Monday, December 19, 2011

Republican Poverty: Lack of Empathy

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works…. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.” – Newt Gingrich, Republican candidate for President

Blaming the poor for their poverty is Republican dogma. Herman Caine, before allegations of sexual harassment and a thirteen-year affair derailed his presidential campaign, suggested the unemployed in America shouldn’t blame the Wall Street collapse and the resulting weak economy, saying “if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself.” Romney says the solution to poverty is to stop taxing and regulating businesses. Of course, common sense and experience tell us that serves to make the rich richer and the rest of us at risk from greedy or unscrupulous businessmen.

Most of those doing well in our country come from middle class or wealthy families. The advantage of growing up in a home where physical needs are met, health care is insured, children have exposure to books, learning, and travel, etc. is well established.

Nearly 60% of Americans will live below the poverty line for at least a year between the ages of twenty-five and seventy-five. I spent my twenties in that category because of my choices: dropping out of college to work temporary labor jobs as needed. I chose poverty in protest of the Vietnam War, reasoning that if I did not earn much money, I would not pay taxes to support it. I remained poor through my twenties as I sought to become self-sufficient in rural West Virginia and develop as a professional musician. When I decided to seek work that would offer better pay and job security, I went back to college, taking advantage of our tax-payer subsidized state college system. It was the advantage of a middle class upbringing, including public education which moved me from poverty to the middle class as a teacher.

Most families living in poverty in the U.S. are single parent families, women and their children. Many young mothers become pregnant because of the lack of family planning education or services or because they do not see a possibility of fulfillment except as a mother. Many fall into poverty after divorce.  Forty percent of African-American and thirty percent of white and Hispanic single parent families are living below the poverty line. “Working poor” and low-income working households may constitute nearly 30% of American working families. Does anyone doubt that the Great Recession, with the loss of millions of jobs and the foreclosures of millions of homes, has forced millions of Americans into poverty?

Tone-deaf Republican lawmakers who resist efforts to extend unemployment compensation, mortgage foreclosure mitigation, and infrastructure spending to put Americans back to work are fond of claiming that stimulus spending has not worked. But without it, millions more would be jobless, homeless, and experiencing poverty through no fault of their own.

To be fair to Gingrich, generational poverty exists. As a West Virginia teacher, I have many times heard the expression, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” to describe the cycle in which children of parents who lack education, intelligence, skills, or motivation to work in other than minimum wage jobs often seem destined for the same fate. They lack the ability to catch up with peers who entered school with more skills and the support of better-educated families.

Gingrich suggested students should be paid to replace school custodians to teach the benefit of a job. He is apparently not aware of the many students who already work in fast food restaurants to help support their families and end up dropping out of school because they can’t keep up both work and school. He must not be aware of successful programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is transforming lives and ending generational poverty through cradle to college support of family and community.

During the Great Depression, rampant speculation crashed Wall Street, broke the banks, and millions upon millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes, experiencing devastating poverty. Thanks to the social welfare programs passed in response such as unemployment compensation, Social Security, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid the effects of subsequent recessions for many poor and middle class families is reduced. And thanks to President Obama and Democrats who passed the stimulus (ARRA) and rescued the automobile industry, the economy did not continue its slide into a full depression, and millions of jobs have been saved or produced. Unfortunately, a modern economy requires growth in the range of 3% or more to create enough jobs and we are not there yet. Many economists have called for renewed stimulus spending on infrastructure, but Republicans refuse to budge on taxes on the wealthy to fund it. Instead they focus on reducing deficits which has resulted in massive job loss in the public sector.

I’ve taken the liberty to revise Newt’s words: Really rich people and politicians who cater to the so-called “job creators” have no idea what it means to struggle to make a living.  So they literally have no concept of how hard poor and middle class people work to feed their families and pay the rent. They have no sense of shared sacrifice in hard times or that their fellow Americans want nothing more than a good job, a decent place to live, and the knowledge that an illness or downturn in the job market will not send them into poverty.

We can’t let the current crop of Republicans take us back to the era where each must fend for him or herself. Few people in America choose to be poor as I once did. Good jobs, good schools, and programs to intervene to break the cycle of poverty will bring people out of poverty and into the middle class. Fair taxation will help pay for it. A healthy economy such as we had under Clinton will generate surpluses to pay off our debt.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Grumpy Old Man’s Minutes Expire

Did you ever wonder when you were going to get your fifteen minutes of fame? I have. And I’ll bet Andy Rooney did, too, before he got his. During his life, he enjoyed a full sixty minutes of it. Now that his time has run out, does that mean it’s my time?

I’m feeling a little grumpy. Perhaps it’s because Andy’s gone. Listen closely, and maybe you’ll hear his voice whispering in my ear. 

It bugged the heck out of me when I heard someone on CNN say that Andy Rooney was the nicest and most hard working man in the world. Do you ever wonder why people feel like they have to talk so glowingly of the dead? I mean, how hard could it be to write one five minute essay a week about half the weeks in a year? C’mon. I work all day in an elementary school, and then I write essays after work or on weekends. I’ve always suspected Andy was just as much of a curmudgeon as his essays make him out to be. He was a writer, after all, and writing has a way of bringing the truth out of people—well, some people. After all, somebody has to write all those lies politicians who disagree with me are always telling.

I met him in an airplane once. He would have denied it. He did deny it. We were on the same flight flying into Atlanta. He was sitting a couple rows behind me in coach, wearing a baseball cap. The tell-tale eyebrows told all.

Why do we have the urge to say something to famous people or ask them for autographs if we have the opportunity? I was eating at a good seafood restaurant in Charleston, WV once and saw Ed Bradley, also of “60 Minutes” fame, eating dinner with someone. He was in town for a big story, I forget which one, but I’ll bet they used the word hardscrabble in it. They always do when talking about our lush, verdant state. I found a scrap of paper, walked to his table, and told him something inane about enjoying his work. Then I asked for his autograph. He graciously signed and I returned to my table, feeling somewhat embarrassed for interrupting his dinner. I wondered why I’d asked for the autograph; I don’t collect autographs.

