Archive for the 'Published CN Column' Category

21
Jul
10

CN Column 07/23/10: Pay much attention to the men behind the empty campaign slogans

A political narrative is a political narrative is a political narrative. And each one is, in the now-famous words of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, “a vapid and hollow charade.” Yes, Kagan was describing the SCOTUS nomination process and not political campaigns; then again, her nomination hearings have proven to be nothing more than venues for lawmakers to flex their rhetorical brawn even while they attempt, unsuccessfully, to dust off what might remain of their atrophied Ivy-League intellects.

Point being, those hearings—not to mention the languid committee interrogations of popular anti-heroes like BP CEO Tony Haywood and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein—are echo chambers and nothing more. Empty, meaningless stageplays, just like every political narrative that sweeps voters into an ideological tizzy each election cycle.

Petty abstractions about hope and change won voters’ hearts in 2008; many argue the prevalent anti-establishment, conservative popular mood, laced though it may be in some cases with ire, fear and disillusionment, will win out in 2010, and again, ultimately, in 2012—the reprisal of 1994’s “Gingrich Revolution,” and then some.

I’m not so sure, but we’ll see.

One thing is for sure: I’m quite dumbstruck, as election season heats up, by the inanity of some candidates’ campaign platforms—vague and insipid by necessity, perhaps, but vague and insipid nonetheless.

Last week, Tom Foley, prospective Republican gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut, sat in for an interview with WNPR’s John Dankosky on “Where We Live.” Dankosky took Foley to task, demanding specifics—getting none, of course—challenging the former ambassador’s often flimsy presumptions and presiding over a healthy public forum with callers.

Foley presumes the state’s budget crisis will be solved by slashing spending, not by coaxing more revenues into state coffers. He may be right when he contends Connecticut’s government is rife with “wasteful or duplicate spending’—though, of course, when asked, Foley could single out no concrete example of said wasteful or duplicate spending. What a surprise.

And I had to laugh out loud when a caller lamented the records of Connecticut’s recent GOP governors and started to say, “If I have to listen to one more Republican making the same stupid, vague …” before the host cut him off.

Foley also appears to nurture a bit of a selective memory about the John Rowland scandal, and seems quite content with the increasing trend toward wealthy candidates (like himself) spending their way onto party tickets—both stories for another day.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest Republicans are the only ones guilty of ambiguity on the campaign trail, or the only ones making vacuous suggestions along the way. In fact, if I may channel the aforementioned caller, I’ll put it bluntly: If I have to hear one more empty suit making the same stupid, vague appeals to that oh-so-subtle thing called “common sense”—arguably the scarcest commodity in the statehouse and Washington D.C.—and “efficiency,” I’m going to start banging my head against a wall and not stop until I’m the president.

Anyhow.

Look at hopeful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont, who seems confident the best way to close a $4 billion state budget gap is to sit in a room and, uh, negotiate cordially with, you know, um, unspecified stakeholders.

Interesting theory, Ned. Maybe after you secure tough concessions from the Connecticut Education Association, one of your endorsers, simply by having a nice, friendly powwow, its leaders will buy you a banana split with rainbow sprinkles made from real rainbows (mmm!), it will start raining $1,000 bills and all the nebulous pillow-talk about “fundamentally reforming government” will actually mean something.

That will be the day, but I digress.

I’ll also point out, for the record, that Lamont seemingly lacks the fortitude to face his closest contender for the nomination, Dan Malloy—a candidate with superior experience who has been endorsed by the Democratic state convention—in a televised debate. Lamont claims he doesn’t want to get sidetracked from his avowed goal of meeting more people.

Right.

To be fair, he also decried the format of a moderated debate as one that results in “one-minute sound bites,” noting that such remarks are “not very revealing.” Maybe so, but I’d bet my last dollar they’d be more revealing than the platitudes Lamont and every other politician on God’s green earth spews relentlessly in their campaign ads.

It seems everyone has his or her own “plan” with a view to healing the economy, creating jobs and restoring the quality of life in Connecticut and, indeed, in America. The inconvenient truth each one seems to leave out is that it’s all a crapshoot anyway; none of them actually has a plan with any substance, and even if he did, he’d never get the chance to set it in motion because every force—every special interest, every crooked suit and every hopelessly bloated, bureaucratic committee and subcommittee and sub-subcommittee festering in a liminal state of inertia—is acting against him.

