Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is your doctor going to be forced out of Medicare?

You've probably been watching the ongoing dustup in Washington concerning the continuation of the payroll tax cuts. Maybe you've been thinking "Thank goodness it doesn't affect me since I no longer receive a paycheck." Boy, are you wrong!

Included with this bill is a two-month extension of the Medicare "Doc Fix." The "Doc Fix" is a yearly ritual in Congress "...required by a 1990s budget law that failed to control spending but never got repealed. Instead, Congress passes a temporary fix each time, only to grow the size of cuts required next time around." This according to a piece in today's Huffington Post.

If the "Doc Fix" is not passed, Medicare payment to doctors will decrease by 27.4% as of January 1. (Medicare says that it will withhold payments to doctors for the first 10 business days of 2012 in hopes that the "Doc Fix" can be put into place. According to Medicare, any backup beyond 10 days is not possible without crashing its computer systems.)

If you have moved recently, you may have encountered difficulty finding a new doctor. Medicare payments are not lavish, and some doctors have simply refused to see new Medicare patients. If payments decrease by almost 30%, many more doctors are likely to opt out of Medicare.

Almost everyone expects the "Doc Fix" to eventually pass, so why is this happening? It mostly has to do with the inability of Congress to vote on things separately. Instead, they combine something that one side wants into a bill with something they don't want in hopes of using the "want" as leverage.

The current situation is also an example of poor negotiating practices. According to Ezra Klein in today's Washington Post: "Remember what everyone thought was happening here: Mitch McConnell was negotiating with Harry Reid on behalf of Senate and House Republicans. Those negotiations were successful. Almost every Senate Republican voted for the resulting bill. Boehner went to sell that bill to his members. But then the House Republicans rejected it, and we were back at square one."

Everyone who has ever served as a negotiator for their union understands one of the basic rules of negotiating: Don't send someone to the table unless they have the authority to make a deal.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Your holiday survival kit.

It's time to head out to grandma's house for big holiday gatherings. (Yes, I said "holiday" not "Christmas." I checked my calendar and there appear to be several holidays in the next couple of weeks.)

At any rate, for many of you the lowpoint of your holiday gathering will be the relative--or neighbor--who carries on about the sad state in which public employees--including teachers--have placed the country. It's always fun to respond to their generalized bloviating with those nasty "fact" thingies. Here's a list of previous blog posts which you can print and stuff into your suitcase for just such an opportunity:

Assertion: Public employees earn way more than those in the private sector. 
Facts: "Everybody knows" that public employees earn more than those in the private sector.

Public pay vs private: Truth is in the numbers.

Assertion: Public pensions are bankrupting the states.
Facts: Pensions NOT bankrupting the states!

Sometimes the comments tell the story.

The growing mythology surrounding public employee pensions.

The sky is falling: Not!

Assertion: Teachers earn too much.
Facts: Pay teachers more.

Teacher pay around the world: How we compare.

Teachers earn too much? Really?

Assertion: You're all just jealous of the rich.
Facts: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.

Assertion: We spend too much on education as it is.
Facts: A number that's hard to believe.

Assertion: Our schools are failing; unions defend bad teachers; billionaires know best; charter schools are the answer; more effective teachers are the answer.
Facts: 5 myths about education.

Assertion: Tenure means a job for life.
Facts: Tenure DOESN'T mean a job for life.

Assertion: Teachers don't work a full year.
Facts: Teachers don't work a full year?

Assertion: Public sector jobs aren't real jobs.
Facts: Relax teachers, your job isn't real!

Assertion: Bad teachers are the cause of our educational problems.
Facts: The grand coalition against teachers.

The grand coalition against teachers, part 2. 

Let's stop blaming the teachers.

And then a teacher picked up her pen...

Finally, you might want to ask where your antagonist gets their news. Fox? Probably. Here's an interesting piece of research widely reported a little over a month ago:

"A new poll suggests people might be better off watching no news at all than tuning into Fox. Fairleigh Dickinson University surveyed New Jerseyans about the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, among other current events, and found that self-identified Fox News viewers were less likely to answer correctly than consumers of other news outlets. Fox viewers even did much worse than those who don’t watch any news....The results — controlled for partisanship, education, and other demographics — imply that there is actually something counterproductive about watching a Fox News program. Meanwhile, newspaper readers and fans of NPR, The Daily Show, and Sunday TV news, did the best overall." [Emphasis mine.]

Don't you just love research?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Teachers earn too much? Really?

Well, that's the conclusion reached by a new study published by right-wing thinktank the American Enterprise Institute. To quote AEI: "We estimate that public school teachers receive total compensation roughly 50 percent higher than they would likely receive in private sector jobs." In fact, they conclude that teachers are "overcompensated by 52%."

Many researchers have weighed in to point up serious faults in the methodology of this study. One of them is Jordan Solomon of George Washington University, who attended the presentation of the study. You can find his comments on the methodology in Maureen Downey's "Get Schooled" column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Solomon concluded: " When confronted by an employee for an association representing retired teachers, the presenters admitted that their goal from the outset was to demonstrate that the benefits for teachers were too high. It would appear that Heritage and AEI set out to produce a paper that allowed conservative governors to denigrate teachers and chastise their unions for the “high” salaries and cushy benefits paid to teachers." [Emphasis mine.] Who would have expected it?

Let's pause for a moment and examine pay vs performance in the private sector. Anyone remember Carly Fiorina? Fiorina was the Hewlett Packard CEO who was ousted by her board of directors after a record of failure. She walked away with a $42 million severance package, then ran for governor of California claiming her private sector experience as a "job creator" would put California back on its feet. Sadly, she neglected to mention that while at HP she laid off 18,000 workers. How's that for "pay for performance?"

John Merrow, education correspondent for the "PBS Newshour" writes in the NY Daily News--not usually a teacher-friendly venue--to point out some interesting facts concerning private sector pay and performance.

"The average teacher today earns about $55,000. At least 75 CEOs earn that much in one day, every day, 365 days a year. According to the AFL-CIO’s “Executive PayWatch,” the CEO who ranked No. 75, David Cote of Honeywell, was paid $20,154,012, for a daily rate of $55,216.47".
"Unlike wages for teachers, CEO salaries have been soaring in recent years. Forty years ago, the average public school teacher earned $49,000, adjusted for inflation. That’s a raise of a whopping $150 a year for 40 years, or about one quarter of 1% annually." [Emphasis mine.]