On the plane, I told my wife to look back and confirm that it was Andy Rooney. She thought it probably was, but how are you going to know for sure unless you ask? So after we landed I waited as he shuffled up the aisle (this was only a year or so ago), and I asked him, “Are you Andy Rooney?” He scowled, just like Andy Rooney would, and gruffly replied, “No!” and continued walking, looking down. Perfect, I thought. I just got the brush off from Andy Rooney.

I admit, I haven’t been a faithful viewer—does it bother you as much as it bothers me that you never know when “60 Minutes” is going to start because of the football game or the golf tournament? But in his final essay, which I made sure to watch, he talked about how much he resents being approached in public. He considers encroachments on his space and time rude, and he is rude back. He proudly said he’s never signed an autograph. Thankfully, I hadn’t asked for one.

And it turns out I’m right that his famous irritation was no act. I heard his daughter saying that Andy was, in fact, exactly like the person who expressed his pet peeves to the nation all these years. She said people assume he kept the household in stitches with his sense of humor. However, she suggested there’s nothing funny about an irritable man when you live in the same house with him.

But in truth, he lived a long, productive life as a journalist and writer. A special he produced at CBS, “An Essay on War” that was critical of the war in Vietnam was not allowed to air. So he went to work for PBS for awhile. He was also one of the few mainstream critics of the invasion of Iraq. He had served in World War II, a war of which he was also skeptical, though once he arrived and saw it with his own eyes, he supported it. In telling those truths, he makes up for some of the times he offended people with his lack of empathy.

Though I don’t believe it, and probably Andy wouldn’t have either, I can’t help but wonder if he’s at the Pearly Gates right now giving God an earful. Goodbye, Mr. Rooney, rest in peace.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupied Thoughts: Will demonstrations gel an effective movement?

Will the Occupy Wall Street movement have an impact similar to the TEA Party movement? The TEA Party, like Occupy, began as a grass roots organization of frustrated voters demanding change. 

Its followers brought a wide variety of viewpoints and issues to rallies, but their primary issue was taxes. After all, TEA stands for Taxed Enough Already. They were fearful that the federal stimulus spending by the Bush and Obama administrations in response to the Great Recession had created long term deficits that would eventually result in higher taxes (despite the fact that much of the stimulus ‘spending’ was in the form of tax cuts).  Most also expressed fear that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (aka Health Care Reform), would increase deficits and be an unwelcome intrusion into Americans’ rights to manage their own health care needs and choices (I believe those fears to be unfounded, but that argument is for another day). What the TEA Party was most concerned about, though, was jobs and the economy, and a general feeling that President Obama and the Democratic Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, were not representing their interests (most TEA Partiers are white, middle-aged, and male).

TEA Party principles are:
  • Fiscal Responsibility: taxes should be low, budgets should be balanced, national debt should be paid off. 
  • Constitutionally Limited Government: the role of the federal government should be limited to that which the founders outlined or intended in the Constitution.
  • Free Markets: the government should not intervene in business.

These principles have the ring of sensibility, but if strictly adhered to would result in a fundamentally different America than exists today. “Original Intent” might not allow for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, etc.  TEA Partiers believes the constitution leaves those areas to the states or individuals. Most health, safety, and financial regulations would be abolished, and the Federal Reserve dismantled. However, surveys of self-identified TEA Partiers show that large majorities would be against cuts in Medicare and Social Security, though wanting to cut both taxes and deficits. The only way to square those kinds of desires is through faith that cutting taxes will miraculously raise tax revenues, a belief that Reagan’s and G.W. Bush’s experiments proved false.

Nevertheless, most conservative Republicans and many Independents find these ideas attractive, with the caveat that change must be incremental or that anyone currently receiving Medicare, for example, would continue to receive it. Republican politicians identifying themselves as TEA Partiers emerged with the message that they would be the ‘true conservatives,’ and unlike the big Republican spenders during the Bush years and before, would hold the line, even if it meant shutting down the government. With the promise of even lower taxes and roll backs of regulations, and aided by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizen’s United allowing for unlimited political spending, wealthy corporate interests and individuals stepped up with a massive influx of cash to support TEA Party Republican candidates and unseat Democrats in statehouses and Congress in the 2010 elections.

Without the massive influx of corporate cash supporting think tanks, media buys, and political campaigns often disguised as issue advertising (and claimed as tax deductible charitable contributions), the TEA Party influence might have been marginal. Jane Mayer, a journalist writing for the New Yorker, has detailed the methods used in 2010 in articles about the billionaire Koch brothers and a recent article about multi-millionaire Art Pope’s almost single handed purchase of North Carolina for the Republicans.
So, while the TEA Party started as a grass roots organization that hoped to inspire millions of American voters with mass protests and rallies, it is currently supported by only 15-20% of voters. It remains to be seen whether the Republican candidate for president in 2012 will have TEA Party support, and if not, whether there will be a movement to put up their own candidate.

The Occupy movement, like the TEA Party, started as a grass roots movement in response to concern about the economy. Unlike the TEA Party, however, they do not blame government alone for our economic woes; instead they identify the greed of corporations and their influence on government. While the demographic is clearly younger than the TEA Party’s and reflects the frustration or idealism of unemployed college graduates and students, they have recently been joined by unions and other progressive, Democrat supporting organizations, such as Van Jones’ Rebuilding the American Dream. Some proposals taking shape are for more equitable wages and taxation, which line up well with President Obama’s and Democratic platforms.

Will this movement continue to grow, as the organizers hope, into a massive peaceful revolution such as occurred in Egypt, so large that politicians will be forced to take action on yet to be identified demands? Or, as racist elements within the TEA party did, will radicals in Occupy discredit it for most Americans? Will the enthusiasm and persistence of its supporters influence the Democratic Party as the TEA Party has influenced the Republicans? Will their efforts translate into positive change for America? I hope so.

