Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 2011--King's Speechless

I stayed up very late watching the Academy Awards and have no energy left this morning to do any blogging.

I thought the show was the worst ever. The co-hosts were like two adolescents who had captured the the theater and TV audience and taken us as hostages. It was not a good thiong that the hosting highlight was the ghostly appearance of Bob Hope on black-and-white film. So much for appealing to a "younger demographic."

As for myself, I thought The Fighter was the best film of the year.

I will return in March with more to say.

Friday, February 25, 2011

February 25, 2011--Snowbirding: Peggy Pays A Visit--Concluded

Parts On and Two of Peggy Pays A Visit can be found by scrolling down and then working one's way back up.

Back at the condo Peggy did call her broker and it looks as if she will take Ted’s advice and add some gold and other commodities to her portfolio. “That Fred is quite a guy,” she said. I didn’t bother to correct her.

Then, after a long walk on the beach where the mounds of washed-up jellyfish intrigued her (“I could really get into this nature business”), some frantic calls to her publisher (“When will I see some money?” we overheard her asking), and a two-hour nap to make up for lost sleep the night before (thankfully, she doesn’t talk in her sleep), when Peggy roused herself, she said, “I can’t believe it, but though it’s only five o’clock, I’m actually getting hungry. It must be the salt in the air or Florida resetting my biological clock.”

“Didn’t that clock of yours shut down years ago?” I said, fooling with her New-York style.

Back in the city she would have jabbed right back at me, but instead said, “Do you think we could go for an early dinner to that China Diner place you told me about? In an e-mail extolling the virtues of Florida and how you’re missing New York less and less you told me they make a decent sea bass with scallions and ginger. After all that grease I had for breakfast, I could use a little fish to clean me out.”

Trying not to think too much about the cleaning-out part while wanting to accommodate her shifting moods and desires, I added, “And very nice Singapore Chow Mei Fun. You’ll think you’re in New York’s Chinatown.”

“I doubt it,” Peggy muttered. “But I’m trying hard to get with the program.”

We found a place to park and arrived at the restaurant at the stroke of 5:30. It was already filled by obviously-retired people likely there for the Diner’s early-bird specials. Fortunately there was one outdoor table left and we took it, without consulting the hostess, before anyone else could pounce on it. The China Diner is very popular, especially at that time of day so we had pushed ahead of a couple shuffling along using walkers. The possibility of having to wait was a nightmare scenario considering that Peggy was ravenous and we knew from our New York experience that she hated nothing more than needing to wait for a table, movie tickets, or a handbag closeout sale.

Sotto voce, noticing that our table was pressed close up against the shopping plaza’s parking area, Peggy said, “I don’t ever remember eating in a parking lot before. But I suppose it does have its local charm.”

Happily, a waitress we knew from previous visits came right over to take our orders. “Hello, Mr.-Mrs. Rona. Nice to see you again.”

“We’re happy to be here, Mae. This is our friend from New York, Peggy Samuels. She’s a writer.”

“Nice to meet you Mrs. Sam,” Mae as usual was all smiles. “Ready to take your regular order? The fish, the Singapore noodles?”

“You seem to be very well known here.” It was Peggy’s turn to wonder or worry about us.

“Not really,” Rona said. “Maybe every other week. We like . . .”

Not wanting to offend Mae or perhaps us, Peggy managed to whisper so only we could hear, “You come here all the time, order the same thing, and sit out here with cars?”

“Remember, it was your idea,” I said, “We were planning to take you to a really good French place. We even had an 8:30 reservation. Back at the condo it was you who was starving and wanted sea bass and Singapore noodles.” Peggy nodded to indicate that that was true. “And, if you really want to get cleaned out, I recommend their Szechwan eggplant. It has quite a kick. Both while and after eating.”

“You do the ordering; I’ll do the eating.” Peggy smiled at an elderly couple at the next table who had been staring at us, especially at Peggy who was dressed from head-to-toe in her black New York clothes. Everyone else was in full pastels.

Mae asked, “You want wonton soup or egg roll?”

“I hate both,” Peggy blurted out. “Sorry,” she looked up at Mae who was visibly upset, “I sometimes speak before thinking,” she said to Mae. Rona and I were nodding. “It’s just that I’m not in the mood for them. I had my daily quotient of grease this morning at the Green Parrot. Sorry, I mean my weekly allotment of fried foods.” She was smiling broadly at Mae, trying to make amends.

“But it comes,” Mae said puzzled.

“Comes?” Peggy, equally puzzled, asked.

“Yes. If you here by 5:30 you qualify for early-bird. Wonton soup or egg roll come with. No charge. And for desert, pistachio ice cream.”

“Oh, that I’ll have,” Peggy said, clapping her hands excitedly. “I was in Brooklyn once decades ago and a relative took us out for Chinese food. For dessert they served pistachio ice cream. It was so delicious that I bought some when I got back to Manhattan. But it didn’t taste the same as in Brooklyn. Considering where we are now I’m sure it will be wonderful. So, Mae, please, set aside a portion for me.”

“No problem,” Mae said, “we have many gallons. Everyone here loves pistachio. But no egg roll?”

“No, but thank you darling.” Peggy was again at her gracious best.

The food was as good as we had said and Peggy cleaned off all the dishes down to the last mei fun noodle, even licking her fingers as she scooped up the final drops of the eggplant’s fiery Szechwan sauce and of course her beloved pistachio ice cream.

We finished in time to catch a movie at the multiplex just across the shopping plaza. “I see True Grit is still playing here,” Peggy said. “As you know I hated it, but maybe if I see it a second time, I’ll find something to like. Westerns, after all, can be so iconic. Our mutual friend James, though he’s British and loathes all things American, loves the film. So maybe it’s worth a second try.” Rona and I exchanged glances. “Perhaps there’s something he found in it that’s interesting to hate that I missed the first time around.”

Peggy was having fun at our expense, but we happily joined in and feeling very good drove across the parking lot to get closer to the theater.

“Why are we driving?” Peggy wanted to know. “The theater’s only 200 yards from here.”

I just shrugged. “In Florida you drive everywhere.” She snickered.

Actually, though I slept through half the film, for me, even the part I saw was enough to remind me that seeing it once was quite enough: like Peggy initially I too found its message politically regressive, Peggy this time, of course, flip-flopped and seemed to love it in less cynical ways than our friend James.

“You know, on second look there is something about it that is very American and appealing. I mean, positively appealing. How we in America have lost our ability to promote justice and that with so much of work corporatized, with workers feeling more and more alienated, the message may be that we need to find ways to restore our sense of self-reliance and mutuality.”

Overwhelmed by her intellectualizing, I meekly said, “I snoozed through most of it this evening, so maybe when it comes out on DVD I’ll order it from Netflix and give it another try. At the moment it still looks to me like a plain-old western. And not a classic one at that.”

We continued the talk about the film and the state of American culture over espressos at Luna Rosa. “You know, to tell you the truth, I like the Parrot’s coffee better,” Peggy, confided, continuing to surprise us, “But I and all your New York friends do miss our talks with the both of you.” She reached across the table to hug us. We must have looked to the others at the café like quite an unholy threesome.

“I did tell James and George and Sharon I would try to talk you out of insisting on staying here until the end of April. Coffee in the morning at Balthazar is just not the same without your being there.” Rona and I simultaneously began to shake our heads in an attempt to cut off that line of attack.

“I think maybe we should head home,” Rona said, “You have a very early flight tomorrow. We need to get you to the airport no later than 7:30.”

“So there’ll be no time for me to see Harv and Fred again?”

“I’m afraid not. That is,” I jabbed her playfully with my elbow, “unless you decide to come back next month for another visit. You know how much it can snow in New York in March.”

“Here he goes again talking about the weather,” Peggy said under her breath, “Look what his weather did to me. I’m peeling.” She detached a piece of sun burnt skin from her nose. And then directly to us, ominously, added, “We’ll speak more about your plans tomorrow.”

Forewarned, when alone later that night Rona and I told each other to remain alert and wary.

Again the next morning Peggy was up and ready before either of us.

The ride to the airport, without traffic, is no more than 25 minutes; and Rona and I had agreed that we would try to keep the conversation chatty. Knowing that Peggy is usually not very alert in the early morning we thought we could distract her enough with small talk to escape having to listen to her continue to denigrate Florida and snowbirding as well as put pressure on us to come back to New York sooner than we intended.

I drove while Rona tried to keep Peggy occupied.

“One thing that’s nice about being here,” Rona chirped, “is that the roads are in such good condition.” I had never heard Rona talk about roads before. “True, we have to drive everywhere, which is not my favorite thing, but since we do it’s nice that the roads have such fine surfaces. And look at all the highway repair work along the way. It’s from the federal stimulus money. You can literally see the jobs that were created.” Peggy was ignoring her chatter, perhaps, I could see in the rearview mirror, she was taking a little nap.

We were by then only about 15 minutes from the West Palm Airport. Our distraction strategy seemed to be working. Peggy had not said a word since we left our place. So Rona rattled on.

“I was surprised that I slept so well last night. That spicy eggplant dish that we had doesn’t always agree with me. Not that we order it every time, mind you. In fact, not that we go to the China Diner that often, but when we do and I eat more of it than I should it repeats on me all night.”

Rona was sounding defensive, so I jumped in and changed the subject, “You should have a smooth flight all the way. When I got up this morning I turned on the Weather Channel and it looked like there will be no bad weather or turbulence between here and Newark.”