"[The pay for performance model] doesn’t seem to be true on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, where the pay of the CEO is often at odds with his company’s performance. Take Cisco’s John Chambers. The website 24/7 Wall Street ranks Chambers as America’s most overpaid CEO, based on his total compensation of $18,871,875 even as the price of Cisco common stock fell 31.4 %."

"In fairness, some teachers are overpaid, because they have “retired on the job” and are just going through the motions until they can retire for real. Of course, there’s a big difference between being overpaid at $55,000 and being overpaid at $20,500,000, which is what Carl Crawford of the Boston Red Sox earned for hitting .255 with just 11 home runs last season. Like the CEO of Honeywell, Crawford earns about $55,000 a day, every day, 365 days a year. "

Merrow points out one other difference: "Teachers spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. That came to $1.33 billion in school year 2009-10, or $356 per teacher, according to the National School Supply & Equipment Association. I will wager several packs of colored pencils that Dauman, Cote and the other high earners do not drop by Staples to pick up office supplies for their secretaries."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Retirement in America is in trouble.

Back in the "good old days" of a couple or three decades ago, the American retirement system was described as a three-legged stool. One leg was Social Security, while the second was the company pension and the third was individual savings. Together with the security of Medicare, these three legs would provide a reasonable level of comfort and security in our "golden years."

How times have changed! Today's USA Today carries an article titled "Many have little to no savings as retirement looms." Their assessment: "For many Americans, the golden years are quickly taking on a tin-like hue. After a vicious decade of no growth for the stock market, including two 401(k)-eating bear markets and persistently sky-high unemployment, more Americans are finding themselves in their 50s and 60s with practically no money saved for retirement."

What happened? Well, to begin with, about 80% of Americans find one leg of their retirement stool missing: their pension. Pensions disappeared in the private sector when one company after another discovered they could save money by switching to a 401(k) defined contribution plan. Employees thought it sounded great. They would contribute a part of their salary, their employer would match their contribution (up to a point), and they would get to have a say in the management of their retirement funds. What could go wrong?

Well, let's begin with the fact that the average employee is nowhere near the financial wizard they thought themselves to be. The folks who made a career of managing the "old fashioned" defined benefit pension plan really did do a better job of managing money than the average do-it-yourself investor.

USA Today points to an example: :"The people [financial advisor Joel] Redmond encounters most who are lacking sufficient retirement savings weren't necessarily delinquent or negligent. Many had money saved but were wiped out by the sour stock market in the past decade and poor investment strategies, Redmond says."

"That's what happened, in part, to Robert and Connie Cabana of Tampa, who are both in their 60s. Robert built up a sizable 401(k) working as a financial executive at Verizon. Connie was a business assistant for a local irrigation supply company. Connie was laid off four years ago; Robert was let go three years ago."

"But the serious hit to their retirement, which wiped out half their 401(k) savings, resulted from the stock market and an overexposure to risky stocks, they say. Now, 75% of their 401(k) is gone, and they have "very little" left, Robert says."

Then there's the matter that their employers probably never mentioned: To provide the same level of retirement income, those in 401(k)-type plans must accumulate twice as much money as in a traditional defined benefit pension plan. (For a complete explanation of this see "What's so bad about 401(k)-type plans?") 

Nobody bothered to mention that:" A 65-year-old retiree would need to have $1.1 million saved to draw $50,000 a year in inflation-adjusted dollars, assuming 3% inflation and a 5% annual return from investments. That's if the investor is lucky enough to get a 5% return, which, given the flat-line returns of stocks the last decade, might give some pause."

That's a tough order considering that: " More than half of all workers, 56%, say they have less than $25,000 in savings, according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute." As for retirees: " More than half of retirees, 54%, report they have less than $25,000 saved. That's up dramatically from 2006, when 42% said they had less than that."

What's the meaning of all of this for those of us lucky to be members of the NY State Teachers' Retirement System? Simply this: There is little chance that the traditional pension will make a comeback in the private sector. Those without a pension will more frequently ask why they should pay taxes to provide public employees with a benefit they no longer have any hope of enjoying themselves.

We must stay vigilant--and politically active-- as the retirement "race to the bottom" continues.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Have grandchildren? Give their parents this book!

Those of us who are grandparents like to think that one of our most important functions is to draw upon our vast array of life experiences in giving advice to our grandchildren.

I used to think this was true, and then I read Thomas Friedman's new book, "That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back." He made me realize that the world I grew up in--particularly the world of economics and work--had changed so rapidly and so completely that my experiences could no longer serve as a guide to my grandchildren.

You may recall that Friedman--A NY Times columnist and winner of 3 Pulitzer Prizes-- wrote a book called "The World is Flat." According to Amazon's review: "What Friedman means by "flat" is "connected": the lowering of trade and political barriers and the exponential technical advances of the digital revolution have made it possible to do business, or almost anything else, instantaneously with billions of other people across the planet."

"The World is Flat" was written in 2005. Since then, according to Friedman: "When I wrote The World is Flat, Facebook didn't exist, twitter was a sound, the cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking place, applications were what you sent to colleges and Skype, for most people, was a typo. That's how much the world has changed in just a few years."

Freidman sees the George Clooney movie, Up in the Air, as a perfect metaphor for the first decade of the 21st century. Clooney plays someone who is always on an airplane because he's hired by companies to handle the firing of their employees who are no longer needed due to advances in technology. Eventually, Clooney is replaced by a young woman who comes up with the idea that it's less expensive to fire people over the internet rather than in person.

He tells about a large law firm which is now downsizing during the current economic difficulties. When Friedman asked the firm's head which lawyers were being fired, he received a surprising response. The firm had added many competent lawyers during the boom times. They did the work assigned to them in a competent and professional manner. They have been let go. The lawyers who stayed were the ones who added something "extra" to their jobs. They figured out how to do their work more efficiently, or how information technology would allow the firm to move into new areas of work.

When I finished the book, I purchased copies for my children. I told my son that there were 3 reasons I was giving him the book: 1) It would help him do his job better and give him an advantage over coworkers who had not read the book. 2) He works with large corporations, and understanding how their worlds were changing would help him keep his job.  3) The world is changing so quickly that if he gives his son career advice based on his experiences, it will be outdated wisdom.

My daughter-in-law was wondering whether their son, who is currently in eighth grade, was being pushed too hard in school. His counselor was recommending several advanced placement classes when planning his high school courses. I told her a story from Friedman.