I spoke earlier about the disillusionment of the populist movement sweeping the nation, and I now realize I sound quite cynical myself. Lest I seem like a hypocrite, I’ll submit I’m not entirely disenchanted. Not quite yet.

I still have hope for our future; I just know something has to change, and in a big way—not just from left to right, but from backward and inside-out to forward and rightside-in.

And my gut—yes, my common sense, because down here on planet Earth we still have some of that left—tells me that “vapid and hollow” political narratives will never right our foundering ship.

20
May
10

CN Column 05/21/10: Blumenthal’s ‘misplaced words’

Note: This week’s column is relatively short due to space constraints in the paper and the fact that I’m too lazy to add anything to it for the web.

Well, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has dug his own grave in the race for Chris Dodd’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

The New York Times nailed the coffin shut  Tuesday, when it reported that the popular Democrat had lied about, or at least exaggerated, his military service during the Vietnam conflict.

As the Times reports (and he has not contested), Blumenthal sought and obtained at least five military deferments between 1965 and 1970 and “took repeated steps to avoid going to war.” He eventually served in the Marine Corps Reserve, but his service there never took him beyond the East Coast.

Yet he told a Norwalk audience in 2008, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam. …” Speaking in Shelton, he directly implied he had toured the country and was dishonored upon his return: “I served during the Vietnam era. I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”

In the former, his words cannot be misinterpreted. “I served in Vietnam” means “I was in country during the conflict.” The latter is a little fuzzier; he did serve in the Vietnam era, and probably does remember the taunts, insults and abuse—from watching the news.
Of course the implication was that he was subject to that abuse when he returned to the U.S., after a tour of duty, which is more than likely patently untrue.

Blumenthal’s campaign responded that he’d always been “consistent, honest and clear” about his military service, citing a March debate in which he was, indeed, honest and clear about it.

But his official statements matter little in the face of what appears to be widespread and intentional misrepresentation to voters at speaking engagements.

Still more disturbing, and more telling to what I deem his intentional deception, is the ubiquity of press reports—among them, stories in the Connecticut Post, the New Haven Register and Slate—erroneously referring to Blumenthal as a “Vietnam veteran,” and his apparent unwillingness to correct them.

His defense, of course, is that he’s not responsible for newspapers’ errors and that he doesn’t read everything that’s written about him, so how can he be expected to correct all of the mistakes?

While it’s true that no one is responsible for newspapers’ errors except the papers themselves, I have a hard time believing that he didn’t read the press coverage of his public engagements from two papers that are among the largest in the state, nevermind the feature in Slate, a national magazine. Simple phone calls to the editors of those publications would have resulted in quick corrections.

You see, most publishers, like most Americans, and unlike Blumenthal,  understand that military service is hallowed ground. They don’t take it lightly.

I respect and honor the time Blumenthal did serve as a reservist. At the same time, I am offended by his “misplaced words,” though not entirely suprised that another slick politician has been trying to pull the wool over our eyes. And the last thing we need is another ambiguous dealer of snake oil and dishonesty in our Congress.

06
May
10

CN Column 05/07/10: Union bears some responsibility for deficit

Several months ago, my girlfriend came home from her classes—she is working toward a master’s degree in elementary education—with a survey she was charged with administering to a few people nominally unattached to the public education system.

I don’t remember precisely what the questions were, but they were mostly about people’s perceptions of public school teachers.

My initial, emotional response, after a long couple weeks covering the school system here in Naugatuck, back when the Board of Education was struggling to adopt an operating budget for the current fiscal year, largely reflected my generic opinion of unionized public employees in general—and mirrored the sentiments I’ve long heard purveyed by my father, a staunch conservative.

“Yeah, I should have been a teacher,” I remember saying (those exact words I’ve heard my father say at least a dozen times). “I’d like to be guaranteed a raise every year, work seven hours a day for 40 weeks out of the year and lock in a tenure-track position with an all-but-assured—and potentially juicy—taxpayer-funded pension waiting for me at the end of the line.”