This essay appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on October 21, 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

We Need a 4-Wheel Drive Economy

(published in Charleston Gazette-Mail Sunday, October 2, 2011)

What powers the American economy? Many folks have compared the U.S. economy to a vehicle out of control, in a ditch, or flying over a cliff. Let's examine this metaphor.

In the 1700's and early 1800's our economy was pulled by horse-drawn carts and sailing ships, though in the South, enslaved African-Americans were pulling as well. Most Americans fended for themselves on farms, feeding themselves and selling or bartering the surplus.

Steam power, industrialization, and immigration brought more of us into the cities to labor for wages and seek education, leading to more recognition of human rights, a Civil War that ended slavery. The economy was pulled into the 20th century by steam locomotives opening up land and opportunity in the great American West and booming trade exports to the world.

Many prospered, but rich industrialists prospered disproportionately. They drove the economy in luxury cars like tanks, often exploiting their workers, treating them like replaceable parts subject to long hours, low pay and unsafe conditions. They crushed labor movements and created monopolies. Teddy Roosevelt broke them up by ushering in the Progressive era of government, regulating industry, increasing competition, creating the Interstate Commerce Commission to ensure a level playing field among the states. Now the economy could hum along, pulled by millions of Model-Ts owned by Americans entering the middle class.

The American Dream was evolving from 40 acres and a mule to a good job within driving distance of a home with a yard. We began to have savings to provide for retirement and access to credit, which many used to invest in property or the rapidly rising stock market. At the end of the 1920's, credit flowed freely, speculation was rampant, and inflation was kept low by the recently created Federal Reserve.

The bubble burst and over-leveraged banks and investors could not pay their debts. Americans' savings were wiped out and they had no pensions. There was no Social Security, no unemployment insurance, no food stamps, and no FEMA to help when the Dust Bowl blew the very earth from farms.

The economy, like a crowded highway full of speeding cars, hit a freak patch of black ice and crashed, causing a chain reaction and backing up the road to world-wide recovery for miles and years. During the Great Depression, Americans abandoned the economy, hoarding what money they had or could earn as they lost their homes and jobs and farms and hunkered down or drifted around in survival mode. It took that "traitor to his class," Franklin Delano Roosevelt to buy Americans a ticket on the train back to the middle class, regulating the financial markets, creating employment opportunities, providing Social Security for the elderly and much more.

The juggernaut of spending and employment that was World War II put America's economy aboard a fleet of fighter planes, roaring to world leadership. We emerged from the war with no damage to our own industry from the millions of pounds of explosives detonated around the world to roll back the militaristic fascist corporatism that had pulled the Axis powers out of the Depression. We were in a great position to export products to the world as we coasted along our new Interstate highways in our gas guzzling cars, built increasingly bigger homes, with two- and three-car garages, and entered the grand age of consumerism.

This carried us through until the rest of the world began to catch up and compete, beginning with the Japanese, who learned how to make things not only cheaper, but better. Meanwhile, in our desire to fend off Communism, which threatened to close markets to us, we squandered much of our treasure in Vietnam. While all that spending kept a lot of people working, for the first time, our balance of trade tipped the other way. At the same time, oil-producing nations decided it was time to get their fair share. Rising oil and gasoline prices spurred inflation and put the brakes on the economy in the 1970's, crashing Jimmy Carter's presidency like a helicopter trying to rescue hostages in Iran.

Ronald Reagan led the Republican tax cutting charge in the 1980's with their first foray into "trickle-down economics." Tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, would spur a boom, he said. Helped by a glut of oil and a tightening of the money supply begun under Carter, inflation decreased, and the economy picked up. However, Reagan's economy was a rented Lincoln. The national debt tripled to over $1 trillion. The money didn't trickle down; it trickled out.

Bill Clinton refilled the tank, and bought us a strong pickup truck by raising taxes on those who could afford it. Helped by a boom in technology and the internet, he balanced the budget and began paying off the debt. And then along came George W. Bush. He came to office facing a small bumpy patch created by the bursting of the tech bubble, and steered the economy onto a side road, invited his friends to strip it with tax cuts for all, mostly the wealthy. He re-fit it as a military vehicle funding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars with deficit spending. At the same time, he weakened regulators and regulations.
He crashed the economy, and it would have been totaled in the form of another Great Depression had he not taken the now nearly crippled vehicle into the shop for repairs in the form of emergency loans to banks and other financial institutions.

When President Obama came to pick it up, the repairs had barely begun to fix the wreck. Early estimates did not account for the full damage. Credit was frozen, employment and tax revenues were down while the deficit was up. Business and consumer confidence was shattered. Spending stalled. Housing prices were sinking while foreclosures rose.

He got it fixed enough to get back and forth every day, returning to the shop each night, borrowing stimulus spending for repairs and passing it to local and state governments to keep their teachers and policemen employed, to fix roads and bridges and to supply unemployment insurance. He lent money to auto companies so they could get back on their feet and help with the repairs.

In 2010, John Boehner took over management of the garage and said Obama's debt was too high, and he'd have to cut back on plans for further repairs. Then, as Obama was getting gas one day, a gang of  tea party teenagers threatened to hijack the car and refuse to raise the debt ceiling. They grabbed his credit card, insisting, "You'll have to give up health insurance and take money out of the retirement account. No asking your rich friends to pony up either." He promised to save some money by spending less on his kid's textbooks and a few other things, and they reluctantly released him.

Now, if you haven't been "driven crazy" by my metaphors, here's what we need to do. Obama has acknowledged this junker inherited from Bush is not worth fixing. He's proposed the American Jobs Act, a short-term rental, until we trade in for a new, more efficient hybrid four-wheel drive.

