Sep 302010

Tuesday night Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman met for the first time in a political debate at U.C. Davis. Immediately thereafter, pundits and bloggers far and wide started offering their opinions on the outcome. Although, since there really was no clear winner, the pundit’s opinions are rather irrelevant. Fortunately for Californians, winner or not, there was clear direction.

The two candidates vying for the office of Governor of California presented near polar opposite positions and proposals for how they would govern. Jerry Brown touted his long career in politics and his extensive experience working with government. Meg Whitman positioned herself as a political outsider well suited to effect change. Both spoke to their concern over the state budget and jobs, but each shared drastically different approaches on how they would deal with the issues.

Jerry Brown talked about cutting red tape, focusing on green technology and protecting education. Meg Whitman also said she would cut bureaucracy, but focused on her plan to cut taxes for the rich, suspend environmental regulations and was largely silent on K-12 education. Both candidates were light on details, which can be expected in a debate, but neither left any doubt as to the approach they will take as governor.

The Brown plan to address the budget will begin with bringing representatives from all state agencies together to discuss how 15% to 20% can be cut from operations. Brown stated that he knows the inner workings of Sacramento and will lead the way with an 18% reduction for the governor’s office. He also cited the need for a state salary commission to address compensation issues.

Whitman offered no details on how she would reduce state spending, other than cuts to welfare and state jobs, but repeatedly made references to how she would bring Silicon Valley managerial expertise to Sacramento. This sounds good at first blush, although one might be left wondering how said “expertise” might fit in a government environment. The tech center’s claim to fame doesn’t stem from legendary efficiency or frugality but rather from high pay, 100% paid healthcare, and happy employees. Does she plan on bringing Google style cuisine and open pet policies to state offices? Perhaps eBay’s de-stressing and meditation rooms will help reduce costs?

When asked about the issue of escalating state pension costs, which have increased from 12% of total spending to 13.9% over the past decade and continue to grow, Brown reminded voters that he pushed for a 2-tier system back in 1982, and that when he left office, retirement was calculated based on a 3-year salary average, not the present single highest year. The former governor stated clearly that retirement ages would have to go up.

Ms. Whitman responded to the same question by first attacking Brown’s ability to address pensions while receiving campaign donations from employee unions. When asked again what she would do, her response was to raise the retirement age from 55 to 65 and implement a “401K type” system to replace the current defined benefits. When pushed for how she would make this happen, she said that she would try to negotiate. But then taking one from Arnold’s failed playbook, she suggested that a ballot initiative would serve as her backup plan.

The candidates displayed vastly different styles, with Brown being the much more personable and Whitman seeming canned and rehearsed, but the true contrast was even more evident on the topic of jobs. Brown proposed a continued focus on investment in the green sector, claiming that California was once the leader in renewable energy and can be again. He talked about building out the grid, and when pushed on jobs outside of green, spoke to the cumulative effects of roofing and other energy-based retrofits, which would fuel construction jobs — the place where California is hurting the worst.

According to Meg Whitman, jobs are her main focus. But her plan is vintage Bush — the president with the worst job creation record in modern history. The former head of eBay claims that her plan will create 2 million jobs, yet its single most significant proposal is a cut in capital gains tax. The cut would take as much as $10.8 billion from state revenues, of which, according to Brown, 82% would be pocketed by people making over $500,000. Both economic theory and historical record refute Whitman’s claim that such a move will have any significant effect on job creation.

The entire debate went back and forth in a similar manner, with Brown relying on his record, and Whitman taking every opportunity to defame it. Brown repeatedly asserted that Whitman is the best friend of the rich, and Whitman fought back that Brown was married to employee unions. Other distinctions were made including Brown’s support of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and Whitman’s opposition, but the real dividing line was drawn along the traditional Democrat/Republican positions.

In the end, other than reinforcing concerns regarding Queen Meg’s continued proclivity for half-truth and distortion, the debate should have solidified existing voter opinion on the two candidates. All Californians know that jobs and the budget are our most important concerns, so the decision will likely depend on who appears more capable of addressing the issues.

