Friday, May 11, 2012

New blog address

I have a new blog address, one that will be easier for you to remember.  As of May 11, 2012
please find me at:


Thanks.   I look forward to hearing from you there.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Mother’s Day Remembrance

Every day at around 4:30 in the afternoon, my hand reaches for the phone to call my mother. Traditionally, it was my way of heading off a call from her that would inevitably interrupt either my work or our family dinner. Though there was often nothing new to report, it was a way of checking in and letting her know she was on my mind. She’s still on my mind although she has been gone for six years.
She’s over my shoulder when we do take-out Chinese or Thai food. She’s letting me know she doesn’t approve of putting the plastic take-out containers on the table. My sister, Nancy, and I still do it, but mother's preferred etiquette floats in the atmosphere around the meal.

She’s there when I can’t remember how to get red wine out of the tablecloth and when I have questions about the Chinese poppies that she had in abundance but refuse to thrive in my back flower bed . Fortunately, the peonies I transplanted from her house when she moved have flourished. She’s a presence when I pull out the ingredient-stained recipe cards for noodle pudding or brisket. She’s there when I walk by a store window and see her reflection in the glass, and when I hear certain expressions coming out of my mouth though I don’t think I ever uttered them when she was alive.

My husband, Jim, especially feels her absence on Saturday mornings when she would wait till she knew I had departed on my weekend errands and then call him, whom she loved as a cherished son, and they'd speak in conspiratorial tones about one family matter or another.

Her absence is felt most keenly, however, when sons Ted and Daniel display the splendid personal and professional traits of which she was so proud, and when her great grandchildren hit new milestones that would have made her so happy.

My mother was a chemistry major at Wellesley College, hired by the Dupont Corporation upon her graduation. (She used to joke that being a chem major was easier in the l930's because there were fewer elements!) Dupont, however, found out that she was engaged to be married, which would lead to children, God forbid, and there was no place for working mothers in their 1934 business plan. They fired her, and that was that. She spent most of her adult life volunteering and selflessly giving of herself to others, especially her family.

Her enduring legacy to me is in her love of flowers, her voracious appetite for reading (until she lost her sight), her spirit of determination, her humor, her ability to roll with the vicissitudes of life, her organizational skills (that also show up in her great grand-daughter), her salty vocabulary and her ability to forgive, if not forget.

On Mother’s Day, my husband – and maybe one of the kids - will give me flowers, and I’ll smile because it reinforces my link to my mother, Mim Myers, and the many ways I am connected to her every single day of my life.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Warren’s ancestry fumble sidetracks her campaign

Apparently, virtually everyone born in Oklahoma is part Native American. According to Oklahoman Sarah Burns, a writer for Politico,  “Most families that are at least three generations Okie are related to one tribe or another.” In fact, adds Burns, “the current chief of the Cherokee Tribe matches [Senate candidate Elizabeth] Warren — he also is 1/32 Cherokee.”

So, the “legs” that this story has is obviously not about the truth of Elizabeth Warren’s heritage but what we learn about the candidate from the way she has handled the revelation that she listed herself as Native American in a national directory of law professors. Apparently she did, and then she didn’t. Certainly that’s her prerogative. She said she did it to make contact with others who were like her. Maybe that didn’t pan out, because she stopped that listing when she came to Harvard Law School.

David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian living on a reservation in Minnesota, writing in The Washington Post, suggests that those with Native American ancestry cover a full spectrum from people identifying as a tribal member to those for whom tales of ancestry are passed down from one generation to the next and the lore figures as nothing else in their lives. And he adds, “if someone with Indian blood, no matter how little, is a Harvard professor and stands a chance of being elected to the Senate, might that suggest that the American experiment is working and that we live in a meritocracy?”

The assertion that Warren got her position at Harvard due to her being Native American doesn’t seem to hold water, even though Harvard Law was being faulted for its lack of diversity. Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried, who was part of the Harvard Law School hiring committee, says that talk of her being an affirmative action hire is “stupid.” As reported on, former  Harvard Law School Dean Robert Clark said she was hired because she was “a top-notch academic expert in debtor-creditor law,” and because of “her excellent scholarship in that field; and her fabulous success as a teacher.”

Certainly, her intelligence shines through her grasp of policies and concepts, and her leadership and values are clearly demonstrated by her role in creating the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But, after a successful campaign launch, she has fumbled her responses. My question is: why wasn’t she better prepared by her consultants to handle this issue? Why wasn’t she prepared to explain her ancestry? Why did she list herself in the directory and then remove her name after she got to Harvard? She seemed to imply that Republican Scott Brown was being sexist in feeding the brouhaha by questioning her credentials? I’m not sure that washes.

The motto on the license plates of Warren’s birth state proclaims “Native America.” Did Warren’s advisors fail to provide the full cultural context of what that means and symbolizes because they were afraid that, in doing so, they might be distancing her from an historically parochial Massachusetts electorate?

It’s still early in the campaign, and relatively few voters are paying attention. But episodes like this can become part of the enduring campaign narrative. How she and her staff handles things like this are often dissected for what it means about staff- candidate coordination and their ability to deal with more serious matters ahead. Surely, this must have come up in their internal vetting process.

This is the time to get her act in order, and get serious about identifying the questions, however apparently trivial, her opponent and his surrogates may raise in the coming months.

She needs to be clear, coherent and on message about the least important things if her campaign is not to be diverted from addressing issues of transcendent importance to Massachusetts and the nation.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Update: Column spurs community compassion

The power of a columnist is incontrovertible. Not long ago, Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory  wrote a moving piece decrying the plight of Shirley Simmons, mother of the late Darryl Williams. Back in 1979, he was the innocent victim of senseless violence in Boston, violence that made him a quadriplegic and confined him to a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Shirley Simmons gave up her job and devoted herself to his care for three decades, until his death. McGrory revisited her story in March when she fell behind in her mortgage payments, and the Stoneham Bank threatened her with foreclosure. I picked up McGrory’s piece in a blog on March 22nd.

Dan Shaughnessy wrote movingly of Darryl Williams that “Darryl had every reason to complain and hate. And yet he never complained and he never hated.” In fact, he became an inspirational speaker, and a moving example of the ability of the human spirit to express virtue.

News of the bank’s move against Shirley Simmons prompted a community outpouring. Richard Lapchick had worked with Darryl at Northeastern University’s Center for Sports and Society and is custodian of a fund set up in his memory. To help fend off the bank’s action, people now gave to help Darryl’s mom. Lapchick is now executive director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports in Orlando, Florida, where the fund now resides. Several days ago, I  received a letter from him, reporting that the fund has recently collected approximately 25 percent of what is needed to pay the mortgage off in full. The fundraising continues, but Lapchick writes that he is “more inspired than ever by the compassion that drives the human spirit.”

Thanks to all who have given or will give. The combination of the human spirit and written word can be a marvel to behold.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Women’s rights are human rights, but will “backward” nations see them as keys to success?

High-level State Department work requires intelligence, sensitivity, and a healthy dose of optimism. This is what I took away from last week’s State Department briefings of 22 members of the Association of Opinion Journalists, formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Diplomats whose portfolios cover everything from Western Hemisphere Affairs to the Middle East, from North Korea, China and Japan to human rights and global women’s issues, were all highly analytical, had evolved policies for resolving conflicting interests among disparate world players, and seemed determined to measure success in very tiny increments. But will certain intractable problems be resolved even during their lifetimes?