“I hate Newark,” Peggy grumbled. “It’s in New Jersey. I always use LaGuardia for domestic flights.” After that outburst, it looked as if she sipped back into sleep. But with her eyes closed she muttered, “The weather again. All he wants to talk about I the weather. He used to have such a fine mind.” She was talking again as if we weren’t there.

We chose to ignore her and anticipated that her anti-Florida rant would resume. To preempt that, I said, “I’ve been reading this biography about James Polk . . .”

“Who?” Peggy croaked. She was clearly not sleeping, just slumped in her seat with her eyes closed.

“Polk. Our 11th president. Who presided over the Mexican War.” We passed the Lantana exit and had perhaps only five miles to go. “He’s not well know, but he accomplished quite a lot. That is, if you believe in Manifest Destiny.”

“Which I don’t,” Peggy growled.

“California would still be a part of Mexico if it weren’t for Polk.”

“Who needs California? I hate California. It’s another place where you have to drive to the drug store to get a newspaper.”

“But it’s beautiful there,” Rona said.

“Again with the beautiful. First the weather. Then the beautiful. How much further is it to the terminal?”

“Maybe two, three more minutes I said. “If it’s OK, we’ll drop you and your five bags at the curb. There’ll be redcaps there to help you. It’s impossible to park here.”

“That’s fine with me. But before you dump me,” with a softer tone, she said, “I want to thank you for being such good hosts.” She leaned forward and put her arms around the two of us. “I know I’m a handful . . .”

“No, you’re . . .”

“A handful is what I am and you’ve been very good sports, putting up with my nonsense. In spite of what you think, I actually enjoyed myself. Your friends—that Harv and Fred—I even liked the beach, which I usually hate because of all the sand. The Chinese food, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about. To tell you the truth, I think you’ve lost your sense of taste while you’ve been down here vegging out.”

I pulled up at the curb and was actually feeling blue that she would be leaving. She isn’t always easy to take but she is one of a kind. And mainly lots of fun.

We got out of the car together to help unload the luggage and say a proper goodbye. As she embraced and kissed us, to me directly she said, “There is one thing we can agree about.”

Still tense from the drive, tentatively, I asked, “What’s that?”

With a laugh from deep within her, she said, “The weather. It’s glorious here.”

And with that she was gone.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

February 24, 2011--Snowbirding: Peggy Pays A Visit--Part 2

Part one of Peggy Pays A Visit can be found directly below this posting.

But wouldn’t you know it, at 8:30 sharp the next morning Peggy was awake, dressed, and made up, waiting for us impatiently to emerge from our bedroom.

Tapping her watch, she said, “I thought down here you get up at dawn, which cracked two hours ago.” Rona was still rubbing sleep from her eyes. “You know what they say about the early bird, or is it the early worm—I get so confused with rural expressions. Or are you only early-birds in the afternoon when you hunt around for a two-for-one dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon?”

It was going to be one of those days I thought, but fibbed, “We’ve been up for hours, waiting quietly in bed reading so as not to disturb you.”

“Consider me disturbed. One of your neighbors was out loading golf clubs or guns in his car before dawn. I could hear him muttering about an early tee time in Boca or some other awful place. So, I thought, why not get up early like everyone else in Florida. Also, assuming you’re up for it, I thought this would give us time to go to that Green Parrot of yours for coffee.”

“Owl,” Rona said, “The Green Owl.”

“Since when are owls green? Though I’m not much of a nature person.”

“There’s quite a nice café in town, right at the beach, ” I said, hoping she’d prefer a café to a coffee shop and that I could keep her from embarrassing us with our friends at the Green Owl. “Luna Rosa’s coffee’s much better. You can even get your extra-dark espresso there. And of course there’s the view.”

“As I like to say--when in Florida, do as the Floridians. I’d prefer indigenous coffee. I’ll get plenty of espresso when I’m back in the city. So how about it, let’s go to your Owl place.” She winked at me, “I promise to behave myself.”

She did try, but when we arrived at the Owl, with me wearing sunglasses in an attempt to retain a hint of anonymity, Peggy asked in a quiet voice if we might sit at the counter. I had suggested an outdoor table, thinking we would run into fewer Owl regulars there; but with Peggy urging her on and Rona taking the lead, we went in and as luck would have it there were three side-by-side stools.

I noticed that Harvey Green was perched on the one adjacent to the ones that Rona had spotted. I attempted to take the seat next to him and suggested that Peggy sit at the other end as far away from Harvey and trouble as possible. This because I knew that if she drew him into a conversation about politics, as I felt certain she would, things would become incendiary in a hurry.

“That’s a better seat,” I said, “closer to the kitchen so you can watch them work. You always like seats by open kitchens when we go out in New York.”

“I’d rather sit next to that nice man, if that’s all right with you,” she pointed and whispered loud enough so that I’m sure Harvey could hear, “He’s very handsome and who knows maybe available.” And with her most glorious smile she slid in next to him, extended her hand, and said, “I’m Peggy. And who are you?”

“I’m Harvey and if you need life insurance I’m your man.”

At the same moment Traci brought Peggy a mug of Owl’s coffee, and she made neither a fuss nor a face, immediately sipping away at it as if it were her favorite New York City espresso.

“If I ever decide to die, I’ll give you a call.”

Harvey laughed and said, “Up to now I thought I’d heard it all. And now along you come and . . .”

“. . . bring into your life a little big city humor.” Here we go I thought.

“Why don’t you look at the menu,” I suggested, “They make some very nice omelets. Including with egg whites.”

Ignoring me, Peggy leaned seductively closer to Harvey and cooed, “So you find insurance fascinating, do you?”

“To tell you the truth, not really.”

“So what turns you on?”

“That’s a long story but for another occasion.” He too could be flirtatious. “But, among other things, I like politics. I’m quite active in Republican politics and . . .”

“Peggy, please, let’s order,” I interjected, “Traci doesn’t have all day and . . .”

“You’re political? I’d love to hear more about that.”

“Traci, can I have some scrambled egg whites with spinach. And what about you, Peggy?” trying to get her to change the subject, “What’s your pleasure?”

“My pleasure is also for another occasion,” she winked at Harvey. “But I am famished. Must be the ocean air.” Pointing at Harvey’s eggs, bacon, and a side of grits smothered with cheese, she said to Traci, “I’ll have the same as Harv.”

Harv, I thought, no one calls him that. And, she never eats anything like bacon and eggs and cheese for breakfast—not only does Peggy try to keep an eye on her weight but also suffers from high cholesterol. “It looks delicious. So, tell me Harv, are you one of those Tea Party nuts?” I slumped in my stool, swiveled away from them, and put my sunglasses back on, pretending I didn’t know Peggy.

“Actually, I’m a fiscal conservative,” Harvey said, “but otherwise quite libertarian when it comes to social issues. For example, you might like this, I believe women should be allowed to have control of their bodies, including their reproductive rights. The government should stay out of that aspect of their lives.”

“Really, to tell you the truth, that surprises me. From what Steven has said about the people he knows down here most of you-all don’t believe in abortion. Or gay marriage.” She pronounced "abortion" and "gay marriage" in a loud enough voice that half the people sitting at the counter stopped eating and turned toward Peggy.

“To tell you the truth, though I agree with you, I never would have taken you for a choice kind of fellow. Especially after how he described you. Not you specifically, but his Florida friends.” Without looking at me, Peggy pointed in my direction to make sure all the regulars knew she was with me.

And they were listening raptly. I felt compelled to add, “If I talked with Peggy about you at all—which I doubt--I never spoke in any but the most respectful way.” Raising my voice so all could overhear, I was again concerned about how I would be viewed by the Owl folks after Peggy went back north, I added, “I mean about everyone here. How much I like and respect all you guys.”

“We know you love us,” Ted from the other side of the counter said.

“And who are you?” Peggy asked, ignoring Harvey for the moment.

“I’m Ted. I moved here about 15 years ago after retiring from the military. And you?”

“I’m Peggy. I’m down for a few days. Staying with Rona and Steve. I’m from New York City.”

“I could have guessed that,” Ted said.

“I think Steve told me about you. Aren’t you the one who has all those gold coins?”

Thankfully Peggy’s food arrived. “Eat before it gets cold,” I said, once more desperate to distract her.

“I do have some gold as a part of my investments. That’s true.”

Not paying attention to her food, Peggy said, “Isn’t holding gold for people who think the sky is falling?”

Ted who has seen it all, heard it all, calmly asked, “Are you sure it isn’t? The sky I mean. Have you been following what’s going on in the Middle East? You feel confident that all will turn out well?”

“Well . . .”

“And though I don’t mean to be personal, it’s not my business of course, but if you have a 401(k) . . .” Peggy had a mouthful of eggs and nodded to indicate she did, “I wonder how it’s been doing in comparison to my gold.” She was chewing and swallowing. I knew she had taken quite a hit, like the rest of us who had only conventional investments.

“I know you think those of us who are into gold are crazy, that we follow Glenn Beck religiously.” His saying “religiously,” I feared, would set Peggy off on one of her atheism tirades. But she kept working on her eggs and listening. “But, some of us are not. I think of those of us who hold some gold as just cautious and,” he paused for emphasis, “smart.”

“You may have a point there, Fred,” Peggy said softly after taking a long pull on her coffee.

“Ted. I’m Ted.”

“Sorry Ted. I’m terrible with names but I should try to remember yours because I want to tell my broker about you when I call him later today. Maybe he should get me into some gold.”

