Archive for March, 2010

31
Mar
10

CN Column 04/02/10: UConn admins should take a cue from Calhoun—not on behavior, but on fiscal conservatism

“Not a dime.” That was UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun’s response to the governor’s request that state employees make voluntary concessions to help bridge the state’s budget deficit in 2009.

A reporter had asked Calhoun if he, as the highest-paid state employee in Connecticut—he makes approximately $1.6 million a year—would give anything back, as many state employees already had.

“Not a dime,” Calhoun retorted. “I’d like to retire one day. I’m getting tired.”

What could be called an abundance of fiscal caution—I call it a ridiculous assertion: as if pulling down $1.6 million a year isn’t enough leverage for one to retire early, and comfortably—is something I, for one, would like to see mirrored across UConn’s administration. If the university proper were as tight-fisted as its most prominent (and most boorish) figurehead, I’d have little to complain about.

Let me briefly disclose my bias. As a UConn alum only one-year removed from bona fide matriculation, I take news about the school rather personally. I’m pretty ambivalent about college hoops, but whenever I read anything about the school’s balance sheets, my blood really starts to boil.

In February, the UConn Board of Trustees voted to jack up tuition by 5.66 percent. Room and board fees increased as well, bringing the overall hike to almost 6 percent. OK, so the increases add up to only about $1,000 per year, per in-state student; it’s not the end of the world. The school has inflation and its own budget deficit to contend with, not to mention any number of capital improvement projects across the main campus in Storrs.

But this month, the Hartford Courant reported that tuition funds had been tapped to foot part of the bill for $35,000 worth of furniture for President Mike Hogan’s office in Gulley Hall. The overall renovations to the building were pegged at almost a half million dollars.

I’m having a really hard time reconciling the former figure. Can someone explain to me how one could conceivably spend $35,000 on office furniture (I’m serious; if you know, e-mail me). I mean how do a desk, some chairs, lounge seating and a few end tables add up to $35,000—the equivalent of room, board and tuition for more than three semesters? It truly boggles my mind.

Putting aside what is perhaps my removal from and ignorance of the fine furniture market, I’ll admit that, rationally speaking, the sum is relatively insignificant, much like the aforementioned tuition increase. The Courant also reported that two-thirds of the cost is being covered by the UConn Foundation, a private fundraiser organization.

But it’s not really about a $1,000 increase here and a $35,000 expenditure there, is it? Students and taxpayers, I’m willing to bet, aren’t so concerned about the financial impact of such expenses on the university’s bottom line. I know I’m not.

It’s really all about the message these people are sending to us sinners cutting our teeth down here in the real world, where we buy flimsy furniture at Walmart and IKEA because we can’t afford anything better; where many among us face foreclosure, unemployment and downright destitution; where even some of us who enjoyed an engaging education from one of the best state universities in the country find its administration’s actions unconscionable.

At best, the university has created a severe public relations problem for itself. At worst, it’s recklessly spending hard-earned tuition money on such amenities as, well, really expensive office furniture.

And what message did Jim Calhoun send when he flipped his lid on the reporter who asked him about givebacks to the state? Here’s what I heard:

“Hey, it’s me, Jimbo. I make $1.6 million every year. I know that some state employees who make 2 percent of that, who toil through lives of manual labor and hardship, made voluntary concessions. But not me. I want to retire someday. Yes, I know most of you are barely scraping together enough cash to foot some small part of your kids’ tuition bills, or maybe you’re a recent grad slowly suffocating under the crushing weight of tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, but none of that really matters. Don’t ask stupid questions. Let’s talk about basketball.

Am I being a little dramatic? A little too class-sensitive? Probably (you should have seen me at the time). Obviously it was Calhoun’s decision whether he wanted to give anything back. And I’m not even contesting his salary; I happen to think it’s well-deserved.

Maybe I’m just bitter because the tuition money I repay every month, at least in some small part, helps fund double-dipping faculty (yes, there are several “retired” professors who draw both a pension and direct pay for part-time work), fancy new furniture for the president and Calhoun’s salary. And sometimes I think he must get a bonus for acting like a blowhard.

What’s worse, I get occasional calls from the Alumni Association, which apparently thinks I’m in a position to donate money to the university. Want to know what I tell them?

“Not a dime.”

25
Mar
10

CN Column 03/26/10: Health care: Stick to the facts, cut the rhetoric

Well, I suppose I must eat my words. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about budget reconciliation and advised my readers to “expect lots of noise but no action” on Capitol Hill when it comes to health care reform.