The drive wheels have to be a mix of industry, good education, a more equitable tax system, and energy and regulatory policies that will carry us into the future. We have to make it run more efficiently and give up a few luxury features we've enjoyed.

Some will grouse about spending the money for this new rig, but it will be more dependable getting us where we need to go. If we hit a slick spot or slide in a ditch, it could get us out again. We have always paid our debts, and we'll pay this one off, too. It just might take us a little longer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fire Capito and McKinley (before it's too late!)

I'm trying to figure out why, given that as a teacher I have summers off, I have not posted since May! Here's an essay of mine published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail Sunday, Aug 15.

The Republican Party held the U.S. economy hostage and threatened to kill it by refusing to raise the debt ceiling if they didn’t get their way. West Virginia’s two Republican representatives, Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, voted for these tactics by voting against a “clean bill” to raise it, and they voted for bills that would have crippled the hostage had they passed. It remains to be seen whether the hostage has been returned to us with all its parts intact.
During the long, hot summer of 2011, history will record that ratings agencies threatened to downgrade the nation’s credit rating as, for the first time in history, a political party decided to threaten default on America’s debt. Instead of passing a clean bill as has been done for every other president, they tried to attach Cut, Cap, and Balance legislation to it that would, had it passed the Senate and been signed into law, so drastically have restricted government spending and its ability to raise revenues that it would have effectively achieved Tea Party favorite Grover Norquist’s goal to “starve government… and drown it in the bathtub.”  
Call it Kabuki theater if you want. Certainly the Republican leadership knew their bills would not  pass and be signed into law, and they knew that in the end they could not endanger the “full faith and credit of the United States of America” by allowing it to default on its debt. But it is time for all Americans to wake up and fully understand once and for all why Republicans cannot be trusted with the reins of power. That’s a given for their ultra-conservative Tea Party members, but it also goes for those who carry water for the leadership.
Both Capito and McKinley have signed Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes, which also precludes them from closing tax loopholes for big corporations unless they’re offset by spending cuts. Capito voted for the Republican’s 2012 budget plan, called the Ryan budget, which would have made Medicare into a voucher program for those 55 and under,  gradually cutting government support, and would have cut spending on Medicaid, health care for the poor, by turning it into a block grant program and capping spending. Where would the money saved in Ryan budget have gone? Straight into the pockets of corporations and wealthy Americans through lower tax rates. She and McKinley voted for Cut, Cap, and Balance and they voted for its little brother, the “Boehner Bill,” which squeaked by only after the Speaker made it palatable to more Tea Partiers.
How is it that Capito and McKinley can claim they want to protect Medicare and Medicaid, programs they acknowledge many West Virginians depend on, and also vote for bills such as Cut, Cap, and Balance? It would have capped spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and required a two-thirds vote of Congress to raise revenue. Under such law, the results would almost certainly be across the board cuts in everything, including Medicare.
McKinley doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about economic matters.  According to the Times West Virginian, he said, “This (the stimulus) was his (Obama’s) ideologically-driven agenda to try and solve a problem that was based maybe on how they operate in Chicago or some of his economists — I don’t know. But no economists today are saying this was the best solution to our woes.” I don’t know what economists he polled, but you’d be hard pressed to find many that don’t agree that stimulus spending is the primary path out of recession. In fact, Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, has been arguing for continued stimulus spending and has warned that the current spending cuts are dragging us back into the ditch Obama pulled us out of.  The biggest weakness of the 2009 Recovery Act (aka, the Stimulus), Krugman reminds us, was that Republicans insisted that half of it be made up of tax cuts, which don’t create as many jobs as infrastructure spending. After having it their way, all but three refused to vote for it!
We in West Virginia have a duty to do our part to fix this problem. We need to devote the time and energy required to fire Capito and McKinley. This is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is an issue of preserving the American middle class, the primary engine of our economy. Surely we can all find a Democrat to support who will work for the recovery of our economy, job creation, the rebuilding of our roads, energy grid, and the strengthening of our health care system and programs for the elderly, including Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. We need representatives who hold the good of the people of WV above political loyalties. No more hostage situations!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Not the Greatest Generation

We are not the “Greatest Generation.” During World War II, in addition to volunteering in massive numbers to serve in and support the military effort, the American people willingly submitted to gas and food rationing, bought U.S. Savings Bonds at low interest to lend the government needed cash, and elected leaders who doubled and even tripled income tax rates at some levels. By the end of the war, those earning the equivalent of $200,000 had tax rates over 50%, and the highest rate was 94%.

Americans did not rise up against an overreaching federal government. Rich people and corporations did not flee the country in droves to shelter their wealth in foreign banks. CEO’s and high earners did not stop working because, as some today suggest, why work hard  if the government is going to get the benefit? Americans were patriotic, and they were willing to make sacrifices to support the war effort.

President Obama inherited an $11 trillion national debt, $5 trillion of which accumulated during G.W. Bush’s years while Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate. There are three main reasons for the near doubling of the national debt during those years: the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the passing of Medicare Part D without allowing the government to negotiate drug prices. Since Obama took office, all those factors continue (he wanted to end the tax cuts for high income earners, but ended up capitulating to Republicans to keep the government running). Add to that the cost of the recession in decreased tax revenues and the stimulus spending of almost a trillion dollars (one-third for additional tax cuts and credits), and you see why the debt will soon reach the current maximum allowable, or debt ceiling, of $14.2 trillion. It’s a staggering number, but so are all the numbers that led up to it. Raising the debt ceiling is a national necessity, since the thought of the United States of America defaulting on debt is…unthinkable. The debt ceiling has been routinely raised every year since the ‘60s.

