Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New disaster insurance: don’t

My husband, Jim Barron, and I have finally hit on a way to finance our eventual retirement. Let’s call it don’ Here’s how it would work. If you’re worried about a pending natural disaster, or even a financial one, pay us a hefty fee, and we’ll cancel whatever travel plans we have on the calendar.

Why, you ask?

There’s a pattern of terrible things happening when we go out of town. It doesn’t matter whether we are travelling for business or pleasure. Here are a few examples.

It started the year we were married. We left for Aruba just before the Great Blizzard of ’78. We were on the first plane to land at Logan, after it reopened. The eerie quiet and the mounds of snow made it seem like landing on the moon.

In October 1987, it was “Black Monday.” We sat in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, watching American visitors rushing to telephones to call families, brokers, who knows who else? Their stricken faces said everything about the news of what remains, to this day, the largest-ever one-day drop (22.61 percent) in U.S. stock market history.

In 1992, we were travelling home from New Zealand when a nor’easter socked the state, leaving homeowners without power, surrounded by downed trees, ocean surge and inches of ice on everything. The storm sheared off the tops of several in a row of hemlock trees in our back yard. You can still see the effects today.

My husband was in Brussels and Paris on business while the rest of us suffered through the March 1993 “storm of the century” that paralyzed New England.

The system isn’t foolproof. Sometimes the cataclysm when we’re away isn’t bad. We watched the fall of the Berlin Wall from a newsroom in Quito, Ecuador. And sometimes we stay home and share in the trouble. I do know we were here for the April Fool’s blizzard of 1997 that dumped one to two feet of snow on our daffodils and left us without power for three days. But, on other occasions, I vividly remember returning from trips abroad, our ceilings dripping from ice dams, or our basement flooded and listening to neighbors’ horror stories of what we had missed.

On September 11, 2001 our bags were packed for a flight that very day to Paris from Boston, on American Airlines. Needless to say, the wedding we were to attend happened without us, with 300 present from the bride’s side and just three from the groom’s, a resident of Rhode Island.

In 2007, we were at a friend’s place in Florida, sitting by the pool in 80-degree weather, using our laptops to work from a distance, when heavy rains swelled the Charles River not far from our home. The MWRA pumping station failed, and our neighborhood joined the ranks of others across eastern Massachusetts that were under water. We were at the same (very generous) friends’ home in Florida last year for yet another “storm of the century.”

And last week, as you may have guessed, we had just arrived in California en route to a family wedding when Irene hit the North Carolina coast. We spent the day of the rehearsal dinner glued to The Weather Channel and Sunday, the day of the wedding, when the storm hit Massachusetts, supplementing our TV watching with laptop streaming video of NECN, checking, and other websites, or on the phone with neighbors.

You get the idea. We leave. Disaster strikes. So we’ve been thinking: why not capitalize on it and get people to pay us to stay home?

I don’t mean to trivialize these events, most immediately Irene. There have been real tragedies. Lives have been lost and property destroyed. I don’t think the media over-dramatize (well, maybe a little). Dan Kennedy and Howard Kurtz  joined a cadre of commentators asserting that it was a tropical storm named hurricane and a category 5 deluge of cable TV warnings.

That may be a question of style. I think the coverage was thorough, and I would rather be over-prepared by information than caught off-guard. Irene was not Katrina in general, but, for some people in the affected areas in several states, it was every bit as disastrous.

The politics of Irene are predictable, if discouraging. Congressman Eric Cantor says that federal aid to victims of Irene should be balanced by cuts in other programs.Presidential candidate Ron Paul goes even further, saying there should not be a federal response at all to a disaster of this ilk.

I guess that’s all the more reason to offer our disaster protection. I’ll let you know when is up and running.