I was right about the noise part; but on Sunday evening, the House of Representatives proved the 111th Congress is not so infirm as it’s seemed the past several months.

You’ve heard the news, or some form of it; I won’t inundate you with redundant details. I’ll concede I provisionally support the legislation, though as something of a political moderate, I find competing philosophical interests pulling me in different directions. The progressive in me wanted a public option and worries the bill doesn’t go far enough; the fiscal conservative in me wonders how accurate was the Congressional Budget Office’s calculation that the measure will actually significantly reduce the deficit over the next decade; and my common sense tells me the individual mandate is an onerous burden.

At any rate, I’m mostly interested in how the conservative noise machine and the GOP proper managed to so galvanize so many moderate Americans against the final legislation with blatant misinformation, which increased by orders of magnitude as the debate drew to its long-awaited close. People are inflamed and people are discontent, but more than anything else, a lot of people are somewhat oblivious to the truth of the matter.

There are dozens of entirely legitimate objections one can make to this bill, but on the whole, all I’ve seen has been a whole lot of groundless, abstract and downright paranoid bloviating about socialism and the fall of our great Republic, instead of intelligent examinations of the Constitutionality of the individual mandate, the imposition of new costs on insurers and business owners at the butt end of a deep recession (and their subsequent effects on the costs of premiums and the already-unstable job market) or the privately-negotiated deals legislators were awarded in exchange for their votes.

The Internet (or, more accurately, Facebook) was my unofficial gauge of public opinion on Sunday. Between bouts of CSPAN—where viewers were treated to the baffling, esoteric parliamentary theater of the House, replete with gavel-banging, bickering over (literally) seconds of floor time, and members’ references to one another as “the gentleman from Arkansas” or “the gentlewoman from Massachusetts”—and regular references to nytimes.com for updates, I watched as friends and family proffered their fiery opinions on the 2,000-plus-page legislation they apparently knew very little about.

I tell myself to stay away from people’s politically-charged Facebook repartee, but in many cases, I just can’t resist. Just about anything my 18-year-old brother—one of only a few conservative college freshmen I’ve ever known—posts inspires a livid response from me.

I tried to explain, in what limited capacity I command, that the bill is far more moderate than he apparently thinks; leaves us to rely on private health insurance just like we always have (thus rendering the constant comparisons to Canada obsolete); would only positively affect our deficit, at least in projections; and certainly, if nothing else, is a far cry from anything even remotely resembling a socialist agenda.

Amid accusations that the bill would allow uninhibited federal funding for abortions (false: as of the president’s promise to sign an executive order ensuring it wouldn’t, to win those last few key votes) and give illegal immigrants “free health insurance” (unequivocally false: to my understanding, no one will be getting free health insurance, least of all illegal immigrants, who are explicitly prohibited from receiving subsidies to buy insurance), he made the following rather instructive offhand admissions (original text intact): “i am deleting this post if there is one more political remark that I dont have the attention span to read” and, most importantly “I don’t even watch a lot of news, its common sense, were headed towards socialism, were passing something that the American people don’t want.” So he admits he doesn’t watch the news or have the patience to read a 200-word Facebook post, yet claims to know something about a 2,000-page bill only the best news reports (the origins of which would be altogether lost on him) have aptly summarized.

I don’t want to single my brother out. I love him to death, in spite of his shortcomings in this respect. But the kind of radical rhetorical language he casually employs and his willful disregard for the cold, hard facts are reflective of, I think, the attitudes of many of the people, especially the young people, who brazenly oppose health care legislation in its current form.

A quick look at the most popular Google searches Sunday night was telling, as well. The most popular searches when I logged on around 11 p.m. were “Tyne Daly,” an actress who was featured in a new episode of Fox’s inane “Family Guy” spinoff, “The Cleveland Show;” “GSI Commerce,” most likely because the company had been the subject of that night’s “Undercover Boss,” CBS’ feel-good corporate propaganda vehicle; and also for NCAA tourney results and Terri Schiavo. Clocking in around number eight were search terms such as “did the health care bill pass?” and “what does the health care bill mean for me?”

Putting aside for a moment the fact that people apparently are still confused about how a search engine works, it became clear to me Sunday night that generally speaking, many were rather more interested in intellectually vacuous television shows and college basketball than they were in the possibility of broad health care reform and an unprecedented, historic policy decision.

I have but one appeal to self-proclaimed opponents of the bill: Do us all a favor and turn off the TV, read a newspaper for a change and try to frame smart objections to a bill that’s so far been controversial for all the wrong reasons.