Take, for example, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who heads the Office of Global Women’s Issues. Contemplating the transitional period in Afghanistan and the status of women after U.S. disengagement, she observed, “No one has suffered more in Afghanistan than women,” who “are the key to the future.” Their “survivability has grown,” as measured by a reduction in the maternal mortality rate, greater numbers of women going to school, availing themselves of economic opportunity including access to microcredit, more participation in the military and in parliament and the provincial councils.

All hopeful signs, to be sure. But the problem of violence against women is deeply entrenched, whether because of national cultural practices or misinterpretation of the Koran. Verveer says women’s strength is knowing of their own dignity. They are working with imams, mullahs and some community leaders to clarify what the proper reading of religious rules should be. Verveer’s optimism in the face of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan assumes continuing efforts to build women’s capacity to remain engaged in civic life. But it’s hard to believe there will not be substantial backsliding under increased Taliban influence.

Improvements in life, especially in economic activity and education, have “the highest positive value for continuing the changes,” insisted Verveer. It’s a slender reed of hope that education and greater economic sustainability will put an end to genital mutilation, that most barbarous culturally and religiously promoted process that afflicts women’s health and ability to shape their own lives. Verveer left us with the admonition of a new Afghan’s women’s network, a coalition of women’s organizations urging that people “stop looking at us as victims and look at us as the leaders we are.” I hope she is right. I wish I shared her optimism, especially considering the 142 million girls worldwide who have been subjected to this particular atrocity.
Human rights are repressed in different ways in different nations. Will “Arab awakening” movements make a difference? U.S. diplomats are closely watching Egypt and Yemen, among the nations where 80 percent or more of women have been victims of genital mutilation. What about Libya, where progressive activists have been tortured or made to “disappear?” We have less leverage with Libya than elsewhere because they have oil and don’t need our money.

We depend on oil from Saudi Arabia, which forbids women to vote or even drive and were barred from participating in the 2008 Olympics. We trade with China, which bans internet access, jails political dissidents, and restricts religious minorities and press freedoms.

The Obama Administration has just announced sanctions against companies and governments that use digital technology to deprive its people of human rights. So we’ are taking steps here and there, and moving forward incrementally to improve rights for women, political activists and religious and ethnic minorities.

Last night President Obama talked about the prolonged withdrawal from Afghanistan and “protecting human rights, men and women, boys and girls.” But our goal there, he said, is “not to rebuild the country in America’s image, but to defeat Al Qaeda.” The emphasis is clearly on military security and ending the war “responsibly,” whatever that turns out to mean. Human rights and opportunities for women may be pushed down the priority list when the Karzai government’s rampant kleptocracy and ill prepared troops still have yet to be properly addressed.

Managing international relations is a tough job, dependent not only on our government’s unsentimental pragmatism and technological sophistication but also on the healthy dose of optimism that characterize its diplomatic practices. That leaves experts and onlookers alike to ponder a time of great uncertainty.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo AP/Charles Dharapak

Monday, April 30, 2012

Scott Brown in full campaign mode at New England Council

Elizabeth Warren is a stronger candidate than Martha Coakley was in 2010, but Scott Brown is a far better candidate than he was back then. He was in full campaign mode at today’s New England Council luncheon. His message was clear: he knows that many in the room didn’t vote for him in his 2010 race against A.G. Martha Coakley, and he admitted that, when he meets many of the attendees who visit in his office, “we’ve been banging heads.” But, he asserted, Massachusetts voters are independent-minded, and he gives them credit for being able to vote based on the individual, not the party. The implied request is clear: vote for Obama the Democrat for President (if you must) and vote for me, who happens to be a Republican, for U.S. Senator.

While he stated both that “The Number One issue is lack of regulatory and tax certainty,” no matter what the sector, and that “Job creation is my Number One priority,” most of his speech – far more smoothly delivered than when he appeared before the same group a year ago – was an effort to document the ways in which he has voted independently of GOP leadership, across party lines.

He is, he said, the second most bipartisan in the US Senate, voting differently from his party leadership on economic, social and foreign policy roll calls 54 percent of the time, based on an independent third-party analysis (The National Journal) . He took umbrage when asked about the fact that that percentage jumps (to 74 percent by some analyses) when you take into account more of the procedural votes, often occurring in committee to keep bills from ever reaching the floor or watering them down when they get there. Still, the National Journal, based on its selection of votes, included Brown among nine Republicans closest to the ideological center. On a somewhat more grandiose tone, he declared himself to be “one of the only persons in the Senate to vote with anyone who wants to do something” irrespective of party. He calls the other members of the Massachusetts delegation “97 percenters,” that is, dramatically more partisan.

On substantive matters, Brown cited his opposition to doubling the rate of interest on student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Both parties want to keep the low rate while students are still in school. But the Republicans, including Brown, want to pay for it by cutting funds for preventive health care, and the Democrats, by closing tax loopholes. Brown did at least note that more attention needs to be paid to the impact of loan availability on ever- increasing tuition. It will be interesting to watch his votes on this and other issues in the coming weeks.

Brown focused on the hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud and abuse that could be used to support certain programs, like welfare, “not as a lifelong entitlement but a safety net.” But, he warns, we have to find a way to pay for it, and not by having the GAS spending millions of tax dollars for a party in Vegas.

Much of the junior Senator’s focus has been on jobs, including four job fairs across the state, visiting businesses to assess their needs. He is especially proud of co-sponsoring bills signed into law to legalize “crowd funding” (to help small business attract investors without what Brown sees as unnecessary regulatory protection), and including a tax credit to businesses hiring veterans. Another success was a much watered down law to bar insider trading by members of Congress. He seems very proud to have been invited to White House signing ceremonies and notes that he worked these “in a truly bipartisan matter.” Indeed, his involvement on legislation has been more productive, in many ways, than the early years of John Kerry’s first Senatorial term.

He says he’s out to do “things that matter,” like the Violence against Women Act,” saving the Post Office, providing resources for Homeland Security. He says we don’t need ideologues in Washington, and that there are good people on both sides of the aisle. When it comes to the next round of budget and debt debates, he says he “won’t play the shut-down-the-government game.” He says he doesn’t work for Mitch McConnell. “I work for you,” he told the business crowd, who seemed quite warm to him.

But I would be surprised if, reelected, Scott Brown would ever be an Ed Brooke type of Republican. What will he look like if he gets a six-year term? How actively bipartisan will he be with the possible shrinking of the number of centrists after the 2012 election, given the absence of retiring senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Olympa Snowe (R-ME) and Ben Nelson (D-NB). For now, though, his message of independence, and his more polished presentation, mean that Elizabeth Warren has her work cut out for her in trying to unseat him.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Uncertain results of Arab awakening will have definite impact on U. S. strategic interests

We won’t know for some time the long-term impact of the Arab Spring or which nations will thrive, but, for now, the United States views Tunisia as a model of what should happen. That was one message given to Monday’s State Department briefing of editorialists from the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers) in Washington.

How “the Arab spring” countries evolve toward democracy is key to United States strategic interests, so much so that the State Department has named a special coordinator to monitor the transitions. He is William Taylor, Jr., named last September to make sure that "assistance to the countries of the Arab revolutions is coordinated and effective.”

