Municipal employees also do far less cost sharing when it comes to deductibles and co-pays than do state workers and the rest of us, for that matter. All this is laid out in The Boston Globe by writer Sean Murphy. Check it out.
Health costs are sucking the oxygen out of municipal budgets, necessitating belt tightening that translates into job loss, larger class size, shortened library hours, and shrinking programs.

Governor Patrick took the first step in his first term by supporting a law permitting cities and towns to buy health insurance for municipal workers through the state’s Group Insurance Commission, which covers all state workers. But the change required the approval of 70 percent of the local union membership to join the GIC, which is a very high threshold and shows why only a couple of dozen communities were able to join. In the first year after joining the GIC, the first 15 communities to do so saved $35 million, according to The Boston Foundation.

Mayor Menino then filed a home rule petition in this legislative session allowing Boston to go forward without union approval. That bill is pending.

Rep. Marty Walsh filed a bill to give local officials and the unions 45 days to come up with acceptable cost-sharing arrangements. If they can’t, it would go to arbitration. That’s a recipe for delay and failure. Local officials grappling with cannibalized budgets are desperate to get their workers into the Group Insurance Commission. Frankly, if the plan is good enough for state workers, why wouldn’t it work for local public employees as well? Globe columnist Scot Lehigh absolutely nailed it in his column on why the arbitration approach is dead wrong.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo gives local officials the right to set copayments and deductibles without union approval but keeps the premium cost sharing on the bargaining table. That’s more power than private sector workers get, but it may be a compromise that can get through the legislative process.

AFL/CIO boss Robert Haynes has linked how legislators vote to union support in the next election. It’s the unions’ right, of course. Still, one hopes that our noble solons have the backbone to keep the plight of municipalities and local taxpayers and residents in mind when they cast their votes on this most important issue.

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

Friday, April 22, 2011

Recent encounter shows barriers to biker/driver peaceful coexistence

At about 3:30 Thursday afternoon, a group of boys, older teenagers, on bicycles road swooped down Cambridge Street toward Charles Circle in Boston. Rather than riding single file in one lane, they simply rode ten abreast with little care about the danger they presented, both to drivers and especially to themselves. Note, I said, ten abreast. They were feeling their oats and obviously took pleasure in controlling the street, which as usual was heavily trafficked. There was no way around them, and no way through them.

Most drivers held back and refrained from honking, thinking these crazy kids must soon come to their senses and move over.

But one frustrated driver tried to exploit a gap in the middle of the pack and go through it. It didn’t work out too well. The white car sideswiped a weaving cyclist, who flew in one direction, his bike in the other. The car never stopped or pulled over. Fortunately, the bicycle rider picked himself up, retrieved his bike and his helmet and, somewhat shakily, rode to rejoin the other riders in the pack, who had stopped not far from the Liberty Hotel.

At the very same time, our car radio was reporting the Mayor’s announcement of a bike sharing plan for Boston, putting 600 rentable bikes at 61 stations across the city. It’s to be sort of a two-wheeled Zipcar system, with reasonably priced memberships that, according to City Hall, may generate 100,000 trips a year. Trips under 30 minutes will be free. I’ve seen a bike-sharing plan work effectively in Miami Beach. Other Greater Boston communities have plans similar to Hubway, and they’re a great idea, great for mobility, health, and the environment.

Yesterday afternoon, in a surreal moment, as the bike gang temporarily took over Cambridge Street, Menino’s voice came over the radio in a surreal declaration “the car is no longer king.” Well, maybe so, but the car is still 2000-3000 pounds of steel and a couple of hundred horsepower, and the bike rider, no matter how oblivious or delusional, is a poor match for that. By riding irresponsibly, an errant biker can wreak havoc to himself and others.