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

Photo of blizzard of '78 by Ric Werme of Marlboro
Photo of Irene in Vermont by Burlington Free Press

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rick Perry: time to fact-check the "Texas Miracle"

Driving down to Cohasset for a party celebrating Polly Logan, the 85 year old progressive-minded grande dame and happy warrior of Massachusetts Republican politics, on the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll, my husband and I talked about how far the Republican Party has shifted from the days of Frank Sargent, Ed Brooke, John Buckley, Nick Nikitas, Jacob Javits, Charlie Goodel, Tom Kuchel, Nelson Rockefeller, Leverett Saltonstall and Mark Hatfield. Even Richard Nixon, were he running in 2012 for Congress or the Presidency, would likely have a challenger from his right.

And now Texas Governor Rick Perry is joining the fray likely as Mitt Romney’s strongest rival. But who is Rick Perry, the part-time evangelist and decade plus-long incumbent whose unexamined record of job creation and “Texas exceptionalism” writers like George Will swoon over?

I first wrote about Perry last September, after meeting him in Dallas, and I’ve become increasingly puzzled why so many in the media continue to give him and his record a free ride. The chattering class opine about Perry’s liabilities on personal style and misrepresent his record on economic issues. Perhaps Mitt Romney will organize a truth squad to follow Perry around, passing out articles like the National Journal “Rick Perry and the Texas Way") and pointing to the following:

There is a lot less to Perry’s record on jobs than meets close scrutiny… and a lot less to emulate. He touts his record of job creation, producing more jobs than any other state, and even adding jobs during the recession. But Texas has benefitted mightily from the growth of its oil and gas industries and the spectacular jump in energy prices. We should remember that Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota, also large oil and gas producers, all have even faster job growth rates than Texas.

And while Texas unemployment rate (8.2%) is less than the national average, it’s worse than that of 24 other states, including Massachusetts. (7.6 %)

And what kinds of jobs are being created in Texas? Yes, there are skilled jobs in the health, energy and other sectors. But its greatest job growth has been in positions needing cheap and unskilled labor, often coming without any benefits. And Perry hasn’t talked about how many of these celebrated jobs are being held by “ illegal aliens.” These are the jobs of the future? Perry may have successfully lured out-of- state firms to Texas because of low taxes and lax regulation, but he has lagged in growing a skilled workforce at home.

Texas has intentionally chosen not to invest in education. When faced with a $27 billion dollar budget deficit, it cut $4 billion from education programs, rather than dip into the state’s “rainy day” fund or raise taxes. Texas’ rank in per-pupil spending (2001-2008) dropped from 34th to 42nd in the nation. Texas is 50th, dead last, in high school graduation rate. And its college graduation rate is only 25.5% (#30), while Massachusetts ranks first, with 38.2%.

In 2009 the Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness, appointed in part by Governor Perry, concluded that Texas "is not globally competitive" and "faces a downward spiral in both quality of life and economic competitiveness if it fails to educate more of its growing population (both youth and adults) to higher levels of attainment, knowledge and skills. The rate at which educational capacity is currently being developed is woefully inadequate." This was the same conclusion reached by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in its 2005 study, "Closing the Gaps." Perry’s draconian budget cuts this year only made matters worse. Who will ask him about this on the stump?

We all have images of Texas’ glittering wealth and think of Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia at the other end of the spectrum. But all three of those relatively poor states have a greater share of its residents with health insurance. Texas is last; Massachusetts is first. And, in different surveys, Texas ranks last or next to last in share of children covered by health insurance. I wonder if Romney will point out how many in Texas use emergency rooms as their primary care providers? Maybe the two can debate health care “free riders” as exemplary self-reliant and responsible entrepreneurs?

It’s time to nail hypocrites like Perry who boast of balancing their budgets without raising taxes or using their emergency funds—but accepted over $6 billion in federal stimulus funds to close the gap! Anderson Cooper fact-checking Perry’s record, pointed out that, on the day Perry requested the federal stimulus money, “he released a post on his website telling voters to oppose the recovery act.”

Perry, announcing his candidacy for President, said :
When the state faced a huge budget shortfall this year, “we worked hard, we made tough decisions, we balanced our budget. Not by raising taxes but by setting priorities and cutting government spending.”