Friedman's mother-in-law is the board chairman at Grinnell College, which is a small liberal arts college in Iowa. Last year, 10% of Grinnell's applications came from China. Of those 250 Chinese applicants, 50% had perfect 800 scores on the math SAT. Those kids are the people who will be competing with my grandson for jobs in a few years. Friedman's comment is that even Americans in "good" schools aren't getting an education that's good enough when compared with the education that is provided by many other countries.

Let me conclude with a wonderful piece of video. It's Friedman talking about his book at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The video runs for about an hour, but I promise you it is one of the best hours you'll spend. Even if you don't read the book, you'll learn something.

Personally, I think the best gift you can give your grandchildren this Christmas is to give a copy of "That Used to be Us" to their parents. Here's the video:

Friday, November 18, 2011

The sky is falling: Not!

Here we go again! Public employee pension systems are supposedly crushing the life out of state finances. Just listen to part of a recent column by Leo Hindery, Jr --former CEO of AT&T Broadband and Liberty Communications--in the Huffington Post. He is referring to the Rhode Island State Pension Fund.

"Rhode Island's state pension fund now consumes 10% of every state tax dollar, and this figure is currently projected to double within just the next few years....And the root problem? Until just this year, Rhode Island calculated its pension number by assuming an average annual rate of return on its investments of 8.25% -- in fact, for the last decade its actual average return on investment was only about 2.40%. And in each of the last 10 years the state's fund paid more money to retirees than the fund collected from state employees and taxpayers combined....Rhode Island is a microcosm of what's wrong with the country's $3 trillion worth of public pensions plans in the aggregate, and it's truly the 'canary in the (national pension crisis) coal mine'. The state -- just like 49 other states -- made promises it didn't sufficiently fund along the way and now can't keep. That bill has come due, so to speak, and...the state is being forced to choose among the state reneging on both past and future promises to workers, undermining its future by cutting back on investing in everything from schools to green energy to health care, or, even though in the midst of an ongoing recession, raising revenues through large tax increases."

It's interesting to compare this with the recent news release by the New York State Teachers' Retirement System:"A robust total fund return of 23.2% net of fees for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011 was the largest rate of return posted in 25 years by NYSTRS. The figure was nearly double the previous year's return of 12.1%."

"The two consecutive years of double-digit returns helped the System regain much of the loss sustained during the devastating 2008-09 economic crisis. "

"As of June 30, 2011, total net assets were valued at $89.9 billion, an increase of more than $13 billion from a year earlier. NYSTRS has achieved returns well above the 8.0% assumed rate of return in four of the past six years. The System's 25-year annualized rate of return stood at 9.0% — or 100 basis points above the actuarially assumed rate. " 

Remember that part about the Rhode Island system paying out more in benefits than it took in from members and employers? Here's the way the NYSTRS looks at it: "The NYSTRS plan has also proven to be extremely efficient and cost effective. For the 20-year period ended June 30, 2011, NYSTRS collected $15.3 billion in member and employer contributions while paying out $63.5 billion in benefits. Despite distributing nearly $50 billion more than it took in, System assets rose from $31 billion to $89.9 billion."

Are employer contribution rates skyrocketing out of control? Not for NYSTRS: "Due in large part to the System's long-term investment success, the employer contribution rate has remained in single digits over this same 20-year period. In the 1990s the average rate was 5.66% and in the 2000s it was 4.37%. The 11.11% rate applicable to 2011-12 payroll will be the first double-digit rate in 22 years."

It should be noted that the employer contribution rate is based on a rolling 5-year average of investment performance. That means that the losses which occurred in 2008-2009 will work their way out of the calculation in a couple of years. If the stock market doesn't plummet again, it is reasonable to assume that the ECR will actually decrease in the future.

Why is NYSTRS doing so well? The simple answer is that it is fully funded. Other state systems are also supposed to be fully funded, but in New York's case the required contributions by public employers were actually made each year. States such as New Jersey and California took several years off from making contributions as a way of keeping taxes lower.

As i have pointed out before, that's like contracting with someone to paint your house then, when the house is painted telling the painter, "I spent some of the money I was going to use to pay your bill on a big new flatscreen TV, so you'll have to accept less than the contract price." And then, you accuse the painter of being greedy when the painter insists that you pay him the agreed upon price!

Other state public employee pension systems may be in trouble, but it's not because of the "greed" of the public employees. If you hear anyone trying to lump NYSTRS in with those other systems, now you have the facts to set them straight!

Friday, November 11, 2011

And then, a teacher picked up her pen...

I like Fareed Zakaria. He usually has intelligent, informed ideas concerning his specialty, foreign affairs. Last week, he wrote a piece called "When Will We Learn?" for Time magazine and my head nearly exploded.

Now, it didn't start out that way. I agreed with almost all of his thoughts. You really should click on the link above and read the entire article, it's not long. If you're short on time, here are some of his points:

" is worth noting that [Steve] Jobs got a great secondary education. The school he attended, Homestead High in Cupertino, Calif., was a first-rate public school that gave him a grounding in both the liberal arts and technology. It did the same for Steve Wozniak, the more technically oriented co-founder of Apple Computer, whom Jobs met at that same school. In 1972, the year Jobs graduated, California's public schools were the envy of the world. They were generally rated the finest in the country, well funded and well run, with excellent teachers. These schools were engines of social mobility that took people like Jobs and Wozniak and gave them an educational grounding that helped them rise."

"Today, California's public schools are a disaster, beset by dysfunction and disrepair. They rank at the bottom of the country, just as the U.S. now sits at the bottom of the industrialized world by most measures of educational achievement. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S.'s educational system 26th in the world, well behind those of countries like Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and Singapore. In science and math, we score even worse."

OK, no surprises here. I'm nodding in agreement. He continues: "....As American education has collapsed, the median wages of the American worker have stagnated, and social mobility—the beating heart of the American dream—has slowed to a standstill. Education is and always has been the fastest way up the socio economic ladder. And the payoff from a good education remains evident even in this weak recovery. The unemployment rate for college graduates is just 4%, but for high school dropouts it is 14%. If you drop out of high school—and the U.S. has a 25% dropout rate—you will have a depressed standard of living for the rest of your life." More nodding from me.

"The need for better education for most Americans has never been more urgent. While we have been sleeping, the rest of the world has been upgrading its skills. Countries in Europe and Asia have worked hard to increase their college-graduation rates, while the U.S.'s — once the world's highest — has flatlined. Other countries have focused on math and science, while in America degrees have proliferated in "fields" like sports exercise and leisure studies." More nodding, and groaning. The groaning is because I watched the Republican debate Wed. night and one of the two things Rick Perry could remember he would do away with as soon as he became president is the Dept. of Education. That'll sure help us catch up with the rest of the world!