Thankfully we had just about finished breakfast. Without checking with Rona or me, Peggy told Harvey we’d come in for coffee the next day and hoped to see him. He said that since she’d be back he’d be sure to be there as well and promised that maybe they’d talk a little more about what turns him on. “Only if you tell me what turns you on,” he said with a sly smile.

Traci came over with the check and asked if we wanted anything else. Peggy said, “Well, maybe one more thing.”

“Anything,” Traci said.

“Maybe I could have a cup of your coffee to take with me. It really is delicious.” Rona and I exchanged puzzled glances.

To be concluded tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 23, 2011--Snowbirding: Peggy Pays A Visit

“I’ve got to get away for a few days.” Peggy was calling from snow-bound New York. “I just finished editing the galleys for my new novel, Death Takes A Vacation, and thought that if I don’t take a little vacation now the novel will soon turn into an autobiography.”

Rona had picked up Peggy’s call and, ever-compassionate, asked, “Is everything all right? I mean with you.”

“I’m as fine as I can be, considering I haven’t slept for three days and during that time the temperature never went higher than 22 degrees.”

“Sounds awful.”

“But let’s agree not to talk about the weather, all right? I know it’s your favorite subject, but I don’t want to turn into someone who thinks that a 75-degree day is the meaning of life.”

When Rona told me about her conversation with Peggy, our longest-standing New York friend, I knew, since we had taken up snowbirding, she was again having fun at our expense.

“You know how much I hate Florida,” Peggy did not need to remind Rona—she was anything but shy about reminding us in frequent e-mails and occasional phone calls--“but I’m a little short of cash at the moment, my publisher owes me a bundle, and if that spare bed you have down there is not being used by one of your gangly nephews or nieces, I could manage to put up with all the early-birders. That is, if you could stand having me around for a few days.”

Having Peggy around for a few days, especially in a small condo, isn’t either Rona’s or my favorite way to spend time. We guard our privacy jealously; but considering the affectionate nature of the relationship and the fact that Peggy, though complicated, is in fact a wonderful and generous person and, above all, was tapped out, Rona, even without consulting me, agreed to have her come for a hopefully restorative visit.

“Just tell us when you’ll be arriving,” Rona offered, “and we’ll pick you up at the airport.”

“Thank you, darling. But I must warn you that though I can’t wait to see you I still hate Florida. In fact, our mutual friends, who worry that you have by now turned into real Floridians as opposed to just snowbirds, expect me to deprogram you, return you to your senses, and bring you back to the city with me.”

I don’t know what Rona said to that. The fact that she refuses to say is not a good sign.

“What are we going to do with her all day?” I worried after Rona hung up.

“She sleeps to at least 10:30 so half the morning will be gone. And it will be noon before she’s awake enough and ready to actually do anything. But I know what you’re thinking.”

“What’s that?

“If she manages to drag herself out of bed at a decent hour she’ll want to go with us to the Green Owl for her coffee and then when she discovers they don’t make espresso she’ll be miserable, make a ruckus, and we’ll be embarrassed to go back there after she leaves.”

“That’s about right,” I confessed. I was also concerned that if she insisted on going to the Owl—to check out where we go in the morning and talk about as one of our favorite things about being down here—she’d get into all sorts of arguments with our Florida friends. Especially the political conservatives.

“And if she wants to hang out here for some R&R,” I added, “She’ll also fight around with our neighbors. They won’t have read the same books as she and will think True Grit is the best movie of the year. We know how much Peggy hated it—it was too politically regressive for her: Rooster Cogburn again riding to the rescue of the lawless state—and can’t stand people who disagree with her about movies or books. Remember how she almost excommunicated us when we disagreed with her about Brokeback Mountain? She thought it was the best movie of all time and we thought it was just so-so.”

“How I remember that,” Rona said, “she didn’t speak to us for a month.”


“So, what will we do with her? Minimally, we had better plan not to have dinner before 8:00 o’clock.”

“Eight-thirty would be better.”

We were plunged in a state of trepidation.

So, five days ago, we drove to West Palm Beach to pick her up at the airport. She had checked her bags and we joined her at the luggage carousel. When she spotted us she ran over to embrace the two of us at the same time.

“Look at them, poor things. Him in plaid shorts. And her shoes.” She spoke about us as if we were someone else. “But I understand, they have gone native. Undoubtedly very clever. To blend in. And look at me, I’m only here for three days and I schlepped five bags with me.”

As we thought if they would fit in the trunk of our car, she explained, “One for shoes, one for hair, another for my face, and the other two stuffed with summer clothes. I hate summer and summer clothes, they make me look swollen; so I brought all of them.” Addressing Rona directly for the first time, she said, “You’re such a darling. You’ll help me pick what to wear. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”

She had been speaking so loudly and dramatically that the other passengers had formed a circle around the three of us and were staring raptly at this strange and fascinating creature who had been on the plane with them.

Thus, as anticipated, embarrassment had already commenced.

Continued tomorrow . . .

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011--On Wisconsin

There is only one thing you need to know about what's going on in Wisconsin, and it doesn't have to do with their budget deficit or money.

As we have been hearing, though they are denying it, the real goal of the Republican governor and legislators is to rescind public employees' right to form unions. They say that they "only" want to eliminate that part of existing collective bargaining agreements that give public employees, and they mean primarily teachers, the right to participate in the management of their own work.

Unionized teachers, for example, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, have the contractual power to decide many things about how their places of employment, schools, are run. More about this in a moment, but you do not have to read too carefully between the lines to see that, for all intents and purposes, the governor wants to abrogate existing contracts and thereby effectively end municipal unions as we have come to know them these 40 years.

Unions have been the villains before in the way Republicans view the world. They literally fought against them when they began to form in the late 19th century, often hiring private Pinkerton Guards to serve as strikebreakers (the original scabs); and if that didn't work, got governments to call out the National Guard and if necessary federal troops to keep factories open, even if it meant firing on workers, wounding and killing scores.

Closer to now, in 1981, Ronald Reagan, in a dramatic act of union defiance, fired all federal air traffic controllers when they went on strike and hired replacements. This sent shock waves through the union movement; and since that time, employers have been emboldened and the number of unionized workers has declined precipitously.

When in 2008 the Great Recession cut deeply into the economy, the poster people chosen by the GOP to personify what caused it were not the Wall Street manipulators but rather the autoworkers' union, the UAW. If only their union could be busted, if was ranted, all would be well in heartland America. Investment bankers walked away scot-free and are again making millions in bonuses, while UAW members were forced to give back many of their benefits as the price for a government bailout of GM and Chrysler.

Now that nearly every state has serious fiscal problems, simple explanations are again being sought to "understand" and explain what has happened. And once again unions have been selected to be blamed. Municipal unions now, since state and city workers' salaries, benefits, and pensions are without doubt a huge part of every state and city budget.

In Wisconsin, union members quickly accepted the fact that the state was experiencing a fiscal crisis and conceded that they would have to agree to givebacks. This has not satisfied Governor Walker and his Republican legislative colleagues. They want more than budget cuts--they want to eliminate the municipal unions. And so we are seeing a dramatic impasse with Democratic legislators hiding in other states so as to deny the GOP a legislative quorum to take punitive action against the unions themselves.

A clue to what is actually going on is the fact that Governor Walker has not asked the state's uniformed workers to give anything back. The police and firefighters are exempt. One might wonder why this would be. Aren't they all in this together? Shouldn't everyone there have to pitch in and give back proportionately?

If one is looking for simple answers, there is one regarding this: the police and firefighters unions were major supporters--financial supporters--of candidate Walker when he ran for governor last year. The other unions weighed in significantly for his opponent.

Thus the vendetta against the teachers.

There are national implications here--unions have been the major funders of Democratic candidates for decades--from city council members to the president of the United States. If they can be eliminated, or at least further reduced, Democrats' major source of support would be curtailed. This is especially true for government worker unions since they have been growing in membership while industrial unions have been contracting as more and more manufacturing has been shipped overseas.

So what happens in Wisconsin will decidedly not stay in Wisconsin. It, after all, is the state where the Progressive movement first took hold and municipal unions formed.

Having said this, there is a case to be made, perhaps even by Progressives, that some of teachers' unions powers should be ratcheted back.

If teachers were performing more effectively, if academic achievement gaps had been closing, if more low-income students were graduating from high school and enrolling in colleges, they would have a better case to make. But at a time when the entire middle class is worried about the security of their jobs and benefits, if they are fortunate enough to have any, there is not much sympathy for low-performing government workers who have lifetime job security through Civil Service rules or school tenure policies, and benefits that extend to their spouses even after they have died,

Thus, again in regard to teachers, their contracts need to be renegotiated--not out of existence, but to eliminate things in them that hamstring school principals and superintendents who have no say about who gets tenure, who earns seniority, who gets assigned to what class, who gets laid off if there are budget cuts, who gets relieved of their jobs if they are deemed to be ineffective--or even how that is determined, how many hours and minutes can be scheduled for instruction versus "preparation time," or, as incredible as it may seem, how large bulletin boards are required to be in teachers' lounges and which telephones they can use, at taxpayer expense, to conduct union business.

For a sense of how non-public employees view the work lives and benefits of Wisconsin's government workers, see the linked article from today's New York Times. Resentment runs deep even in this formerly-union-friendly state. There is very little sympathy for teachers and other state and county employees while everyone else is slipping further and further behind.

And since this is even truer elsewhere (Wisconsin's unemployment rate is "only" 7 percent), as the Badger State goes, so will go the nation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

February 21, 2011--Presidents day

I'm taking the day off to think more about James K. Polk, my latest favorite president. I will return tomorrow.