Yes, I’m paraphrasing, and yes, my understanding of the issue has become somewhat more nuanced since then. I also imagine Stephanie, my girlfriend, got out of me exactly what her instructor was looking for, and he or she probably went on to tell her how and why I was completely wrong.

And wrong I may have been, but certainly the attitude I exhibited at the time is one I’ve seen echoed among residents and town officials as budget season draws to (I hope) its close. I also will submit I said all that before the teachers’ union agreed to a concessions package amounting to more than $500,000 in savings in the middle of a school year, which I deemed a generous move, though it wasn’t worth every dime the school board had hoped for.

At any rate, take, for example, Burgess Bob Neth’s comments at a budget review Monday (see story here). He asserted the teachers in Naugatuck haven’t taken a pay freeze in any of the 20 years he’s been involved in town politics, and issued an irate screed wondering why the school board hadn’t asked them to do just that for the coming fiscal year.

To my understanding, the school board agreed, as part of this year’s concessions deal, to make a “good-faith effort” to avoid asking for concessions until the teachers’ contract expires in 2012. Certainly, I’d like to see that agreement honored.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that while 14 percent of teaching positions are being eliminated in 2010-11 (through early retirements, attrition and layoffs), the other 86 percent of teachers, who received a 3.25 percent pay increase this year, will get a 2.25 percent bump in 2010-11 and enjoy another 2.5 percent in 2011-12.

Seems to me the union would have agreed to a pay freeze, had its members truly wanted to save positions and preserve education—and if they really “don’t do it for the money.”

Hey, I work for my money to. I like my job, just the same as most local educators seem to. But we all work for a paycheck above all else, and to fulfill the ideals of a profession is to enjoy a personal and moral benefit.

So don’t kick and scream about possible cuts to teaching positions, if you won’t negotiate a zero-percent pay increase—especially when you know the borough is trying to freeze its budget for the third consecutive year, in the face of rising insurance and utility costs. No one wants to see cuts, especially cuts that will affect the educational program, but the general sentiment seems to be taxpayers can’t afford to keep pace with the ballooning cost of education in town.

It’s easy to demonize the school board, the superintendent and the borough financiers of the school system as the roots of the problem here in Naugatuck (while lionizing borough teachers, who do a fine job, as far as I can tell), but I’m inclined to look at the whole picture. Was there a lack of oversight on the school board’s and the superintendent’s part? Probably. Should the borough cease taking such a hard line on a zero-percent budget? I think there are arguments to be made that it could and should, just as there are valid arguments that it needs to hold the line. But organized labor is one big factor that is too-often overlooked.

And while I don’t have as strong an opinion of unionized employees as the editorial board at the Waterbury Republican-American, our parent paper, which recently referred to borough teachers as “The Confederacy of Greed”—a charge to which Charley Marenghi, the Naugatuck Teachers’ League Vice President and spokesman, responded thoughtfully and fairly—I am inclined to believe that organized labor bears as much blame as town officials for the school system’s financial woes.

To be clear, I applaud the teachers for making concessions to help the school board through this year’s budget. I think, as Marenghi wrote, they took a “proactive, progressive and cooperative” approach.

But to claim they have nothing to do with crippling budget deficits—which are, basically, the results of rising costs and frozen revenues—when educators’ union-bargained raises are a chief cause of said rising costs, is fairly ridiculous. The only ones who have nothing to do with budget deficits are the students.

I claim neither that all unionized workers are greedy, nor that all teachers personally agree with their union’s stance. I also have come to understand that a teacher’s life is far from an easy life.

But I do claim that teachers could save some of their colleagues’ jobs, if they were to sacrifice their raises in 2010-11, which will cost between $700,000 and $800,000. I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about a $200,000 savings, which could potentially be realized through a school closing, saving jobs.

I’m just saying, taking a zero-percent would save jobs too—and more of them.

21
Apr
10

CN Column 04/23/10: Political dichotomy an illusion

A couple weeks ago, I was sharply critical of the GOP, citing a poll that revealed, as I wrote, “the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.”

That column proved to be the most controversial I’ve yet written for publication here at Citizen’s News; it inspired a few objecting e-mails and at least one unreasonable phone call. Even Callum, my editor, agreed it was “one of [my] more pointed” pieces.

But the responses I’ve received illustrate, to some extent, one of the myriad problems with two-party politics in this country. To many, it seems, criticism of the conservative message or the Republicans automatically equates to unequivocal support for liberal ideas and ideals, and by default makes people like me seem like shills for the Democratic party. It may go both ways, but I’m not so sure; I’ve never gotten feedback about more conservative columns accusing me of being a GOP panderer.

Let me take a moment to say I truly appreciate any and all responses to my opinion writing, and I try to take the time to respond personally to those who take the time to write me. I’m always glad to engage readers in a conversation or e-mail exchange, regardless of whether they agree with me.

But on a few occasions, and especially on this one, I’ve been accused of being too liberal—one reader even called Callum several weeks ago to complain I’m too much of a “bleeding-heart.” Readers seem to believe that because I think the conservative movement’s rhetoric is going, or has already gone too far means I’m a Democrat, a liberal, a bleeding-heart, or what-have-you.

Although I like to think I make my stances sufficiently clear, I’d like to set the record straight to those of you who read my column and shake your head, writing me off as just another liberal media hack.

First of all: I stand for no ideology. I am not affiliated with any political party at the local, state or federal level. I am not a “party person.” I vote independently, and yes, I vote.

I do believe in nurturing a “marketplace of ideas” in the media, not to mention in political forums and in citizens’ everyday lives. I believe this marketplace could—and should—be devoid of hyper-partisan rhetoric, personal aspersions and assumption-making.

I believe if we must have two parties in this country, as appears to be the case, we need two healthy, high-functioning parties that can make equally compelling cases to independents. We need two parties with clear leaders whom everyone can at least respect—something we have in neither major party at this point. We need two parties that can respect each other as much as both claim to respect the American people.

I believe voters should judge issues on their own merits and according to personal values. I believe criticism of one thing is not the same as support for its perceived opposite, and by the same token, I believe that very diametric opposition is nothing more than a calculated illusion.

I do not believe in the political dichotomy we’ve all been fed by Washington bureaucrats and the media. I believe people’s opinions, like my own, manifest themselves across a wide spectrum of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. I do not believe in left and right.

That being said, I implore those of you who are good enough to read my columns to bear in mind that I, like you, believe in liberty, justice and freedom from oppression. I believe in the United States just like every “real American” out there. You don’t need to “take the country back” from people like me. The country is ours to share, and I think we’d all be better off if we tried to explore issues sans the talking points and platitudes.

Do I have liberal tendencies? Yes. I’m 22 years old. I just graduated from college, for God’s sake. I watch HBO, PBS and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; read the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Harper’s Magazine; and listen to college radio and NPR—bastions of the so-called liberal media, all. I have a bumper sticker quoting Kurt Vonnegut on my car, listen to Bob Dylan and am the proud owner of several wantonly ironic T-shirts. Give me a break.

But I was far more liberal a year ago than I am now. Several months fully engaged and entrenched in local politics and budget issues makes one immediately cognizant of the fact that fiscal conservatism is really the only spending philosophy that makes any sense. I opposed the bailouts under Bush and Obama, just as I oppose our foreign wars.

I believe small businesses should be given as many tax and regulatory breaks as possible; but big businesses, especially banks, insurers and trading firms, have proven they need to be monitored and policed. Conversely, I believe the banks shouldn’t enjoy a government safety net funded by tax dollars.

I believe in people’s freedom to do what they will with their own bodies at the counsel of their doctor and in their own homes, and I believe all people who pay taxes—and even many who don’t—deserve equal access to health care in a fully-developed nation like ours. I believe the government could and should play a role in ensuring it.

I’m just another guy who has a lot of opinions. The only difference between you and me is that I have a platform from which to disseminate them. So if you feel differently or have a cohesive counterargument, let’s talk. I’m a good listener.

15
Apr
10

CN Column 04/16/10: Fee hike will discourage park use

I love the Connecticut state park system. As I mentioned in passing in a previous column, I spent a summer working as a landscaper and maintainer at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford, West Rock Ridge State Park on the border of Hamden and New Haven and various smaller, satellite boat launches and pull-offs in adjoining towns.

While cleaning up after litterbug park visitors was not my favorite part of the job, the seasonal position was a suitable crash course about where nearby outdoor recreation opportunities were to be had. And if you’re not aware, there are dozens—for example, a network of variably difficult hiking trails leading to a breathtaking vista overlooking New Haven County at Sleeping Giant, a quaint lakefront beach and excellent trout fishing at Wharton Brook and precarious but rewarding bluff-side trails at West Rock.

And I couldn’t count on both hands the number of fond memories I have of stoking campfires, washing down burgers and dogs with cold suds and fishing—and all in good company—at Kettletown State Park in Southbury or Hammonassett State Park in Madison.

Were you to ask anyone who knew me circa 2005, he’d affirm that I was indeed the in-house master fisherman of what motley crew of half-cocked sportsmen I could cull on any given Saturday. Or Sunday. … Nevermind. Any day. I was the one who stocked the tackle box, researched angling strategies, cut the bait (and applied it to the hook, in at least one case), maintained the gear, wrangled innumerable lures from trees and underwater snags and led the gang through an ongoing flirtation with surfcasting (which, if you didn’t know, is better than you’d expect along Long Island Sound).

These things used to be cheap. I mean really cheap. The parks only charge for parking on weekends, and at many it’s no secret that visitors can park outside of them and walk in for free. I also happen to know that at least half the time, if you claim to have no money (in my case, it was normally less of a claim and more of a sad reality) and not know there’s a parking fee, most attendants will let you in anyway—especially if you have a canoe lashed to your vehicle.

A freshwater fishing license then cost $20. Saltwater fishing required no license at all.

Camping, to my recollection, then cost between $12 and $20 per site, per night for up to four people, depending on the park. Yes, that meant an outlay of $3-5 per guy. Even the most cash-strapped among my friends could usually scrape it together. Add to that the cost of food, charcoal, drinks, firewood, gas for the trip etc. and I think it’s safe to say anyone could have had a pretty damn good night for about $25.

Comparatively speaking, movie tickets now cost between $10 and $15, and that’s good for only 90 minutes of entertainment. Add to that a snack from the concession counter and … well, you know that’s a racket. A night of bowling is no cheaper, especially if you play more than one or two games. A few drinks at the bar? Forget that noise.

Nothing really beats the relaxation that can be the byproduct of a night or two out in the woods—close enough to a car and a grocery store to enjoy some convenience, but far enough from your digital life to dampen the constant, Internet- and cable-news-induced headache. Car camping is a great way to connect with family and friends in an organic setting without taking out a second mortgage or scaring the kids with the prospect of complete disconnection. It’s a hobby that pays dividends.

My love for this quasi-outdoorsy recreation (I do like real camping, too; it’s just more of a logistical challenge and thus not as leisurely, at least to me) is the prime reason I found myself quite enraged last October when the state announced the Department of Environmental Protection would increase all fees related to recreation. Everything that had been assessed at less than $150 is now doubled. That means a fishing license will run you $40 (opening day for trout fishing is Saturday). A campsite for a night will run you anywhere between $25 and $40 a night. Parking fees, reservation fees for said campsites, rentals of facilities like picnic pavilions and admission to state park museums have all increased, as well.

The reason for the increase is obvious: The state is trying to make ends meet.

But is it really fair to even further discourage the recreational use of our beautiful public lands? Wouldn’t we all like to see more kids and families recreating outdoors instead of playing video games or watching TV?

The state’s budget is wracked by what many are now calling the Great Recession. That much goes without saying. But legislators should take notice that people, like governments, are also struggling, and a lot of people will be looking to vacation and recreate on the cheap this summer. Camping at state parks has always been a great way to do that.

It is still cheaper, nightly, to rent campsites in the park system than it is to stay in a hotel. But not by quite as much.

07
Apr
10

CN Column 04/09/10: Republicans should recognize that “change” can be a buzzword for their party, too

“Change.” It was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s transformative presidential campaign. It was the rationale that summoned Congressional Democrats’ harried last-ditch push for a comprehensive health care overhaul—which ended up being less than comprehensive and only nominally change-ey (not to mention opposed by a consistent majority of Americans in most polls). And it was the very prospect of said “change” that got conservative leaders spitting venomous, hyperbolic rhetoric and drumming up all kinds of anti-Obama, anti-entitlement and anti-establishment sentiment.

But hey, this is how two-party politics works. Those in power push their agenda, and the opposition tries everything in its power to grind the machine to a halt. It’s really nothing new. Right?

Well, to a certain extent that’s the truth. But it’s reached a new level.

Far more concerning than polls which show Obamacare may never win broad voter support is a new poll that reveals the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.

According to the study, 67 percent of self-avowed Republicans (and 40 percent of Americans overall) believe Obama is a socialist. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) believe Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president”; 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did.”

Perhaps the most ominous finding: 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say Obama “may be the Antichrist.”

Pretty stunning, no?

But it should come as no surprise that this pathological hatred of the nation’s top elected official—which, ironically, masquerades as patriotism and good American citizenship—has taken root, and even verged on threats of violence toward Democrats in Washington.

Leaders of America’s right have stoked the fire of dissent into the inferno we are now witnessing. And they did so with little to no regard for the consequences.

Take, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s comments on the eve of the historic health care vote: The bill’s passage will result in “Armageddon,” he said, and “ruin the country.” Holy crap! Armageddon?? The End of Days?! Grab the kids, fire up the gas generator and get into the fallout shelter; it’s going to be raining ash soon enough!

“For most of the 20th century, people fled the ghosts of communist dictators and … with passage of this bill, they will haunt Americans for generations,” said Devin Nunes, the California Republican, on the House floor that day. “Your multitrillion-dollar health care bill continues the failed Soviet socialist experiment. It gives the federal government absolute control over health care in America … Today Democrats in this House will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.”

Yes, because the elected leader of our free republic has so many things in common with a former Soviet dictator. Get a grip.

Then there’s Sarah Palin, who, while not a bona fide Republican leader—seeing as she has shirked her governance responsibilities in Alaska to pursue a career pandering feel-good patriotic platitudes on Fox News—still holds the largely extreme right-wing Tea Party protestors under her sway. After the health care vote, she posted a militant propaganda piece on her Facebook page: a map of the U.S. with health care yea-voters’ locations identified by cross-hair gun sights. She implored her fellow patriots not to “retreat,” but to “RELOAD!”  Now that’s what I call responsible leadership. (EDIT: Palin appears to have since changed the wording of her appeal to “Don’t get demoralized. Get organized!”)

Conservatives who object to the president’s agenda for reasons not steeped in misinformation, hatred bordering on violence or latent (or explicit) racism should disassociate themselves from the Glenn Beck acolytes, the costumed crazies who contribute nothing to intelligent discourse and, most importantly, from their party’s national leadership, many of whom have chosen to adopt the ludicrous apocalyptic tone propagated by protestors and, often, the conservative media.

Change absolutely must become a GOP selling point if the party truly wishes to repeat the 1994 Republican Revolution in 2010’s midterm elections.

Conservative constituents and activists can institute that much-needed change by excising the bad apples from the Republican Party—by removing the Boehners, Nuneses and Michael Steeles from positions of prestige and influence. They can disinfect their partisan rhetoric and focus on the values that make conservatism—and, by association, conservative candidates—appealing to independent voters and moderate thinkers.

Their national committee can stop spending its money faster than it can solicit donations—and stop patronizing bondage-themed Hollywood strip clubs.

As an aside, I must point out that the Republican National Convention can spend a million bucks a day on strippers and booze, for all I care. That’s why I don’t donate.

But nothing says family values like blowing a couple G’s at a strip club, right? That just can’t ring true for social conservatives or the religious right, who comprise a sizable chunk of the GOP’s voting base.

Anyway, it’s becoming increasingly clear that conservatives need to change their message—and their manner of delivering it—if they want to change Washington. And they can start by leaving Palin to the wing-nuts (that means you, John McCain), getting rid of Steele and finding some smart leadership. Maybe in the process the GOP can forge a new identity that makes sense to moderates and independents. I sure hope that proves to be the case.

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.”