Who’s out there teaching bikers that they have to follow the same laws as cars do? Who’s going to enforce the requirement that bikers have to stop at red lights, signal when they’re taking turns and otherwise obey the rules of the road? When was the last time you saw a police officer pulling over a bike rider for an infraction? Do we need licensure tests to make sure that cyclists demonstrate they even know the rules?  I hope not. We need Bikers and drivers to co-exist. The only way that will happen is if they both show their respect for each other by abiding by the law.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ken Burns, the best of PBS, looks to individual and foundation funding for future projects

Ken Burns, historian, film maker, story teller and recorder of people and events, has become something of an institution himself. His highly acclaimed body of work is gargantuan in scope and impact: The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The West; Lewis & Clark. His films are sought out by teachers and by adults, whose history courses left them hungry for more. The films should be watched by more young people, who, studies show, believe the Americans and Germans fought together against the Russians in WWII.

During the 1980s, Burns met with President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. The President enthusiastically encouraged his public- private funded Civil War series, noting that the government should prime the pump for projects like this but that the bulk of funding should be private. One wonders where Reagan would be today in the debate over PBS funding.

New England Council members got a sneak preview of “Prohibition” yesterday morning, Burns’ compelling new series that will air on PBS later this year. His planned projects stretch out to 1919 and include The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts(Teddy, FDR and Eleanor), Vietnam, Country Music and two American biographies (Jackie Robinson and probably Ernest Hemingway). Burns is prolific, smart, and, as he displayed today, personally charming and articulate.

So, what was an intellectual, albeit a celebrity intellectual, doing in the midst of this gathering of corporate types? As Willy Sutton said in response to the question, “Why do you rob banks?” “Because that’s where the money is.” Burns’ remarkable films don’t come cheap. Projects in the pipeline will cost nearly $100 million. And they have to be supported not just by public dollars (e.g., public broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities), but also by corporations and individuals, particularly individual foundations.

Bank of America is the sole corporate sponsor. Public funding is under attack, and foundations that have been traditional sources have been hit by the recession. So, while Burns has already raised some $70 million, he is casting his net wider and is looking to raise the rest. Hence, the formation of The Better Angels Society, dedicated to “helping Ken Burns tell America’s stories.” The Society is seeking “significant” philanthropic donations, as in $100,000-$1,000,000. (A spokesperson confirmed that they wouldn’t turn their backs on smaller amounts. More information is available on

Burns’ work is very important, enhancing the ability of a diverse culture to understand what we, whatever our background or political philosophy, have to bind us together. As one retired executive in the audience observed, he intends to stay healthy and take care of himself so he’s around in 2019 to witness the fruits of Ken Burns’ labors.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Obama held hostage on the budget, displaying Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome describes what happens when someone taken hostage develops positive feelings for his captors. Barack Obama has been held hostage by the Republicans in Congress and in some ways is beginning to emulate them. Cut the deficit, slash fuel assistance for low-income people, shrink community health centers, eliminate community development block grants. This isn’t the Tea Party/GOP phalanx; this is putative Democrat Barack Obama. Who said you couldn’t turn a donkey into an elephant?

As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson notes, those left of center elected Obama to finish the work of Lyndon Johnson but are seeing the rhetorical reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.
I think of myself as an Independent, both in terms of registration and philosophy. And I can appreciate that being centrist is necessary for Obama’s reelection in 2012. Just consider what the alternatives on the far right are. But, on the budget deficit, the President has been more of a mediator than a leader, and the more he caves, the less I know exactly what he stands for.

Everyone knows we have to do something about the federal debt, but should Draconian steps be made just as the economy is struggling to recover? As Paul Krugman pointed out in the NY Times, Obama made major concessions under threat of government shut-down, but this is just the first round. Perhaps Obama thinks that celebrating the largest spending cut in the nation’s history will satisfy the Tea Party, but it won’t. He is, in effect, negotiating against himself, offering conciliation but leaving a woeful compromise as the next starting point for still more drastic cuts. The debt ceiling debate will likely be a repeat performance. It will be raised but with more theater and unbalanced concessions conceded. And then next year’s budget?

I want to know what he’s going to stand firm on and hope to hear that tomorrow night. But, in the end, talk means less than action. Isn’t it time to reduce some defense spending? It can be done while being fully supportive of the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, even those deployed to assist Japan. Should pay-as-you-go apply to our wars? Think of what Iraq costs alone have added to the deficit. In Economics 101, we learned that you can’t have guns and butter without paying for them. If your mantra is fiscal discipline, that restraint should be applied to all areas of the budget.