George W. Bush famously told Americans to “go shopping” to support the economy during war. Republican lawmakers seem to think it is patriotic to bankrupt the United States government by depriving it of tax revenue while spending on the military. For the last several years they have screamed that one of the biggest impediments to recovery has been the “uncertainty” businesses have felt because of the possibility the tax cuts would expire for those earning over $200k (really? raising their taxes by 4.6%?). Since the new Republican majority in the House took the reins in January, they’ve done nothing but create uncertainty, first by threatening to shut down government if they did not get the spending and program cuts they demanded and now by threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless they get further cuts. One has to wonder whether they actually want the economy to improve or cynically believe their political prospects are better if it doesn’t.

To great fanfare, Paul Ryan (R-WI) brought forth the Republican 2012 budget plan that purports to solve the national debt crisis. Others have detailed how radical these proposals are, cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations even more and paying for them by forcing seniors to begin paying for Medicare in ten years with a shrinking subsidy over time. It actually increases deficits in the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office. What amazed me was that only four Republicans in the House voted against the plan (one was David McKinley, Republican from WV’s 1st district). All the rest, including Shelley Moore Capito, were willing to go on the record to vote for turning Medicare into a system that gives vouchers that partially subsidize seniors to buy private health insurance.

At the same time, the Republican leadership says that President Obama’s budget proposal which cuts the deficit with a balance of spending cuts, plans to lower health costs, and raises taxes on those earning in excess of $200,000 is a non-starter. They will defend the right of the rich to “keep their money.” No, these Republicans are not at all like the “Greatest Generation.” Their patriotism is limited to wearing flag pins and spending money on the military. Their vision of shared sacrifice is to ask corporations to give to their campaigns while they pass laws to make working people and the elderly pay.

published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beware, Republicans!

Winds of change are blowing across the Arab world taking down dictators; an earthquake-caused tsunami killed thousands in Japan and damaged an atomic energy plant causing radiation releases and possible meltdowns; and a black man named Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States.  Glen Beck, the Fox News clown, tells viewers we are entering “the end of days.” But as political satirist Jon Stewart said during his Rally to Restore Sanity, “We live now in hard times, not end times.”

In the wake of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, with millions out of work and still losing their homes, American voters were scared and frustrated by the slow recovery in 2010. Corporations with their newly granted freedom of speech, which the Supreme Court has defined as the freedom to spend without limit to influence elections, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Republican candidates.
Detecting a breeze blowing to the right, away from government spending that stimulated the economy just enough for us to avoid depression, many voters turned to Republicans. They gave them a majority in the House even though it was Republican leadership that created the deficit and brought on the recession with policies of lax financial regulations, tax breaks without spending cuts, and refusal to raise taxes to pay for wars, even on those who could easily afford it.

They promised they would focus on jobs, but since taking office have been demanding budget cuts to programs they don’t like and are threatening to shut down the government if Democrats don’t go along. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have subscribed to the theory that cutting taxes for corporations and top earners would create more jobs. Though this “trickle down” theory has been proven wrong again and again, it is still their only idea for creating jobs. Meanwhile, newly elected Republican governors face deficits that in some cases have been created by irresponsible tax cut giveaways to businesses. Instead of even considering raising needed revenues, they wage war on public employee unions and make draconian cuts to social programs and education.

Have the Republicans created one single job? How many jobs will be lost if they have their way with the billions in cuts they propose to the federal budget? Which way will the wind blow if Republicans will not sit down with Democrats to make reasonable compromises, thereby shutting down the government?  Is there any chance they will be willing to try to come up with sensible measures to solve long term deficit problems?

Those who thought it ridiculous to compare the protests in Wisconsin to those in the Middle East should think again. The struggle for jobs that pay fair wages in safe working conditions, for a secure retirement, for affordable health care, in short, for entry into the middle class is ongoing world-wide. The recent uprisings were sparked in Tunisia by a vendor who had his fruit cart confiscated and burned himself alive in protest. A growing, educated, yet underemployed youthful population with access to the tools of the information age, and working people sick of corruption and low wages, united to protest peacefully in the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and force out two dictators. Granted, the stakes were much higher and the grievances far more severe than in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, but for too long Americans have watched their wages and benefits shrink while executive salaries rise and corporations move jobs overseas and find ways to avoid paying taxes.

 In the United States, the middle class has faced a headwind in recent years. Income disparity is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. The deficits are great, but our creditors are not calling in our debts—it’s not the crisis the Republicans claim it is, and even if it were, their proposed cuts do not begin to solve the problems. Senate Democrats can stop the proposed Republican cuts. President Obama could veto them even if they did pass. In either case, they could do that in the name of saving jobs and the economy. If that shuts down the government, the fault will lie with the intransigence of Republicans. Democrats have already grudgingly agreed to ten billion of the sixty billion in cuts proposed in the House budget in two continuing resolutions to keep the government running (more in recent negotiations). Republican lawmakers risk a tsunami of resentment if they don’t sit down with Democrats to find ways to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and seriously talk about long term debt.

This essay was published in the Charleston Gazette (WV) on April 5, 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Cut that Hurts