The Dallas News provided the needed context, explaining: “The state always balances its budget, as required under the Texas Constitution. But to accomplish it, lawmakers made deep cuts to health care, education, prisons and other state programs. The state also deferred many payments that will almost certainly mean a similar budget problem in 2013.”

We need more of this kind of journalism. The Texas economic myths and budget shortfall sleight of hand won’t just be Perry’s problem if he becomes President.

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

Polly Logan photo Channel 7

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Escape from politics into books

News that a huge (4’ deep and 190’ long) sinkhole has opened up under the I-90 Big Dig Tunnel seems to be a metaphor for how our political leaders continue letting us down. Summer hasn’t provided much respite either. That August is well underway, with kids returning from camp and the nighttime chirping of crickets getting louder, is a reminder that we still have several weeks left for the pleasures of summer reading. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed in the last six months include:

In the Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, the story of Berlin in the 1930’s from the perspective of American Ambassador William Dodd, a professor of history who wanted to be anywhere else, and his daughter, Martha, who partied and slept indiscriminately with Nazis, a Soviet spy and author Thomas Wolfe. The ambassador, by contrast, eschewed the pomp and lavish style of the diplomatic corps, ran afoul of many in the State Department, and was unable to persuade Hitler to tone down his vicious treatment of the Jews. Dodd’s first goal was to get Germany to repay U.S. debts, however, so initially his attitude toward Hitler verges on conciliation. A fascinating account of a highly placed family being swept along in the tide of history.

The Invisible Wall is a remarkable memoir by Harry Bernstein, writing this first book at the age of 96 years old. (There’s hope for us all.) It’s told from the perspective of Bernstein as a small child and recounts life in before the Great War in a Lancashire mill town. The “invisible wall” is the cultural divide running down the middle of the street, separating Jews from Christians. It’s a remarkable story of a boy, a family, and a culture of poor people on both sides of the street, brought together by a forbidden marriage, against the backdrop of WWI.

Unbroken, another non-fiction book by Seabiscuit author Lauren Hillenbrand, is the remarkable story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic miler from California who joins the military during WWII, becomes a bombadier on a B-24, gets shot down and, with a buddy, survives more than 40 days in a raft in the South Pacific, only to be rescued……by the Japanese. He spends the rest of the war in a POW camp, the target of sadistic Japanese guards who subject him to unbelievable tortures and degradation. He emerges, as the title suggests, unbroken (or barely broken). This book is hard to put down.

A Ticket to the Circus is another memoir, this one by Norris Church Mailer, a hippie, sculptor, writer, teacher and beauty from Arkansas, the sixth (and last) wife of Norman Mailer, a fascinating if lurid author and one of the most distinctive American writers of the late 20th century. This memoir is not great writing but is compelling for being such an interesting story. Among Norris Church Mailer’s love affairs (albeit a short one) was one Bill Clinton. The Mailers spent much of their marriage in Provincetown, which makes reading this all the more fun.

Strength in What Remains if you haven’t read this quasi sequel to Tracy Kidder’s book about Partner in Health’s Paul Farmer (Mountains beyond Mountains), it’s not too late to do so. (It came out about two years ago.) Kidder tells the story of a medical student named Deo who escapes war-torn Burundi and Rwanda and somehow manages to get to New York, where he lives on the street until taken in by a nun (Sharon McKenna happens to have been a college classmate of mine). She finds him a couple to live with in Manhattan. He gets a degree at Columbia, goes to Dartmouth Medical School and returns home to Burundi to build a clinic there. It’s a moving story, very well told.

Speaking of war-torn nations, To the End of the Land by David Grossman is a fictionalized account of a family in Israel, mother, father, two grown sons of military age, and the traumas and tensions of living lives of uncertainty and peril. It’s about how the pain of their environment poisons their everyday life, and how a mother strives to protect her sons. A worthwhile reading experience.

Fictionalized stories about real people holds a special interest for me. In March, talented author Geraldine Brooks writes about March, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” As a young man, March got work as an itinerant salesman in the South, learning first-hand about the treatment of slaves. He marries, becomes a minister and settles in Concord, where he and his wife become involved in the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, he returns to the south as a chaplain for the troops (his absence having been recorded in Little Women). March’s politics are decidedly radical for the times, and his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau enriches this work of fiction, which is written as a journal. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and her research and writing are outstanding.