Tunisia, where the news of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation sparked the first national uprising, offers the most promising example. According to Taylor, it has successfully written a constitution and elected a constituent assembly. Its interim government is a coalition of moderate Islamist and secular parties. Tunisia “worked hard, shows moderation and is a model for the region,” said Taylor, noting “They’re doing the right thing.” Tunisia, with its10 million people, could be a solid ally in this new Middle East.

Because Tunisia is already looking at a significant deficit in its first budget, the United States is looking to make a $100 million cash transfer, $30 million in loan guarantees allowing it to borrow ten times that much in the international financial markets, and $2o million in an enterprise fund to leverage private sector investments. Walker also sees a return of the Peace Corps to Tunisia.

The prospects are not so clear for Egypt, a dramatically larger and more strategically pivotal country, where we already have a large economic investment. To outside observers and to many Egyptians, the current situation is fraught with peril, but to Taylor, the five preliminary election rounds have been “pretty good ones.”

While the Muslim Brotherhood promises to be middle of the road and focus on economics, the United States is waiting to see what kind of government emerges before deciding how to be of assistance. A presidential election is anticipated mid May. The problem right now is that no one is particularly in charge, and recent raids on NGO’s and harassment of bloggers are particularly worrisome threats to stability . Egypt, home to 85 million people, is also in financial crisis. Congress has conditioned future assistance on Egypt’s continuing to adhere to the Camp David Accords’ commitment to Israel and to the continuing transfer of power from military to civilian authorities. But this commitment is not a done deal.

Libya has plenty of money (from oil and gas production, with another $100 billion stashed around the world by Ghaddafi) but is far behind in the democratization process. June 23 marks the first election in 40 years. They don’t know how to create voting lists or even how to handle ballot boxes. If Libya gets its act together, it could actually be a source of financial assistance for Tunisia and Egypt. The United States is also counting on money from Eurozone and wealthy Arab nations to aid “awakening” cash-strapped nations. But given the parlous economic condition of Europe and the frequent difficulties of Arab states to act in concert, the fulfillment of this expectation is unclear.

Down the road, Yemen and eventually Syria may emerge to join those in the transitional office portfolio, which has the potential to influence the balance of power in the region and the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Obviously the timing here is uncertain and the outcomes, at this early stage, seriously in question.

Whether the American position, as expressed by our State Department is just optimistic thinking or rooted in hard reality, will become clearer in the next few months, especially in light of developments with Iran, which were not addressed..
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo by John R. McClelland

Friday, April 20, 2012

Raising the mayor's salary

From the public’s perspective, there’s never a good time to give a public official a raise. That’s why Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s inclusion of a 28 percent ($27,125) pay hike in his proposed fiscal 2013 budget is probably irritating a fair number of Newton taxpayers. This, when other city employees are getting a maximum hike of four percent. But the fact is, the raise for the Newton mayor is not only in order; it’s long overdue.

The mayor now earns $97,876. He is responsible for a municipal budget of more than $300 million and city services for 85,000 residents. After a rocky start and premature leap into the U.S. Senate race, Warren seems to have settled into the work, coming to grips with the delivery of services, negotiating contracts with municipal employees that wrung some savings out of workers health insurance coverage, communicating with residents and more.

But the raise is about more than Warren’s performance. It’s about the roles and responsibilities of the office. The mayor’s salary was set in 1998 and has not increased since then. The purchasing power of that salary has shrunk by 26 percent. Seven years ago, a special commission had recommended the increase. Then-mayor David Cohen had sought to implement the recommendation four years ago but, in the face of public outrage over expenditures for the new Newton North High School, withdrew his request. The Boston Globe reports that the Mayor is the city’s 214th highest paid employee. That’s right, 214th. The Newton School Superintendent earns a quarter of a million dollars.

Surely, action is needed. I hope the 24-member Board of Aldermen sees it that way too. Future increases, however, would be more palatable if they were more modest and at more reasonable intervals.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Off and on the course, Boston Marathon inspires

The Boston Marathon is all about tradition, and not just for the runners.

I’ve lived within walking distance of the marathon for most of my life, going back to my childhood not far from the Commonwealth Avenue route in Brighton. I remember actually watching the legendary Johnny Kelley. Later, from spots in Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston and at Channel 5’s studios I’ve marveled at the likes of Eino Oksanen, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Ibrahim Hussein, Cosmos Ndeti, Bobbi Gibb, Joan Benoit, UtaPippig, Ernst Van Dyk and Jean Driscoll. I remember when women runners were forcibly pushed out of the race and when Rosie Ruiz “beat” Jacqueline Garreau by cheating.

It’s ridiculous that the IAFF put an asterisk by the name of Geoffrey Mutai when he ran here last year the fastest marathon ever. As today’s Globe editorial correctly notes, the ups and downs of Boston are far more challenging than other courses, such as London and Berlin.

For the last 34 years, I’ve been a little over a mile’s walk from the 16.2 mile mark on Route 16 (at about the Newton-Wellesley line). And every year the event gets more inspirational.

We know the superlatives that apply to the elites, well honed running machines. But the real tradition of Boston is much more than its being the oldest annual marathon in the world and the talent it attracts.

The magic ingredient is the people on the sidelines and their special connection to the unsung standouts on the course. I love being part of the throng of spectators who cheer them on and, we think, visibly inspire the runners to pick it up a pace.

My spirit is buoyed by the engagement, especially with the wheel chair participants and those being pushed by guides, the runners with prostheses, the elderly, those nearly broken but laboring through, all responding to the cheers of the crowd. For several years, my husband and I watched with our dear friend Loretta Kowal, the former head of the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. No woman runner ever passed without hearing her cheer of “You go, girl,” even when our friend was herself succumbing to colon cancer.

Last year our grandson and some of his friends set up a table at the Quinobequin intersection of Routes 16 and 128 to sell cookies and lemonade to benefit breast cancer. This year, at that same place, we ran into UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley, there with his family to cheer on UMB folks running to benefit GoKids Boston: an initiative of the UMass Boston College of Nursing. Children’s Hospital and Dana Farber are always well represented among the runners. So many of the participants are doing the grueling run to remember a loved one or honor someone still in the struggle against disease.

It’s their individual stories that keep us going back year after year. Back to cheer, that is, and never, ever to run….not even a little.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hilary Rosen kerfuffle misses the point of Romney’s real disconnect with women

Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, a CNN commentator unaffiliated with the Obama campaign, made a dumb remark that quickly became a media obsession. Ann Romney, she asserted, shouldn’t be called on to speak about economic pressures because the former first lady of Massachusetts had “never worked a day in her life.” Anyone who ever raised children knows it’s hard work, so it was a story “with legs.”
The Romney campaign, eager to get traction with the women’s vote, was quick to respond, and the Obama campaign quickly disavowed Rosen’s remark.

At first Rosen defended her statement, trying to put it in context, explaining that she had meant to point out the difficulty of both raising children and having no choice about also working outside the home, as two thirds to three quarters of American women do.