Zakaria goes on to say we need to work harder, like they do in South Korea's schools and get better teachers, as in Finland. "Finland has great teachers, who are paid well and treated with the same professional respect that is accorded to doctors and lawyers. They are found and developed through an extremely competitive and rigorous process. All teachers are required to have master's degrees, and only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted to the country's teacher-training programs. The contrast with the U.S. is stark. Half of America's teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class."

I like that part about being paid and treated well. My head is now bouncing like one of those bobble-head dolls on a dashboard. And then, my head explodes!

"There are many more ideas, many of them worthwhile and worth trying, but you can get lost in the details of the education debate. These two seem simple—work more and get better teachers. Yet implementing them is anything but simple. They bump up against an education system that is deeply resistant to change and teachers' unions that jealously guard their prerogatives. All the specific measures that would allow students to work more and good teachers to be identified and rewarded— more days, longer hours, merit pay—are mostly opposed by the teachers' unions and other guardians of the status quo." [Emphasis mine.]

You almost got it, Fareed, but you bought into the anti-teacher, anti-union BS being spouted by the education "reformers." I've never met a group of people who so desperately want to change the educational system as do teachers. Have a look. Teachers don't control the system! And I will not apologize for my union's position that adding hours, days or weeks to my work load should mean an increase in compensation. 

So I reached for my keyboard. And then I stopped. I knew there would be an inservice teacher somewhere in America who would respond. This week's issue of Time proved me correct. Here's the letter that Laurie Floyd of Howell, NJ sent in response to Zakaria's piece. (Note: If you are unfamiliar with the Khan videos she mentions, please read the Zakaria piece.)

"Perhaps I shouldn't have read Zakaria's article after spending the last hour of my 10-hour teaching day looking for a copier that worked and then hand-stapling over 100 tests. I was probably a bit cranky to start. Then again, maybe I am a little tired of people who have never taught a roomful of 34 high school students telling me I am doing it wrong. I too love the Khan Academy model, but how would I get all my students to watch the Khan videos at home, on their own time, when many do not have a working computer and some do little, if any, homework?" (And, by the way, I do not teach at an inner-city or rural school; I teach in a wealthy suburb.) Instead of blaming us teachers, ask us what would actually improve education. Here's my answer: 1) Deal with childhood poverty, 2) hold students partly responsible for their education so they meet us at least halfway, and 3) give teachers more time to prepare and receive professional development. A working copier would help too."

I couldn't have said it better.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some thoughts on the day after elections.

Let's begin with the one that feels the best: Ohio. Voters there overwhelmingly repealed the law taking collective bargaining rights away from teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees.

The typical voter doesn't pay a lot of attention to politics, except close to election day. But they're not stupid. They're smart enough to get downright cranky when the folks who had just won an election with a promise of "Jobs, jobs, jobs" deliver, instead,  an anti-union law which had never been mentioned during the election campaign.

Several states allow voters to overturn laws enacted by their state governments. It seems to be a good check on the power of the state, without going as far as the "voters make laws" ballot initiatives in states like California.

Maine also has the ability of voters to repeal state legislation, and it was used last night to overturn the new ban on same-day registration and voting. Maine had had same-day registration for almost 40 years, and they seemed to have liked it.

Maine voters apparently agree with Andrew Rosenthal's column in Monday's NY Times titled "Voter fraud: Does it happen?" Rosenthal went in search of the voter fraud that Republicans claim is serious enough to justify new "photo ID" requirements for voting. He looked at some of the deepest "red" websites, such as "Red State," to see what the fuss was about. His conclusion: "...from what I can tell every one of the Red State incidents revolved around corrupt poll workers or local officials or some other functionary messing with absentee ballots. That’s an age old problem but one that voter ID laws will not fix. I’m still not seeing evidence of large numbers of individuals impersonating someone else to cast a ballot or voting despite the fact that they don’t meet eligibility requirements. "

In Mississippi, 55% of that state's very conservative electorate refused to change the state constitution to define a fertilized egg as a person. This would have, of course, outlawed abortion in the state, but would also have outlawed forms of birth control--such as the pill--that prevent implantation of that fertilized egg in the uterus, and also prevent pregnancies that might lead to abortion.

It was interesting to see an interview with outgoing Mississippi governor Haley Barbour yesterday in which he gave thoughtful consideration to some of the downsides of the proposed change. He brought up one that I had not considered: ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg implanted somewhere other than the uterus--usually the fallopian tube--is a life-threatening situation for the mother. Under the proposal, the doctor could be charged with murder for removing the "person" from the mother. After explaining this, Barbour went on to say that he had voted "yes." It must be the water.

Closer to WNY, the Buffalo News reports that Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz soundly defeated incumbent Chris Collins for the post of Erie County Executive. If you're not familiar with Erie County politics, Collins is a well-to-do businessman whose platform four years ago was to "run government like a business." Well, he did and that's part of the problem.

Donn Esmonde, in his column this morning in the Buffalo News, quotes UB political science professor Jim Campbell: "I think that's the downside of [Collins'] business experience. CEOs can do what they want, and people have to suck it up. But this is politics. People can answer back in the voting booth."

Governments are like business in that the guy in the corner office needs to be able to handle budgets, manage people, etc. Unlike business, however, the man at the top is not the ruler of all he surveys. There are those other pesky branches of government with equal powers in a checks-and-balances arrangement designed to prevent the head man from acting like a king.

Esmonde points out that this was the problem with Collins: "At times, Collins acted more like a king than a county executive. He denied the Justice Department full access to investigate mistreatment at county jails. He refused to release funds OK'd by the County Legislature, only loosening his grip after getting sued. Collins seemed not to comprehend, or at least not to respect, the Legislature's role as a check on an executive's absolute rule. All of it painted an image of the stereotypical hardhearted CEO, whom voters Tuesday decided they no longer wanted as county executive."

On balance, last night's elections results went a long way toward restoring my faith in the American electorate.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Young vs old wealth gap growing? Not so fast!

There's a new report out today from the Pew Research Center which is sure to get a lot of attention in the days leading up to the congressional supercommittee report deadline of Nov. 23. Here are the first two paragraphs of the story from the AP as posted at the Huffington Post:

"The typical U.S. household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35, according to an analysis of census data released Monday."

"While people typically accumulate assets as they age, this wealth gap is now more than double what it was in 2005 and nearly five times the 10-to-1 disparity a quarter-century ago, after adjusting for inflation."