Friday, February 18, 2011

February 18, 2011--James K. Polk

I've been reading about James K. Polk, perhaps the least known of our most successful presidents.

No matter what you think of his goals and achievements (critics call into question some of his nationalistic aspirations), there is no dispute that in his one term, from 1845 to 1849--he declared when running that he would not seek a second term--he achieved all of his very ambitious goals.

He fulfilled America's Manifest Destiny by extended the reach of the United States to the Pacific Ocean through the completion of the annexation of Texas; the acquisition of the Oregon Territory after negotiations with England; and at the end of a two-year war with Mexico, seized almost all of our current Southwest, including California. By the time he left office the U.S. was fully a third larger in territory than when he was elected.

And then he was able to deliver on his promises to establish a federally-controlled national bank and to have Congress agree to reduce a package of protectionist tariffs that were stunting the economic growth of the country.

Not a bad four years work

All of his priorities were fiercely controversial and hotly contested, especially in the Senate which was full of powerful rivals, a number of whom aspired to the presidency.

To achieve his goals, he had to take on the opposition. How he went about this might provide some useful lessons for today as our president and Congress circle each other warily while grappling over issues of great import--trillion-dollar deficits, entitlement reform, war and piece, military spending, and of course a myriad of social programs, including what to do about health care.

Polk took on the opposition primarily by talking directly with them. Daily. Nightly. He had an open door policy at the White House. Members of Congress could literally stop by unannounced. And many did. Mainly in the evening at the end of the work day. During those times they spoke on and off the record. They brought concerns to Polk and he ran ideas by them, seeking support for his policies. And for the most part, though they often agreed to vigorously disagree, at other times they found common ground and got a lot accomplished.

It would of course be a radical idea for President Obama to throw open the doors of the hyper-scheduled White House, but times are such that it might be worth a try. He could set aside two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening for members of Congress to stop by without fanfare.

What might happen, for example, if Paul Ryan, Republican chair of the House Budget Committee were a regular visitor? They both are of the same generation, they are budget wonks, and they might find they could iron out some tricky issues between them that might help reduce the structural deficit. Ryan has put out more ideas on the subject than Obama. Some are, well, a little over the top; but by pressing them conversationally in private with the president over a beer or two, and hearing Obama's views, who know, maybe they might get some things done that would be good for the country.

Especially future generations. It could be worth a try. It did work for our 11th president.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

February 17, 2011--Pension Overhaul

While we wait to see what the president and Congress will do, assuming they do something, to fix the Social Security system, which is not sustainable at best for more than a couple of decades because of demographic changes, governors and mayors across the country are struggling more desperately to rein in their out-of-control municipal pension systems.

Down here in Florida, for example, one good thing Governor Rick Scott wants is to require public employees to contribute something, anything, to their 401(k)s. At the moment, Florida state workers are the only ones in America not expected to contribute to their retirement accounts. The state fully funds them.

Up in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing his own version of changes. Among other things, he wants the state legislature to amend the retirement eligibility rules. Currently, municipal workers are able to vest their pensions after only five years of service. Bloomberg wants that to be doubled to 10 years. At the moment, nonuniformed workers such as teachers can retire with full pay at age 55. He wants that raised to 65.

Policemen and firefighters can do much better. They are able to retire, again for at least full pay (more about the "at least" in a moment) after just 20 years of service, regardless of their age. I used to have a fireman as a neighbor who retired at 45. He then became a teacher and I am sure by now must be collecting two full city pensions.

In addition, retired NYC police and firemen, on top of whatever they collect from their regular retirement accounts, receive, in perpetuity, an annual $12,000 "stipend." (See linked New York Times article.)

This supplement costs the city nearly $1.0 billion a year and contributes to the annual $8.5 billion budget for all city pensions.

It came into existence back in the 1960s when John Lindsay was mayor. He agreed to it as an alternative to allowing uniformed workers to invest a portion of their pensions in individual retirement accounts. Since portfolios of stocks and bonds go down as well as up, to protect workers from any possibility of losses, he and his successors guaranteed them against that by agreeing to pay them each year the $12,000.

Bloomberg wants to end this practice as part of his overhaul of the city pension system.

And while he is at it Bloomberg wants to end the common practice that allows police, firemen, sanitation workers, and bus drivers from loading up on overtime during the year before they retire because by doing so, according to current pension rules, the amount they receive after retiring is tied to their total earnings during their last year on the job. Thus, for life, most make much, much more each year from their pensions than they did during their working years from their basic salaries.

Of course, unions in Florida, New York, and elsewhere are up in arms. But the mood of the public is such that as these frankly outrageous practices are coming to light, we may see some long overdue reforms.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February 16, 2011--Immigrants

At get-togethers with certain friends, well before dessert arrives, the subject turns to immigrants.

Though most of us have been lifelong liberals, and all of us are just one or two generations removed from being immigrants ourselves, about the current status of immigrants we have deep disagreements. Primarily about illegal immigrants. But, in truth, we all do not feel the same way about those here legally.

As with many others in the U.S., some of these feelings are the result of hard times. When there was fuller employment and our governments were not in deficit, there was the inclination to ignore the "problem" and not be so resentful that immigrants are here allegedly to take advantage of our health care system, avail themselves of undeserved educational opportunities, and of course live on welfare.

Though it is fairly easy to get everyone to agree that most "illegals" were doing jobs that Americans didn't want or even refuse to do--picking fruits and vegetables, cleaning up our dirty dishes in restaurants, and maintaining our lawns and gardens, still some around the dinner table do not like what they see around them. There is the feeling that it is no longer the America they grew up in.

Then, everyone wanted to learn English and become assimilated. Now, they claim, most want to speak Spanish and carry around the Mexican flag.

These dinnertime discussions are more emotional than fact-based. Citing evidence hasn't convinced some that illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare (or that welfare as we knew it was radically reformed during the Clinton administration), they cannot apply for student loans much less scholarships, and at best can get some basic care via emergency rooms.

Life on $7.00 of $8.00 an hour, even off-the-books, isn't cushy; and there is little evidence anyone can cite that even chronically unemployed citizens are looking to pick lettuce in 110 degree weather or clamoring to scour pots in restaurant basements.

It was thus good to get my hands on some real evidence of how we depend on immigrants to do these jobs as well as help propel us into a very competitive future. I think I'll try some out next time we I get together. They are derived from a essay-review by Andrew Hacker in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, "Where Will We Find Jobs?"

First, there is the evidence that without immigrants we would not be able to reproduce ourselves.

Every 100 women need to have a total of 210 children for America to maintain its current population. Doing at least this well is essential to keeping our social safety net in place and to enable us to be economically competitive. We need the workers and we need their taxes. The most recent data show that our national replacement birth rate is 208 children for every 100 women. Below what is required to just stand still. To keep up this means we require a regular flow of new immigrants.

Disaggregated by race, every hundred black women have 211 children, Asian 205, and Hispanics 291. One hundred white women have only 183.

When we look at the labor force, from the 2007 Census Bureau report, The Foreign-Born Labor Force in the United States, we find that non-native workers make up about 16 percent of the total labor force, but they account for 72 percent of California's farm workers, 41 percent of New York's hotel and restaurant staffs (not waiters), and 32 percent of Florida's construction workers. A substantial percentage of these workers are here illegally.

In regard to recent legal immigrants, fully 26 percent of U.S. physicians are foreign-born as are 28 percent of our Ph.Ds. And Asian-Americans 35 to 45-years-old earn 16 percent more than native-born whites. Related to this, 71 percent of Asian-Americans have bachelors degrees or more, while only 37 percent of whites do.

So we not only need our Asian -American MBAs and our Indian-immigrant doctors, but we also need our Chicano strawberry pickers and Guatemalan restaurant workers. Perhaps most important, we need immigrants, yes, illegal as well as legal, to continuously replenish our population. Native-born whites are just not getting that job done.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February 15, 2011--Bush (George W) & Obama

Two weeks ago, Republicans were proclaiming that if Hosni Mubarak stamped out the rebellion in Egypt or the Muslim Brotherhood took control of events, the question would be, “Who lost Egypt?” And the answer would be, “Barack Obama.”

These “who-lost?” slurs are familiar to anyone who remembers 20th century history.

The question that was an accusation, “Who lost China?” after Mao Zedong and his forces completed a communist takeover, resonated toxically in our political life for decades. It was claimed by Republicans that Democrat president Harry Truman was responsible because it happened in 1950 on his watch and that if the country wanted a robust foreign policy they should vote for GOP candidates.

So we did and eventually got fiercely anticommunist Richard Nixon, who promptly lost the war in Vietnam and made up with the hated “Red” Chinese.

What to make of that? Easy—life and politics are complicated.

As evidence of that, this past weekend while potential Republican presidential candidates strutted their stuff before 10,000 attendees at the American Conservative Union’s convention (CEPAC) to see who could best pander to Tea Party activists, not a one mentioned Egypt by name, though Mitt Romney, who most needs to polish his right-wing credentials, said, codedly, that Obama has been consistently wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other Republicans not running for anything on the Sunday talk shows managed to squeak out the words that maybe, just maybe Obama had not only not lost Egypt but perhaps he had done as well as could be expected in walking a tightrope between competing interests in Egypt as well as within his own administration.

Now that Obama’s positive role in all this complexity has been grudgingly acknowledged by the shrinking number of adults in the Republican establishment, a new debate has popped up—

Maybe, some are saying, the president most responsible for bringing democracy to Egypt is not Obama at all but, are you seated, George W. Bush.