Ann Romney raised five boys, has done volunteer work, survived breast cancer and struggles with MS. She is warm and puts the human face on her businessman, bottom-

line husband. But the real story for and about women is not Ann Romney. It’s candidate Mitt, many of whose positions and policies are inimical to a majority of women. Yes, women share men’s concern about economic uncertainty, job creation and the federal debt. But they also are extremely focused on education, health and the environment. A majority disagree with Romney’s positions on reproductive rights, contraception and stem cell research. They respond more to rhetoric about community than about rugged individualism. And they are perfectly capable of figuring out when the expected GOP nominee is twisting the facts in a blatant pitch to close the gender gap.

And therein lies the story the media should be focusing on. Romney says that women have lost more jobs than men since Obama became President, but he’s conveniently not looking at the entire recession, which began at the end of 2007. According to the Wall St. Journal,  the number of male workers to fall during the sweep of the recession was 4.6 percent; the loss of female workers was 2.7 percent.

Male workers are more heavily engaged in manufacturing and construction work, which are the first jobs to go away (not reflected in the cherry-picked numbers Mitt Romney is using). After the male-dominated industries take the hit come losses of teachers, health care workers, clerks and other support staff, traditionally women. Then follow the state and local government budget cuts, where women are also disproportionately represented.

It’s Mitt Romney’s willingness to misinterpret the jobs numbers to appear sympathetic to women that shows his lack of sensitivity and understanding of women’s economic struggles. Women are legitimately annoyed by Hillary Rosen’s inartfully dismissing Ann Romney’s creds, but women are not going to be swayed by Mitt Romney’s matinee idol looks and fictitious interpretations of the economy and what to do about it.
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lowering gas prices

It never made sense to me, but now it does. I never thought this was the time for the President to open temporarily the spigot of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve,  the world’s largest supply of emergency crude oil. Although prices were high and getting higher, there didn’t seem to be a real disruption in the oil supply. Speaking to the New England Council on April 11, Congressman Ed Markey made a cogent argument for immediate Presidential action.

According to him, a measured release can help stabilize and reduce prices, minimizing the impact of sky-high rates on our economy. George H.W. Bush released oil from the reserve in 1991 during the first Iraq War, Desert Storm; prices came down 19 percent. George W. Bush did it in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, also lowering prices. President Obama did it last June to respond to disruptions in Libya. Now, instead of war or natural disaster, we have another form of market disruption, in the form of speculation.

Traditionally 70 percent of those in the market were end users (us) and 30 percent speculators. Today that’s reversed. In fact, said Markey, “The largest single holder of home heating oil is Morgan Stanley.” That boggles the mind. Market manipulation helps explain why even though we’re producing more oil that we have since 1998 and demand is down (by nearly 2 million barrels a day over the last six years), prices are still rising.

Even the promise to release can help bring down prices and reduce incentives for speculation in the market. Prices started to come down slightly two weeks ago when Nicolas Sarkozy and even the Saudis started to talk about releasing more oil into the market. A petroleum reserve release is on the President’s table.

Real-life remedies for rampant speculation are threatened by budget politics in Washington. Budget slashers want to torch the budget for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission as well as eliminate the elements in Dodd-Frank reforms that would limit Wall Street’s power to manipulate the market. So, while Newt Gingrich promises a return to $2.50 a gallon oil (what’s he smoking?) and Mitt Romney embraces the Ryan slash-and-burn budget and wants to end Dodd Frank, these are policies that would encourage speculation that we would feel at the gas pump.

Tom Ashbrook spent a recent WBUR “On Point” segment exploring what the President can or can’t do regarding lowering oil prices. With Mitt Romney more certain than ever to be his party’s Presidential nominee, the hope is that we’ll now get a serious and full discussion of our energy policy, including a release of crude oil from the strategic petroleum reserve.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Red Sox are failing to provide much needed diversion from world events

The stock market is down over 500 points, violence is increasing in Afghanistan, North Korea seems poised to launch a rocket that could figure in its nuclear program, hate crimes in Florida and Oklahoma dominate headlines, spring gardens are threatened by unprecedented drought, opening day at Fenway is a downer! And that’s a problem.

In recent years, the opening of the baseball season has stood in stark contrast to all the terrible things happening in the economy and global geo-politics. The Red Sox prospects were always a sign of renewal. Last year they were even hailed, and not just by local press, as the best baseball team ever. Then they gave us our greatest autumn collapse ever, and this season’s opening is hinting at more of the same. This is very painful for a lifelong fan.

Globe columnist Brian McGrory says he can’t even give away his opening day tickets, while in the past anyone who has had tickets has been lucky to go, no matter how cold it is. But for Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury, there has been little to cheer. Certainly not the closers, who can’t hold onto a lead and indeed gave away wins not once but twice in the third game against Detroit. In Tuesday’s game against Toronto, manager Bobby Valentine admits to making a “dumb” decision in not bringing in Matt Albers to replace rookie Justin Thomas. The details of a decision like that are beyond my pay grade. But it does seem that management was not willing to invest in top talent during the offseason, reflecting a preference for the walking wounded headed for- or already on - the disabled list. Owner John Henry’s heart seems to have moved to his new soccer team acquisition in Liverpool.

I don’t have any choice about being a Red Sox fan. I learned at the knee of my grandmother (she had two loves, the Red Sox and the Metropolitan Opera) and, as a child, spent Saturday afternoons with her watching Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen, Jimmy Piersall. My passion was reinforced watching with my ailing father who, though increasingly frail and legally blind, was glued to the television set, cheering on Yaz. Fenway Park was a trolley car ride away from my childhood home in Brighton, and I was allowed to go there with a friend.

My husband, who loves baseball, derides my home team loyalty as rooting for laundry in an era of corporate sports, cheering for Hessians, mere hired guns who have little commitment to the community. But I can’t help myself.

So I’m reminding myself that it’s too early to feel this despondent, that being in first place at the All Star break in July is often a promise of a downward slide in late season, and that the new manager will figure out how to maximize the talent his players have. On opening day, I won’t be there, but I will watch. And I will hope that very soon the home team will provide an emotional escape from the easily more significant bad news in the world around us.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Augusta National’s all male policy: who wants your ugly green jacket anyway?

“Co-leader Couples turns back clock at Augusta” read Saturday’s Boston Globe sports section sub-headline, hailing the return to prominence of Fred Couples in the Masters golf tournament. If he wins, the good looking fellow could become the oldest ever to do it, at the “old” age of 52. Hey, I’m all for that. But never mind turning back the clock. What strikes me is the way in which the Augusta National Golf Club, which plays host to the Masters, isn’t really about turning back the clock. In one major respect, it has never moved the clock ahead.

Welcome to the 19th century. The Augusta National Golf Club does not admit women members. Not even if you’re the CEO of the company that is a principal corporate sponsor of the tournament. Virginia Rometty is CEO of IBM, its first female CEO. She plays golf, but, according to the Wall St. Journal, she prefers scuba diving. Certainly she is in a more hospitable environment 60 feet under water. A spokesman for Augusta National, is within his rights saying that club membership is a private matter. But it remains a PR disaster for the club, and, if IBM is smart, it will reconsider its corporate sponsorship as a matter of principle.

The club has offered membership to the last four IBM CEO’s, all possessing a Y chromosome. Imagine Ms. Rometty, a major corporate sponsor of the event and attending the tournament to entertain clients there but feeling like a second class citizen because the club doesn’t consider her good enough to be a member. Mitt Romney, when questioned, said Augusta National should admit women. Yes, yes, he may have said it because he’s so far behind President Obama in the women’s vote. But at least he knew what the right answer was.