Medicare is one of the knottiest problems, and something has to be done. But shouldn’t the President push to expand the base level of income on which Social Security taxes are computed? Eliminating the Bush-era tax cut for the wealthiest Americans would go a long way to alleviate the problem. How about the enduring tax subsidies for oil companies and for agribusiness? What elements from Simpson-Bowles should the President embrace? Where’s the honest debate on these issues?

As Russ Douthat writes, Washington needs to enhance working-class opportunity while paring back subsidies to the affluent. Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s budget guru, has put forth a proposal that gets all its savings from cuts, two thirds of them from the least affluent among us. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who has been an admirer of Ryan, now says Ryan's approach is unworkable.
So far, the Republicans have controlled the debate about the budget. The President will rhetorically win back some yardage in tomorrow night’s speech. But it’s what he will do afterwards that counts.

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

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wisconsin probe assaults academic freedom: what's next?

As a kid in the early 1950’s, I remember coming down to breakfast and having my father point out to me the Boston Globe headline that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy had published a list of Harvard University professors who were Communists or known sympathizers. I was too young to know if I was supposed to be more afraid of McCarthy or of what was going on in Cambridge. Those extreme days of the “Red scare” are recalled today as the Wisconsin Republican Party uses the Freedom of Information Act to request all the emails by eminent historian and professor William Cronon.

Cronon had been critical in a blog about Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to decimate the public workers’ union. Republican Party director Stephan Thompson followed up with the over-the-top FOIA request for Cronon’s emails. It has been speculated that the Republicans were looking for evidence that he was involved in a petition to recall certain GOP legislators, which kind of political activity would have been barred to a public university professor. There’s apparently no evidence of that.

The request has left us with a keen sense of attempted invasion of privacy, stomping on academic freedom and violation of First Amendment rights.

Cronon’s blog, written in a scholarly way about the history of the American conservative movement, points to the American Legislative Exchange Council as the source of Governor Walker’s proposal. The Council, or ALEC, describes itself as a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”  Cronon noted it is providing legislation templates on several issues to like-minded legislators across the country. Cronon also wrote an op ed published in the New York Times.

The University complied with the GOP request in a narrow way, refusing to send emails that bore on privacy matters relating to current or prospective students, intellectual discourse with colleagues both on campus and in professional organizations, personnel and personal matters. UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin stood firm, noting that, while university professors can’t abuse their use of university resources or the umbrella of academic freedom, she warned against the use of sweeping FOIA requests as a way to intimidate academics.

The cause has been taken up by the Times and many other media outlets. In The Atlantic, James Fallows excoriates the encroachment. Slate says that the critics are all overreaching, in effect, that, in the public interest, there’s no such thing as a bad FOIA or public records request.

We have to remember how easy it is for public sector officials to incline toward cover-up, foot-dragging in response to requests, imposing onerous charges for providing information and even heavily redacting what should legitimately be accessible to the public. But my sense is that the request for all of Professor Cronon’s emails went way too far, with the clear cut intent to chill. College campuses should be safe places for free and vigorous discourse, the testing of ideas, even unpleasant ones. The attempted intrusion was ably defended against by the University of Wisconsin Chancellor and Counsel. But an atmosphere of academic intimidation, whether by FOIA requests, threats to cut academic budgets or political correctness is toxic, and the pushback must be vigorous.

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

Monday, April 4, 2011

Local authors appeal in memoir and fiction

We love movies set in locations we know: witness The Fighter, set in Lowell, and The Town, set in Charlestown. The appeal of the familiar works in print as well, notably Andre Dubus’ powerful memoir Townie, set in Haverhill, Newburyport and other parts of the Merrimack Valley, and Bone Blind, a mystery novel set in Newton, Wellfleet and Boston.