You say the very same Bush who brought democracy to Iraq through a war that began with an unprovoked shock and awe bombing campaign followed by an invasion and occupation by 130,000 American troops?

Indeed, that President Bush.

His apologists claim that he, and not Obama, articulated a grand democratic strategy—his vaunted “freedom agenda.” Didn’t he, after all, make “ending tyranny in our world” the centerpiece of his second inaugural address?

Indeed he did. But liberals and their alleged friends in the media were so busy calling him a fascist and worse for his pre-emptive aggression against what he called a member of the “axis of evil,” and for turning the government loose to snoop and spy on all of us, that we were incapable of hearing his noble words.

Barack Obama, Bush’s supporters say, is merely making Bush’s agenda his own. Obama is capable of delivering soaring speeches of the kind he did in Egypt in 2009, but when it comes to the action step, he is inclined to follow his predecessor’s lead. Not only in Egypt, it is asserted, but in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Who is it, they ask, who tripled the number of troops Bush assigned to Afghanistan? Again easy—Obama carrying out Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.

This is all laid out in Peter Baker’s article in the Sunday New York Times. (Linked below.)

When confronted with this claim, according to Baker, Obama supporters snip, “Give me a break. How many democracies took pace when [Bush] was in office?”

The answer is quite a few. In Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, and lest we forget, Gaza, where the results of the free election there turned things over to Hamas. Not the result the Bush team wanted, but no one ever said democracy is not messy.

As we are likely to see very soon in Egypt as people who disagree with each other about the future of their country attempt to sort things out.

While back in the States, we should expect to hear a lot of demagoguery and hypocrisy. From all sides. Democracies are like that too.

So perhaps we should strive to understand that the U.S. is not in charge of events of the kind we have been witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere. We do not deserve credit or blame if struggles for democracy succeed or fail. Not Bush, not Obama.

What may be true is that our on-going example is our most important contribution to the democratizing process. Our very imperfect democracy itself is our most potent export.

If so, if we are serious about seeing tyranny end, we should then pay more attention to perfecting that example.

We could find ways to disagree more intelligently. We could seek to reduce the unnatural causes of inequality. We should work on protecting our vaunted rights. And we should stop meddling in other people’s affairs.

In the age of satellite TV and the social media this is the best strategy. Maybe the only one.

Monday, February 14, 2011

February 14, 2011--18 Days That Shook the World

Ten Days that Shook the World is a book by American journalist John Reed about the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, which Reed with enthusiasm experienced firsthand. Those few days ushered in Russian communism and presaged a worldwide political movement that in a little more than 25 years swept across the world and included, in whole or part, countries in all continents. Even Australia until 1991 had its communist party.

24/7, the 18 days in Egypt we were able to witness ourselves in real time on a variety of cable news channels, especially CNN and if we were luck enough to have it, Al Jeserra in English.

What the future holds, no one knows; but surely this is a world-reshaping event. It is though easy to predict that there will be major implications for every Islamic country, from Morocco to Indonesia. Monarchies will surely wobble if not be overthrown and the many autocracies from Yemen to Syria are in serious trouble. Israel and the Palestinians, like it or not, will have to take notice and hopefully realize that their best chance for real security and prosperity lies in at last making a deal.

The ranters on the political right in this country see all Islamic countries as the same--to them all Muslims look alike and are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood with Barack Obama aiding and abetting. But they will be surprised to discover that Saudi Arabia is no Egypt, Algeria is no Qatar, and Lebanon and Jordan are not Tunisia, where this ignited. We are likely to witness as many different versions of change as there are Muslim countries.

Barack Obama got it right when he quoted Martin Luther King, "There's something in the soul that cries out for freedom." We will thus soon see different expressions of this aspiration playing out across the globe.

Though it is difficult to predict what will now unfold in Egypt much less anywhere else, fascinating stories are already emerging about what went on behind the scenes at the recent revolution. Who did what to help organize things, what tools were used to mobilize and direct people, and how the various groups and factions worked together, very much including the Egyptian version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The best early glimpse behind those scenes can be gleaned from the attached article from the New York Times.

Best known of the youthful organizers is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was detained, blindfolded for 12 days and then somehow managed to free himself and address those gathered in Tahrir Square with inspiring words. After that he took the lead in mobilizing the protesters, using his skills with Twitter and FaceBook and other social media as only someone of his generation and background could.

There is legitimate concern that the Egyptian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered to be "moderate" in comparison with its brethren in other countries, has as its agenda the establishment of of an Egyptian government guided by sharia, Islamic law. And though its leadership this past weekend renounced any plans to name a candidate to run for president when election are held this summer, though they have given these reassurances and indicated that they will work with other political parties to bring democracy to Egypt, no one is taking an eye off this most-organized of Egyptian opposition forces.

Having said this, the secular opponents of Mubarak's rule who know the Brotherhood best were eager to work with them during the uprising and have already said they need to play a significant role in whatever government emerges. Thus, during the 18 days of the revolt, all of the 15 or so behind the scenes strategists worked comfortably with the Muslim Brotherhood.

For example, the very secular Sally Moore, a 32-year-old Coptic Christian, leftist, feminist psychiatrist, acknowledges that the MB "always has a hidden agenda, but," adds, "they are very good with organizing, and they are calling for a civil state just like everyone else."

A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, Islam Lotfi, acknowledges that there are deep cultural and religious divides between the leaders of the revolt, but points to Turkey as an example of how Egypt might become a democratic, non-oxymoronic secular Muslim state.

Asked if he could envision an Egyptian president who is a woman and a Christian, he thought for a brief momenet and said, "If it is a government of institutions, I don't care if the president is a monkey."

Hopeful. But then, we will have to wait and see.

Friday, February 11, 2011

February 11, 2011--Egypt

Like so many, I spent yesterday and early this morning glued to CNN and thus have not had time to do much blogging. I have been thinking back over a long lifetime of watching events unfold in America and in other parts of the world. In world-terms, has there been anything during the past 50-60 years with more potential to change the course of history? Anything with this tectonic potential?

Perhaps the fall of Communism. Perhaps the shift in global hegemony from the West to the East.

It is of course too soon to know what will happen in Egypt by the end of today much less its implications for next year or decade or beyond. But it is certain that the implications will be enormous. For good or ill. It will be for our great, great grandchildren to fully know.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

February 10, 2011--Democracy's Laboratories

It is said that one of the great strengths of our system of government is that the 50 states constitutionally have the reserved right to control much of their destiny.

The 10th Amendment states this explicitly--

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This means, among other matters, that we have 50 ways of educating our children, determining who does and doesn't get state taxes cuts, deciding if women are allowed to have in-state abortions, and who is and who isn't allowed to marry.

To many on the political right, the 10th is their second-favorite amendment. Only the 2nd, which allows them to "bear arms" is more popular.

And to those looking for solutions to some of our most intractable problems, like out-of-control governmental deficits and how to provide health care to more citizens, there are literally 50 different approaches. It is as if, many claim, that the states are policy laboratories where competing approaches are tested and, if successful, might serve as models for other states as well as the federal government.

Also, governors who preside over effective policies are instantly considered potential presidential candidates.

A few current examples--

When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts he presided over a radical overhaul of the state's health care system. It was so successful that it put him on the national political map and became the model for what he brazenly calls Obamacare. He is now trying to tap dance away from Romneycare in order to get Tea Party members to vote for him in the upcoming primaries.

You may recall that Sarah Palin was a governor before she was a vice presidential candidate and national superstar. More or less overlooked now by her acolytes, she served only half of one term before setting out to "serve the American people" in other ways. Mainly through lucrative speaking engagements and a pay-for-play job with Fox News. She may have to deal with these things politically if she wins the GOP nomination, but in the meantime, to those who literally adore her--who cares.

Then there is Tm Pawlenty of Minnesota who is mainly famous for getting elected in a state that generally goes for Democrats. His policy accomplishments include erasing a $4.3 billion deficit without raising taxes. The cuts in services (education, health care, social welfare) caused great pain but this is overlooked when conservatives search for someone who can cut big deficits while leaving their taxes alone. We will see where he stands on Social Security and Pentagon and Medicare reform as the campaign heats up because that's where the real money is. His one, thus far, significant liability is that he has a very thin neck. Potential commanders in chief need to look more robust. We'll know if Pawlenty is serious if he begins to bulk up. Or starts wearing turtle-neck shirts.

Also in the hunt is Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, who is best known for overseeing the largest pre-hurricane evacuation in the history of the U.S., in 2008 when Gustav struck the Gulf Coast. And, yes, he is prominent because he is of South Asian descent which could serve as a counterweight to Obama if Republicans decide to run a person of color. This, however, is unlikely for many GOP reasons, including that Jindal was a Hindu until he converted to Catholicism as an adult. This would blunt one the the right wing's favorite Obama slanders--that he is a secret Muslin. So with Jindal we'd have a Muslim running against a Hindu. And then, unfortunately, he is really best known for flopping when he gave the Republican's response to last year's State of the Union address. And, did I mention his thin neck?

But to find more noteworthy examples of how states, with a governor's leadership, can actually take on real problems in bold and innovative ways, one only has to look at how Chris Christie is doing in New Jersey after a year in office and how my while-snowbirding Florida Governor Rick Scott is performing after only a couple of weeks in office.

Some thing they seem to be operating so effectively that they are gaining consideration as potential 2012 presidential candidates.