Here it is in graphical form from a story at CNN/Money:

According to the CNN/Money story: "Net worth includes the sum of a household's assets (like equity in a home, car and savings and retirement accounts) minus its debts (like mortgage, car and student loans and credit card debt)"

Why the big disparity? CNN says that: "Perhaps the biggest factor leading to the wealth gap between the ages though, is the housing market....Most of today's older homeowners got into the housing market long ago, at 'pre-bubble' prices," the report said. "Along with everyone else, they've been hurt by the housing market collapse of recent years, but over the long haul, most have seen their home equities rise."

Read the full stories to get a better picture of what's happening, but this certainly doesn't help those who are trying to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts by the supercommittee. On the surface, it looks like the geezers are making out like bandits while the young are getting screwed.

Let's go under the surface a bit. Suppose your net worth is $170,494. Are you rolling in clover? Maybe, until you consider healthcare costs.

Wait a minute! Old folks get free medical care through Medicare! No way. Take a minute and refer to one of my previous posts: Hey Washington, we've already got plenty of skin in the game! You will see that it is reasonable to assume that a retired couple on Medicare--and fully insured with medigap and prescription drug insurance--will have out-of-pocket medical costs approaching $10,000/year.

Actually, according to the Money page at US News, the picture is worse: " In the past, I've written that retired couples will need between $205,932 (Boston College Center for Retirement Research estimate) and $225,000 (Fidelity Investments estimate) to coverhealthcare costs in retirement."

"A new analysis by the nonpartisan EBRI puts the number for a couple currently age 65 at a staggeringly high $635,000, and that doesn't include long-term-care costs. This ultraconservative calculation is higher than the other estimates because it is designed to give the retired couple a 90 percent chance of having enough money to cover all health bills beyond what Medicare covers."

"However, if you are willing to accept a fifty-fifty chance of being able to pay your out-of-pocket expenses, $212,000 would be sufficient for a couple (right smack in the middle of the other two estimates)."

"EBRI also calculated that a 65-year-old single man will need $331,000 and a single woman $390,000 to be almost completely certain of covering all out-of-pocket retiree health costs. If you're willing to accept a fifty-fifty chance, those numbers can be halved, EBRI says."

How's that $170,494 net worth looking now? And isn't it wonderful that we old folks in the USA don't have to put up with one of those French or German health care plans that cover everything--including longterm care--at about half the per capita cost of the American system. We Americans are just so bright and--what's the word?--exceptional.

Oh, I know they're paying higher taxes, but take a look at those numbers I just quoted and tell me who's getting the better deal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is Social Security broke?

OK, stop hyperventilating. The short answer is "not even close." But first, a couple of updates on my last post.

It now appears that the supercommittee is not looking at "clawing back" any Social Security benefits already in place. Instead, they are talking about reducing future benefit growth in a way that will result in about a 9% benefit decrease compared with the current system for someone who is now 65 by the time they reach age 90.

As I said in the last post, they want to use a different way of calculating the cost-of-living figure on which any increase in benefits is calculated each year. They claim that the current system is overly generous.

Right. That would be the overly generous system that resulted in ZERO cost of living increase for 2010 and ZERO cost of living increase for 2011. There will be a 3.6% increase in benefits for 2012, so that averages out to 1.2%/year for the last 3 years. Don't spend it all in one place! Oh, and don't forget that some of that increase will be eaten up by an increase in your Medicare Part B premium.

By the way, it turns out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics did a little experiment. They actually came up with a cost of living index based on what seniors buy. Turns out that the current figure used by Social Security is under-generous, instead of over-generous. Whoops!

Now, some idiots on the editorial page of the Washington Post are claiming that Social Security is broke because it's "cash negative" for the year. William Greider has a nice piece in The Nation called "Smearing Social Security," in which he addresses some of the more ridiculous claims. For example, the Post claims: "Adding billions to US budget woes,” the headline read. Instead of piling up surpluses, as the Social Security trust fund has done for nearly thirty years, this year the system became “cash negative.” Social Security, the Post warned, “is sucking money out of the Treasury.”

Greider goes on to say that "Last night, I heard a TV anchor remark in passing, “We just read that Social Security is in the red.” He answers: "Baloney. The truth—if truth is still relevant to Washington politics—is that Social Security has never contributed a dime to the federal budget deficits. Therefore, cutting Social Security for the elderly will do nothing to relieve the deficit problem....In fact, Social Security has piled up enormous surpluses—now $2.7 trillion—which the federal government has borrowed and spent on other things, wars or highways or corporate tax breaks."

And here's where another big lie about Social Security comes in. I'll bet you've heard someone say that there really isn't any Social Security trust fund, it's just a "bunch of worthless IOU's,"

Let's talk about that for a minute. Those "worthless IOU's" are U.S. Treasury Bonds. They're what used to be called the "widows and orphans" investment because the risk was as close to zero as you could imagine. They don't pay a ton of interest, but you're damn sure you'll get your principal back when the bonds come due.

Lots of people hold Treasuries in their portfolios and, trust me, they don't think of them as "worthless IOU's." Nations such as China have lent money to the USA and receive Treasuries in return. Trust me, China does not see these as "worthless IOU's." So why are the Treasuries held by Social Security any different. It's simple: they're not. 

According to Greider: "The nation’s largest creditor is not China. It is the working people of America and their employers who collectively have amassed Social Security’s huge surplus through the weekly FICA contributions required by law. This wealth is the nest egg that will pay for swelling benefits as the baby-boom generation retires. Far from being broke or “sucking” billions from the Treasury, the Social Security trust fund will continue to accumulate larger and larger surpluses during the next ten years, reaching $3.7 trillion by 2022, according to the system’s trustees."

Greider's full piece is well worth the five minutes it will take to read it. Here's the link again:

One last thing: The last post generated some comments at the blog. Remember that comments in the blog are "moderated," which means that they are not posted immediately, Instead, they come to me via email and I approve their posting. I check my email several times each day, but there may be several hours between when you post your comment to the blog and when it actually appears, particularly if you're a night-owl and do it at 2 AM!

I continue to promise that all comments will be posted, whether you agree with my position or not. Moderation is used to avoid the obscene, hate-filled comments which I'm sure you have encountered in other places where comments are allowed without moderation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I'm ticked off, and you will be too!

How would you like to see your monthly Social Security check SHRINK by 3%? If you currently receive $1500/month, that would mean a DECREASE of $45 each month, or $540 each year. Well, get ready because that seems about ready to happen!

