Monday, February 28, 2011
GOODBYE, MS. CHIPS
There is little to regret about that ten years of volunteer work, other than the fact that when approaching state authorities for help on behalf of deserving elderly folk, one is doomed to failure for the most part. With the current conservative control of state government the battle has changed from advancing the cause of elderly teachers to defending them against predatory moves by republican legislators.
Many times I have sat amidst a meeting of retired educators attended by legislators, or in meetings of delegations at the Capitol with legislators and government officials. There I have heard legislators speak to these folk, as though talking to their partially senile grandmother, telling them how delightful they are, and how much their past service to the people of Oklahoma is valued.
Then, almost invariably legislators will notice some past teacher of their own in the group, and they will bubble over with gracious thankfulness for that teacher. If none is there, they will call to mind one or two from their past. We call all this “a pat on the head.”
Probably some of those should die and go straight to hell, based upon their insincerity, deceit, and hypocrisy. They have already bidden Ms. Chips goodbye. They would really like for her to go grey, fade into poverty, and stop bothering.
These legislators today do not really care much for Ms. Chips, despite their lip service to her in public. They would prefer not to see or hear about how her pension, based on her small salary of twenty years or so earlier with few pitiful adjustments since, has less than half its initial purchasing power. They do not mind that Ms. Chips’ pension is less than half of those retiring now with the same years of service.
“The pension account has unfunded actuarial liabilities,” conservatives declare, “Sorry, but we cannot afford to give you any, much less a decent, COLA.” Then legislators, in their righteousness, say: “COLA’s must be paid for in advance by appropriation. Well no, we don’t have any money to appropriate for that. We have lots of other needs and priorities.”
They might as well add also: “Legislators in the past gave benefits too generous. We have to straighten that out.” It is what many of them really think.
Never have we heard a legislator say, as honesty would require: “The legislature failed miserably in not putting sufficient funds into the pension programs when we had the opportunity. Instead, we very stupidly cut taxes instead of investing surpluses in the state’s future -- including putting the retirement systems on a fiscally sound basis, as we were reminded every year by education groups.”
Never have we heard a legislator say, as conscience might dictate: “The state has never treated you right, Ms. Chips, and you should not have dropped into the poverty level at age 80 after all your service. So, we are now going to do something about our past unfairness toward you. We can afford that because half of your age group has already passed, and your actuarial life expectancy is short.”
Ms. Chips has not always been able to represent her cause well before politicians. I discovered this when I attended my first county retiree luncheon, observing the grey hair and naïve talk about legislative affairs. Silently, I said, “These people need a helper.” Later, I decided there was no better calling than to try to be of help to Ms. Chips and her colleagues.
I was never rewarded more than one day in the Capitol, when we had a dozen or so like Ms. Chips in tow going through the legislative offices. I asked, “How many of you would like to break off and go with me to the Governor’s office?”
Still I feel a glow of warmth from the answer of a dear little lady from southeastern Oklahoma, who piped up: “We’ll follow you anywhere, Dr. Vineyard.”
Well, Ms. Chips, we tried. We won a few concessions back then. Sorry we didn’t do better. Sorry that it doesn’t look as though you will be properly respected anytime soon by the crowd in control at the Capitol now.
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
HEY, DEFICIT HAWKS! LOOK HERE!
But this is a lesson not yet mastered by some of our republican would-be contra Robin Hood’s who crave budget cutting notoriety and hero status among their wealthy donors and culturally backward voter support groups. Mostly they just want to gain status by robbing the poor and giving to the rich. But they do show a certain barbarism by going after anything cultural, artistic, or intellectual.
The republicans are really going after those spending cuts. But mainly they are working within that 16% of a very big budget that is called “discretionary” spending. So, they have gone after school lunches, nutrition aid to poor mothers and children, student aid, Head Start, and poverty programs. They have also voted to defund public and educational broadcasting, the arts, and the humanities.
Strangely, they have not yet found all the riches doled out to farmers across the country. They haven’t touched the oil and gas company subsidies, or the newer ones for ethanol farmers in the political state of Iowa. They haven’t found the sugar subsidies either. Since there are literally hundreds of such special interest give-away programs, one might conclude that republicans aren’t even looking to cut the considerable costs of all these.