Christie especially is already a media favorite since he is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of real guy. A Tony Soprano type who has already demonstrated that, in state-laboratory terms, he is willing to identify and take on tough issues, most dramatically and courageously the teachers unions. He has correctly identified them as the main impediment to improving the public schools. He, though, has been very explicit about not running in two years, claiming, sensibly and modestly, that he is not yet ready for prime time. On the other hand, Barack Obama didn't have that much experience before launching a successful campaign. So stay tuned and keep a close eye on Christie. The pressure to run may prove irresistible.

Rookie Governor Rick Scott is a curious case. He somehow managed to convince Floridians to electr him even though his company was fined one billion (with a B) dollars for perpetrating Medicare fraud. Scott, himself managed somehow to stay out of jail and clearly had enough money left over after paying the largest fine ever to spend at least $75 million (with an M) on his campaign.

In an effort to demonstrate that he could cut spending on education, health care, and all programs for the unemployed beyond anything imagined by Pawlenty, Jindal, Christie, and even New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo, late last week he unveiled his budget. He called for budget cuts this year of $4.6 billion and the elimination of 8,700 state jobs while giving businesses a $1.4 billion tax cut.

To make sure everyone got the picture, instead of rolling out his budget in the state capital, Tallahassee, he held it at a Super-Bowl-like halftime-type show at a Tea Party rally in rural Florida. In a Baptist church!

Entertainer Lloyd Marcus (who?) warmed up the crowd of about 800 with, and I'm not making this up, a musical tribute to Sarah Palin, belting out his famous version of My Girl. He then went on to one of her favorites, Lee Greenwood's God Bless the U.S.A. In case you've forgotten the lyrics and want to sing along, here are the first two stanzas:

If tomorrow all the things were gone,
I'd worked for all my life.
And I had to start again,
with just my children and my wife.

I'd thank my lucky stars,
to be livin here today.
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can't take that away.

Also to make absolutely sure we know where he stands, before speaking, the MC introduced Dr, Jack Cassell. Remember him? He's the Florida urologist who gained national attention last year when he posted a sign on his office door that said anyone supporting Obama's heath care plan should seek medical treatment elsewhere.

For health as well as political reasons I thought that was probably pretty good advice.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

February 9, 2011--Snowbirding: "Retired"

Whenever anyone asks if I am retired, I hem and haw.

If I say yes, I put air-quotation marks around it. And then I quickly add, “I’m ‘retired’ from 9-5 office work.” An awkward locution. If my interlocutor persists or looks puzzled at my verbal contortions, I say that I’m a writer. (Sometime also with quotes; other times if I’m feeling good about my work, without.)

They usually notice that I swallow my words and avoid eye contact when I manage to stammer that out, which puzzles me as much as them since in fact I do have my daily blog—I’ve kept it going now for five and a half years—and I do carry on other fiction and non-fiction writing projects and even a proposed TV sitcom. All respectable pursuits, which could reasonably qualify as evidence that I am not, sans quotes, retired.

Then how to explain that even now I can’t make myself not put “retired” in italics?

I clearly need some retirement therapy.

Though, after this morning waiting to get my few hairs cut, eavesdropping on the conversation among other retired persons (“seniors” is the preferred term here in South Florida), I came away more determined than ever to try not to be associated with them, with retired folks. To not think about myself as retired. Yet, there I go again—this time in bold type.

Listen in, then, with me as I record some of what I overheard. Arranged by theme, because due to their advanced condition not only do they not hear that well but they also have neurological difficulty maintaining any semblance of a coherent conversational thread.

I, on the other hand . . .


“Last year by now,” one of two friends from Barnegat, New Jersey said to no one in particular, “in 42 hours we had 36 inches of snow.”

“That’s more than an inch of snow a minute,” his Barnegat and Delray Beach neighbor said.

“Not that much,” someone unfamiliar to them joined in, “But where I’m from in Pennsylvania, we have real snow. And,” he mumbled as an aside, “can do arithmetic.”

Not picking up on that, the more assertive of the two friends pugnaciously asked, “What do you mean by ‘not that much’ and ‘real snow?’ Are you saying we don’t have that in Jersey?” I was concerned for a moment that things might get heated.

But the seemingly calmer of the friends jumped in and said, “Like we said, more than an inch and hour. And we’re right by the ocean where it’s not supposed . . . “

“ . . . to snow,” his friend, now with a big smile, completed the sentence for him.

“Like I said, you don’t have snow if you’re not from where I’m from.”

“Tell that to my snowplow,” the first New Jersey native snickered. His name is George.

“He’s telling you like it is,” his friend Rudy added. “What he says, you can put money on.”

“This I would be reluctant to do,” Sam from Pennsylvania said. “I’d be too busy shoveling because like I said . . .”

Rudy completed his sentence, “ . . . you haven’t seen snow . . .”

“ . . . until you’ve seen it in, where did you say you’re from?”

“From Pennsylvania. Thirty miles west of Scranton. Where it really snows.”

“You mentioned that already.”

“How much did you say it snows an hour in New Jersey?” Sam said, returning to arithmetic.

“More than here,” George said, I was happy to notice, with a broad wink to Rudy.


“Which is why we’re here, isn’t it, George?”

“Just like you said.”

“Are you snowbirds?” Sam asked.

“For four months a year. But not a minute more.”


“Because . . .”

“ . . . that’s what we do.”


“Come here for not a minute more than four months. There’s nothing to do but lie by the pool and drive around looking for early-bird dinners. Back in Jersey I can go to Atlantic City for the day. So at the end of four months I call me nephew back in Barnegat. You know, that’s in New Jersey.” Sam nodded. As did I. “And if he tells me there’s snow on the ground to shovel when we’re getting ready to head north, maybe we’ll stay for another week. But not more than . . .“

“ . . . that. That goes for me too. I’ve had it with the shoveling.”

“And the mowing. That too. Where we are in Kings Point . . .”

“What’s that?” Sam asked.

“I thought you said you’re from here.”

“I said, from Pennsylvania. We’re staying for a month in a friend’s place. Looking maybe to buy something. Everything’s so cheap.”

“You can’t do better than Kings Point. It’s the . . .”

“ . . . largest development here,” George this time completed Rudy’s sentence. “Gated, of course.”

“And you don’t have to shovel—that’s a joke, we’re in Florida thank God—or do any mowing. For your $400 a month maintenance they do everything for you,” Rudy said with community pride. “They even arrange to have you taken to the hospital.”

“Which I do every time I’m here,” George interjected with what seemed like a feeling of perverse accomplishment. “Eight years in a row. Am I right Rudy?” Not waiting for confirmation, he added, “Back and forth to the ER. They know me by my first name by now. ‘Nice to see you again, George,’ they say when they bring me in. ‘What can we do for you this time? Heart? Lungs? Maybe something broken?’ They’re all such cards there.”

“I think by next year they’re going to name the emergency room for him. The George Tucci ER. But thank God everything always turns out well.”

“If you’re looking to buy a place, make sure it’s not more than ten minutes from an emergency room. That’s more important than being close to a Publix and a Chinese restaurant.”

“As I said,” Sam said, “we’re looking but maybe it’s better to rent.”

“You don’t have to worry about hurricanes.”

“And I hate the idea of paying for something all year when you use it only four months. What do you do about your telephone, for example? I don’t want to have to pay for it while I’m not here, and if I switch it off they tell me I won’t be able to keep my number.”

“For $11.00 a month, they let you keep it.”

“Though like you I don’t like paying for something I’m not getting.”

“So that’s why we use our cell phone,” George said. “Verizon gives you rollover minutes. So she can talk all day if she wants to.”

Sam said, “Though how that works, I don’t know. The rolling over.”

“But she has her minutes,” George said with a touch of annoyance, “and that’s all I know or care.”


“Make sure when you buy a place that you interview them when they interview you.”

“I’m not following this,” Sam from Pennsylvania said.

“The condo board. When they interview you.”

“I wouldn’t know what to ask them.”

“Be sure to write down your questions. Five or six.”

“Of what?”

“Anything you want to know.” Rudy shrugged his shoulders.

“She’ll for sure have questions,” George said. “Like where do you put our garbage? What happens if the refrigerator stops working? Where do guests park their cars?”

“Yes, those kinds of things,” Rudy agreed.

“Then she’ll want to know if the grandchildren are allowed in the pool if there’s no lifeguard,” Sam joined in.

“No one here has a lifeguard. If you want a lifeguard, come to Barnegat in the summer. I told you, didn’t I, that we live there? It’s by the ocean.” Sam nodded. “If you want a lifeguard here you have to go to the public beach or get a condo on the water with a private beach.”

“But be prepared to spend three-times as much for the same thing.”

“Location, location . . .”

“ . . . location.”

“She doesn’t want the beach. She has problems with her feet and the sand gets in her toes.”

“Mine does too. Sand is for grandchildren.”

“Not for us.” They were all nodding now.

“And be sure that before everything is signed, sealed, and delivered she agrees to spend the whole winter here. Mine would go home after two months. She misses her bridge game in New Jersey. But of course she never once lifted a shovel.”


“They raised the price.”


“The haircut. Last year it was $7.00. Now it’s eight.”

“In Pennsylvania they charge me twenty-five. But that includes a shampoo and blow-drying. I see here they don’t do either of these.”

“That’s why it’s $8.00. If you want a shampoo I advise you to do it yourself before you come here. Though there are other places, salons they call them, where they shampoo your hair, but it costs at least $5.00 more for that.”

“Not a separate charge but . . .”

“ . . . it’s built into what they charge. With the tip it could set you back $20.00.”

“That’s still cheaper than in Pennsylvania.”

“Or even more. Which is why we come here.”