Fewer than one percent of golf clubs still exclude women, according to The Daily Beast.
Pepsi, Xerox and HP also have women CEO’s. There will be more as the 21st century evolves. Augusta National may deny this evolution, but its retrograde policy isn’t just a silly relic. It’s discrimination plain and simple. It’s stupid, and it’s offensive, and it should end.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Charging Tim Cahill: too much or about time?

Most attorneys general don’t go after political corruption because acting against colleagues can translate into a dead end politically. But Martha Coakley has a new Public Integrity Division, a welcome addition. And she has the new 2009 ethics law, which criminalizes behavior previously treated civilly. Still, there are questions about whether she is being too aggressive in going after former TreasurerTim Cahill, using a cannon to kill a flea.

At issue was his using three quarters of the Lottery Commission fy 2011 advertising budget to extol the virtues of that agency in the weeks before the 2010 election, Coakley was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. If she took no action, she’d be accused of a cover-up. If she indicted him, she would be accused of excessive aggression and advancing her own political career. (Yesterday, to counter that, she made an early announcement that she’d be running for reelection, not for Governor.)

Previously what Cahill did would have come up before the state Ethics Commission, resulting only in a fine. Now, if he’s convicted, he could land behind bars.

Reporters and columnists are seeing old examples in a new light. Bill Galvin showing up in voter registration ads, Steve Grossman injected into abandoned property notices, Tom Menino’s name on Boston construction signs, Deval Patrick on highway projects. Will these have to go away as well? (Note: apparently Galvin’s ads don’t appear during an election season.) Certainly all politicians will have to be much more careful about how much they, using taxpayer dollars, inject themselves or take credit for their official accomplishments or projects.

Cahill may reasonably argue that his face and name were deliberately excluded from the Lottery commercials. He could also say that lottery ticket buyers could be turned off by disparaging ads run against the Lottery by the National Republican Governors Association during the gubernatorial campaign, when Cahill, running as an Independent, threatened to spoil things for Republican Charlie Baker.

Three Boston Globe writers have had totally different takes on the Cahill story, all three – Scot Lehigh, Brian McGrory and Joan Venocchi – worth reading.

For me, what legitimizes Coakley’s action is the trail of emails showing close collaboration between Cahill staff and his campaign consultants. Naïve? Stupid? Venal? Take your pick. Not to prosecute would give the green light to politicians of all stripes that the new ethics statute will be meaningless. Cahill may just be unlucky in being the first to be prosecuted under the new law. He should get more than a slap on the hand, more than a fine, but he is not Sal DiMasi, who got money in exchange for steering government contracts. Nor is Cahill Dianne Wilkerson, who stuffed money in her bra in exchange for regulatory consideration. Time in the slammer? House arrest? Probation? Community service? I’d like to hear from you.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Following the tuna fishermen of Gloucester

Tuna. What I ate for lunch every day in high school. What I ask for these days in sushi. And now there’s Wicked Tuna, a National Geographic series about the lives of Gloucester fishermen who pursue their livelihood in pursuit of these magnificent silvery fish. (Seeing them hooked, harpooned and decapitated might make a vegetarian out of me.) The series starts Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel and was previewed this week at the Wilbur Theatre, with many of the fishermen, friends and relatives in attendance.

The iconic images belie a troubled reality, with pressures coming for them on land and at sea. For the families involved in the pursuit, bluefin tuna are the defining element of their existence and the key to their economic survival. The series follows the struggles of five fishing boats, their captains and crews, revealing the stunning difficulty of their grueling work lives. There’s nothing high tech about the way they fish; it’s rod and reel, strength and determination. It costs about $3000 to provision a boat for a three-day outing on Georges Bank. They need to catch at least one fish just to break even, more than one if they’re small. Their language is salty, to say the least, and their anger at the elements or at each other is unconcealed. But underneath the “man talk” are a grittiness and entrepreneurial commitment to survive and succeed that is impressive.

Such stories are also the subject of a Regis College musical in April based on oral histories of the Gloucester fishermen’s wives. It will be at the college in Weston from the 11th to 14th and at the Cape Ann Theatre in Gloucester the 20th and 21st.

National Geographic’s stated goals are to tell the human stories behind the macro descriptions of the fishing industry and to educate people about the increasing scarcity of bluefin tuna. (According to its press material, the adult bluefin population has declined by as much as 83 percent in the Atlantic since 1950.) Marine biologists say it is a victim of overfishing. Governments have tried to set quotas for fish and regulate fishing methods, creating other problems for the fishermen.

But overfishing isn’t the only threat to Gloucester. Increasingly there are concerns about community gentrification and historic neighborhoods giving way to luxury development. Gloucester seems on the verge of solidifying the home of its 400-year-old fishing industry by marrying it to 21st century activities around marine innovation. It’s still a working class community, and one hopes it won’t become too precious as travelers and high rollers move in. Sadly, if gentrification goes too far, the real endangered species might turn out to be the Gloucester fishermen and families themselves.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, March 23, 2012

In gaffe lies truth: the Etch-a-Sketch blunder

As a former journalist turned communications strategist, I look at Mitt Romney’s right hand man Eric Fehrnstrom and think there but for the grace of God go I. It’s the same feeling one gets in hearing of someone deeply embarrassed by hitting the send button before realizing his or her damaging email is misdirected. Whether it’s electronic error or foot-in-mouth disease, we’ve all been there, unless we’re robots. As columnist Michael Kinsley once observed, a gaffe is someone telling the truth by accident. Or something like that.

Asked to comment on whether his candidate’s primary strategy makes running in the general election more difficult, Fehrnstrom said no, it was just a question of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch screen and resetting things. He later said he was talking about campaign tactical strategy, not message, but it was too late. The other candidates were passing out samples of the children’s staple, and noting that the statement proves the Etch-a-Sketch candidate isn’t a tried and true conservative.

These days, there’s a particular challenge for any candidate in a contested primary, having to play to the party’s activist ideological base and then pivot to appeal to the independents and moderates who vote in – and can swing - a general election. This has been especially true for Romney, who has been tarred nationally for his support of Romney-Care, arguably his single greatest accomplishment as Massachusetts governor. But he has had numerous other reversals as well, all of which President Obama will be sure to elucidate in the fall. Obama has some of his own. Think Guantanamo, unemployment and deficit targets. Are these really flip-flops, or a genuine rightward evolution of political philosophy over time?

Certainly Democrats and Independents who voted for Romney for governor hardly recognize the candidate they supported.

But the underlying truth to Fehrnstrom echoes a message my husband heard from a Romney fundraiser. The fellow was trying to persuade my husband to donate to the campaign. My husband asked “Why should I support Romney?” The answer: “Romney doesn’t really believe the things he’s saying.”

Individuals, corporations and politicians all shape their messages to optimize impact. Communications strategists help them do it. What you say and don’t say has consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unintended. Ironically, given the lopsided delegate count, Fehrnstrom’s comments may help Romney position himself in the general election, and then Fehrnstrom will be celebrated as the wizard. If not, the Etch-a-Sketch comment may go down in the annals of campaign lore along with the images of Michael Dukakis in the tank and John Kerry wind-surfing.

photo Politico
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Responding to the Darryl Williams Aftermath

Some stories never end, and too often the media let them drift from public consciousness. Not so, Brian McGrory. His moving column Wednesday  on the aftermath of the Darryl Williams shooting is a powerful reminder that some people just can’t catch a break.