Come November, voters must decide between a very pro-business, champion of the wealthy who still purports to believe in trickle-down economics, or a career politician with an excellent record for fiscal conservatism and a commitment to advance California’s leadership in renewable energy and green technology. The choice couldn’t be more clear.

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Sep 282010
National Day of Action in Defense of Public Ed...
Image by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Education Nation, NBC’s weeklong look at education in America, kicked off Sunday with a Teachers Town Hall. Involving a live audience of a few hundred and another 6,000 logged in online, the meeting provided a forum for teachers and others to voice their opinions on the issues affecting education. Many shared their private experiences and perspectives in an open dialog looking at everything from teacher recruitment and retention to tenure, charter schools, global competition and parental involvement.

The Town Hall event comes on the heels of the release of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which many argued places teachers in an undeserved bad light. Several people voiced the opinion that teachers are being unfairly attacked, that they were being made the scapegoats for the growing shortcomings of our education system. Most topics enjoyed shared support from the crowd and guests on stage, but tenure stood out as a single point of contention. Even amongst teachers, the debate over tenure revealed some who argued that it protected “bad” teachers and others who strongly disagreed.

If the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is any indication, most Americans seem to agree that, regardless of tenure, teachers aren’t the major problem with education. While 58% of those polled believe that education needs either a “major change” or “complete overhaul,” only 30% cited teachers as part of the problem. And the only group that a majority of people, 53%, identified as part of the problem was elected officials, with parents next highest on the list at 50%.

Regardless of who’s to blame, there are few who believe that the system doesn’t need reform. Asked to assign letter grades to the system, only 19% of those surveyed would give either an A or B. This is good news in that the American public seems to have a fairly good handle on the topic. Of course, it’s also bad news, since they’re correct. The U.S. now ranks 24th amongst the 37 Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) nations in mathematics, 21st in science and 15th in literacy. As many in the education community are inclined to state, “the system is failing our children.”

But is it accurate to label a system that only graduates 68.8% of its students as merely “failing our children?” Not to downplay the significance of such a statement, but holding the problem in such a perspective is more than a little limiting, and may actually provide a window into certain important aspects of the problem. To suggest that the impact of the failure is isolated to students is to misrepresent the true customer of education and to minimize its destructive effects upon the nation.

In the United States, between the federal, state and local governments, over $1 trillion will be spent on education this year. That’s around 7% of our GDP, which is enough to rank #2 amongst the OECD nations, second only to Iceland.  For a moment, forget the question of whether or not Americans are getting their money’s worth, the point is that education accounts for more public spending than any other category, except healthcare — even more than defense. The customer of the American education system is not the students; it’s the American taxpayers.

The attitude that public education is intended to serve the students fails to recognize the importance of an educated populace. Countries don’t invest in education because of some moral imperative directed toward student wellbeing; they do so because it’s an absolutely essential part of building and maintaining a strong and prosperous nation. To the extent that an education system is effective at producing capable and knowledgeable graduates, it’s also effective at providing the labor resource for a high-performing economy and the intellectual engine for technological progress, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of social programs, law enforcement and corrections.

The American education system has failed the children, but more importantly, it has failed America. Never mind our international rankings. They provide a decent relative measure, but the impact is felt right here at home. The impact is fewer graduates capable of designing tomorrow’s technology; it means fewer science papers and patents originating in the U.S.; the result is a labor force increasingly incapable of competing on a global basis, and the tragic side effects are more unproductive Americans, higher crime rates, more drag on available social programs and an increased sense of futility.

Explanations for the failures of the system are many and varied, and the suggestions for remedy are limited only by the number of experts chiming in. But the core issue is that the system is in need of structural change, and as is the case with our nation’s energy infrastructure, the vested interests will fight against any reform that may dilute their voice or adversely impact their pocketbooks.

The truth of the matter is that the American education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution with the specific goal of producing factory workers. The primary objective of the system was not to promote the creativity necessary in the 21st Century, but to produce a crop of docile workers who would accept the dominance of the factory system. The schools were designed like factories, the students treated like raw materials, and the finished product was a labor force where few graduates went on to college.