“They look like they know what they’re doing,” Sam observed.

“They specialize in people like us,” Rudy ran his hand across the shiny top of his head, “People without that much hair. Though I see you have one of those comb-overs, which is a little more complicated.” Sam, not insulted, smiled.

“But not to worry, there’s no extra charge for them.”

My Turn

By then I was glad when Juanita called number 22. My number.

"That's you," George announced. "Juanita's the best."

I muttered an acknowledgement.

"You a snowbird too?" Rudy asked.

I muttered again without looking up.

"You look like one," Sam joined in.

"Retired for sure," Rudy observed.

To this I didn't even mutter, but slipped into the chair and slid down as far as I could in the hope that no one I knew would spot me there among these seniors.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

February 8, 2011--The New Mercantilism

I was reading recently about hedge fund manager John Paulson. The last time I remember his being in the headlines was during the Congressional hearings about Goldman Sachs. How Goldman, with Paulson right in the middle of the action, constructed an investment fund that they pitched to their best clients as triple-A rated while they, since they knew it was set up to collapse, bet against it and made many millions first in commissions from their duped clients and then more millions by selling the fund short.

Now in the news is how Paulson's gold fund, which up to now has made billions, is now in retreat as the price of gold has been slipping. According to the New York Times (article linked below), we do not need to worry too much about him. His Paulson Advantage Fund is worth about $36 billion and grew at the rate of 11.1 percent last year, while the gold component of it shot up 30.8 percent. Because of the way hedge fund managers are paid (see below), he personally pocketed about $5.0 billion in 2010 as compared with "only" $4.0 billion the year before.

The gold his fund owns, by the way, is the equivalent of 96 metric tons, more than all the gold assets of the country of Australia. His personal gold stake amounts to more than Bulgaria's.

Intrigued, I wondered about how hedge funds like Paulson's operate. But to tell the truth, I had no idea what one is except that their managers seem to make billions, pay little in taxes, and once in awhile a very few of them wind up in jail. So I did some research. I learned that . . .

A hedge fund is a lightly federally regulated investment operation that is typically open to a limited number of very wealthy investors who pay a performance fee to the fund's investment manager.

Every hedge fund has its own strategy that determines the type of investments it undertakes and these strategies are highly individual. As a class, hedge funds undertake a wider range of investment and trading activities than traditional buy-and-hold funds, and invest in a broader range of assets, including long and short positions in shares, bonds, and commodities. As the name implies, hedge funds often seek to hedge some of the risks inherent in their investments, using a variety of methods, notably short selling and buying those infamous derivatives that have recently proved so troublesome.

Paulson gained his reputation and much of his money by anticipating that the real-estate-based derivatives business was in effect a giant Ponzi scheme and as early as 2006 began to sell his derivatives and pocket billions. Case in point, the scam he worked out with Goldman.

Typically, the manager of the hedge fund is compensated with a fee based on 2 percent of the gross assets of the fund and 20 percent of the fund's profits.

Best of all from a hedge fund manager's perspective, and to me most questionable, with the approval of Congress and a series of U.S. presidents, they get to keep almost all they earn because the manager is compensated with profits from the growth of the assets in the fund; and thus through various and well-protected tax loopholes the bulk of the manager's income from the fund is taxed, not as compensation for services or as salary, but at a much lower rate as a return on investment.

With this new understanding about hedge funds, I returned to thinking about Paulson's gold horde and more widely, about gold itself.

Down here in Florida, where many see Doomsday right around the corner (anyone owning real estate in South Florida has already had a glimpse of it), out of suspicion of the government and fear of an even worse impending global economic collapse, having gold is on many people's minds. And increasingly in one's portfolio or, as in the case of some of my local friends, literally hidden under their mattresses.

I keep asking, "If all hell breaks loose, what good will gold do for you?"

They say, "More good than your stocks and bonds and paper money."

"You mean," I ask, "that you'll fill your gas tank by paying with gold coins or shop at Publix using gold bullion?"

They just shake their heads at my naiveté and smile at me.

So, again, not understanding, I did a little more research about gold and other forms of bullion and was reminded about Mercantilism--the dominant European economy theory of the 16th through late-18th century. I came to realize, that though it was totally discredited by the Industrial Revolution and the expansive capitalist economy that saw its full bloom during the 19th and 20th centuries, what we are seeing now among Gold Bugs is a new form of Mercantilism.

For those whose history is as foggy as mine, Mercantilism is a theory that held that the prosperity of a state is dependent upon its supply of capital, that the total global volume of international trade is unchangeable, and that one party may benefit only at the expense of another. By this theory, this means that the European and global economies were in effect zero-sum games. According to Mercantilists, economic assets were represented by bullion (gold, silver, and trade value), which was best increased through a positive balance of trade with other states--exports minus imports.

The theory assumed that wealth and monetary assets are identical. It suggested that the ruling government should advance these goals by playing a protectionist role in the economy by encouraging exports and discouraging imports, notably through the use of subsidies and tariffs.

Mercantilism dominated Western European economic policy for nearly two centuries but then industrial capitalism demonstrated that the world's economy is far from a zero-sum game and could be seemingly infinitely expanded. And thus gold and other forms of bullion, though they loomed as of ultimate value in the imaginations of some because of their relative rarity and the value placed on them by others, did not for long retain the currency (pun intended) that they did in the past.

That is until now when so many are plagued by suspicion and fear and as a result, as with the Mercantilists, gold is the secure-feeling answer.

Monday, February 07, 2011

February 7, 2011--On Top of Mount Bugarach

Last Friday I wrote about The Glenn Beck Prophases--how in his delusional view the world is moving rapidly toward the Final Days. His evidence--the reestablishment of the Caliphate, Islamic domination of much of the world, including most of Western Europe--that will result from the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Today, I bring you news about some who, in the face of other Final Signs that they see, have already taken to the hills. Literally.

These folks in fact have a specific date for the end of everything--December 21, 2012. So well over a year in advance they have been filtering into a remote region of France, specifically to a mountain in the Pyrenees, Mount Bugarach, where they will await their fate.

It is a well-chosen sanctuary, the site of various medieval religious sects, most memorably the Cathars, who from the 11th to 13th centuries challanged Catholic Church orthodoxy by asserting that there was not one all-encompassing God, but rather two, both equal and comparable in status.

Cathars held that the physical world was evil and created by Rex Mundi, the "King of the World," who encompassed all that was physical, chaotic, and powerful; the second god, the one whom they worshipped, was entirely spiritual (as opposed to Jesus who was corporeal): a being or principle of pure spirit and completely unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love, order, and peace.

According to the Cathars, the purpose of man's life on Earth was to transcend matter, perpetually renouncing anything connected with the principle of power and thereby attaining union with the principle of love.

Needless to say, this needed to be declared heretical by the Church and all Cathars, down to every last woman and child, had to be eliminated, which they literally were by the armiees of Pope Innocent III in 1209. At least 20,000 were tortured and slaughtered.

But those currently headed toward Cathar Country are more New Agers. They have little to say about theology or eschatology. Rather, they are guided by their version of the Mayan Calendar and what they say it means. In the meantime, while waiting for the End, many of them appear to be pursuing an exuberant free-love lifestyle. (See linked New York Times article.)

The Mayan Calendar they are following is the Long Count Calendar, which measures 394 year-long celestial cycles. According to Mayan belief, the Earth was created, using our calender, in 3114 BC and by late December 2012 the current cycle will end.

In recent years, as the conclusion of the latest Long Count cycle approaches, doomsday theorists have predicted the worst. The calendar we use, the Gregorian's date for this is denoted as using the Long Count system of notation and to apocalyptic-minded folks this signals more than the end of a cycle (a K'atun) but rather the big End.

However, Mayan scholars and contemporary Mayan natives dismiss these theories, noting that end of the calendar will be regarded as a time of celebration, much like modern-day New Year festivities. There are also no Mayan inscriptions or writings that predict the end of the world when the current Great Cycle concludes, just that when it ends we will enter another one. The 14th since 3114 BC.

But those trekking to Mount Burgarach are taking no chances. Some, believing devoutly that on that date all will cease to exist, feel that there is something spiritually special about the Mount and that those gathered there on the fateful December 21st day will be spirited away by aliens who, at them moment, live under the mountain.

In the meantime, local burgers, who cast ironic eyes on those they call the "esoterics," some of whom are living in yurts, are seeing them as good for business. Real estate prices have been rising and the local inn, which is traditionally open only during the summer, is already accepting reservations for December 2012 all the way through January of 2013.

The owner archly reports that the post-December 21st guests are telling her they want to be around then to "see what happens."

Let's hope there won't be a lot of no-shows after the 21st.

Friday, February 04, 2011

February 4, 2011--Caliphate

If you haven't been keeping up with Glenn Beck these days because you've been riveted to CNN while watching the revolutionary events in Egypt, allow me to catch you up with some of his delusional thinking.

With blackboard behind him and pointer in hand he has been speaking in alarmist terms about how what we are witnessing is the start of the reinstitution of the Muslim Caliphate--a system of government established under Islamic law. Not only does his map show the Caliphate encompassing the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Asia, including India, but also most of Western Europe.

This wild version of coming Islamic rule dwarfs the Muslin domination of North Africa and part of Western Europe that occurred between the 8th and 15th centuries. Beck sees this new Caliphate to be only a part of the larger forces at work in the world that will result in the United States slipping into insignificance.

He said, "When you take the Marxists and you combine them with the radical form of Islam, when you combine those forces, which is exactly . . . what is happening here, the whole world starts to implode."