According to a piece by Dean Baker in yesterday's Huffington Post: "If anyone still questioned who owns Washington, the Congressional supercommittee charged with reducing projected deficits by $1.2 trillion seems determined to end any doubts. According to press accounts, both the Republicans and Democrats on the committee support a plan to reduce average Social Security benefits by 3 percent."

"This particular cut is especially pernicious since it will hit the oldest and poorest beneficiaries hardest. A person who is in their 90s and has been getting benefits for 30 years would see a reduction in benefits of close to 9 percent under the new cost-of-living adjustment formula apparently supported by members of the committee."

The claim is that the current method used to calculate the "cost of living" increase for Social Security recipients is overly generous. The claim is that when the price of apples, for example, in the "basket of goods" used to figure the consumer price index goes up, we don't continue to buy apples but, instead, purchase a less expensive fruit.

While this may be true, let's think about the things that seniors purchase. Look back over your expenses for the last year and I'll bet you find a large amount of your spending was on medical/dental expenses and prescription drugs. When medical costs go up, do you switch to the less expensive witch doctor? When prescription drug prices rise, do you switch to the less expensive herbal medicines? I didn't think so.

Notice that the 3% reduction is for the folks newest to Social Security. The older folks who have been receiving benefits for the longest time would have their benefits recalculated from the time they began receiving Social Security using the stingier cpi formula, thus the 9% benefit reduction for the 90-year-old mentioned above.

By the way, let's remember that Social Security has not contributed one penny to the deficit! It currently has a surplus which will allow current benefits to be paid for the next 25 years, and at a level of 75% of current benefits beyond that. If we simply remove the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes (currently at $109,000) any Social Security funding problem disappears.

Is Social Security an overly generous program? According to Jeff Madrick: " The average payment is $14,000 a year. It is getting less generous. It used to replace 55 percent of retirement income, but benefits were reduced in the 1980s. It now covers on average 41 percent of retirement income. In 2031, it will cover 32 percent of retirement income."

Madrick continues: "What will drive future budget deficits is Medicare and Medicaid, not Social Security, and for the umpteenth time, the reason is that overall health costs are expected to rise quickly. This means we have to reform our uniquely inefficient healthcare system. Congress is, as usual, diverting us from the real issues. No wonder Americans like Occupy Wall Street."

Who's on the "supercommittee?" Click here for a CNN/Money post giving information about the committee members.

Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Halloween and the political parties are exchanging costumes.

I have a big file of "stuff I'd like to eventually get around to using" in these blog posts. I was looking through it this morning, and came across a special report done by the Washington Post earlier this year titled "Running in the Red: How the U.S., on the Road to Surplus, Detoured to Massive Debt."

The opening paragraphs caught my attention: "The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis."

"In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed."

"Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes...."

Out of curiosity, I clicked on the "voices of caution" link and found myself reading a January 20, 1999 article covering Bill Clinton's next-to-last State of the Union address. I had long ago forgotten what he said. Here is some of the article:

"President Clinton appeared before a joint session of Congress last night to present an ebullient vision of a nation enjoying vast prosperity after six years under his leadership, a newfound abundance that he said should be used to prepare for the burden of a rapidly aging population in the next century."

"....announcing a policy barrage that includes one of the more ambitious initiatives of his presidency: a plan to devote some $2.7 trillion in projected budget surpluses over the next 15 years to Social Security"

"Clinton also proposed directing billions of the surplus to the Medicare health insurance program for seniors. Cumulatively, the president anticipates spending nearly 90 percent of the surplus on programs for the aged."

Clinton's ideas struck me as "prudent." a term which used to be closely associated with the Republicans. Many of you will remember Dana Carvey's imitation of George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live. "Wouldn't be prudent" was the big laugh-getter.

Thomas Friedman's new book "That used to be us: How America Fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back" contains a wonderful description of how our parties have traded costumes:

"Neither of America's two major parties seems to be able to address in serious fashion the challenges the country confronts. Their political philosophies are worlds apart, and neither outlook is suitable for the present moment. The Democrats act as if government is the solution to all of America's difficulties; the Republicans act as if government is the cause of all of them. The Democrats behave as if virtually every program the government created in the twentieth century is perfect and cannot be changed in any way; the Republicans seek to send the country back to the nineteenth century, before any of those programs existed. Neither approach will give the country the policies it needs to succeed in the decades to come."

"In fact, the parties have reversed their historical positions. A generation ago Democrats stood for progressive change. Now they defend every federal program as if each were sacred. They have become the most conservative force in American politics. The term "reactionary liberalism" is not a contradiction in terms; it is an accurate description of the Democrats' approach to governance."

"The Republicans used to be the conservatives in the original, genuine, European sense, opposed to sudden, rapid shifts in public policy and prudent [NOTE: there's that word!] when it came to public finances. Now they are the party of fiscal radicalism and recklessness, cutting taxes without reducing spending and thereby pushing the United States ever deeper into debt."

"The two parties are, however, united on two things--unfortunately. Neither has the courage to take the necessary steps to address the dangerously high budget deficits: reduce spending on the main entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare), raise taxes, and invest in the programs on which economic success depends. And neither has the courage to reduce America's, and therefore the world's, ruinous dependence on oil by raising the  price of gasoline."

Trick or treat!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I saved $700 in 45 minutes last Sunday.

Last month I did a blog post about the new "open enrollment" dates for Medicare, which run from October 15 through Dec. 7 of this year. If you missed it, click here to go to that post.

Practicing what I preach, I went to last Sunday morning, and looked at part D drug plans. In 45 minutes I had discovered a drug plan that would save me $700 in out-of-pocket costs next year compared with my current plan.

I used the "personalized search" option, which required that I know my medicare number and some other information which you can find on the front of your medicare card. Using the personalized--rather than general search--I was able to handle the whole enrollment process at the Medicare site, and Medicare will take care of canceling my current drug plan at the end of this year.

You will also need to know the names of the medications you take, as well as their dosages, so collect your prescription bottles and have them handy when you go searching for a new part D drug plan.

At $700 for 45 minutes of work, that's $933/hour. It's tough to find a job that pays that well, and you can do it from home in your bathrobe!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'll bet you didn't know this about nursing home care.