Our system is providing exactly what it was designed to produce. In order to effect real change, the entire system must be rethought, and learning must be the central focus. Alternative forms of education need to be evaluated and systems implemented where the incremental costs of additional students are minimized. Teaching resources need to be expanded to include peers and professionals. Systems that effectively deal with teacher evaluation and development, disadvantaged students, operating efficiencies, measuring student performance, and fully leveraging technology must all be established.

In short, the American education system needs to be redesigned from the ground up with the needs of the nation in the new millennium driving the process. The power of any nation is derived from its people, and the power of the people is derived from their education. There is no more important endeavor for the future of our nation than to optimize our educational system and invest in the citizens of tomorrow.

Next: American Education — the Path Forward.

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Sep 252010
Seal of the United States Senate.
Image via Wikipedia

Article first published as The Republicans Rail and The Democrats Tuck Tail on Technorati.

The Republicans are winning again. Motivated by hate, fear and ignorance, Americans are flocking to bring back into power the party of plight for all but the wealthy.

Yesterday, the Republicans revealed their new “Pledge,” with John Boehner stating that “We’re not going to be any different than we’ve been.” They’re actually promising a return to the policies that created the Great Recession and people are still applauding instead of throwing rotten fruit at them.

Thinking people need to be concerned. The political landscape in America is no longer about principles and policies; it’s about the creation and recycling of talking points that trigger emotional responses. The Republicans have truly mastered the “art” of political theatre. Their satirical mockery of democratic government would be funny if it weren’t such a tragedy, if it didn’t hurt so many for the benefit of so few.

Americans should be mad as hell about our broken government. But getting mad at Republicans for distortion, hyperbole and lies is like getting mad at a bird for crapping on your windshield; it’s just what they do. You might as well shake your fist at the wind.

But the Democrats are another story. While the Republicans were sharing their “Pledge to [Rape] America,” yesterday, Senate Majority Leader, Harry, the Cowering Wimp, Reid was announcing that there would be no vote on extending the Bush tax cuts to the middle class until after the election. Yep, the Democrats are once again rallying behind their track-proven strategy of tuck-and-cover. Once again, they’re rolling up in the fetal position and hoping for the best.


For those Democrats who believe President Obama hasn’t gone far enough, a brief pause to consider the team he’s had in the Senate might be in order. If Michael Jordan were to take the court with four high-schoolers, they’re not going to threaten even the worst NBA five. The fact that Obama was able to get anything through a Senate that was effectively controlled by the minority is actually quite remarkable.

Like the old adage says, “you can lead a horse to water . . .” The President came out swinging in Cleveland. He gave the Democrats the line in the sand they needed to define themselves. He took on the Republicans for their continual pretence of support for small business, their feigned concern about jobs, and their hypocrisy regarding the deficit. But while the Republicans were out power posturing yesterday, the Democrats were showing what cowards they truly are; they decided to turn and hide.

Democratic voters should be incensed, and their rage should be squarely directed at all the gutless Democrats who continue to allow the Republican bullies to rule the congressional schoolyard. In statements yesterday, they voiced their concerns that the Republicans would spin Democratic support of tax cuts for the middle class in a negative light — as if not voting on them will prevent the attacks.

The conclusion is inescapable: the Democrats never learned that the way you beat bullies is to stand up to them. Republicans aren’t going to win the election in November because they had the better policies — because they have none. They’re not even going to win because they have the better talking points. They’re going to win because no matter how egregious their distortions of the truth, no matter how hate-filled their rant, no matter how fictional their arguments — they’re the only ones talking.

Democratic policies support 98% of the population. They uphold the right ideals and have all of the facts, both theoretic and historical on their side, yet they’re losing. Perhaps someday they’ll come to understand that when people are fed a daily diet of fact-free propaganda, unless the opposition is refuting the claims with the same strength of conviction, the people are going to swallow.

Until that day, the Republicans will continue to keep their followers seeing red, and Democratic voters will be left feeling blue.

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