Darryl was a football player from Roxbury playing for J.P. High when he was gunned down at a game in Charlestown. The year was 1979, and racial tensions in some neighborhoods were still raging in the wake of the busing uproar that started five years before. He was a good kid and a responsible student, and the shooting left him a quadriplegic. Two white teenagers were convicted, but many people wanted more in the way of revenge. Darryl’s mother, Shirley Simmons, called for prayer and peace. She gave up her job and cared for Darryl for more than 30 years, until his death at the age of 46, two years ago.

Darryl had worked as a motivational speaker, trying to replace hostility with love and compassion, but Shirley Simmons’ troubles endure. She is three months behind in her mortgage payments, and, McGrory says, the Stoneham Bank is beginning foreclosure proceedings. Are the bank’s policies so cut and dried that there’s no alternative for Simmons but homelessness? Over the years many people said they’d help, but never followed through. This woman has spent her life cleaning up after the community’s dysfunction, and lost her son to its violence. Must she give up hearth and home as well?

A fund established in Southie after the original tragedy occurred has been closed out, but there is another option. There is a Darryl Williams Fund, at The National Consortium for Academics and Sport University of Central Florida, College of Business Administration 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando, FL 32816. Checks can be made payable to The National Consortium for Academics and Sport, and write The Darryl Williams Fund in the memo space. Why Florida? You may remember Richard Lapchick, who used to run Northeastern University's Sport in Society program. He stayed close to Darryl and is working in Florida now. Lapchick told me that 100 percent of money donated will go to Shirley Simmons.

Private contributions will only go so far. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Stoneham Bank, whether for goodness or just good brand marketing, worked things out with Darryl’s mom so she could stay in her home?
Photo ESPN

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Now let’s chuck the horse race and get to the substance

Hurray for the Globe. On Monday, it analyzed the assumptions of Mitt Romney’s proposals to beef up the military till expenditures hit four percent of GDP, challenged the relevancy of his data on the number of ships and planes we have and questioned the implications of his proposed goals. On Tuesday, the paper took a sobering look at the Mittster’s proposal to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and even to eliminate coverage for preexisting conditions for 66 and 67-year-olds.
It is indeed time to downplay the horse race and look long and hard at the truths behind the policy posturing during this primary season.

Mitt may not be breaking out the champagne bottles after each primary result, but it’s pretty clear he’s on the path to the nomination. Because of the new process, with states dividing the primary votes proportionately among congressional districts, his opponents are increasingly unlikely to put together the 1144 needed to secure the nomination. Mitt’s more than halfway there, with twice as many delegates as Santorum. And, even if he loses bragging rights in one state or another, he still picks up delegates here and there so that by Memorial Day he should be pretty close to securing the nomination. So, my former colleagues across the media, how about let’s drop the incessant horse race analysis and tackle the substance of his candidacy. I know it’s easier to treat politics as entertainment, but it’s time to eat our spinach.

Early on, Romney put out a 50-some-odd-page economic plan. It got little attention. Then he proposed to cut federal income tax rates by 20 percent more for all earners, and, according to Josh Barro of Forbes, that would decimate U.S. revenue by more than $5 trillion over the next decade decade. 

The Romney campaign asserts that the red ink would be stanched by closing tax loopholes and growing the economy. Perhaps he’s got a bridge for us in Brooklyn, too. Some budget analysts warn that Romney’s plan overall would add nearly three trillion in debt over the next decade. Plus, remember his expansive view of the military. No savings there. Saying that Romney’s budget is realistic, as his campaign contends, does not make it so. It’s time for the media to press him harder on the details. While they’re at it, how about pushing him harder on how his approach will generate the jobs and growth he is promising. Closing tax loopholes and growing the economy is part of everyone’s plan, including Obama’s. But where are the details?

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mr. Smith leaves Wall Street: all hail the non-Gordon Gekko

Memo to Elizabeth Warren: wrap your arms around Greg Smith and get him to endorse your candidacy. The just departed Goldman Sachs vice president slammed the door loudly when he walked out, faulting the culture of overbearing greed at the Wall Street giant. According to Smith, everything at Goldman Sachs was about profit and nothing was about the well-being of the clients, who were referred to in a variety of disparaging ways, obviously behind their backs.

A key question is whether and to what extent Smith, a South African native (of Lithuanian Jewish heritage) and Stanford grad, had raised questions inside the firm about its contempt for its clients. If he had, his concerns still might have fallen on deaf ears. But that would make all the more understandable his dramatic op ed declaration in yesterday’s New York Times about why he was voluntarily leaving his $500,000 job. Perhaps not surprisingly, today’s Wall St. Journal dealt with the story only in a single article on how Goldman Sachs is doing damage control. Columnist David Weidner mocks Smith's apparently recent discovery about Goldman's longstanding business practices, noting "such idealism is only a priority after the profits have been booked."

Reportedly Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said a couple of years ago that the company “is doing God’s work.” He may be alone in his theology. It played a key role in the financial meltdown, partly by repackaging securities, slicing them and dicing them, selling the garbage to unsuspecting clients and then betting against them in the marketplace. Goldman Sachs has denied any wrongdoing even when a judge thought differently.

In corporate culture, Smith’s public criticism is a no-no, a sign of extreme disloyalty, which could make it difficult for him to find other employment on Wall Street. That’s the buzz in the financial media. But, if I were a Wall St. CEO and had confidence that my company performed according to high ethical standards, I might want to hire him immediately as a marketing distinction. That would send a message that a firm can have its client’s interests in the forefront and that we can, indeed, do well by doing good. Alas, that may be too much to ask.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Boston Herald struts its stuff - to good effect

It used to be a little awkward when people I know would question why I read the Boston Herald, (along with the Globe, the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and more.) The quality was often a real question mark. There were the outrageous tabloid headlines, the Rush Limbaugh-like columnist (you know who he is) and a total bias against anyone who believed in public service. It’s always had some good columnists and was aggressive following agency stories other news media would miss. But of late the Herald has upped its game.

The lively format enhances some solid journalism of the watchdog variety. It was the Herald that blew the whistle on lavish spending and closed-door decision making at the Greenway Conservancy. The paper has unearthed reams of abuses among state workers’ double and triple dipping, collecting pensions and unemployment and, in the case of some supposedly retired police officers, pay for private details. The state Labor Secretary claimed she was unaware that municipalities were upset that the review board she oversees was overturning unemployment denials by local officials. As Margery Eagan said, such lax supervision of how taxpayer money gets spent is why the rest of us can never ever retire! Or so it seems.

Reporter David Wedge has recently turned in stunning coverage of the frequency with which several dozen state workers have wrecked their taxpayer-funded state vehicles, some of them repeatedly. Happily, this prompted the Governor to promise to take the keys away from the worst offenders.

This gritty kind of journalism serves an important purpose. Optimally, it won’t so sour the public on government that it reduces support for much needed public functions. You know, the point about not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I must insert here that I appreciated when the Herald named the Winthrop hockey dad charged with pointing a laser into the mask of the goalie of the team opposing his daughter’s team. Why mince words with such a despicable act?