I was thumbing through the latest AARP magazine this afternoon, and ran across something both fascinating and frightening. It's on page 93. Here's the question that was asked:

"A nursing home recently sued my friend for $10,000 to pay for her father's end-of-life care. She had signed no papers and had no say in his choices or expenditures--is she responsible?" Here's the answer:

"In 30 states "filial responsibility" laws, while seldom enforced, say that adult children must care for parents who can't aford care for themselves....Some long-term care facilities that can't get payment for services--through the resident's funds of through Medicaid--are turning to the resident's children for restitution. Everyone with a parent in assisted living or a nursing home should understand the laws in the state their parent lives in. Check out the info at"

Here are the states WITHOUT filial responsibility laws:ME, NY, SC, FL, AL, MI, WI, MN, IL, MO, NE, KS, OK, TX, WY, CO, NM, WA, AZ, ID, HI.

Any state not listed above DOES have a filial responsibility law.

Friday, October 21, 2011

American Teacher: A movie you should know about.

Remember how angry you got when the film Waiting for Superman told the world that the problem with our educational system is greedy, lazy, unionized teachers? Well, it's time for the other side of the story!

The new film, American Teacher, is directed by Academy Award winner Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon. It's produced by the Teacher Salary Project. Here's their description:

"THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT encompasses a feature-length documentary film, an interactive online resource, and a national outreach campaign that delves into the core of our educational crisis as seen through the eyes and experiences of our nation's teachers. This project is based on the New York Times bestselling book Teachers Have It Easy by journalist and teacher Daniel Moulthrop, co-founder of the 826 National writing programs Nínive Calegari, and writer Dave Eggers. American Teacher is produced by Eggers and Calegari, produced and directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth, and narrated by Matt Damon."

"Weaving interviews of policy experts and startling facts with the lives and careers of four teachers, our film, American Teacher, tells the collective story by and about those closest to the issues in our educational system—the 3.2 million teachers who spend every day in classrooms across the country. Through an interactive and evolving website and a feature-length documentary that brings together educational experts, student interviews, and a year of documenting the day-to-day lives and sacrifices of public school teachers, THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT will bring an awareness to the real and imminent crisis in our educational system—how little we value our strongest, most committed, and most effective teachers, and the ripple effect this has on how our children learn and their potential for future success."

"In keeping with the storytelling styles of both Dave Eggers (writer) and Vanessa Roth (director), American Teacher is a character-driven film that explores this urgent issue through humor, irony, and the energy of the teachers who fill the screen. Since 2008, our team has closely followed the stories of four teachers living and working in disparate urban and rural areas across the country. The film's narrative balances the personal stories of each character with a mixture of interviews and animated facts and statistics by Stefan Nadelman, each highlighting the big sacrifices made by our nation’s teachers, and how these demanding costs force many of our greatest teachers out of the profession. The film is narrated by Matt Damon, who is passionate about education, and includes an original musical score by Thao Nguyen. American Teacher won the silver award in the documentary category of the 34th Annual Philadelphia International Film Festival."

"Research has shown that the top-performing school systems in the world all share one consistent feature: top-performing teachers. In the next five years, over one million teachers will retire. By following four feature teachers as they reach different milestones in their careers, our film tells the deeper story of the teaching profession in America today, and what we can do to invest in it for tomorrow."

Here is the trailer for American Teacher:

Just in case you have a continuing battle with a relative or neighbor who agrees with the Waiting for Superman model, the American Teacher website provides some interesting information, all nicely sourced as you would expect from teachers. [NOTE: If you click on any of the "source" links below, you will go to the same list on the American Teacher website. Mouseover the source link on that site to get the source citation.]

  • Studies prove that a great teacher can impart a year and a half's worth of learning to a student in one year. source

  • 46 percent of teachers in public schools leave the profession within five years. source

  • Teachers make 14 percent less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education. source

  • In the next 10 years, more than 1.8 million of the 3.2 million teachers will become eligible for retirement. source

  • 14 percent of teachers leave the profession each year; in urban districts, the turnover is higher: 20 percent.source

  • High turnover of American teachers costs our country over $7 billion every year. source

  • Teachers are priced out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas. source

  • Only 4.7 percent of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. 68 percent of college students said they would consider the teaching profession if it paid 50 percent more than the current occupations they were considering. source

  • The average starting salary for teachers in our country is $39,000; the average ending salary—after 25 years in the profession—is $67,000. source

  • In 1970 in New York City, a starting lawyer going into a prestigious firm and a starting teacher going into public education had a differential in their entry salary of about $2,000. Today, including salary and bonus, that starting lawyer makes $160,000, while starting teachers in New York make roughly $45,000. source

  • Teachers work an average of ten hours per day. source

  • 92.4 percent of teachers spent their own money on their students or classrooms during the 2007-2008 school year. source

  • 62 percent of teachers have second jobs outside of the classroom. source

  • 61 percent of adults think teachers are underpaid given their level of training and importance to society. source

  • 77 percent of U.S. adults feel teaching is among the most under-appreciated professions in the U.S. source

  • 76 percent agree that many of the smartest people in society don't go into teaching because being a teacher doesn't pay enough. source

  • Good teaching over a sustained period can [help students] overcome the disadvantages of poverty. source

  • There are currently no screenings listed in the Buffalo area, but I'm on their newsletter list and will let you know when one is scheduled. You can click here for a current list of screenings.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Are colleges letting us down?

    I remember the first piece of advice I received when I started college in the fall of 1961. "Don't learn to play bridge, "said the dorm RA, "it's the surest way to flunk out."

    The members of my fraternity were dead set against having a TV in the house. They saw it as a time-waster and a start along the road to flunking out. When Kennedy was assassinated, we had to trudge to the student union to find one of the few TV's on campus.

    How things have changed! Kathleen Parker addresses the college problem in her September 30 Washington Post column, Our Unprepared Graduates.

    "We often hear lamentations about declining educational quality, but the focus is usually misplaced on SAT scores and graduation rates. Missing from the conversation is the quality of what’s being taught. Meanwhile, we are mistakenly wed to the notion that more people going to college means more people will find jobs....Fundamentally, students aren’t learning what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist."

    "The failure of colleges and universities to teach basic skills, while coddling [students] with plush dorms and self-directed “study,” is a dot-connecting exercise for Uncle Shoulda, who someday will say — in Chinese — “How could we have let this happen?”

    "A 2010 study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 87 percent of employers believe that higher-education institutions have to raise student achievement if the United States is to be competitive in the global market. Sixty-three percent say that recent college grads don’t have the skills they need to succeed. And, according to a separate survey, more than a quarter of employers say entry-level writing skills are deficient."