And, neither the republican nor the democrat deficit hawks have found the wars in Afghanistan or wind-down in Iraq. In fact, they have hardly touched the military expenditures at all. Some leadership republicans had to be beaten down to allow the air force to discontinue an unneeded engine built in their area.
The war in Afghanistan is 112 months old, has killed 1400 of our young Americans, and wounded 8800 more. War related costs have amounted to as much as 25% of all the deficits since 2003. The war was carried “off-budget” during the Bush years, and put back on by Obama in a move toward fiscal honesty.
Hey! Hey, deficit hawks! Look here! Look here! There is big money to be cut! And, there are lives to be saved, and families preserved from grief.
The human and personal financial burdens of the wars have been borne almost entirely by the middle and lower income classes in this country. All of those wealthy beneficiaries of war prosperity have not paid one extra dime in taxes to pay for the costs of a war being fought for them by other Americans. Instead, they have been given huge tax cuts by their republican minions.
There is a lot of hullaballoo about Social Security. One would think that Social Security has been bankrupting the nation. Instead, it would be historically accurate to say that Social Security has been bankrolling the nation.
Year after year since the 80’s Social Security has run a surplus. Before running its first deficit in 2010, it had accumulated a reserve account valued in trillions. That has all been loaned (invested) in treasury notes, the most revered investment for banks and businesses all over the world. It can go on as it is for several decades, and with benefit reductions of 25% around 2040 it will go to the 2100’s.
Of course, it would be wiser to make some minor tweaks now than on down the road, but why all the screaming? That is simple. Social Security was brought from “off-budget” to “on-budget” in government accounting a while back. This was done by politicians so that the SS surplus would cover up some of their annual budget deficits, and they would look better to the people. Now that SS has run a year of deficit, instead of surplus, it adds to the annual government deficit rather than ameliorating the deficit’s impact.
Now, of course, some “deficit hawks” would like to claim that entitlements such as SS have been ruining the fiscal state of the country, so they are out to try to gut a program which they have always opposed on ideological grounds. Well, it was enacted over republican opposition in the 1930’s, and Bush tried to privatize it.
The Medicare program is not so fiscally fortunate, and it has more immediate problems. The republicans’ enactment during the Bush years of a prescription drug benefit program made matters worse much sooner. A lot of that came from a gold mine for pharmaceuticals with windfall pricing. With no funding sources added, Medicare was then on a collision course with reality.
Remediation of the drug problem been rebuffed by republicans. They have opposed all legislation that has sought to control medical costs, a necessity for reducing Medicare, including the recent health insurance reform bill. One might think they want failure. Well, yes, they did vote against its original enactment.
Republican deficit hawks, then, yell the loudest about expenditures going mostly to poor, old, or working people. They are still opposed to entitlements just as they have always been. They are opposed to paying their share of taxes, and they want to keep all of their rich friends’ subsidies. And, they would like to starve all those government services and agencies they are against.
Watch out for a government shutdown – if they can blame it on somebody else.
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate
Thursday, February 17, 2011
THE BUDGET HAS TWO PARTS
After following a frugal life style for several months, we looked again at our bank records, studying them quite intently. We could not see much improvement. We had made no special expenditures, confining those just to those that were demanded in keeping house, body, and soul together. Still we did not get ahead.
So, then we looked at the other side of the budget – our income. My wife was an elementary teacher at the time, and I was bringing in the meager stipend of a graduate teaching assistant. Put together, those did not go very far.
So, we reached a startling conclusion: The way to get ahead is to make more money. Cutting spending alone has a very limited impact. Secondly, we concluded that it would be a while before we were able to resume the positive growth of assets that we had expected. This was not the time.
Our lesson learned on budget management is one that many of our politicians have yet to master, either at the state or the federal level. There are two sides of the budget! Controlling expenditures is one part of the equation, but the income brought in makes up the other side.
All the talk from the republicans, in either the Oklahoma legislature or the Congress, is about cutting spending. As we found, just paying our rent, our utilities, and maintaining a modest standard of living consumed our income. So it is with our state and federal governments.
Our Oklahoma legislature is actually allowing an income tax cut to trigger this year, reducing revenue in spite of another year in a series of annual funding cuts for state agencies. Somebody explain the fiscal logic of that.
