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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Obama budget D.O.A.

How many trees died so the Government Printing Office could distribute all those never-to-be-implemented budget proposals put out earlier this week by the Obama Administration. Let’s face it. The Obama budget is basically dead on arrival. The Republicans are loath to agree on proposals – like infrastructure rebuilding, essential to undergird the economy - that they might have supported in the past, because it is an election year. Still less are they going to embrace items, expanded education funding, for example, that they would normally have shied away from in the first place. The President knows all this. What he has put forward is a campaign document, not dissimilar to the purpose of those government-funded newsletters that members of Congress put out on a quarterly or semi-annual basis.

He seems intent on tackling the unfairness of the tax system (e.g different rates for dividends and ordinary income) and letting at least some of the Bush tax cuts go away. That plays to his base, but he knows there’s no support in Congress for raising taxes on families earning $250,000 a year. He might have gotten more traction if the cut-off were $1 million a year, but that wouldn’t have generated as much revenue. Surely, if the Bush tax cuts were eliminated in their entirety, it would have a significant impact on the deficit, but few are advocating the long-term benefits of shared sacrifice . Given that his tax increase proposals won’t go through, the President also ensures the deficit will again be well over $1 trillion the next fiscal year, breaking his earlier naive pledge to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term.

The plan claims to cut $4milion from the deficit over the next decade, but it’s festooned with accounting gimmicks, rosy forecasts and unwarranted economic assumptions.  As I indicated after the State-of-the-Union speech, a major part of Obama’s plan to pay for new initiatives is to “take the money we will no longer be spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, use half to reduce the deficit and the other half to do nation building here at home.” The fallacy here is that we have been deficit-financing the two wars. Not making the huge expenditures there doesn’t translate into money in the bank. The money was never there in the first place, and, much as I wish him success in this and other endeavors, I am insulted that he thinks we will fall for this.

It seems that after a feckless couple of years of waffling, and trying inartfully to court a myopic and hypocritrical Congress, the President finally has decided that the time for austerity is not now and that job creation trumps deficit reduction. Reading with concern the news from Europe, I wish him and our country well.

It’s all a mess and not likely to be less so until at least after the election. Then Congress will find itself on the brink of the sequestration agreed to in last year’s debt ceiling impasse, with debt ceiling, the sequel also just over the horizon. It’s no wonder that people are turned off by politics and have such contempt for the shell games that everyone in Washington insists on playing.

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

Friday, February 3, 2012

Susan Komen Foundation blunder makes it a net loser

The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s move to eliminate its financial support of Planned Parenthood is a real losing proposition, for the people being served and for the organization’s reputation. Planned Parenthood was threatened with the loss of nearly $700,000 to expand breast examinations, and the Komen Foundation lost a huge amount of credibility.

This blunder shows that Komen Foundation executives are craven, dishonest, naïve and short-sighted. Craven, because their new policy [not providing grants to any non-profit under investigation] seemed to cave to a recent pro-life hire  and selected donors already working with the legislator who triggered this investigation of Planned Parenthood. Dishonest, because they said that abortion politics had nothing to do with their decision. Naïve, because Planned Parenthood is almost always being investigated by Congress to ensure that no federal dollars are going for abortions either here or abroad. And short-sighted, because of the potential for immediate and damaging backlash.

Donations to Planned Parenthood immediately shot up, including a quarter of a million dollars from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many donors to the Susan G. Komen fund said they’d give elsewhere.

Now the Susan G. Komen fund, apparently realizing the blatant stupidity of its move,  has just announced that it will “amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.”

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.” The announcement didn’t indicate what would be the basis of any future denials of Planned Parenthood requests for funding support.

Both organizations are concerned with women’s health, and it made sense for the Susan G. Komen to expand breast cancer screenings by tapping into the Planned Parenthood population of women seeking birth control, abortion and related women’s health services. There is clear complementarity in their missions. But,if you’re concerned about breast cancer, there are many other places to donate your money to besides the Susan G. Komen fund. And Planned Parenthood stands virtually alone in defending women’s reproductive rights. No doubt now about which of these two organizations is a better charitable investment.