    Parker refers to a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, based on a study by  Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. Among the conclusions of their study:

    "Our findings confirm earlier warning signs that college students on average are learning less, even as tuition costs in many institutions have risen sharply and competition for jobs has increased. With a large and diverse sample of over 3,000 students drawn from 29 four-year accredited colleges and universities, our study has broad implications." 

    "45% of our sample showed little or no evidence of improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing after two years. After four years at college, 36% showed no significant growth."

    "If your association is with a highly selective institution, you may be thinking that these findings only apply to other colleges and universities. That is not so. There is more variation within institutions than across institutions: in other words, even students at the “best” schools have too often been provided with ways to navigate through four years of college with little academically asked of them. If students are not exposed to rigorous academic courses, they are likely to leave college with limited growth in the core collegiate skills that we measured. We found that certain programs and majors were consistently less successful in building reasoning and writing skills. Students in education, communications, and business had the lowest measurable gains." [Emphasis mine.]

    According to Parker: "College students may be undereducated, but they’re not dumb and many feel short-changed. A recent Roper Organization study found that nearly half of recent graduates don’t think they got their money’s worth. The problem with education isn’t money — we spend plenty — but quality. Yet, instead of figuring out how to make education pay future dividends, higher-educational institutions are building better dorms with flat-screen TVs, movie theaters and tanning salons, according to a recent CNN report. If parents aren’t furious, they’re not paying attention."

    Colleges have changed. They now view their students as "customers" and try their best to give the customer what he/she wants. 

    Note to college folks: What your customer "wants" is a degree from your institution involving as little work as possible, leaving as much time as possible for fine dining experiences and the social arts. What your customer "needs" is something else entirely. 

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Imagine it's December 8, 1941...

    Imagine it's December 8, 1941. Yesterday, the United States suffered a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We need to do something, and do it damn fast!

    Now imagine that the defense powers of the country do not rest with a central, federal body but, instead, rest in the hands of 15,000 local "defense districts." This might have been done because we wanted "local control" of guns and the military. We didn't want any central authority in Washington controlling our local military hardware or personnel.

    Oh, by the way, there is no central authority which can make the local defense districts work together in time of emergency. To ensure local control, the Dept. of Defense--along with the position of Sec. of Defense--was eliminated. There is some organization within each state, but that's still 50 organizations with which to work.

    With a setup like this, just how do you imagine WWII would have gone?

    Welcome to education in the United States of America!

    We're getting out-educated by most of the world. Almost all of these nations have strong national control over their educational systems. They made out-educating the USA a matter of national security, and jumped in with both feet, with the aid of national standards and a national curriculum.

    Us? Well, for a start, one of our two great political parties holds debates at which the candidates for national office try to top each other with how quickly they will eliminate the Dept. of Education if they are elected. No national organization needed here. It's clear that the good folks on the local school board in South Bubba Creek are perfectly capable of deciding how much algebra or physics their students need to succeed in today's world, and how it should be taught.

    In reality, most Americans--including those good folks on the school board--have no idea how much the world has changed in the last 15 years. They think that the schools that were good enough in the 60's and 70's are good enough to protect our standard of living.

    As Bill Gates told Thomas Friedman (also the author of The World is Flat) in his new book, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back: "You always have to renew your lead. But we have to ask: Where did this lead come from in the first place? It was that we educated more people than the other guys, and we attracted more talent, and we built better infrastructure. We need to get back to work in renewing the sources of our advantage." [Emphasis mine.]

    There is general agreement that we need to vastly improve our schools, and we'd better get to it quickly if we want to maintain our standard of living in America. Science, technology, engineering and math will be the key to our efforts.

    So what are we doing? Our schools are losing teachers at an alarming rate. We're told that we can't afford teachers. That's like saying that we couldn't afford to build bombers during WWII. You don't cut back on the thing you need to win!

    The math and science stuff? Well, we have one of our great political parties being actively antagonistic to science. That can't help.

    Friedman's book has some great stuff about how the world has changed, and about the educational system we need to respond to these changes. I'll be sharing some of it with you. If you're a reader, it's well worth the money and the time.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    Fact checking last night's debate.

    Draw whatever conclusions you wish from last night's Republican debate, but please begin the argument from actual facts. As with any political event, the candidates made some correct statements, but managed to slip in lots of half-truths, opinions masquerading as facts, and outright falsehoods.

    Here are a couple of fact checks:

    From the Washington Post:


    Friday, October 7, 2011

    I couldn't afford to buy a politician, so I made this sign.

    The title of this post is but one of the many signs carried in New York by the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters. Both Paul Krugman of the NY Times and Donn Esmonde of the Buffalo News made Occupy Wall St. the subject of their columns this morning.

    Krugman began his column by saying, "...we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people."

    Krugman continues: "A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate — and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts."

    "In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis."

    The protest has sparked similar gatherings all over the country, including Buffalo. In today's column, Donn Esmonde links the Buffalo protest to the one in NYC. "The bankers and brokers got theirs. Meanwhile, in the real world, unemployment pushes 10 percent. Countless homeowners owe more on their house than it’s worth. Twentysomethings exit college with massive debt and minuscule job prospects. People work more for less. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have a collective net worth greater than the lowest 90 percent. Republicans moan about Democrats fueling class warfare, but that battle started a long time ago — and most of us are losing."

    Esmonde is quick to point out that the protesters are just as angry at the Democrats: "For years, well-paying American manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas. The switch from a manufacturing- to a service-based economy has brought many people more pain than gain. The chickens are coming home to roost. Even die-hard Obama-ites are weary of waiting for change they can believe in from the president.

    “Obama promised change, and then filled his Cabinet with Wall Street types”..... “How is that change?”
    One of the Buffalo protesters sums it up this way:  “I can’t afford to pay a lobbyist to get my voice heard,” she said. “We are out here to change things, because we know it won’t get done for us.”

    So why should retired teachers care? This is really an extension of the fight that began in Wisconsin. Corporations and Wall St. would like nothing better than to see a world without any way for workers to have their voices heard especially through a union.

    Politicians don't really lead. They look around for a parade and, if it seems big enough, they try to jump out in front of the marchers. That's what happened with the Tea Party. Maybe this parade will attract some "leaders" as well.

    One last thing. On his Wednesday night show, Jon Stewart devoted the first nine minutes to Occupy Wall St. As only he can do, he highlighted the stunning hypocrisy of the media. Won't these people ever learn about an invention called videotape?
    This clip is great! Do not miss it! There's a 30-second commercial, but the clip is well worth the wait!