17
Mar
10

CN Column 03/19/10: Democrats take a step toward greater accountability in spending

Finally, Congressional Democrats have proposed something I can get on board with!

No, they haven’t changed lanes on health care reform. They haven’t stood up to financial industry lobbyists on regulation, nor have they come any closer to restoring the tenets of due process, protection of privacy or just law which were disintegrated during the so-called War on Terror.

No, what they’ve done is really an internal matter, hardly on par with the gravity of those unanimous concerns. Really, by comparison, it’s not much.

But legislators have taken a step toward proving to voters they’re at least superficially concerned about special interests’ influence on political discourse. They are adjusting the earmarking process, which over the last decade has increasingly aroused public suspicion of federal spending.

House Democrats swore off no-bid budget earmarks to private industry last Wednesday, thus ending, at least for them, a practice that has funneled billions in noncompetitive contracts to for-profit entities, like military and construction contractors.

It’s still unclear whether the Senate will follow House leaders’ example, but if it does, we might actually start to see a measure of honesty in federal spending.

Hell, not even the stalwart Republicans had much to say in opposition to the measure. They only tried to one-up the Dems by saying the ban should extend to public entities, in addition to profit-bearing enterprises.

In a way, I think they’re right, but not for the same reasons they do. First of all, the practice of awarding contracts without competitive bidding is the real crux of the issue. Dems should focus not solely on private-enterprise deals, but rather on disallowing any and all such noncompetitive awards, barring irregular urgency or unique services.

Allow me to frame a small-scale, hypothetical spending measure, for the sake of clarity. Humor me and suspend your disbelief for a moment with a view to the larger point.

Let’s say the federal government is in the market for a contractor to perform structural repairs to, say, a dilapidated federal courthouse (if such a thing even exists). Contractor A wants $10 million for the work. It promises to put 70 master tradesmen on the job and use the highest-quality materials. Contractor B has only 50 master carpenters, masons and electricians to put on the job and will save by using slightly cheaper materials. It’ll do it for $7.5 million. Contractor C has assigned only 10 master tradesmen to the job (let’s say the minimum required for such a project) and will employ the cheapest unskilled labor and use the lowest-grade materials. It wants $5 million.

In an honest, competitive-bid-seeking government, a public engineer assesses the details of all three bids, weighs all mitigating factors, and recommends the appropriating committee award the bid to the company he or she thinks will provide the most bang for taxpayers’ buck—and meet specifications. He’d probably recommend contractor B, judging A too cost-prohibitive and C too great a risk.

In the pay-to-play earmark culture we’ve endured for years, legislators forgo seeking competitive bids—perhaps even cutting planners and engineers out of the loop—and simply award the contract to friendly companies (also known as campaign financiers) with little to no regard for the competition.

We’re still in hypothetical world, here, so let’s say Contractor C is somehow a major donor to Sen. John Doe’s congressional campaigns, and Sen. Doe is the one inserting the earmark for the courthouse rehabilitation. The outlay of a few million bucks hardly attracts peer oversight. Sen. Doe awards the bid to contractor C without even requesting open bidding from competitors like A and B.

And it certainly doesn’t stop at relatively simple construction projects. Remember Blackwater? Well, the security contractor no longer holds a license to operate in Iraq, where it won a reputation as a group of “reckless, shoot-first guards who were not always sober and did not always stop to see who or what was hit by their bullets,” according to an October 2007 New York Times story based on an investigation conducted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Blackwater, which has since changed its name to Xe Services—ostensibly in an attempt to shake its bad rep—was accused of various crimes throughout the course of its involvement in Iraq, which I won’t detail here.

Some referred to its many foreign operatives as “mercenaries” or “guns-for-hire” and complained they were compensated much more generously than were enlisted American servicemen and women. Author Jeremy Scahill went as far as dubbing Blackwater “something of a Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration’s global war on terror.”

But more to the point: How did the company secure its lucrative government contracts? You guessed it (in this case, Blackwater may have been the only contractor legitimately able to provide large-scale private defense and security services, thus necessitating no-bid awards).

At any rate, when Democrats took control of Congress, in 2007, they made the earmarking process a matter of public record, which was the first step toward discouraging legislators from rewarding donor companies—or just plain unethical ones—noncompetitive contracts. The House has now taken the next step, by requiring competitive selection of for-profit vendors.

If the Senate keeps pace and adopts an analogous measure of its own, in the words of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wisc.), “It will be far more open and transparent than during the ‘good old days’ when a committee chairman would simply pick up the phone and instruct government agencies to fund member requests behind the scenes with no transparency, no fingerprints, and no public accountability.”