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kevin White: the mayor who wanted more

No matter how much he accomplished, the late Boston Mayor Kevin White always wanted something more. His legacy is huge, from having kept the city from going up in flames following the Martin Luther King assassination, to continuing dramatically the urban renewal started under his predecessor John Collins. Look at the Quincy Market, Copley Place, Park Plaza, the Charlestown Navy Yard and more.

From a journalist’s perspective, he was very good copy, especially because in those days the Boston City Council and its colorful cast of characters were more assertive than today’s lot. And the Council and he were always at odds (except for councilor Larry DiCara.) Orchestrating big events like the Bicentennial, he wanted  people to think of Boston as a world class city, and always saw himself playing on a larger stage.

In 1970, he ran unsuccessfully for governor and stayed on as mayor. He contracted Potomac Fever in July of 1972 when George McGovern toyed with putting White on the ticket as Vice President. While White was kept hanging by a telephone, the idea was scotched by the Massachusetts delegation and Senator Ted Kennedy. Among those denying White the prize were the late Harvard economist J. Kenneth Galbraith and Congressman Bob Drinan, pictured here at the convention, who conveyed to their presidential nominee the strong anti-Kevin White feelings of his home state delegation.

The longing didn’t go away. And let’s face it: White looked even better for not having been tarnished by being part of the disastrous McGovern ticket in 1972. In 1974, He was named one of three co-chairmen of a Democratic National Committee Election Committee, a national platform and an opportunity to travel the country. (The committee included lame duck Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, whom White dismissed as an intellectual and politically savvy inferior.) But then came White’s own albatross: busing, and the question of whether he could even win reelection as mayor.

For a while in 1975, White considered running not just as a favorite son in Massachusetts, but as a credible candidate in the New Hampshire primary. He hosted the national media at the Parkman House. He courted the presidential contenders right up to the New York nominating convention. How it must have stuck in his craw that Carter won the nomination and the Presidency!

In a 1976 article written for the Boston Phoenix by Jim Barron and me, a close aide to White observed, “The presidential bug is like syphilis. It’s a social disease. Once you contract it, you can’t get it out of your blood.” After he was passed over for vice president in 1972, and passed up opportunities to organize and run for president in 1976, he still angled for a spot for vice-president. But with Carter the outsider atop the ticket, there was no way that a mayor was going to be selected for number two.

Reporters covering him during the ‘70’s noted his restlessness, his seemingly preferring Parkman House dinners with national figures to meetings in Boston’s troubled neighborhoods. By 1980, they were calling him “Kevin Deluxe” and describing his “Olympian lifestyle.” According to writer Michael Ryan, late City Councilman Fred Langone likened him to Julius Caesar. But, from the Tall Ships to entertainment in neighborhood parks, he made the people dream larger as well and even to feel better about themselves.

In my last formal interview with him, in the plush Oriental-carpeted office at Boston University where BU President John Silber had provided him a post-mayoral home, he was still Hamlet on the Charles. Standing before the window, gazing out at the Charles River, with a furrowed brow, pondering that unnamed something more.

In 1994, at an overflow reception in the Copley Plaza ballroom for the First International Congress on the Atlantic Rim, celebrating Boston’s emerging leadership as an international city, White stood quietly to the side, an attendee, a spiritual father perhaps of the idea, but no longer an active player.

In the end, Kevin Hagan White will be remembered not only by how he changed the physical landscape of downtown Boston but by the generation of young, idealistic activists who worked for him in City Hall and went on to become the next generation of political and business leaders, leaving their own imprint locally and nationally. People like BRA chief Peter Meade, p.r. powerhouses Micho Spring and George Regan, Revenue Commission Ira Jackson (who left his mark on BankBoston and across academia), Congressman Barney Frank, Transportation Secretary and father of The Big Dig Fred Salvucci, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan and many others. His legacy is huge, even if he never got to move from the Charles to the Potomac.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
1972 convention photo by Jim Barron