Two other historical novels that are enjoyable reads are The Women, T.C. Boyle’s book about the four women (wives and mistresses) in the life of towering architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Hemingway. Boyle’s book is well written, weaving the stories in and out, starting with the most recent woman in Wright’s life and ending with the first. There is much overlapping. The Paris Wife is much more linear and interesting mostly for its weaving of the Hemingways’ lives with greats like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. Both books provide insight into some of the challenges of living with a great man, a creative genius, totally self-referential and absorbed, but T.C. Boyle’s book does it much better.

Finally, The Believers, a novel by Zoe Heller, about the family of a radical New York lawyer named Litvinoff (think William Kunstler as a prototype). Early in the book, about to begin a major trial, he has a stroke and goes into a coma. While he is in a coma (from which he never recovers) his family learns that he had had an earlier affair that had produced a son. Each member of the family copes in a different way, and story lines evolve with biting humor and self –discovery. A fast read but worth the trip.

I’ve taped the Iowa Republican debate from Thursday night, but frankly, I’d rather cling to the vestiges of August and indulge myself in the pleasures of summer reading.

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

Monday, August 8, 2011

Say it isn't so, Setti

I’ve been a big fan of Newton Mayor Setti Warren, 19 months into his first term and now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Scott Brown. As BlueMass Group pointed out, Setti has “the requisite political skills: The gift of gab; charisma; a strongly presented, concise, and persistent message; a sense of being well-grounded and good-humored.” His excellent innate communication skills have extended to running regular Town Hall meetings in all Newton wards to discuss residents’ budgetary and other concerns.

I’ve also been a big fan of the state’s giving cities and towns the right to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission to provide health insurance more affordably for their employees. Setti’s approach was to restate his support of collective bargaining and to say that he’d prefer to negotiate savings that would be equivalent to what could be achieved through joining the GIC. In the wake of concluding contracts with all ten Newton unions, Setti announced success in that regard and further asserted that the increases negotiated were well within the Prop 2 ½ framework, and would save the city $6 million over the next three years.

I’m puzzled about how this could be so. The City maintains it would have spent $100,000 more buying health insurance for its different bargaining units under the state health pool, the GIC. (Savings from the GIC wouldn't kick in during the first year.) But what the city may have saved in reducing projected growth in health care costs may well have been given away in other, salary-related provisions.

Take the three-year police contract, for example. While the average salary goes up only 1 percent the first year, by the time you add cost-of-living increases, step increases, longevity increases and lump sum payments, wages are up 2.8 percent. When you then add health insurance, the total package could well be over three percent. This could well compound and add to the city’s structural deficit. Plus, surprisingly, on June 30, 2014, the last day of this new three-year contract, the Mayor built an additional 10 percent pay raise over the ensuing three fiscal years, which weren’t even being negotiated right now.

Here's another wrinkle. The Quinn Bill started out with the superficially appealing notion of increased police pay for increased education, with the state and cities sharing the costs. But it proved unaffordable at the state level, leading the state to defund it. Not so Newton. Now Mayor Warren has agreed to extend Quinn-like benefits to Newton firefighters for the first time. They are now slated to get ten percent more pay if they get an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a full bachelor’s degree and 25 percent for a master’s degree. With this provision, it's difficult to see how the contracts negotiated stay within the desired 2 1/2 percent increase.

I support our city workers, their right to bargain collectively and their right to a decent salary and benefits. Are they worth the deal? Yes.  Can we afford it at this time? No.  I also support the taxpayers’ right to have all the information, without spin, to know what their tax dollars are going for and the long-term implications.

It seems unlikely that the money saved in the growth of health costs is alone enough to solve the city’s long-term structural deficit. But even if these savings had a major impact on the fiscal 2012 budget, the other salary increases would seem to place a significant burden on the city in the out years. No wonder the unions stood by the mayor’s side at his announcement of the agreement and sang his praises.