Recent cuts to the 2011 federal budget have ended funding for the National Writing Project (NWP), an organization I care about deeply (full disclosure: for several years it has provided me a part-time job, something most teachers need). NWP received $27 million in 2010 and distributed much of it to over 200 writing project sites around the country in operating grants of under $50,000.
When I was in my third year of teaching, I participated in the West Virginia Writing Project’s “Invitational Summer Institute,” an intense program of writing, of reading research and teachers’ stories of teaching writing, and of designing and presenting demonstration lessons. This experience, as it is for many of the thousands of teachers each year who participate in NWP programs around the country, was career changing. Life changing, in some ways.
Before that, in my education classes and in professional development offerings by my school and district, I had understood that someone else had the answers and becoming a teacher, a good teacher, was a matter of doing what I was told in ways that I was told research said would work. Unfortunately, research could be found that said just about anything would work. In practice, I, like most beginning teachers, found the actual classroom experience daunting, challenging, exhausting, and often filled with failure by students who seemed to lack the skills and motivation to achieve, especially when asked to set pencil to paper.
Dr. Fran Simone, who served as director of West Virginia Writing Project at that time, created an atmosphere in which each teacher felt valued as a member of a professional community searching for the best possible answers to the questions and challenges the classroom experience presented. We became better writers and created a caring community by sharing our stories, which were often personal in nature. Over a few weeks of full day workshops and evenings working on our own writing, we learned more from each other than from any article or book that we read, though we learned from them as well, especially the ones written by other classroom teachers whose writing was more accessible than university based researchers, and whose classroom experiences rang true. Through this transformative experience, I became a better teacher, a better person—one who began learning to nurture the voices of students, to encourage their self-expression and through that to impact their skills and their motivation to learn.
In the years that followed that experience, I implemented many of the practices and lessons I had observed—not all at once, but as I was ready and able. Eventually, I became a leader and innovator, and have been recognized by NWP and the College Board for the work I’ve done at Ruffner Elementary School. In a perfect world, the type of professional learning community created through the NWP model would be re-created in every school and district in the country. However, it rarely occurs in schools.
Perhaps it is too much to expect teachers to share their successes and failures, frustrations, their personal stories with those who evaluate them and pay their salaries. Perhaps only an outside player like NWP, a university/district collaboration, can fill that role.
During my twenty-four year teaching career, I have had the opportunity to do for others what Dr. Simone did for me: facilitate professional learning communities with teachers who come voluntarily during the summer to improve their classroom practice involving writing. Now this program may come to an end. It will not cause closures of schools or layoffs of large numbers of teachers. It will not immediately impact student achievement throughout the country. However, multiple studies have found that students of teachers who have been through NWP programs on average write significantly better than students of teachers who don’t.
In a time when the challenges teachers face and the expectations the public has for them continue to mount, we should be putting more funding into cost effective programs such as NWP, which leverages support at three dollars for each federal dollar.
Some argue that the role of the federal government should be limited to defense, enforcing laws, and providing (as little as possible) for the neediest among us. Education, they insist, is only a local concern. But it takes more than a village to raise a nation of children who will be able to compete in this global economy, and we should not be throwing out any effective programs that are improving their chances of doing so.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

War on Public Servants

For the last decade or so, it seems that there has been a war on teachers and public education. You can’t watch the news or open a newspaper without reading about how American students are failing to make the grade compared to students around the world, and how that is the fault of public schools and teachers.  Now, it seems like the war has expanded to include anything public and anyone who works for local, state, or the federal government. Some people seem to have decided that those who have dedicated their lives to public service are somehow living an easy life thanks to those who work in the private sector, for business. Maybe the two are related. Maybe our schools have failed to educate the public about the importance of government services and the necessary and valuable contributions made by public servants, including teachers, policemen, lawyers and others who work in courts and prison systems, road departments, highway and airline safety, health and human service agencies, public lands, diplomatic corps, and so on. 

We teachers have failed to teach the American public how to delve deeply into subjects, how to explore both sides of issues, how to analyze data, how to draw reasoned conclusions. For example, I heard a politician yesterday say that “salaries in the public sector are higher on average than in the private sector,” to make his argument that public servants should take pay and benefit cuts. A recent analysis of census data by Queens College demographers prepared for the New York Times shows that while that statement is true, the educational level of the average state employee is higher than that of the average employee in the private sector. When you compare state employee wages to private sector employees with similar educational levels, in almost all states, the public employees’ wages are lower. 

We all know factories have shut down and whole industries have moved overseas. The average salary for non-college educated Americans is either stagnant or decreasing, and their benefits are shrinking. Some argue that public employees should suffer equally. How will we attract and retain great teachers with reduced pay and benefits? A third of teachers don’t stay in the profession after three years as it is.

I’ve been teaching for a couple decades, and the teachers I meet are dedicated. They didn’t go into education primarily for the money or benefits, but with hopes to better the lives of their students. I suspect most state and federal employees have gone into public service because of their idealistic nature as well.  And I’ll bet they’ve felt the same sense of sympathy I have in recent years as we’ve seen people in private industry stripped of their promised pensions or laid off and unable to find a job that pays as well.

Republicans say they are against deficit spending. However, when they had the reins of power, they cut taxes in ways that mostly benefited the rich and ran up huge deficits. The current deficits we are now experiencing can be almost wholly attributed to the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession, which has lessened tax revenues. Because of deregulation of the financial industry, we are in the midst of the deepest, widest recession since the Great Depression. It would have been a depression had the Bush and Obama administrations not convinced Congress to pass legislation that saved the banks, the American auto industry, and kept people working and state governments afloat with stimulus spending. In Wisconsin and New Jersey, Republican governors give tax breaks to business and then scream that the deficits they’ve created need to come out of public employees.

The Republican majority elected in 2010 was put in place by an electorate impatient with the pace of the recovery and desperate for jobs. While still a minority, Republicans held out for extending  the Bush tax cuts for the rich, threatening to filibuster all legislation unless the Democrats agreed to the deficit-increasing measure. Since taking office and promising to concentrate on jobs, the Republicans in the house have not passed job measure one. Instead, they and Republican governors have been mounting attacks on programs for women and the poor, labor, and the middle class. They attack collective bargaining, threaten to shut down the government if their budget cuts are not passed.

There was a time when Republicans declared war on “welfare queens”, claiming that huge numbers of Americans were gaming the system to live a life of ease. Under Clinton, programs went into effect to help women with children find work, and offered them only temporary assistance. How does that work when unemployment rates hover near 10%? A few billion dollars are saved, though more Americans live in poverty and there is increasing income disparity. Now Republicans are coming after public employees. When they passed No Child Left Behind, they said by setting the bar high, achievement gaps would close, otherwise they would declare schools failing and fire the staff or send the children to other schools. What will they do when public employees don’t meet their unrealistic expectations?