Here’s to hoping Obey is right.

10
Mar
10

CN Readers: Check out page 23

If you read the regular print edition of Citizen’s News, don’t miss my first published crossword puzzle on page 23 this Friday. I’ll be submitting a puzzle for publication every week from now on.

We might eventually find a way to embed them on the site; in the meantime, though, please feel free to send me any feedback. Did you give it shot? Is it a good addition to the paper? Is it too easy? Too hard? Want more local clues? Let me know by e-mailing bcox@mycitizensnews.com.

10
Mar
10

CN Column 03/12/10: Winter Olympics encouraged reflection on ethnicity, nationality

Well, the Olympics are over. Gone are the late-night viewing sessions of such obscure sports as curling and speed skating, and our zealous, hyper-nationalist furor has, for most of us, simmered back down to a latent bubble.

Now I’m no sports buff. But I watched plenty of Olympic programming, often purely out of either boredom or novel fascination (come on, there’s something fairly hypnotizing about curling).

One sport I followed closely was men’s ice hockey—mostly because one of my good friends, a born-and-bred American who rooted for Canada all February, wouldn’t shut up about it.

Needless to say, I found myself nestled into his rattrap apartment for the Canada-Slovakia semifinal matchup two weeks ago.

He sat with his Canadian flag draped over his shoulders, Molson in hand, excoriating every Slovakian power play (just as the rest of us repeatedly denounced his political subversion). When the Canadians took the game, 3-2, he actually startled me with his ear-splitting bellow of pure, unadulterated joy.

Somewhere within the context of our sitting in that dank man cave, drinking watery beer and watching hockey like good northerners, my friend introduced to me the concept of America as a “salad bowl,” as opposed to the “melting pot” analogy we’ve heard so many times.

After the obligatory interrogation about whether he considered himself more of a sliced red onion or a cherry tomato, I gave him the chance to explain himself.

The “salad bowl” analogy subsists on the belief that ethnic subsets of the American citizenry—Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans etc.—are in fact discrete and separate entities (i.e. the lettuce, the cabbage, the carrots and so on) which keep their original forms as they combine to populate the whole.

This model stands in contrast to the “melting pot” theory, which holds that when different metallic elements are melted in a pot, they coalesce into an alloy which has different properties than the originals. This analogy implies that there is a distinct American character with its own tenets—which was created by acquiring bits and pieces from various other cultures—as opposed to a mere mash-up of disparate parts to form a fractured totality.

My friend invoked the salad bowl model to explain, in some part, why he indentifies more closely with his French-Canadian ethnicity than with his American nationality (thus why he rooted for Canada right down to the hotly-contested U.S.-Canada gold medal game a week later). There were extenuating circumstances, such as Canada’s being on home turf and wanting to dominate in its national sport, but on the whole, my friend identifies strongly with various aspects of his ethnic heritage and not much with the country in which he lives, works and goes to school. And he’d be the first to admit it, if you asked.

But upon reflection, I’ve reached the conclusion that I subscribe more to the melting pot model, which perhaps explains why I rooted for the U.S. team, even though I’ve more French-Canadian blood than my friend can claim.

It’s undeniable that the U.S. has a distinct national character. Both models accept that; the salad as a whole has a certain flavor, just as the hybrid alloy has its own unique properties. Where they differ is on their treatment of constituent parts: the salad bowl theory assumes people who originally came from various European, African, South American or Asian nations have strictly maintained their original cultures and not influenced one another over the course of 250 years.

This is inherently and unequivocally incorrect. Not only is there the physical aspect of ethnically diverse peoples intermarrying and reproducing—there’s also the question of whether the confluence of varied cultural traditions defined, created and sustained uniquely American art, governance and societal structure. The short answer: It did.

And there’s perhaps no more powerful testament to that fact than jazz music.

Art Blakely (1919-1990), who was an influential hard bop drummer and bandleader, has been quoted putting it rather succinctly: “No America, no jazz.”

Without the marriage of West African musical traditions, like polyrhythm (the layering of various rhythms), syncopation and emphasis on so-called blues scales or blue notes; and European tonal values, harmonic structures and instrumentation, jazz as we knew it at the turn of the 20th century and beyond would never have been.

Jazz music is the only uniquely American musical style, arguably the only pure American art form, and certainly a cause for deference among would-be culture-bashers—jazz inspires reverence even in the French.

Which brings me back to my point. We are a nation of Americans—not a nation of discrete constituent ethnicities thrown together in a “salad bowl” under a common flag. We have our own distinct culture and our own unique people.