According to his theory, the protests in Egypt are the manifestation of what is prophesied in The Coming Insurrection, an obscure and discredited book that French authorities believe was written by a member of a small group of anarchists. Beck has repeatedly described the anonymous authors of the book as "communists"; and through his extra-vivid imagination has tied George Soros and President Obama to The Coming Insurrection. Even going so far as to say that Obama is working in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood to bring about these cataclysmic changes.

But in truth, his deeper assertion, and I suspect his hope, is to see connections between various forms of radical eschatology--the study of the Final Days. His clear implication has always been that Islamic and Christian messianic beliefs work in tandem with Muslim and Jewish millennialist prophesies in service to the ultimate Christian version that looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ.

Thus, with Beck and his followers, we are witnessing a blend of fear, hysteria, and hope.

To give you a sense of these prophetic connections, consider the menaing of a modern Caliphate and how, in radical Muslim terms, it will come into being.

A number of Islamist political parties and Jihadist guerrilla groups have called for the restoration of the Caliphate by uniting Muslim nations, either through political action or, like al-Qaeda, through force. Various Islamist movements have gained momentum in recent years with the ultimate aim of establishing a Caliphate; however, they differ in their methodology and approach.

To them the Mahdi, the Muslim Antichrist, who will participate in the redemption of Islam, will stay on Earth for seven, nine or nineteen years, according to various interpretations.

To get a sense of the confluence of Christian and Muslim eschatology, the following beliefs in relation to the Mahdi, some specific and strange, are shared by both Sunni and Shia Muslims:

The Mahdi will be a descendant of Muhammad and will have the same name as Muhammad.

He will be a fore-runner to Jesus' Islamic Rule.

His coming will be accompanied by the raising of a Black Standard.

His coming will be accompanied by the appearance of the Antichrist.

There will be a lunar and solar eclipse within the month of Ramadan.

A star with a luminous tail will rise from the East before the coming of the Mahdi.

He will establish the Caliphate.

He will fill the world with justice and fairness at a time when the world will be filled with oppression.

He will have a broad forehead, a prominent nose, and a natural mascara will ring his eyes.

His face shall shine upon the surface of the Moon.

And so forth.

To keep up with this, stay tuned to Glenn Beck as he promises to tell us more about all of this as it inevitably rolls out.

There is, however, some good news on the Glenn Beck front--not only have some of his sponsors abandoned him for his periodic anti-Semitic comments, but his show (and that's in fact what it is) has been falling in the ratings. They are down by almost 50 percent since their peak early last year.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

February 3, 2011--Founders Intent

While expressing reverence for the Constitution and the Founders who framed it, Tea Party members, Sarah Palin and now more and more Michele Bachmann keep getting tangled up in their version of history and interpretation of what is actually in the Constitution.

The latest incident comes from a speech Congresswoman Bachmann gave in Iowa, home of the nation's first presidential caucus. (Any meaning to be read into that?)

With I-can-only-imagine tears welling up in her eyes as she looked back to her view of the revolutionary past--back to the America she wants to restore--she spoke about how long and hard our Founding Fathers worked to eliminate slavery. In her words:

We . . . know that the very Founders who wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forebearers who worked tirelessly -- men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.

Forget for the moment that John Quincy Adams was not a "Founder"--she probably meant his father who was--forget, for the moment that our representatives do not have to be history professors; but do not forget that they and she should at least know the CliffNotes version of the history of slavery.

She should also know that with the exception of John Adams the elder every one of the Founder-presidents were slave owners: George Washington owned 317; Jefferson 237 ; Madison (the Father of the Constitution) had 118; and Monroe owned 30-40. In fact, nine of our first 18 presidents owned slaves, including Ulysses S. Grant, the great Union Civil War hero.

And Bachmann should know that we had to fight the Civil War to finally end slavery, 72 years after the Constitution was ratified, a war in which more than 600,000 Americans died.

Then, when embracing the original Constitution as if it were our secular bible, and calling for it to be followed according to the original intent of its framers, it appears that the Constitution Bachmann and Palin and the other Tea Party members are calling for us to follow strictly is the one written by our Founders. That part of it then would include the first 12 amendments since they were added by 1804, at a time when Jefferson was still president. (The remaining 15 were ratified after the Founding Fathers had passed from the scene.)

For non-history buffs who know their Bill of Rights but maybe not so much about the others, the 11th Amendment clarified the role of the federal judiciary and the 12th the functions of the Electoral College. Both corrected flaws in the original Constitution. Make note of the flaw-correcting that even our Founders, based on experience, saw the need to undertake.

In calling for the the strictest interpretation of the Founders' Constitution, I wonder what Tea Party leaders have to say about some of its quirkier parts. Quirky at least to some of us looking back on it from a 21st century perspective.

Are they still OK with both low-population and high-population states having the same number of senators? Two for huge California with its 34 million residents and the same two for Wyoming with 500,000? This, in effect, leads to functionally disenfranchising citizens in the larger states.

Are they all right with the Electoral College (in spite of the 12th Amendment corrections) that has resulted, during our history, in four presidents being designated president by them in spite of the fact that they received fewer popular votes than the losers? This happened to Al Gore who "lost" to George Bush as recently as 2000.

Are they happy about lifetime appointments for federal judges? So that, as we have too often seen, even the Supreme Court has had members serving well into their senility.

Regarding slavery, one of Bachmann's interests, is she happy with the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise worked out between northern and southern states during the Constitutional Convention? In the final language of the original Constitution it reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This section of the Constitution, incidentally, was omitted when Republicans recently had the "entire" Constitution read on the day that they took control of the House of Representatives.

And of course I wonder how Ms. Bachmann and Ms. Palin feel about their original Constitution limiting the right to vote and hold public office to propertied, white men.

Perhaps the next time they are in Iowa they will comment about this.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

February 2, 2011--Is This Any Way to Run A College?

One of America's greatest assets is its higher education system. Not only have we found ways to offer access to virtually anyone 18 years-old or older via community colleges, but at the upper end our undergraduate and graduate and professional schools are among the world's leaders. Over the decades these institutions have attracted the world's best and brightest.

And through 50 separate public higher education systems we have figured out how to make attending college relatively affordable. For those for whom state-subsidized tuition still leaves college beyond their means there is the possibility of part-time study and readily available federally guaranteed student loans and Pell Grants, which do not require repayment.

True, in recent years countries such as India, China, and Brazil, as well as many in Europe have expanded their own systems so that more than in the past can enroll, and they have simultaneously improved quality so that their ablest students can stay close to home to receive a world-class education.

As a result, and because of the general slippage in the quality of pre-collegiate education in the United States, we have lost some of our preeminence. For many years we led the world in the percentage of high school graduates entering college and saw more graduate than any other country. The most recent College Board data show, however, that we have slipped to 12th place in the percent we see completing college. Trailing even Russia in this critical higher-education "race."

This decline in the numbers and quality of our offerings is dangerous to our economic and political future as the times more and more demand a higher-educated population.

So how are we responding to this new crisis?

At the state level, ubiquitous fiscal crises may be leading to innovative responses and improvements. Around the country, as a way to cut expense budgets and improve K-12 education, governors are seeking ways to renegotiate contracts with teachers unions. Including, pressing to end of the tenure system so when there need to be cuts they can occur in ways other than as currently required--the last in must be the first out.

Without tenure and the seniority system, there is a chance at least that the inevitable retrenchment can be done on the basis of teacher effectiveness--the least effective can be the first to go. And if this hurdle can be overcome, without the strict requirements of tenure, even when not faced with a budget crisis, teachers can be hired, evaluated, and then retained because of the quality of their work with children. New Jersey Governor Christie is making quite a name for himself by taking on the unions around these very issues.

Than at the higher education end there are also some promising signs, also in part the result of tightening budgets.

According to an article in the New York Times (linked below), the Obama administration is considering rationing federal aid to college and universities on the basis of improved efficiency and student outcomes.

Neither of these should be radical ideas, but in fact they are.

Colleges get aid based purely on enrollment. What those in the trade call "head count." There are virtually no incentives for success and no requirements to make institutions accountable for the way they spend their money.

Colleges are not rewarded for how many they graduate and are not penalized for graduating very few. In the heady days of ever-increasing enrollments and flush budgets, all but the selective colleges opened their doors to almost anyone who wanted to enroll, collected the subsidies that were connected to head count, and paid very little attention to what happened to students. In fact, since it costs less to educate freshmen and sophomores and more to provide classes for juniors and seniors (their more specialized classes tend to be smaller than freshmen's and thus the student-teacher ratio is higher and more expensive to run), in many ways college administrators interested primarily in their budgetary bottom lines were happy to see students drop out before becoming upperclassmen.

A few states have begun to experiment with budgeting based less on enrollment count than student progress. West Virginia's basic college scholarship program requires students to make steady progress and graduate in four years. And Indiana has adjusted its higher education funding formulas to give more money to colleges with higher graduation rates.

These could be good models for the federal government to consider. Currently, the Department of Education spends about $45 billion a year on higher education. Much of it to guarantee loans and provide Pell Grants. For the sake of fiscal restraint, institutional improvement, and seeing more young people complete a full education and thereby become more productive citizens and earners (and thus taxpayers), these grants and loans could be tied to student progress; and the subsidies that the federal government provides directly to institutions could, among other things, be tied to how well their students progress.

For example, the feds spend billions each year matching scholarships colleges themselves give to students and that match could be outcomes based. This seems like an obviously good idea--good for students, good for institutions, and of course good for America--and in the current environment overdue.