On the larger issues, the Herald’s effort are being noticed, not just with repeated recognition by the Newseum in D.C. for the quality of its front pages but, more significantly, by being named by Editor & Publisher magazine one of the Top 10 newspapers that “do it right” when it comes to innovation.

Of late, Boston has two very different but distinctive daily news products. We benefit from the competition. We are lucky to live in a two daily newspaper-town.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Challenging sports cheating

Bad sportsmanship by parents of high school players echoes in pro athletes’ wrongdoing. Yesterday’s Boston Globe story of a hockey dad in Winthrop ejected from a girls’ playoff game for shining a laser pointer on the ice and in the opposing goalie’s face to distract players shows how twisted parental involvement in their children’s sports activities can become. Appropriately, he was banned from future school events. What is wrong with this parent, and why did the newspaper and other news media protect his identity? Shouldn’t he be made to feel shame over trying to influence a kids’ game and jeopardizing the players?

Interscholastic sports rules prevent forfeiture or a rematch. But aren’t criminal charges of child endangerment against the miscreant a step toward justice? Sadly, the unnamed father may even now be chortling about the incident over a beer with his buddies, amused by his gambit, especially since it may have played a decisive role in helping his daughter’s team win.

While I can’t pretend to know what he was thinking, I can see a connection to another Saturday story, that of the revelation that for three years the New Orleans Saints were rewarding players with bounties when they injured opponents. According to the New York Times, players could be rewarded with $1500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1000 if the opposing player were carted off the field. Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was one victim of the injury strategy, in a January playoff game last year.

Bounties are a violation of the rules, but supposedly Saints officials knew about the player-run bounty system and did nothing. To me, it’s the same do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality displayed locally by the Winthrop hockey father, and I hope the NFL throws the book at the Saints, not only imposing stiff fines, taking away top draft picks, but also suspending the entire team for a period of time. This behavior is much more dangerous than “Spygate.”

Our sports-crazed society (and I admit to being an enthusiastic fan) is altogether too dismissive of those who don’t play by the rules, or worse. But failure to remedy problems early in the process breeds far worse patterns. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died Friday, developed a “Broken Windows” theory of community crime. He linked disorder, broken windows, and graffiti to the increased incidence of crime. Failure to do something at the early stages sends a message that no one cares. Failure to identify, shame and punish the Winthrop hockey dad sends a message that such outrageous behavior is okay. Failure to punish the New Orleans Saints team makes it easier for another team to bend and break the rules.

Whether it’s behavior in kids’ intramural sports or high stakes professional games, the fans deserve better behavior, as do the players who are out to win the game fair and square.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Snowe departure hollows out center

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe has announced she won’t run for reelection, and, as disappointing as that is, who can blame her? A thoughtful moderate, a person who can work across the aisle for the good of the country, she will not run for a fourth term. Congress is no longer working on issues, she said. The two parties are working in parallel universes.

The Senate used to be a place for moderating the ideological extremes of the House of Representatives, now made worse by redistricting patterns. Snowe's departure intensifies the hollowing out of the center.

Snowe will be turning 65 soon and apparently can no longer stomach the dysfunctionality of Washington. Certainly, it’s difficult to watch from the outside. One can only imagine what courage and determination it takes to work effectively inside that system. Snowe was a throwback to liberal/moderate Republicans of yore, like Brooke, Kuchel, Javits, Keating, Case, Percy, Goodell and Hatfield, fiscally cautious, but reformist on social issues.

Snowe, putting country ahead of party, crossed the aisle to support reproductive rights, the stimulus bill and Dodd-Frank She voted for the health care reform in the Senate Finance Committee in order to bring the bill to a vote, though she cast her vote on the floor against the final version.

The once “big tent” Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has long made its liberals pariahs, Log Cabin Republicans embarrassments and Ripon Society members quaint relics. Increasingly even its moderates like Arlen Specter, James Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee,were told they weren’t welcome, disparaged as RINO’s (Republicans in name only).

Even upstanding conservatives like Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch have faced challenges because they weren’t true believer enough. Is there any wonder that Snowe would bow out? Sadly, she is but the latest to be beaten down and driven out by the poisonous atmosphere. It will be interesting to see how she follows through on her stated desire to advance a public agenda, working from the outside.

Even though Snowe’s safe Republican seat is now up for grabs, possibly by a Democrat or even Independent former governor Angus King, it’s almost a clichéd sad commentary that the atmosphere in Washington is now so toxic for the likes of Snowe. Her announcement makes me want to reach out to her compatriot Susan Collins, also a Republican from Maine, hug her and tell her to hang in there. But then , unlike Olympia Snowe, she just voted for the Blunt Amendment and is a paler version of departing colleague . But she too is under attack from purist zealots who’ve captured the heart (if not the head) of the GOP. Have we reached the point where, like the sea wall erosion on Nantucket, once- inland property, becomes desirable waterfront?
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

GOP primaries, where a win is a loss and a loss is a win

Mitt Romney wins crucial victory. Mitt Romney regains his momentum. Mitt Romney regains foothold. Mitt Romney two for two. Santorum scares Romney in his home state. Santorum mourns what might have been in Michigan. Santorum campaign celebrates tie in Michigan. Given how well Romney did in Michigan in 2008, and how well he should have done this week, it’s faint cause for celebration that not losing it Tuesday is viewed as a win. No matter how you spin the Michigan outcome, (even with the preliminary “win” in Wednesday’s Wyoming caucuses) ,the glide path toward the nomination is not to be a smooth one for Mitt Romney.

For a brief moment, Arizona’s winner-take-all primary rules made life a little easier for the former Massachusetts governor, who walked away with the state’s 27 delegates. In Michigan, where delegates are awarded in each congressional district, Romney’s “victory” turned out to be a split with Santorum. Yesterday's caucus "win" in Wyoming isn't the final say on who the delegates will be.

So all eyes are now on next week’s Super Tuesday event, with ten states voting, and several of them far to the right of Romney, and 419 delegates up for grabs. The Washington Post has done a good job of sizing up the battlegrounds. Massachusetts is one of the ten states to go to the polls next week, but its significance pales in comparison to Ohio, which shares many similarities to Michigan in religious and economic concerns. One poll in Ohio puts Santorum 11 points ahead of Romney.
Romney has 165 delegates so far. Next is Santorum with 85; Newt has 32; Ron Paul 19. But a candidate needs 1144 to win the nomination. Seventy-six are up for grabs in Ohio next week. Sixty-six in Newt’s home state of Georgia. (Forty-one in Massachusetts). But with the slates to be divided proportionately to the congressional district votes, don’t look for a knock-out punch. This fight is going 15 rounds, and it’s not yet clear who is going to end up on the ropes….or when.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Saving the post office in an internet age

I really like George and his colleagues at my local post office. They’re helpful and friendly, and seem to know the local residents. They're an important part of the local neighborhood scene. A lot of people feel that way about their local post offices. But from a business perspective, and given economic realities, it is probably true that across the country there are many communities that have more post offices than the USPS really needs. More post offices, and more postal workers. Not in my neighborhood, of course.