Further, the constant stress on adding “jobs,” while an admirable goal, usually means another set of “tax give-away” subsidies for businesses. Unfortunately, most of those now on the books do not carry rewards to justify them. While it is difficult to believe that the “party of tax-cuts,” currently in charge, will ever significantly cut government give-away’s to their donor constituency, it will be most encouraging if they will actually make substantive cuts there.
There is bally-hoo in Washington about cutting “entitlements.” To republicans this usually means “something you are getting and I am not,” i.e. the benefits are going to old people, the disabled, the poor, orphans, the sick, the unemployed, or war veterans. The two largest of these are Social Security and Medicare.
Oddly enough both are fairly simple to fix, if we had the political will to do so. Social Security needs a very slight increase in the payroll tax and the applicable salary raised little by little as the years come. Retirement age and benefits need little adjusting. For Medicare the solution is two-fold: add a little on the Medicare tax and gain better control of medical costs with a similar, effective universal insurance similar to Medicare for all. Medical costs are the basic problem.
Simple enough, but to accomplish either of these will require a realization of the logic of increasing the income side of the ledger, and the political will to accomplish that.
In national budget management, too often we forget the awful fiscal load taxpayers are carrying with supporting a military, and accompanying industrial complex, for fighting multiple wars and continuing to perform the role of world policeman. We cannot afford this, and we should cut it way back –NOW.
Related to the problem of military expenditures is continuing to be the banker “sugar daddy” for the world with aid programs for any and all of our “friends,” however temporary these friends turn out to be. Most of the nations of world can now stand alone or with limited assistance. If we won’t tax ourselves to take care of our own, why are we taxing ourselves to subsidize economic competitors?
Sitting idly by watching Oklahoma state services shrivel, emergencies arise, and people suffer, while refusing to even discuss raising tax revenues, is the height of government irresponsibility. There is a limit to cuts, and it has already been exceeded in most cases. It is time to add to the supply side of the budget.
Are there no statesmen left?
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate
Thursday, February 10, 2011
BARBARIANS AT THE GATE -- AGAIN
The Captain of the Gate,
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.’”
From: Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas B. Macaulay
The last time this citizen lifted pen to write under the title above, it was during the period of the Newt Gingrich takeover of Congress after the elections of 1994. Mr. Gingrich immediately declared his first targets to be the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Humanities Foundation. Does anyone not see the logic of the metaphor of persons with hostility toward education, the arts, and culture taking over Congress, and the barbarians at the gates of Roman civilization?
Everyone familiar with history knows that the earlier barbarian takeover set back the progress of humankind for nearly a millennium. Fortunately, Mr. Gingrich was never so successful.
During the last few decades, the whipping boys of the ultra-conservatives have been education, culture, the arts, and intellectualism. Has anyone forgotten Mr. Agnew’s terms “effete intellectuals” or “the nattering nabobs of negativism?”
Although less semantically talented, the current crop of ultra-conservatives in the Congress and in the Oklahoma legislature are just as much in the spirit of anti-intellectualism as those in the past. This then translates into an active disrespect for the “establishment” in the schools and the colleges. While our common schools have their faults and may be in need of significant improvements, they have not deserved being made the target of consistently vicious negative attacks by conservatives in the media.
It should probably be said that historically public schools have always had their opponents. This has had nothing to do with the quality, or lack thereof, in their performance. It has everything to do with an age old ideology which holds that academic education is for the elite. The term “elite” in this context has never referred to the brightest or most mentally capable, but instead has referred to the children of those wealthy enough to send their children to private schools. Persons holding to that ideology believe that working class children should be educated in the occupations or skills of labor. The economically well-to-do, as a class, have tended never to fancy paying taxes to support the education of working class children with aspirations above their family’s ability to pay.
However, a basic tenet of democracy has always been that of equal opportunity. And the truth of equal opportunity lies in the open and free access to education of all kinds at all levels. This was enunciated well by Thomas Jefferson.
Schools have done nothing to justify the harshness of the continuing conservative media war against them. Yet that has succeeded in making the gullible half of citizens ready to support some kind of destructive “reform” moves against our public schools, the teachers, and the colleges who train the teachers.
This gullible half of our voters has unwittingly put in place a deadly combination of ultra-conservatives in the legislature and in the executive offices governing our schools. Those legislators are threatening to give despotic powers to an “elected” official, who is a declared enemy of the public schools system as it now exists, and who has espoused unproven alternatives to public schools which are set up to move money while evading all rules, mandates, and standards which have assured some semblance of quality and equality in our schools.