This essay was publised as an op-ed by the Charleston Gazette (WV) on Monday, March 6, 2011 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tunisia and Egypt Prove the Neo-conservatives Wrong

Is it possible that the Neoconservative theories that George W. Bush and his gang implemented by invading Iraq are coming to fruition? They theorized that after deposing Sadaam Hussein the Iraqi people would rise up and create a democratic government that would protect their rights and open up the economy to all. One Arab democracy would then inspire other Arab people to rise up against dictators. Instead, Iraq has suffered eight years of sectarian violence, government gridlock, and economic stagnation on a bumpy road to what no one is sure will become a stable democracy or even a unified nation once the U.S. withdraws completely. Iran is poised to end up with more influence in Iraq than the U.S.

Iraq may have served a purpose as an example for reasonable people in Arab countries with dictators of what to avoid in demanding change. Like Iraq, for years, Tunisia and Egypt have been faux democracies, one party states led by a president for life. As American allies (as Iraq was until Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990), their leaders have benefited from American largesse by moderating Arab extremism toward Israel, and in Egypt’s case, maintaining peaceful relations with Israel. Mubarak has maintained power with an iron fist toward any political rivalry and against any sign of Muslim extremism. His police have used tactics including torture to maintain absolute power, but thirty years of a “state of emergency,” has finally come to an end by popular demand.
The protestors in Egypt and Tunisia have included broad swaths of the populace. They are not led by Muslim extremists, and their anger has been directed against the dictator and his police rather than Israel and the United States, anger that too often Arab dictators stoke for their own benefit. Unlike in Iraq, where Sadaam, our ally against Iran, had created an elite sectarian Sunni army to repress the majority Shiite and minority Kurds, the armies of both Egypt and Tunisia have stepped forward as defenders of the people against police forces that were viewed as the repressive arms of government.

Should these anti-dictator movements result in more democratic governments it is far from clear that they will be friendly to America and American interests let alone be willing to seek peaceful relations with Israel. And should they spark similar movements in Jordan, Yemen, or other Arab states with greater fundamentalist anti-Western constituencies, the Middle East may start looking more like Iran than Turkey, which  has a strong tradition of secular government.

President Obama has walked a tightrope in his response to the situation. To anyone who criticizes him for supporting Mubarak until now, you must give equal blame to every president going back to Jimmy Carter. Every one has pragmatically supported the Egyptian government while talking about the need to implement democratic reforms. At least Obama gave a stirring speech in Cairo in which he called on all Arab countries to implement democratic reforms. Combined with the evidence that he is keeping his word by pulling American troops out of Iraq, this may have something to do with the lack of anti-Americanism evident in these uprisings.

It seems our government is trying to support a peaceful transition to democracy, understanding that there is a long way to go from deposing a tyrant to full democracy. Mubarak ceded power first to a newly appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, former security chief, and then the top brass of the army. Egypt’s military is almost as much an economic force as a defense force, a secondary effect of peace with Israel which caused the Egyptian army to find creative ways of keeping it’s vast military employed. The army controls large swaths of various industries and resources: water, agriculture, gasoline, even automobiles.

Protestors should keep up the pressure, but let the country return to normalcy as the new leadership tries to design and implement a new constitution. The Egyptian people seem to have set their hopes on the army to carry out reforms and allow free and fair elections, but they should follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to “trust, but verify.” The people of Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated to the world they are capable of peaceful protest and deserving of the opportunity to elect governments that will maintain their security while allowing them the full freedom of representative government and human rights. They may achieve democratic reform more quickly and with less loss of life and economic hardship than the “regime change” George W. Bush sought through preemptive war. Let us hope that these peaceful revolutions result in true democracies that play a role as moderating influences in the Arab world.

first published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, February 26, 2011 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mind of a Murderer

Disclaimer: what follows is an exercise in fiction writing. Somewhere in America the next Jared Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho is mulling over his miserable life and choosing a target for his rage. Maybe this is what he's thinking. None of this is what I think--I love Charleston!

It has been such a long and gloomy winter, I think I’m going to explode. I’m stuck here in this nowhere little town, Charleston, West, by god, Virginia.. Nothing ever happens here. Once in awhile somebody kills somebody, but what do you expect, it’s America.  Downtown is two short blocks and a downtown shopping mall. Between them is the “transit mall” where the poor folk catch their busses to the west side or the east end, South Charleston, Dunbar, Marmet, Belle, all the little dead places that make up this chemical-laced, coal-built, state government financed river valley.

The Indians didn’t even want this place. They came here to hunt, but they lived in better places, flatter places where the sun doesn't sink behind a hill a couple hours after it clears the hill on the other side. Places where it doesn’t rain or snow every other day. Well, the snow isn’t too bad, but what’s getting to me is the clouds. I looked it up. It’s only sunny 65 days a year. That makes it cloudy 300 days of year. I need to get out of here, go someplace sunny. Groundhog day was just the other day. Guess what? It wasn’t sunny. Big surprise. But I have a feeling winter’s going to go on for a while.

I’m going to kill somebody. I haven’t decided who. Somebody famous. Thing is, not too many famous people come here. But eventually I’ll have my chance. People run for president. Forget killing a president, too hard. Even if you could get close, they’ve got him covered like a glove. Of course I could kill the governor, but that would be too easy. And who would care outside WV? I mean, I guess it would make a splash and be national news for a while, but in 50 years? Only the kids in WV History class would know, and they’d forget it. Of course, somebody running for president wouldn’t be all that famous either. I don’t know. Maybe I should kill the president. Or maybe I’ll kill a bunch of people. Like that guy Cho, the one that killed all the people at Virginia Tech.

But Cho killed himself. What a waste! I’m not saying I would expect to get away with it or anything. I don’t think I’d want to be like a serial killer, keeping everything secret, worrying about getting caught all the time, trying to outsmart the cops. Plus, I’m not into torture or anything. I wouldn't want to know anything about the people I kill. Well, I guess if it was a famous person, I’d know about him or her, but that’s different. I wouldn’t really know her. You’re probably thinking I just want to copycat Jared Loughner. Well, maybe I do. He is kind of my current hero. I mean, his mug shot, you know, the one with where he’s kind of looking up at the camera with that little smile and the wild eyes, fresh shaved head. He sort of went with the idea of a famous person, a congresswoman, but then he took out a whole bunch of others, too. He’ll be remembered for a while. Plus, he’s going to have a trial. That’ll put him in the news for years to come. I mean just look at Charles Manson. He still pops up once in a while. And he’s got it made – a lifetime of free meals and free medical care.

It’s not like I hate people. I don’t like them much, that’s all. And women, I guess you could say I’ve got a love/hate relationship with them. I’m always wishing I could find one that would, you know, hang out with me, but it just never seems to work out. I’m not going to do the dating thing. I can’t stand calling somebody and saying, like, you want to go out? Why can’t you just say what you mean? Hey, you want to do it with me? Ok, that is a little direct, but why can’t you say, “Hey, you think you might want to do it with me after a while?” No, you’ve got to go through that whole getting to know you thing, buy ‘em a meal, take ‘em to a movie, pretend to accidently touch their hand or their knee.  Screw that. So, I just do sex on the internet. Got a million women out there willing to take off their clothes and talk dirty to me. A lot of it’s free, too.

Hey, if anybody reads this, I just want you know I’m kidding. Really! It’s just idle thinking on a cloudy day. The sun will be out one of these days and I’ll feel better. Or maybe I’ll move to Arizona.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Conversation About Guns

link to an animation using this script: 
Gun Lover: It's terrible the way the left-wing media is trying to say the latest rampage by a crazy shooter is because of my right wing political heroes and talk show hosts. Words don't make people use guns to kill other people. Only people kill. If everyone had a gun, we'd all be safe.

Concerned Citizen: That sounds wrong to me. I think we need laws to protect us from people who want to use guns to kill. Not everyone can be allowed to own guns that are made as people killing machines.

Gun Lover: Everyone in our country has a right to own any weapon they want. It's in the Constitution.

Concerned Citizen: Semi-automatic hand guns are dangerous in the hands of certain people. It should not be so easy for people to own them or carry them around concealed. I would like them to be banned for private ownership.

Gun Lover: You are trying to take away my freedom under the 2nd amendment which says all Americans have a right to bear arms.

Concerned Citizen: Perhaps you are a sane and responsible citizen and should be allowed to use or even own such a weapon. If there were a licensed required, or limitations on where they can be carried, perhaps you would qualify for a license.

Gun Lover: The government cannot be trusted to decide who should carry a gun or not. The government is trying to take away our rights. Americans have a right to bear arms and serve in a militia and the government cannot take away that right. It says so in the Constitution.

Concerned Citizen: The government also has a responsibility to protect its citizens. The second amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This was written before the U.S. had standing armies or states with National Guards. Citizen soldiers had to have their weapons available in their homes in case they were called out to defend the community.

Gun Lover: It says the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. If the government tries to infringe my right to bear arms, it is taking away my constitutional rights.

Concerned Citizen: Since we have standing armies and our states have National Guards, we no longer need citizen soldiers to keep weapons in their homes. The Supreme Court has ruled that the rights of some citizens can be infringed if they represent a danger to the community, such as the mentally ill and convicted felons.

Gun Lover: If the government tries to infringe my right to bear arms, it is taking away my constitutional rights.

Concerned Citizen: Communities and states can also pass laws to restrict where guns can be carried. If the government lets every citizen own and carry any weapon he wants to, some people might want to own a nuclear weapon or a tank. Lines must be drawn about what kinds of weapons people should be allowed to own and where they can use them. Do you think every citizen should be allowed to have a tank or rocket launcher or machine guns?

 Gun Lover: If the government tries to infringe my right to bear arms, it is taking away my constitutional rights. You will have to pry my gun from my cold dead fingers. It is the right of the people to alter or abolish the government if it infringes on our rights. This is called a 2nd Amendment remedy.

Concerned Citizen: That language is from the Declaration of Independence not the Constitution. It said the people have the right to overthrow a government that is trying to deprive them of unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that governments derive power from the consent of the governed. Our government is a representative democracy. We elect our representatives, so they have our consent to pass laws. Some of the laws we have elected them to pass are to protect us from being shot on the street by machine gun wielding idiots.

Gun Lover: If the government tries to infringe my right to bear arms, it is taking away my constitutional rights. If the government does not follow the Constitution I have the right to form a militia to fight the government.

Concerned Citizen: That is treason. The Constitution does not give you that right. If you use your weapons to fight the government you are breaking the law.

Gun Lover: I have the right to free speech and I will kill you if you don’t shut up. You’re confusing me. I have the right to own this semi-automatic weapon and you can’t take away my rights.

Concerned Citizen: You do not have the right to make threats to kill me. That’s against the law. If you threaten to kill me or point that weapon at me you could have it taken away by the government and not be allowed to own weapons. Americans have the right to be protected from people like you.

Gun Lover: You are a socialist, anti-American, elitist who is ruining our country. People like you are making true-blue Americans who own guns mad and you deserve it if they use their 2nd amendment rights to kill you.

Concerned Citizen: That is an example of the kind of legal, but uncivil speech that right wing radio and TV talk show hosts and some politicians have been using. Unfortunately, some crazies interpret that as an excuse to go out and kill law-abiding Americans or attack the government or its representatives. We must pass laws to protect us from the insanity of unregulated gun ownership. People should have to have a license to own certain weapons and the license should have to be renewed periodically. We should either figure out how to keep these weapons out of the hands of unstable people or ban them for private ownership.

Gun Lover: I’m going home to watch Fox News and listen to Rush while I read right-wing blogs that will tell me what I want to believe is true.