Friday, February 25, 2011

Public Workers' Compensation

The tax guru David Cay Johnston makes a compelling argument on the Wisconsin situation, calling out not only Wisconsin's governor Walker and Florida's governor Scott, but also the media and journalists who are not doing their homework and accurately reporting the misinformation of people like Walker and Scott.

His entire column is worth checking out and discussing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pathways to Prosperity

The following is a piece of commentary I wrote for the Denver Post - It was published Sunday in the perspective section:

Education Pathways to Prosperity

After the recent cold snap – as my neighbor’s pipes froze and my furnace shorted out – I was reminded of just how little we appreciate and how much we undervalue skilled labor in this country. When the plumber told my neighbor he was booked until two AM, and when the pipe repair exceeded $300, I wondered why schools keep pushing the college-for-all mentality. The education system should promote the trades and skilled labor as much as it does academics and bachelor’s degrees, and education at all levels should become more experiential and skill-based.

This conclusion is supported by the recently released Harvard study that concluded not all kids should go to college – or at least not a four-year university in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. The aptly titled report “Pathways to Prosperity” recommends a new direction for education reform, based on the practical needs of students and the economy. Sadly, too many education leaders don’t share this view.

Politicians and education reformers never talk about producing more plumbers or IT technicians or dental hygienists or physical therapists, just more scientists and engineers. President Obama and Bill Gates preach incessantly about the need for the United States to produce degree holders to keep up with the technological demands of a global economy. And that is certainly a noble and necessary goal. Yet, for every engineer we produce, we need hundreds, if not thousands, of skilled technicians to manufacture and repair the innovations those engineers create. Clearly, current education reform based almost entirely on standardized test scores and college degrees is the wrong direction for Colorado and for the United States.

Of the millions of jobs that will be created in the next decade, 30% of them will not require a bachelor’s degree. Many positions such as paralegals, health care technicians, registered nurses, and tech support workers need only certificates and associate degrees. Currently only 28% of Americans have a bachelor degree, and many of them are looking for work. In a study of Florida college graduates, the earnings discrepancy between two-year programs and bachelor degrees is a revelation. Five years out of school, the average trade school or community college graduate makes $47,000 per year compared to bachelor degree holders who average $36,000. School administrators, counselors, and education reformers are being disingenuous if they fail to promote this information to students and parents. By not offering advice on students’ realistic prospects for college degrees and marketable skills, schools are setting up too many kids for failure.

Europe clearly outpaces the U.S. in this area, another key point of the Harvard study. Education critics regularly tout the performance of Finland in international test scores, but they do little to promote the Finnish system. As many as 70% of Finnish students enter career training following their sophomore year of high school. In fact, elementary schools in Finland teach skills such as carpentry alongside the multiplication tables. And Finnish students only take one standardized test in their school career – it’s at the end of high school to determine university qualification. Yet, despite emphasizing skill-based education, Finland remains on the cutting edge in technology and is home to five of the world’s top global technology corporations. Clearly, they produce sufficient scientists and engineers from their top thirty percent, and they also provide sufficient skilled labor for their economy.

Colorado needs to design educational standards and goals that move beyond basic academic skills learned at desks and measured by standardized tests. For every new magnet or charter school like the Denver School of Science and Technology, Colorado districts need to offer technical education like that found at Hamilton Career Technical Center near Cincinnati, Ohio. Hamilton is winning praise for its record of producing skilled health care technicians, electricians, and mechanics, and offering viable careers to non-academic students.