There are so many post offices (38,000), Congressman Stephen Lynch told the New England Council yesterday, that we’ll run out of names for them before we run out of post offices. A Pew Research study found the public is generally satisfied with postal services (compared to its view of Congress, which, according to Lynch, is “somewhere between the Taliban and swine flu!”) However, he said, the reality is that many communities with five or six branches could get by with two to three.

Here’s the problem. Since 2008, there are 42 billion fewer pieces of mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service, mostly first class mail. The USPS keeps running up operating deficits and needs to reduce costs some $20 billion by 2015. The USPS depends for its revenues on the sale of stamps, products and services. Because of the rise of the Internet, past volume won’t come back, even when the economy rebounds.

Nowadays, we’re apt to use email than send a letter, and, instead of mailing our bill payments, we tend to use online banking. That’s a direct hit on postal service revenue. So USPS keeps raising the price of stamps, but it is clearly a losing battle.

Technology will only intensify the shrinking of the revenue base. Denmark is testing a Pitney-Bowes system for allowing customers to go online, see what mail awaits them in their local delivery hub, and check off what they want to have actually delivered. Goodbye unwanted catalogues and junk mail!

Among possible solutions to the deficit are eliminating Saturday deliveries, closing facilities, and eliminating workers. Yesterday, it was announced that the main postal annex in South Boston has just been spared, at least for now. [Note: this is a mixed blessing. There’s no telephone number to contact anyone to track mail, and packages can sit there for days before being moved to the local office.] Branches will be closed in Wareham, Waltham and Shrewsbury, North Reading and Lowell, eliminating some thousand jobs. Brockton may also be affected. “Going postal” today may mean going the way of the dodo bird.

Seventeen members of Congressman Lynch’s family are either working for or have worked for the Postal Service, so he’s been thinking about the human dimension of this for some time. Lynch notes that, while the postal service itself is drowning in red ink, the postal workers’ retirement fund actually has a surplus of about $7.5 billion. He wants to allocate about $1.5 billion for early retirement incentives for some 100,000 postal workers.

Lynch says the Tea Party probably opposes the idea because the proposal doesn’t cause enough pain and “leave enough blood on the floor.” As a journalist, I should be suspicious of any bill put forth by a politician with family ties to the particular agency. But, try as I might, I can’t find any reason why this retirement fund proposal doesn’t make sense. Care must be taken though that the money be used for workforce reduction, rather than to subsidize jobs that no longer are needed.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Romney applies himself…..again

If the four GOP candidates were running for legislator-in-chief, Rick Santorum would have won last night’s debate. But they are not, and, coming off three caucus and one primary victories plus a surge in the polls, former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum failed to present himself as commander-in-chief.

 He got mired in the arcana of Senate rules and legislative deal making to explain votes he had made. In a Tea Party era, where compromise is anathema, his willingness to “take one for the team,” which he did in voting for No Child Left Behind, is not unattractive. But his efforts to differentiate “good earmarks” from “bad earmarks” got him deeper in the legislative soup. Such explainers don’t play when the office sought depends on executive leadership. His contorted explanation of his support for Title X funding reminded me of John Kerry’s having voting for a bill before voting against it.

There’s a legislative logic to both, but hard to convey in a presidential debate format that demands simpler explanations.

Santorum’s best moment came when he attacked Mitt Romney for taking credit for balancing four budgets in Massachusetts, when that is required by state Constitution. Santorum got off the best line of the evening by noting that Mike Dukakis had balanced 12 budgets in Massachusetts, but that, he asserted, doesn’t make Dukakis qualified to be President. Surprisingly, Santorum failed to focus on Romney’s many flip-flops (or evolving positions), which are the heart of his vulnerability.

Romney came prepared to reassert himself as front-runner. His delivery was crisp, “fact packed,” and he seemed to have toned down his glassy, disingenuous smile. But the New York Times had a field day fact-checking Romney’s erroneous assertions, which he nevertheless delivered with aplomb.

It was the mostly affable elder statesman version of Newt Gingrich who showed up last night, rather than the angry, nasty individual who erupted, especially against the “liberal elite media,” in earlier debates. He did slip in one despicable remark about Obama and infanticide.  Overall, however, it was a low impact night for Newt.

Ron Paul was not even part of the debate for the first 15 minutes, occasionally got off a crowd-pleasing one liner, but is largely irrelevant, except as Romney’s corner man in attacking Santorum.

CNN's John King never mentioned the word housing, despite the severity of the crisis in Arizona.  Local voters might have wanted to hear where the candidates stood on that.

Tuesday’s results in Michigan and Arizona will show to what extent Romney’s performance – plus his lavish spending – will succeed in regaining his path toward inevitable nomination. It’s all very unexciting. He approaches the primary process as a problem-solving businessman. His passion is unconvincing. In their excellent book, The Real Romney, Globe writers Scott Helman and Michael Kranish are thorough in probing what makes him tick. It’s well worth the read, a complement to what has unfolded in the debates, the last scheduled one having been last night’s. The last chapter has yet to be written.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Will the Santorum-i-zation of Scott Brown work in Massachusetts?

A new Suffolk University/Channel 7 poll puts Senator Scott Brown nine points ahead of Democratic challenger Elizabeth Brown. But what will be the impact on the Massachusetts electorate of his recent effort to emulate Rick Santorum in the debate about exempting contraception in required health insurance plans?

The Obama Administration appeared to have put a damper on the controversy ignited by the issuance of regulations requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to offer contraception in their health insurance plans provided to employees, many of whom are not Catholic. The compromise shifts the cost from the employers to the insurers, who would save money in the long run. Sister Carol Keehan, D.C., president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, who had supported Obamacare, reportedly accepts the compromise. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not.) 

The Respect for Conscience Act filed by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, which Brown co-sponsors, would go even farther than what Santorum is embracing. The proposal -, which, as Yvonne Abraham has noted, is obviously an attempt to gut the Affordable Health Care Act,- would go beyond allowing Catholic organizations to opt out of contraception coverage. The Blunt bill would allow any employer to opt out for virtually any “moral conviction.”

So, if a woman works for a company dominated by Christian Scientists, could that company offer coverage that insures only those processes that claim to cure with prayer? As Herald columnist Margery Eagan points out, “The possibilities are endless.” The bill is so open-ended that it could conceivably permit employers’ excluding coverage for lifestyle choices, not ideal body mass indices, single motherhood or even pre-existing conditions.

Scott Brown is a personally likable guy. (So, too, were George W. Bush and Dan Quayle.) When Brown started in the Senate, he voted with the rigidly right Republican leadership 90 percent of the time. This was far higher than moderate Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who voted with their leadership 54%-56%. More recently, now running for reelection, he seems to be voting more in line with his Maine colleagues, unless, warns Lowell Sun columnist Michael Goldman, you count all-important procedural votes. Then, he calculates, Brown has been voting 74% with the GOP leadership.

Brown’s strongest selling point is that, if Republicans end up controlling the Senate (and the House), it would be good to have at least one Republican in the state’s delegation. The question Massachusetts voters have to ask themselves is what kind of senator would he be? How high a price are voters willing to pay? If “good guy” Scott Brown has another six years to serve, will he revert to his comfort zone and line up with his party leadership a preponderance of the time? Siding with Rick Santorum on the health care bill seems to be a good clue of what might lie ahead in Scott Brown’s play book.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.