Dubus III was one of four children abandoned by author and essayist Andre Dubus II of Haverhill, who taught at the (now defunct) Bradford College and was a friend of Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. Dubus père walked out on the family, leaving their hard-working mother to rear them against a backdrop of poverty, urban violence, frequent moves, alcohol and drugs. Though the father and Andre Dubus III reconciled in later years, especially after the father was mowed down by a car while assisting another motorist in distress, the son never had the benefit of responsible adult male guidance, fell into petty crime and substance abuse, and dealt with the world by using his fists. (In his early years, he actually tried to become a boxer but mostly he earned a living by bar tending and janitorial pursuits. )

That he gradually overcame his reflexive primitive pugilistic ways, went to college and became an accomplished writer (author of National Book Award short-list-honored House of Sand and Fog) is remarkable, to say the least. His candid new memoir, Townie, reflects the same milieu portrayed in The Fighter. While the violence is unrelenting, it speaks to what growing up was like for many in our formerly robust mill towns in northeastern Massachusetts.

Bone Blind by mystery novelist Abigail Padgett is set in Newton, Wellfleet and Boston. The principal protagonist is a mystery writer who lives in Newton Highlands. His female person of interest is also a mystery writer, living in Wellfleet, and the story also advances due to the investigation by a Newton police detective of crimes perpetrated in the present and also 20 years ago. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you who dunnit and who ends up dead. I will say that Padgett is a good story teller, who weaves the threads of different mysteries cleverly enough to keep the reader engaged and, while it’s not great literature, it’s fun to see one’s own hometown show up in print, as on the silver screen.

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

Friday, April 1, 2011

Obama's energy speech: time to walk the walk

President Obama this week laid out a plan to cut dependence on foreign oil by 2025. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon also promised to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. At the time about 34 percent of our oil was imported. A decade later it was 45 percent, and Jimmy Carter was making the same promise. Under George W. Bush, it hit 60 percent. Now the percentage oil imported hovers around 66 percent. The numbers are very discouraging.

If oil imports went down last year, we can thank the Great Recession. Estimates point to a big jump again this year.

We seem to be stuck in reverse. The President says he wants to increase domestic oil production, but the United States only has two percent of the world’s oil reserves. He’d also create more incentives for natural gas, biofuels, and increased conservation.

To quote that great energy expert Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again…and again….and again. Meanwhile, we’re now paying up to $3.79 a gallon for gas and that will likely go up this summer. As the President acknowledged, when prices are high, we panic; when they go down, we hit the snooze button. But significant action is long overdue.

We have to fight inertia and distrust. There’s heightened anxiety about offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill. Japan’s tsunami-prompted nuclear reactor breakdowns have probably slowed what was a new awakening of the potential for nuclear. Coal advocates promote its relative safety, though even the new iteration – “clean coal” - doesn’t inspire confidence .

Wind, solar and other alternatives produce only three percent of our energy, and there’s no sustained plan to support expansion; some years there are tax credits; some years there are not. Only oil industry subsidies have staying power. In the 1980's we led the world in clean energy. Today the United States has slipped to third in the production of solar and wind, behind China and Germany. 

The President called for a long-term energy policy. Congressman Ed Markey and Senator John Kerry have both tried to get comprehensive plans through their respecctive branches. But, in today’s political environment, it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to get a truly comprehensive energy plan through Congress. There are too many energy constituencies to get a majority vote on a comprehensive bill. Why can’t our legislators break off one piece at a time and chip away at the problem?

One possibility is to do more with natural gas, which has some bipartisan support in Congress. We have reserves that are equivalent to 700 billion barrels of oil. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pushing a bill that would provide a tax credit to new vehicles using natural gas. (A similar benefit is already on the books for trash trucks in Southern California.) Or we could start by requiring that all eight million 18-wheelers on the road use that clean and domestically available fuel. Others want to require that all future federal vehicles use domestic fuel as a resource. The President is directing that increased numbers of vehicles in the federal fleet use alternative fuels by a set date.

Why can’t enterprising banks encourage conservation by offering lower rates for mortgage loans on houses that are built with green technology? Why can’t we move more of our own vehicles by bio-fuels as Brazil does? (70 percent of our oil consumption goes for transportation, the second largest chunk out of the household budget.) Other one-off approaches might get through Congress.

The point is: it’s time to do something. Something modest but meaningful. Something that acts on the problem, rather than simply giving another speech about it.

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