Many third-generation Americans are, ethnically speaking, mutts (I’m French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish and German, for example). We’re the results of centuries of cultural confluence and interethnic marriage. We’re byproducts of the cultural and physical “melting pot.” We’re Americans.

So let’s all root for the U.S., shall we?

03
Mar
10

CN Column 03/05/10: Health care reform debate an example of “lots of noise but no action”

Something in Washington has surely gone awry when an arcane procedural rule called “reconciliation”—a word which, by literal definition, means the reestablishment of a close relationship or friendly terms between former antagonists—is being used as a threat.

Yet that’s the reality on Capitol Hill, as President Obama has intimidated conservative dissenters to his sweeping health care reform legislation with that very parliamentary machination, under which only a 51-vote majority would be needed to block a Republican filibuster and ensure a relatively quick passage of Democrats’ health agenda.

As always, fierce voices from both sides of the aisle are simultaneously denouncing and lauding Obama’s boldness. And as always, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Reconciliation as a process was borne from the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Without getting too deep into details, let’s just say the act allows budgetary measures to be considered “under reconciliation”—meaning only a simple majority (instead of the normative 3/5 majority) is needed to block a filibuster and fast-track a bill. It was originally designed as a way to quickly bring revenues and spending into conformity with the annual budget resolution—the obvious analogue being the simple act of balancing one’s personal checkbook.

It has since evolved (or devolved) into a means by which politicians holding a party majority can undemocratically force the Congress to consider and pass controversial legislation that might be only peripherally related to the budget (Here’s an April, 2009 letter from Sen Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who basically wrote the criteria on using reconciliation, decrying its broad use) .

Between 1980 and 2008, reconciliation has been used 22 times—perhaps most notably, to pass George W. Bush’s controversial tax cuts to high-tier earners in the 2000s and Republican-led welfare reform in 1996.

The G.O.P is attempting to cast Obama’s threat as heavy-handed, overreaching, and oblivious to the gravity of the health care problem—and that very well may be—but Republican lawmakers should remember their historical support of other reconciliation measures and admit that, well, they don’t mind it so much, at least as long as they support the bill under consideration.

Writes Thomas E. Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute: “Whether reducing or increasing deficits, many of the [past] reconciliation bills made major changes in policy. Health insurance portability (COBRA), nursing home standards, expanded Medicaid eligibility, increases in the earned income tax credit, welfare reform, the state Children’s Health Insurance Program, major tax cuts and student aid reform were all enacted under reconciliation procedures.”

Mann also writes that using reconciliation on health care legislation would be rather more ambitious than some of those measures, but it also “fits a pattern used over three decades by both parties to avoid the strictures of Senate filibusters.”

Okay, so just because undemocratic procedures have a precedent doesn’t make them right. But it’s important to note that that precedent exists, and that Obama and company aren’t drawing any fresh lines in the sand (Democrats, interestingly enough, are also guilty of doublespeak on reconciliation).

It’s also important to note that the threat of reconciliation—however ironic a turn of phrase it becomes—is, at this point, nothing more than a threat.

The Democrats may shy from using the measure in an already-tough election year given that they may then appear—or opponents may subsequently frame them as—excessively partisan, graceless or coercive.

And since reconciliation is allowed only in matters directly affecting the national budget, a broad, expansive reform bill would quickly become less-than-comprehensive, and social policy issues like coverage for abortions and for immigrants would have to be trimmed.

Not to mention, writes Kaiser Health News’ Eric Pianin, “There could be technical problems as well, including questions about the timing of the measure. The congressional budget resolution on which reconciliation would be based covers five years, but most of the calculations for spending and saving in the current health overhaul are based on a 10-year horizon. Trying to marry those two timeframes could result in thorny ‘sunset’ questions about whether elements of the health reform would be phased out after five years and then need to be reauthorized by Congress.”

A friend of mine, a graduate student pursuing an advanced degree in public administration, raised another salient point: a G.O.P. filibuster could become a scapegoat for Democrats’ failure on the health care front, a failure that seems all but inevitable at this point barring the possibility of reconciliation. He also opined that if Congressional Democrats really thought reconciliation was a viable option, they probably would have used it by now.

So what are we likely to see on the health care front in coming weeks? On the one hand, the Democrats might actually invoke reconciliation and pass a spendthrift, piecemeal and impotent bill which would expire in (at most) a decade anyway, thus inspiring much ado. Or they might stay their hand and allow the G.O.P. to filibuster, in turn riling an insufferable partisan cockfight. In short, to quote the graduate student I just mentioned: “Expect lots of noise but no action.”