Like the report “Tough Choices, Tough Times” that was the buzz in education reform several years ago, “Pathways to Prosperity” should be required reading for every education reformer in Colorado, especially members of the legislature and education committees. If Colorado truly hopes to “Race to the Top” in creating a productive education system, we must commit to redesigning our education system to produce both higher-level degrees and productive skilled labor. Hopefully, reformers like Senator Michael Johnston will move beyond his recent focus on basic skills and college attendance and begin drafting his next bill promoting practical education reforms based on building marketable skills at all levels.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin Explanation

The problems in Wisconsin are based on ignorance and ideology. It's worth looking at the data behind the alleged budget mess Wisconsin got itself into:

The Fiscal Implications of Recent Wisconsin Policy Measures

From the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, roughly analogous to the Congressional Budget Office, an assessment (p.11) that notes the tax revenue implications of three bills implemented under the current Administration:

Our estimates include the impacts of all law changes enacted in prior years and three of the January 2011 Special Session bills: (a) SS SB 2, which federalizes the treatment of health savings accounts; (b) SS AB 3, which would create an income and franchise tax deduction or credit for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin; and (c) SS AB 7, which would create an income and franchise tax deduction for businesses that increase employment in the state. SS SB 2 has been enacted into law as 2011 Act 1. The other two bills have passed both Houses of the Legislature, and the Governor has indicated that he will sign them. It is estimated that, together, these three bills will reduce general fund tax collections by $55.2 million in 2011-12 and $62.0 million in 2012-13.

This means approximately $117.2 million of any shortfall over the next two fiscal years is a direct consequence of measures that have just been implemented by the current Administration.

More on this from Forbes.

I am bothered by the blind ideology that is driving much of the change happening at the election box and legislatures nationwide. The dangers of oligarchy are far more significant in this country than tyranny ever has been. Thus, when the rights of workers are weakened as they lose economic clout, there is potential for a serious decline in national standards of living and the clout of the republic.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Workers of the World, Unite

The unrest in Wisconsin - legislative conflicts that have led Democrats to literally flee the state - is troubling for the apparent impasse it presents in an ideological battle about the rights of workers, especially public employees. There is such contempt for government right now that the average voter is not very sympathetic to the collective bargaining rights of workers - if they work for the government. The biggest problem in this Wisconsin budget battle is that the state workers have done nothing to lead to the deficit problems. Like much of our government budget issues, Wisconsin is in the hole almost entirely because of lost revenue, not expanded pay and benefits. This is a troubling and divisive issue well articulated this week by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post.

The Democrats and the state workers are willing to negotiate the benefits issues - as they should. Even if state workers are making less than the public sector - and they are - no one should be exempt from contributing to pension and benefits programs. And if it were that simple the Democrats would be back and voting. Yet, this attack on the rights of workers to collectively bargain is simply unacceptable. There has been an erosion of wages and consumer power among the middle class - including state workers - for more than two decades now. And it is accelerating.

No economic recovery is going happen in the American economy unless workers needs are reasonably addressed by employers and situations. The whole thing reminds me of the cold, heartless action of Josiah Bounderby in Dickens Hard Times when dealing with Stephen Blackpool and the organizing of "The Hands"in the factories. Despite Bounderby's portrayal of the workers as lazy bumpkins who seek to avoid work while dining on turtle soup and venison stew with their gold spoons, the average American - the average person - is always and forever looking for an honest day's wages for an honest day's work.

And that cannot be compromised.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Congressional Living Quarters

The latest stink coming out of Washington is the story of Congressmen and women using their offices in the capitol as their living quarters. Apparently, an ethics watchdog group has been criticizing this practice which representatives have been doing for years. It's no surprise considering the incredibly expensive rates around Washington and Georgetown, and I don't really blame reps like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for doing it. However, there is something unseemly and inappropriate about it as well. Yet, there is an easy fix for this problem - and it's one which could be a positive move for both parties and the area.

The Democratic and Republican parties should go on a bipartisan fund raising campaign to raise money for the construction of a 535-unit townhouse development. There would be one official residence for each member of Congress, and this would alleviate the need for them to rent in expensive areas. They would be responsible for utilities and up-keep, but there would be no rent or mortgage. Each unit could be a 2-3 bedroom which would hopefully accommodate most families, and the single location could do much to foster closer relations among Congressional members because they would be neighbors.

Additionally, this project could be a great boon to the D.C. area, as it could be located in a economically struggling area. The infusion of construction jobs and later retail neighborhood development could significantly revitalize an area of the country that is in desperate need of stimulus. The entire area could become an example of all that is possible with urban revitalization.

Think about it. I'm calling my congressmen today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

College Not For All

A new Harvard study (PDF) says American students need to begin to decide in middle school whether they want to prepare for four-year college and then a career. The alternative approach, the study says, is to begin vocational training for a job earlier.

The study is inspired by European systems of education, and its authors say too many students are graduating high school without middle-level skills that could help them land well-paying jobs as electricians, for example. About a third of jobs in the next decade won't require a four-year college education, the study says, and this program would help American kids prepare for them.

This is not surprising to anyone on the front lines of education - yet it is completely lost on all the reformers who get the press. The Obama Administration and their narrow-minded - altogether clueless - minions continue to push college for all to the exclusion of real discussion of practical education.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Morality in America

A columnist for the weekly newspaper in my community recently decried the loss of "morality" in the United States. After being offended by the nudity and sex in the movie No Strings Attached, he crafted a piece which lamented the morally upright times of 1950s America. Warning of a "moral crisis," he calls for a return to the "unified morality" of the 1940s and '50s. The following is my response:

Mort Marks validly asserts that American entertainment has become more risqué. Offended by the blatant sex in a movie he chose to see, Mort laments the loss of morality in the United States, claiming there once was a moral “unity in this country” that in the 1950s became a “triumphant decade of togetherness.” While Mort no doubt has fond memories of the ‘50s, his ideas about America’s “Golden Age” are somewhat mythical. While the post-WWII economic boom created much progress in American society, the 1950s was also a time of harsh racial segregation and persecution, not to mention the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism and an assault on Constitutional rights. These incidents could hardly be representative of a unified “togetherness.” In the “unified” utopia Mort recalls, the Civil Rights Movement and the social rebellions of the 1950s and 1960s would never have happened.

Dissent and challenges to tradition and authority have always been a part of American culture. Mort’s “Golden Age” gave us the Beat Generation whose freedom and drug use inspired the hippies of the 1960s. Marlon Brando’s rebellious film The Wild Ones came out in 1953, and James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause premiered in 1955. Clearly, all was not well in Pleasant-ville, or James Dean wouldn’t have screamed at his parents “you’re tearing me apart.” Like many of his generation, Mort may also view the 1950s as the “Golden Age” of education when young people all worked hard, respected their teachers, and knew how to behave. However, he would be naively overlooking the fact that Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read in 1953. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of disaffected, angry youth, was published two years earlier.

Mort also seems to think sexual promiscuity began with the 1960s. Yet Marilyn Monroe was a sexual icon of his age, and Playboy debuted in 1953. Hugh Hefner is clearly a member of Mort’s generation, not the “hippies of the 1960s.” Obviously, today’s open sexuality in movies and society is extreme, but it doesn’t mean America is any less moral. The 1950s was certainly a time of greater modesty, but it wasn’t more “moral.” In fact, Mort seems unaware that the Kinsey Report on the perverse sexual habits of Americans was released in 1948 and 1953. Morality is not simply about how public or private people are with their behavior.

Mort’s criticism of the “cynicism ruling America” ignores his own naïve, cynical views. As an educator I see hope and optimism in America, not a “moral crisis.” Young people may spend a lot of time on Facebook, and their fashions and entertainment may make us uneasy. Yet, they are also a tolerant and hopeful generation who volunteer and aspire to achieve college degrees at rates never seen before. I, too, worry about the lack of modesty in contemporary society. I often criticize the adult humor injected into children’s movies, and I’ve never shown my kids a Disney film. However, I also have great faith in Americans, and I’m not naïve enough to connect Robert Kennedy’s vision of moral certitude to a concern about nudity in a romantic-comedy. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing – but its weakness is its detachment from reality.