The Aldermanic Finance Committee has already blessed the deal. The full Board of Aldermen is scheduled vote on the police contract this evening (August 8), and on other collective bargaining agreements later on. The aldermen with whom I have spoken are largely clueless about the content of the contracts.  One even said to me, "In a strong-mayor government, we can't get involved." Huh? 

An uninformed "yes" vote will probably make it difficult, if not impossible, to revisit the other contracts.
It would seem to make sense  to delay the vote until the aldermen know what is in the contract and what its long-term impact will be.

It also seems reasonable to ask whether the mayor has given away the store in return for union support in the Senate race. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician has done this. That Setti Warren seems to have done so, given his great promise as a first-time candidate and newly elected official, is particularly disappointing. I tried reaching him for comment and clarification, to no avail.

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

Friday, August 5, 2011

As markets tank, politicians hit the links, oblivious

Recent memories of Cape Cod breezes, warm sunshine and gentle waves can’t dispel the acid taste left in the mouth by Congress’ despicable( and self-inflicted) game of chicken around raising the debt ceiling, followed by the eighth largest drop in stock market history. Small wonder that public disapproval of Congress is at 82 percent, according to a NY Times/CBS poll.  That’s the highest disapproval since the Times started doing the poll in 1977. And Obama’s numbers are also down dramatically. (Can anyone explain to me why the President didn’t tie the debt ceiling rise to last year’s extension of the Bush tax cuts and thereby take it off the table?)

Nationally just 20 percent approve of the Tea Party, but they still exert disproportionate influence by threatening to run candidates in the Republican primaries against otherwise moderate Republicans who, without the fear from their Right, might act with reason.

So where are we? Where are our true leaders, those who are willing to put the country over ideology or personal self-interest. Notwithstanding the votes of many in the Massachusetts delegation against the debt ceiling deal (because of the threat to social safety net programs), I still feel those who were willing to hold their noses and compromise (on both sides of the aisle) did the right thing.

As reported by Yvonne Abraham, unflaggingly liberal Congressman Michael Capuano says he would have been willing to be the vote that killed the deal. He is quoted as saying he believes that the President would have gone the 14th Amendment route, acting to pay our debts even though the cost exceeded our debt limit and standing up to a possible impeachment vote in the House. Substituting a Constitutional crisis for a fiscal crisis was a Hobson’s choice.

Was Vice President Joe Biden speaking for himself or Obama when he told Capuano and Congressman Jim McGovern that, if necessary, the President, notwithstanding his public statements to the contrary, would use the 14th Amendment. The real question is how MA Congressmen would have voted if their votes had really been needed to avoid default. Would they really have voted with Michelle Bachmann and the others who were oblivious to the national security consequences?

It’s time to understand the lose-lose-lose debt ceiling circus has quickly become history. Only our disgust endures. That, and the challenges facing us now. Who will be the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, and can they really pull off a reasonable combination of cuts and new revenues, without making more immediate cuts that will make matters worse?

Once again President Obama now says it’s time to “pivot” to jobs. But where have he and Congress been on this issue during the self-created debt ceiling distraction, while the recovery stalls and the country slips toward a double dip recession?

There has been marginal improvement in private sector jobs this year, but the unemployment rate has held high because of the dramatic increase in public sector layoffs. Those out of work or fearful of losing their livelihoods are unlikely to be the type of consumers necessary to drive a sustainable recovery. If Obama and the Democrats were unable to make revenues part of a winning argument in the recent political chess game  , they are unlikely to push for even a bipartisan big-ticket investment like an infrastructure bank to rebuild faulty bridges, highways and energy grids. Trade deals and extension of the payroll tax cut can only go so far. Maybe we need another super committee to do what Congress can’t do on its own.

My husband and I had to cut our brief vacation even shorter because of client needs. Maybe the President and Congress should cut short their summer recess and fundraising and carry “their urgency from the final days of the debt ceiling debate into an immediate crisis conversation about jobs.”

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