At stake is the entire funding formula for education. Who gets the money? Is it the urban schools? Is it only the rural schools which consolidate in some pleasing fashion? Will the rich get richer, or will the poor districts keep getting “equalization” money? Or, perhaps they will just siphon off the funding to “charter schools” letting public schools starve or close? Is that the goal? Is the ultimate goal the privatization of education, with attendant selectivity?
Are taxes the real problem? Lately it has appeared that any agency or public service that receives tax money is subject to vilification. Those who contribute the big money to candidates for political office just don’t like to pay their share of taxes. What if they could convert those pesky public schools into some cheaper structure? What if the taxes could be tapped to pay for private schools free of state regulation? Could it all start under the name of “charter” schools?
The future of public education is threatened by politics. The tragedy is not that those with contrary ideological views are storming the gates, the real tragedy is that the people themselves fail to see what is happening to their own beloved institutions of democracy.
The calls of those representing a modern day Horatius go unheard and unheeded. The beneficiaries of public education lie in their stupor of brain-washed ignorance while the barbarians pour through the gate. So shall it be written.
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate
Friday, February 04, 2011
TEMPEST IN A TEA (PARTY) POT
In the case of the Oklahoma State Department of Education tea pot fiasco, the signs all point to one person with a stick of political dynamite, which she calls a “mandate” -- from a poorly contested recent election in which the winning candidate had all the campaign money, most of that from right wing forces aided by millionaires and corporations.
Many do not accept that as a “mandate.” Voters in Oklahoma have a poor understanding of the issues behind the forces who pay big money to advertise for their vote. They do not really understand “charter schools,” the semi-private alternative to public schools which the new state school superintendent has espoused and is expected to push. She shows signs of doing her pushing in the fashion of a bulldozer.
The voters of Oklahoma did not vote to strip their public schools of funding and send tax money to semi-private entities, which may then choose to contract with corporations to essentially privatize our schools. They did not choose to strip our educational system of essential regulation and enforcement of standards of teacher certification, curriculum requirements, and accountability. They did not vote to allow private entities to skim off the students in the localities they wish, take the public tax money, hire cheap teachers, and do a cheap job of educating their student selection with their own curriculum while making a profit for “service” corporations.
Certainly, the public did not vote to pull students from public schools (and the tax money) and move them to a private entity which would make a fortune while offering cheap education via internet to students at home. This is sold to people as progress?
Certainly, the State Superintendent of Schools has a leadership and administrative role to play in the state’s common education system. But it is not an authoritarian role, and it has not been for decades. That office does not operate by fiat, nor by “papal bulls.” And, then there is the problem of a absence of acceptable professional credentials.
Decades ago, the office of the state superintendent was indeed a highly authoritative role. Superintendents such as Dr. Oliver Hodge, well-known to this writer, did indeed operate in a rather authoritarian manner at times. But Dr. Hodge began the democratization of the department’s functions. He shared his authority, coincident with that of the state board of education, with those who fell under his care. Many of us served on teacher education, professional standards, graduation curricula, school size, funding formulae, and other commissions and committees. The state’s regulations, and many of its laws, came from such a shared process.
Others followed Dr. Hodge’s example with even more democratization and shared authority, giving professionals in education a huge participatory role in forming the guidelines by which the system would function.
Still the public and the legislature did not always feel comfortable with so much authority over public education residing in just one “political” official. Likewise, that one person often felt more comfortable with the board taking a stronger role and sharing the responsibility for tough policy decisions and recommendations on education. Thus, the State Board of Education came to have a much greater customary and legal role of authority in education. It has its place, and it is there for logical reasons.
Unless one believes that the best changes occur through destructive explosiveness, i.e. blowing up and destroying the system which has developed through the years, then it would be wise to approach change as some kind of an orderly process that involves the participation of those being governed. Normally this takes longer, but it works better. And, the results are better and last longer.
Of course, all this presupposes there is present a genuine desire to have the best public school system in Oklahoma that is within our cooperative reach. If the goal is really to do away with public education in Oklahoma, as some suspect, then let us hope that is made a hotly contested battle by public school forces.
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate